# 220: “The Primitive Condition of Humanity”

Mill, John Stuart (2009/1869). On the Subjection of Women, 5.

Story behind the Passage

I read Mill today in preparation for a class tomorrow. I could not remember whether I had read the Subjection of Women before. For sure, I read Mill a lot during my undergraduate studies. I even think that Mill was my entry point to political philosophy, especially Liberalism. I remember very well how I felt this eye-opening boom effect when I was reading all these progressive thoughts by people who were writing more than 150 years ago . They had the brain to think from a bird’s eye perspective and the courage to question the status quo in order to come up with an entirely different image of the human being — a different state of nature than had previously been imagined or which was just being designed by contemporaries.

As I was going over the text now, the passage above immediately struck me . It feels a bit like a déjà vue because of the things I wrote only a few days ago (or was it yesterday?) about the status of education and the fact that I wondered if all intellectuals across all eras wondered whether the cultural and historical capital of the past was going down the drain. Mill answers this question in the affirmative here. But, of course, this is always a matter of degree as well. Whatever he considered lamentable back then might have been paradise compared to the fact that nowadays, people probably do not even remember that philosophers like Mill existed or that Liberalism originated in the past and is not some invention by a YouTube or Instagram influencer…

My Learnings

“The only ones who can form any mental picture of what society was like in ancient times are the few who have •studied history or have •spent much time in parts of the world occupied by the living representatives of ages long past.” Is that not so incredibly up to date? I mean, again, I keep ‘mourning’ about the decline of general knowledge all the time but even back then, Mill pointed at the two, from my perspective, most relevant means of countering this. These are learning and international experience. And remember, he was writing this in the 1870s! Yes, you can study history in school and from books. Nowadays, you can study it anywhere online with just one click. But people obviously do not do it. Or they do it but have no prior knowledge to contextualize new information. Still, even the book learning would not suffice without the personal encounter with people in parts of the world that are home to representatives of these “ancient times.”

Mill writes these words on one of the very first pages of his work in which he is preoccupied with drawing the frame for his argument. Similar to contract philosophers like Hobbes an Locke, he deals with the state of nature at the outset. Obviously, to him, history is the key to understanding that this human nature is filled with “cruel experience.” And in line with his Utilitarianist thinking, he was looking for solutions that would allow for the greater happiness of all the people. I watch myself soundling like some school teacher translating political philosophy in simple words right now. Still, I need to mention this because it shows that nothing has changed when it comes to thinking about the state of the world. I am not even talking about “philosophical” thinking — whatever that means. No, it is simply natural that you start with the basic axiom of what human beings are like according to your perspective, in order to then draw conclusions about the political order and socialization from it.

The exciting thing about this particular work is, of course, that Mill uses the remaining pages of the book to lay out his theoy of why women deserve the same rights as men (to put it very broadly). Here is how he said it:

“The principle that regulates the existing social relations between the two sexes — the legal subordination of one sex to the other — is wrong itself, and is now one of the chief obstacles to human improvement; and •it ought to be replaced by a principle of perfect equality that doesn’t allow any power or privilege on one side or disability on the other.” (Mill 1)

And that was, given the fact that he was a man, truly revolutionary in Victorian Britain. What I love about this so much, however, is that he was not only aware of this, he made this awareness of opposing mainstream thoughts part of the book. As he writes:

“Those who attack an almost universal opinion are faced with difficulties all the way. They have to be very lucky and unusually able if they are to get a hearing at all. It is harder for them to obtain a •trial than it is for any other litigants to obtain a •verdict. And if they do get a hearing, it subjects them to a set of logical requirements totally different fromt he ones imposed on other people.” (Mill 1)

I wonder if anything has really changed about this. Well, the answer is fairly clear, right? It is rhetorical. Since I often talk about the impression that ‘nothing really changes,’ why would this have changed? To be more precise: I know that what I am saying is not true, of course. The world changes every blink of a second. Still, that does not mean that certain tendencies of human nature get abolished. Today, it just appears as if things were more contradictory and critical and then people turn being anti into a marketing geek. Where are the minds who really turn the world upside down by questioning knowledge that literally everybody, even the most progressive and innovative people, consider top notch? Who has the guts to ask questions that hardly anybody else thinks of? I am not talking about some of these right-wing extremists and other pseudo-revolutionaries. I am talking about present-day philosophers à la Mill who hold on to the idea that political systems can actually contribute to improving the happiness of all.

Does anybody still believe in this?

Reflection Questions

1) What does it mean to be a “liberal” today?

2) Which other male feminists do you know from past and present?

3) If you were to run for some political office these days — what would it be and what would be your three major points on the agenda that you would try to bring to the legistlature?

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