“I gathered at an early age,” continued Lyle, “that I was expected to inherit my father’s political connections with the family estates. Under ordinary circumstances this would probably have occurred. In times that did not force one to ponder, it is not likely I should have recoiled from uniting myself with a party formed of the best families in England, and ever famous for accomplished men and charming women. But I enter life in the midst of a convulsion in which the very principles of our political and social systems are called in question. I cannot unite myself with the party of destruction. It is an operative cause alien to my being. What, then, offers itself ? The Duke talks to me of Conservative principles; but he does not inform me what they are. I observe indeed a party in the State whose rule it is to consent to no change, until it is clamorously called for, and then instantly to yield; but those are Concessionary, not Conservative principles. This party treats institutions as we do our pheasants, they preserve only to destroy them. But is there a statesman among these Conservatives who offers us a dogma for a guide, or defines any great political truth which we should aspire to establish? It seems to me a barren thing, this Conservatism, an unhappy cross-breed; the mule of politics that engenders nothing.”
(Benjamin Disraeli, Coningsby. London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1870, pp. 146–147).
Some forty years ago two comments on Mill used often to be cited, made by the two men who were then the most prominent figures in the English world of politics. Mr. Gladstone spoke of him (and, I think, also wrote of him) as the “saint of Rationalism.” Mr. Disraeli, whose attention was called to Mill by his somewhat unexpected apparition in later life in the House of Commons as member for Westminster, when asked after a session’s experience of the new member what he thought of him, replied with a shrug of the shoulders, “A political finishing governess.” […]
Mill had the educating mania, and it was largely inspired by that religious zeal for the improvement of mankind which formed part of his “saintship.” From his father he had early learnt to think that if only people were thoroughly well educated and freed from the dead hand of outworn institutions all would be well with the world. And greatly though his views eventually changed, this early way of looking at things left its stamp on him through life. His cult of education issued in a certain priggishness and preciseness, and a detestation of anything vague and not clearly communicable to those whom he would instruct and help. It is to this side of his intellectual character that we may set down his admiration for the French intellect and his extraordinary undervaluing of such German metaphysicians as Hegel and Fichte. To this again must be ascribed his intense joy in distinct classification which made Dumont’s redaction of Bentham (of which I shall speak later on) as inspiring and satisfying to him as Fichte and Hegel were almost physically distressing. It is the “finishing governess” element again which made his own unique and precocious early education for years the sole matter of interest to him, and led him afterwards to analyze its results with such painful care. Like a Jesuit confessor he regarded recreation only as a means to the accomplishment of his main purpose. In his autobiography he refers to frequent holidays as a boy of seven, eight, nine, and ten spent at the old baronial hall (Ford Abbey) rented by Mr. Bentham, as “an important circumstance in my education,” and as contributing “to nourish elevation of sentiment.” He saw the Pyrenees at the age of fourteen. This is interesting to him because it “gave a colour to my tastes through life.” The interest of nearly every event in his life is determined by its effect on his mind and character.
The priggishness and preciseness which called forth Disraeli’s saying were in part caused by those peculiarities of Mill’s own early education. He had the ways of one who learnt in the first instance from books and in the schoolroom rather than, as Charles Dickens did, from the vivid impressions made by actual life on a boy’s imagination. Mr. Bain tells us that to the end his hold on abstract principles was far closer than on the concrete on the facts of life and the world. His extraordinary precocity was a hot-house growth, and he never quite recovered the fulness of human nature. There was in Mill to the end a certain thinness of sympathy and a deficiency in geniality, though his sympathies were very intense in their own narrow groove. There was a lack of full humanity. He had little sense of the ludicrous. He did not enter into or understand the varieties of human character, and he was wanting in virility.
(Wilfrid Ward, Men and Matters. London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1914, pp. 146–148).
It was a rule of Vivian Grey never to advance any opinion as his own. He had been too deep a student of human nature not to be aware that the opinions of a boy of twenty, however sound and however correct, stand but a poor chance of being adopted by his elder, though feebler, fellow-creatures. In attaining any end it was, therefore, his system always to advance his opinion as that of some eminent and considered personage; and when, under the sanction of this name, the opinion or advice was entertained and listened to, Vivian Grey had no fear that he could prove its correctness and its expediency. He possessed, also, the singular faculty of being able to improvise quotations; that is, he could unpremeditatedly clothe his conceptions in language characteristic of the style of any particular author; and Vivian Grey was reputed in the world as having the most astonishing memory that ever existed, for there was scarcely a subject of discussion in which he did not gain the victory by the great names he enlisted on his side of the argument. His father was aware of the existence of this dangerous faculty, and had often remonstrated with his son on the use of it.
(Benjamin Disraeli, Vivian Grey. London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1901, pp. 25–26).