chapter  6
17 Pages

Foreign policy and the public moralist: Fighting ethnocentric “half-truths”

An essential part of Mill’s conception of his role as a “public moralist” (the Victorian equivalent to what later epochs would call a public intellectual),3 was his self-appointed task to educate, shame or cajole his compatriots out of their narrow, smug, and ethnocentric ways of thinking and feeling into a more enlarged and – it is not too much to say – more cosmopolitan way of perceiving the world. This “least parochial of writers” (Collini 1999: 143) seems to have considered it no less than immoral to stick to one’s ethnocentric point of view with no interest in,

and understanding of, the viewpoints of other nations and cultures. Not the least of the reasons for this attitude was his boyhood stay in France for a year, at the age of fourteen, with the family of Samuel Bentham, Jeremy’s brother.4 By no means less than the other celebrated “Francophile” of Victorian cultural and social criticism, Matthew Arnold, Mill tended to deprecate ruthlessly what was narrow and parochial in English culture and thought and to celebrate what was broader, shared, enlarged, pan-European, cosmopolitan, the result of the admixture and interaction of different cultures and a contribution to the general fund of a shared universal – or, at any rate, European – civilization.5 It was for this reason that Mill spent an extraordinary amount of time and energy trying to acquaint the British public with French politics, philosophy, political and social thought, literature, and, far from least, historiography. In review article after review article he castigated what he saw as the lamentable inattention of his compatriots to the remarkable and exciting movement of thought and ideas taking place on the other side of the English Channel. He saw France as a laboratory of mankind in the realm of new ideas and movements in the same way as his compatriots (and most Continental observers) saw Britain as a laboratory in terms of industrial and economic development. Throughout the 1830s and 1840s Mill almost tediously reiterated his exhortations to his fellow-countrymen to enlarge their horizons by a better acquaintance with what was taking place or being contemplated in France, for even the experiments that were bound to fail were worth studying and drawing conclusions from. Thus, there is nothing surprising in the fact that the editors of the Collected Works of John Stuart Mill have calculated that the one word which appears more times than any other in his œuvre is “France” – to say nothing of French names and French books (O’Grady 1991: xxix).6