The importance of failures
And seven books to introduce me
John Sterling, if he is known at all, is remembered as a member of John Stuart Mill’s circle in the 1830s and 1840s, a radical liberal, part of the nineteenth century reaction to eighteenth century rationalism, a reaction that broadened Mill’s own thinking about Bentham, Utilitarianism, and government. Sterling was a debater, a journalist, wrote a novel about a spiritual crisis, turned briefly an Anglican curate, and finally wrote verse. He flickers brightly but briefly in the remembrances and letters of the early nineteenth century before vanishing, consumed by consumption.
Sterling frequently lived abroad, for his health. His work suffered from this movement and from his poor constitution. But it also suffered from his vacillations. Sterling is an instructive study in failure and makes a useful contrast to Mill, who worried as his own illness got worse in the 1850s that he would die without having done his work. Sterling, of course, lacks Mill’s reputation. He is not in the Oxford Book of English Verse. Could he have been, with application, better health, a longer life, a dose of luck? Who knows…
These are not the questions Carlyle raises in his florid and rambunctious book. Instead, we get an impression of the age and the man. There are marvellously sweeping passages about Coleridge, and reminiscences of walks and horse rides. It is not a biography as we would write one now, balanced and cautious. It is an argumentative and affectionate remembrance by a vigorously, obnoxiously opinionated man—including his unashamed racism—who wanted to leave his own impressions of his friend. Who wouldn’t wish to be able to hear that conversation the first time Sterling and Carlyle met in Mill’s office at India House in 1835? This book is as close as you will get.
Here is Mill, talking about Frederick Maurice, who paired with Sterling in the Debating Society, and played a similar, but less central role in Mill’s life:
I have always thought that there was more intellectual power wasted in Maurice than in any other of my contemporaries. Few of them certainly have had so much to waste. Great powers of generalization, rare ingenuity and subtlety, and a wide perception of important and unobvious truths, served him not for putting something better into the place of the worthless heap of received opinions on the great subjects of thought, but for proving to his own mind that the Church of England had known everything from the first…
There ought to be a book called John Stuart Mill and his Circle, in which Sterling could be figured out as the influence on Mill that he was, rather than the talent he wanted to become. How many others who want to be people of achievement make their real contribution as members of a group? How often are they overlooked! The Life of Sterling, as well as being vivid and entertaining, to be enjoyed for Carlyle’s prose, offers clues about the role that failures play in intellectual ecosystems.
I don’t know quite what it means to introduce yourself with seven books, as people are doing on Twitter, but here are seven books that I found foundational, before say the age of twenty-three.
Boswell’s Life of Johnson
Hayek’s Use of Knowledge in a Society
Great Expectations/Bleak House
Not a very diverse list, in all senses. I don’t claim to have understood these books before twenty-three, but they occupied my mind. The last decade would maybe include Penelope Fitzgerald, The Last Samurai, and The Handmaid’s Tale, various essays by Virginia Woolf. I wrote a dissertation about Elizabeth Jenkins, so she surely would find a place. I don’t know when I read The Letters of Philip Larkin or Zadie Smith. I have too many favourites.
I would like to include Plato, Hume and Isaiah Berlin, but I spent less time reading them than Jane Eyre, though I think of them as quake books. Where is Shakespeare? Taken for granted. I must have read Hamlet twenty times at school. But it was Keats I memorised. I read and re-read Pride and Prejudice but didn’t appreciate Austen until later. I sat up late trying to figure out Kant but never made it.
Beyond books: Dominic Cummings’ long essay that he published when he left government, Travesties, various legal judgements including Lord Denning, Ariana Huffington’s obituary of Bernard Levin, Marginal Revolution.
There was a time when my whole list would have been poetry.
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Love the Tortoise and the Hare
Sorry if you've posted elsewhere, but do you have a link to the Cummings essay?