May we, women, aspire to be Egeria, muse or companion to a Great Man?

January 20, 2014 § 2 Comments

Egeria: a female advisor or counselor
Origin: Egeria (Latin: Ēgeria) was a nymph attributed a legendary role in the early history of Rome as a divine consort and counselor of the Sabine second king of Rome, Numa Pompilius, to whom she imparted laws and rituals pertaining to ancient Roman religion.

Below is a discussion of the part played by Mill’s wife in his career, taken from an introduction by W. L. Courtney to On Liberty. I have underscored parts of the original text merely for emphasis.

Every one will judge for himself of this romantic episode in Mill’s career, according to such experience as he may possess of the philosophic mind and of the value of these curious but not infrequent relationships. It may have been a piece of infatuation, or, if we prefer to say so, it may have been the most gracious and the most human page in Mill’s career. Mrs. Mill may have flattered her husband’s vanity by echoing his opinions, or she may have indeed been an Egeria, full of inspiration and intellectual helpfulness. What usually happens in these cases,—although the philosopher himself, through his belief in the

[Pg xvi]

 equality of the sexes, was debarred from thinking so,—is the extremely valuable action and reaction of two different classes and orders of mind. To any one whose thoughts have been occupied with the sphere of abstract speculation, the lively and vivid presentment of concrete fact comes as a delightful and agreeable shock. The instinct of the woman often enables her not only to apprehend but to illustrate a truth for which she would be totally unable to give the adequate philosophic reasoning. On the other hand, the man, with the more careful logical methods and the slow processes of formal reasoning, is apt to suppose that the happy intuition which leaps to the conclusion is really based on the intellectual processes of which he is conscious in his own case. Thus both parties to the happy contract are equally pleased. The abstract truth gets the concrete illustration; the concrete illustration finds its proper foundation in a series of abstract inquiries. Perhaps Carlyle’s epithets of “iridescent” and “vivid” refer incidentally to Mrs. Mill’s quick perceptiveness, and thus throw a useful light on the mutual advantages of the common work of husband and wife. But it savours almost of impertinence even to attempt to lift the veil on

[Pg xvii]

 a mystery like this. It is enough to say, perhaps, that however much we may deplore the exaggeration of Mill’s references to his wife, we recognise that, for whatever reason, the pair lived an ideally happy life.

Perhaps I have no right to be so disgusted by such a passage. Indeed, if formerly women (in contrast to men) were not to receive education in logic then how might they be expected to employ logical methods? And so we may point to happy female intuition. Still, it sickens me rather that it should be so quick and essential a part in an introduction to address the criticism and cynicism that Courtney anticipates of Mill’s reader. John Stuart Mill, you see, opens with a dedication to his wife, praising “her all but unrivaled wisdom”, his editor and “inspirer”; “the friend and wife whose exalted sense of truth and right was my strongest incitement”. Would that she had written a great text herself, that we might know her value … And yet, the role of consort, counselor, muse, companion is surely a good and noble one. Perhaps even a role preferable to that of creator and surely a lesser burden.

To my mind spring words biblical, wives, let husbands be your head.

Dated. Dated?

But — but what, women, should we be?

Why do I yet ask myself the question?

Courtney backs out of the discussion with a quick nod to “the veil”, “a mystery” in marriage/between the sexes and I recall a poem by Leonard Cohen, A Veil.

The truth, to my mind, is that such gender-related discussion may easily become something rather crude; ugly even, distasteful… (Would you not agree, gentlemen?) …To pick apart a relationship, or rather, brush grossly over a mysterious pairing with generalisation or speculation… Better that Courtney had permitted Mill his dedication and not qualified it. Better he let Mill eulogise, as eulogise Mill does, the wife he had so esteemed, quite without commentary — that we readers might then proceed to read the text, On Liberty, without further ado (and I, relieved from commentary upon his commentary, might also begin).


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§ 2 Responses to May we, women, aspire to be Egeria, muse or companion to a Great Man?

  • tmgre says:

    It may be that I’m mistaken, but I seem to recall at least one critic who said that (as comprehensive as Mill’s thanks to his wife may be) J.S. had actually copped out, somewhat, and that he should’ve attributed whole passages – or was it chapters, even? – to his wife’s pen.

    But W.L. Courtney? (1850 – 1 November 1928?) Must be a fairly old introduction, then, no?

    • Lucie says:

      Interesting. Actually, Mill does recognise his wife as partial author in his dedication (though he perhaps understates the role if she was responsible for whole chapters). I failed to mention that.

      And yes, a fairly old introduction and the one that is readily available on Project Gutenberg. So, a dated critic, too.

      Still, these things hinder my reading.

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