He who lets the world, or his own portion of it, choose his plan of life for him, has no need of any other faculty than the ape-like one of imitation. He who chooses his plan for himself, employs all his faculties. He must use observation to see, reasoning and judgment to foresee, activity to gather materials for decision, discrimination to decide, and when he has decided, firmness and self-control to hold to his deliberate decision. Mill, John Stuart. On Liberty. 1859.
I had thought of amending John Stuart Mill’s quote, just a little, to include women in there too but I thought that would be rather sacrilegious to one of our great thinkers! I chose this particular quote, out of the many thousands I could have selected, because it says exactly what I feel about life, thinking and writing. I admit that I love John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, having read it over and over again during my first year as an undergraduate (many, many moons ago now), and then having to dissect it and pull out the elements of it that I felt were most important to answer the essay question I had been given concerning his political theory. Heavy going? Yes, but also very rewarding as so much of what he opined resonates with me.
For Mill it was important that each individual thought for themselves and came to their own conclusions about how to ensure fulfilment in life (or ‘happiness’ as he termed it), as we are all unique and need to understand both ourselves and the world around us if we are to amount to more than a homogeneous, unthinking mass following orders. Mill uses the term ‘apes’ to get his meaning across to his audience, a term we would no longer use as we know that primates are more than capable of figuring out incredibly complex puzzles and situations. However, it would appear that humans are, all too often, willing to follow the flow, to accept whatever is given to them as their lot in life and not to attempt to change it. We all know someone who has not given themselves the proverbial ‘kick’ and just let life carry him/her along. I think that the very act of writing anything is an attempt to make some sort of change, even if only in oneself.
Characterisation, plot, scene setting – all are elements which require the writer to make giant leaps of imagination, to take risks, to create drama and tension, to have his/her characters do things which s/he would not do in real life, to ask questions of the society s/he lives in and to provide answers which might shock or trouble his/her readers. The act of writing also ensures that we get to know ourselves so much better than we did. We have to make our characters do things that we simply would not or could not do in real life, and that means that we have to learn to think like them, to understand where they are coming from, to follow through the consequences of those actions for our other characters whether we like it or not. It means becoming aware, at a very personal nature, of the way other people think and act, and of why they think and act that way. It means gaining a much better understanding of what it is to be human and what it is to feel fear, anger, oppression, helplessness, love, happiness and thankfulness.
Hopefully the very act of writing will make us more considerate humans.