The culture of the feelings

This expression, in the last post, caused one reader to ask huffily, “What does that mean—if anything?”  It is tempting to dismiss it as yet another phrase being used to sell things, which is far from being the case.

David Holbrook, in his book English for Maturity—recommended for a teacher of any subject—entitles his fourth chapter The Very Culture of the Feelings, which is a quotation from John Stuart Mill’s autobiography.

J S Mill spent his adolescence thinking and writing about how human life could be improved.  But, he says, he attached ‘almost exclusive importance to the ordering of outward circumstances and the training of the human being to speculation and to action.’ Then he began to realise that ‘the passive susceptibilities needed to be cultivated as well as the active capacities, and required to be nourished and enriched… the cultivation of the feelings became one of the cardinal points in my ethical and philosophical creed.’

This perception came to him initially from reading Wordsworth’s poems. Wordsworth, he acknowledges, was not the greatest of writers, but his poems ‘seemed to be the very culture of the feelings, which I was in quest of. In them I seemed to draw from a Source of inward joy, of sympathetic and imaginative pleasure, which could be shared in by all human beings… what would be the perennial sources of happiness, when all the greater evils of life shall have been removed.’


Encountering such a phrase, students can be urged to look at the individual words in depth: for it is easy to skate over them.

  • Culture means enabling and helping things to grow.
  • Feelings—do they need to be cultivated? Well, yes, because Mill is using the word feeling in its primary metaphorical sense, given by the OED as ‘Capacity or readiness to feel emotion, esp. sympathy or empathy; susceptibility to emotional or aesthetic influences; sensibility.’

It is this cultivation that David Holbrook discusses in his book. He quotes, among other things, from Sir Walter Raleigh’s last letter to his wife, commenting that ‘Here a magnificent sincerity is couched in the same language as that which now, alas, abased and abused, leers and gestures at our helplessness from the gutter press, and lies jaded on our own tongues.’

Raleigh’s writing is in the classical style, and by its restraint and subtlety, it offers culture of the feelings in a manner similar to Virgil or Homer.