|John Stuart Mill|
About John Stuart Mill
“I have no remembrance of the time when I began to learn Greek; I have been told that it was when I was three years old.” (J.S. Mill, Autobiography)
And so began John Stuart Mill’s recounting of his remarkable education, tutored at home by his father, who took advantage of his son’s brilliance to train him to become next in line to carry the flag for utilitarianism and radical legal and social change.
John was born in 1806 in northeast London, the eldest of six children. His father was James Mill, a Scotsman, who had been educated at Edinburgh University. James had moved to London in 1802, “where he was to become a friend and prominent ally of Jeremy Bentham and the Philosophical Radicals” who were urging extreme changes in the social order. It has been said that the education of John was motivated by the desire of his father, encouraged and supported by Bentham, now John’s godfather, to equip young John not only for leadership of the next generation of radicalism, but to guarantee that Bentham’s ground-breaking work in philosophy, economics and political theory would survive long after his death. To this end, James’ education of his son was a huge success. Utilitarianism became and still is one of the dominant ethical theories of Western philosophy.
James Mill recognized soon after John’s birth that he and his wife (Elizabeth Barrow) had produced a genius. Despite his own work doing his search for and writing the seven-volume A History of British India, James immediately set himself to home-schooling young John.
After learning Greek and studying mathematics, between the ages of four and nine, John read, on a daily basis, all of the classical Western literary canon, beginning with the histories of ancient Greece, Rome, Scotland and England. Between the ages of four and nine, young John would take long walks with his father in the early morning before breakfast. In the walks he would give his father an account of the books he had read the day before, referring to notes he had made on slips of paper while reading.
John had absorbed most of the classical canon by age twelve—along with algebra, Euclid, and the major Scottish and English historians. In his early teenage years, he studied political economy, logic, and calculus, utilizing his spare time to digest treatises on experimental science as an amusement. At age fifteen—upon returning from a year-long trip to France, a nation he would eventually call home—he started work on the major treatises of philosophy, psychology and government (Macleod, citing Reeves 11–27).
At age seventeen, instead of going up to university (Oxford or Cambridge), where he would have certainly been a great success, John’s occupation and status was set for the next thirty-five years by his father’s obtaining for him “an appointment from the East India Company, in the office of the Examiner of India Correspondence.” His first job was as a junior clerk to his father who years earlier had received the same position on the basis of his authorship of A History of British India. John dove into his work while at the same time continuing his studies at home, tutoring his brothers and sisters, taking on the responsibility of editing one of Bentham’s new books, and publicly propagandizing for Bentham and his father’s radical politics.
All of this took its toll. At age twenty John lapsed into a deep depression. His education had prepared him for promoting the radical and utilitarian creed, but it had not prepared him for life.
[I]t occurred to me to put the question directly to myself: “Suppose that all your objects in life were realized; that all the changes in institutions and opinions which you are looking forward to, could be completely effected at this very instant: would this be a great joy and happiness to you?” And an irrepressible self-consciousness distinctly answered, “No!”
I seemed to have nothing left to live for. These were the thoughts which mingled with the dry, heavy dejection of the melancholy winter of 1826-7. During this time, I was not incapable of my usual occupations. I went on with them mechanically, by the mere force of habit. I had been so drilled in a certain sort of mental exercise, that I could still carry it on when all the spirit had gone out of it...
[A friend] told me how he and others had looked upon me as a "made" or manufactured man, having had a certain impress of opinion stamped on me which I could only reproduce. (Autobiography)
Mill’s depression continued for three years. These episodes were to recur throughout his life. His first recovery from (what he called) “the malaise” began with an accidental reading of Marontel’s Memoires.
[I] came to the passage which relates his [Marontel’s] father's death, the distressed position of the family, and the sudden inspiration by which he, then a mere boy, felt and made them feel that he would be everything to them--would supply the place of all that they had lost. A vivid conception of the scene and its feelings came over me, and I was moved to tears. From this moment my burden became lighter. The oppression of the thought that all feeling was dead within me was gone. I was no longer hopeless: I was not a stock of stone. I had still, it would seem, some of the material out of which all worth of character, and all capacity for happiness, are made. (Autobiography)
The poetry and writings of Coleridge, Carlyle, and Goethe opened the door to Romantic thought and an acute awareness that the Enlightenment philosophy with which he had been brought up only contained “one side of the truth” (Autobiography). He later recounted in On Liberty, his most famous book, that no one should ever claim certainty for any philosophical theory, school or position, including the utilitarian creed he had been promoting for several years. Mill set as a personal goal to reconcile Romanticism and Utilitarianism. “[W]hoever could master the premises and combine the methods of both, would possess the entire English philosophy of their age” (Coleridge, X: 121).
A few years after his emotional restoration, Mill met Harriet Taylor at a dinner party in 1830, and the two quickly fell in love. Unfortunately for both, Harriet had, four years’ prior, married John Taylor—"an amiable, though intellectually unadventurous, pharmacist.” In fact, Taylor was so amiable that he responded to the couple’s mutual desire to be with each other with a generous offer to disappear on occasion and leave the two alone. For several years, Mill visited Harriet at the Taylors’ country retreat when Harriet’s husband was not present, and at their London residence while he visited his Club. Although Mill and Harriet insisted that their relationship was entirely platonic, not everyone agreed.
Our relation to each other at that time was one of strong affection and confidential intimacy only. For though we did not consider the ordinances of society binding on a subject so entirely personal, we did feel bound that our conduct should be such as in no degree to bring discredit on her husband, nor therefore on herself. (Autobiography)
During these years of platonic courtship, Mill wrote A System of Logic (1843) and Principles of Political Economy (1848), published weekly opinion pieces for the London newspapers and was an editor and frequent contributor to the London and Westminster Review.
John Taylor died in 1849. Two years later Harriet and Mill married, “though not before the perceived scandal had caused a rift between Mill and many of his friends. Mill felt first-hand the stifling effect of Victorian judgmentalism and oppressive norms of propriety—a subject he would later take up in On Liberty” (Macleod).
Harriet was an enthusiastic participant in Mill’s writings during the next several years. Mill credits her with making major corrections and revisions of the first drafts of what would become Mill’s central ideas.
[On Liberty] was more directly and literally our joint production than anything else which bears my name, for there was not a sentence of it that was not several times gone through by us together, turned over in many ways, and carefully weeded of any faults, either in thought or expression, that we detected in it. It is in consequence of this that, although it never underwent her final revision, it far surpasses, as a mere specimen of composition, anything which has proceeded from me either before or since. With regard to the thoughts, it is difficult to identify any particular part or element as being more hers than all the rest. The whole mode of thinking of which the book was the expression, was emphatically hers (Autobiography).
Harriet died in 1858, only seven years after their marriage, while Mill and she were travelling through France. Mill was devastated. Harriet was buried in Avignon. Mill purchased a house in Avignon, close to the cemetery, where he would live out most of the rest of his life. He inscribed on her grave that
[s]he was the sole earthly delight of those who had the happiness to belong to her. […] Were there but a few hearts and intellects like hers this earth would already become the hoped-for heaven.
Harriet’s death, in fact, came only a little over a month after Mill’s retirement from the East India Company, for which he had worked for almost thirty-five years. At the time of his retirement, Mill had risen through the ranks, eventually holding his father’s former position of Chief Examiner of Correspondence—"a position roughly equivalent to Undersecretary of State, involving managing dispatches for colonial administration” (Zastoupil 1994).
After Harriet’s death, and probably at her urging before she died, Mill continued writing. After publishing On Liberty the year after her death, Utilitarianism appeared in Fraser’s Magazine in three installments in 1861, In the same year he published Considerations on Representative Government. An Examination of Sir William Hamilton’s Philosophy appeared in 1865, and at the urging and help of Harriet’s daughter Helen Taylor, Mill wrote On the Subjection of Women (1869), one of the first and most influential books promoting the legal and social equality of women. His Autobiography was published in the year of his death (1873).
In 1865, Mill was urged by the Liberal Party to stand for membership in the British Parliament, as a representative of Westminster district. Here is how he responded:
I wrote, in reply to the offer, a letter for publication, saying that I had no personal wish to be a member of Parliament, that I thought a candidate ought neither to canvass nor to incur any expense, and that I could not consent to do either. I said further, that if elected, I could not undertake to give any of my time and labour to their local interests. With respect to general politics, I told them without reserve, what I thought on a number of important subjects on which they had asked my opinion: and one of these being the suffrage, I made known to them, among other things, my conviction (as I was bound to do, since I intended, if elected, to act on it), that women were entitled to representation in Parliament on the same terms with men. It was the first time, doubtless, that such a doctrine had ever been mentioned to English electors; and the fact that I was elected after proposing it, gave the start to the movement which has since become so vigorous, in favour of women's suffrage. appeared more unlikely than that a candidate (if candidate I could be called) whose professions and conduct set so completely at defiance all ordinary notions of electioneering, should nevertheless be elected. A well-known literary man[, who was also a man of society,] was heard to say that the Almighty himself would have no chance of being elected on such a programme. I strictly adhered to it, neither spending money nor canvassing, nor did I take any personal part in the election, until about a week preceding the day of nomination, when I attended a few public meetings to state my principles and give to any questions which the electors might exercise their just right of putting to me for their own guidance; answers as plain and unreserved as my address (Autobiography).
While in the House of Commons, Mill championed what he perceived as unpopular but important causes: the extension of suffrage to women, Irish reform, and the prosecution of Governor Eyre for atrocities committed during his administration of Jamaica. As a result of his strong support for the prosecution of the governor, he frequently received abusive letters: “They graduated from coarse jokes, verbal and pictorial, up to threats of assassination” (Autobiogaphy).
Mill did not win a second term, being defeated in 1868 (Kinzer, Robson, and Robson 1992). He retired to his home in Avignon. He died there on 7 May 1873, at age 67, and was buried next to his beloved wife Harriet.
Macleod, Christopher, "John Stuart Mill", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.) https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2018/entries/mill/