John Stuart Mill
John Stuart Mill whose writings on political and social theory, and political economy still hold significance is considered one of the most influential British philosophers of the 19th century. Initially a follower of Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarianism, Mill later rejected all concepts that prevent the pursuit of spiritual growth and warned on the dangers of democracy as “tyranny of the majority”.
Mill didn’t have an ordinary childhood. He was born in London in 1806 as the eldest child of Scottish historian, economist and philosopher James Mill who decided for a very rigorous approach to raising of his eldest son. Young Mill was kept away from children other than his siblings and was educated by his father. The latter who was a proponent of Bentham’s utilitarianism wanted to create a genius who would continue Bentham’s work.
We learn much about Mill’s upbringing and education from his posthumously published autobiography. He writes that he was taught Greek when he was only 3 years old and to read works of Aesop, Xenophon and Herodotus by the age of 8 when he was also taught Latin and algebra, and introduced to Euclid’s works. At the same time, his father made him the schoolmaster to his younger siblings. His education was focused on history and the works of Greek and Latin authors who were taught at the time. By the age of 10, Mill was reading Plato Demosthenes but his father also found it important for his son to study poetry. In spare time, young Mill was allowed to read novels and natural sciences.
Religion was excluded from Mill’s education, however, at the age of 12, he was introduced to scholastic logic. One year later, his father introduced him to political economy through the works of Adam Smith and David Ricardo who was a close friend of John Stuart’s father and often invited him to his home to discuss political economy. At the age of 14, he was sent to France to stay with a family of Samuel Bentham (brother of Jeremy Bentham). During the year he stayed in France, he attended classes at the Faculte des Sciences in Montpellier where he was taught logic, chemistry and zoology but he was also introduced to many prominent French including Jean-Baptiste Say and Henry Saint-Simon.
Break with Bentham’s Utilitarianism
At the age of 16, Mill refused to study at the Cambridge University or Oxford. Instead, he decided to work for a living as a clerk at the East India Company. One year later, he published his first article but he soon began to experience problems with his mental health. When he was 20 years old, he had a nervous breakdown which he attributed to rigorous study and lack of normal childhood. At the same time, he started questioning his views and became interested in art and poetry.
Changes in Mill’s view became obvious in the articles he published in the 1830s, most notably “The Spirit of the Age” and “Civilization” as well as in his studies of Bentham (1838). He didn’t break with the latter completely and recognised his contribution to philosophy but he rejected Bentham’s concept of man and government, arguing that it doesn’t give room for personal growth and ignores the dangers of democracy, respectively.
In 1851, Mill married with Harriet Taylor whom he met two decades earlier. At the time he and Taylor met, the latter was married. Their relationship is generally described as deep friendship that didn’t involve into a romantic relationship until Taylor’s husband died in 1849. Taylor who was a women’s right advocate and philosopher herself had a major influence on Mill and according to the philosopher, one of his most influential works – “On Liberty” which was published shortly after her death in 1858 was written jointly.
After his wife’s death, Mill spent a lot of time in France at the house of his stepdaughter Helen Taylor near Avignon. In 1858, the British government assumed direct control of India and his function at the East India Company was abolished. He was offered a seat in a newly formed council of 15 members but he decided to retire instead. In 1865, he took the position of the Lord Rector at the University of St. Andrews and in the same year, he was also elected MP for City and Westminster.
During his brief political career, Mill advocated what he stood for including representation of women in politics, reform of the British government and changes in policy towards Ireland. His views were quite radical at the time and he wasn’t re-elected at the 1868 general election. He retreated to Avignon where he died in 1873 from a bacterial streptococcus infection (erysipelas). He was buried next to his wife in France.
Mill was highly productive throughout most of his life. He published his first article as young as 17 but his first major work – A System of Logic was published only in 1843. Other major works by Mill include:
- Essays on “Bentham” (1838) and “Coleridge” (1840)
- Essays on Some Unsettled Questions in Political Economy (1844)
- Principles of Political Economy (1848)
- On Liberty (1859)
- Considerations on Representative Government (1861)
- Utilitarianism (1863)
- Examination of Sir William Hamilton’s Philosophy (1865)
- August Comte and Positivism (1865)
- On The Subjection of Women (1869)
- Autobiography (posthumously by Helen Taylor; 1873)