Victor Nuovo: Introducing John Stewart Mill

Editor’s note: This is the 16th in a series of essays about political liberalism and conservatism and the two-party system.
John Stuart Mill (1806–73) dominated the intellectual life of English speaking peoples during the 19th century. He and his mentor Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) were founders of a school of social thought known as Utilitarianism, which provided a rationale for political and economic liberalism.
The central notion of Utilitarianism is the happiness principle. Human happiness is the ultimate good, and whatever promotes this end, not only in one’s own life but also for all human beings, is good. Moral duties, as well as civil laws and economic policies of governments that promote this end are said to have utility, hence the name, “Utilitarianism.”
It should be obvious that this doctrine has relevance to the American political system, which is based on a principle of equality for all, and claims for all of its people, as well as all of humanity, the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Bentham was the pioneer in this endeavor. Most notable were his critical writings on the English constitution, which he condemned as an institution of privilege for the few, and on the penal laws of England, which he found to be cruel and vindictive, and worst of all, ineffective, without utility.
He made it a principle that the goal of such laws, and of civil punishment in general, should be to rehabilitate and restore.
I will write more about Utilitarianism in a later essay. My concern now, is to introduce John Stuart Mill. He was a Scot, but born in London, where his father, James Mill, had come to live. His father was an official in the British colonial office, which administered the government of India, but he was also a noted historian and philosopher.
James Mill was also deeply interested in education, and he took upon himself the education of his children, of whom John Stuart was the eldest. In this, he consulted with his friend Jeremy Bentham. Mill (the son) attended no public school or university. He was home schooled. In his autobiography, written toward the end of his life he gives a full account of his education, and generally of his moral and intellectual development, and acknowledges his indebtedness to others for he did not believe that there was anything extraordinary in himself.
His formal education began early in life with classical languages and literature. He was only three when he began to study Greek. His first reader was a collection, in Greek, of Aesop’s Fables, followed by Greek historical works. At seven, he was reading Plato’s dialogues in Greek, the shorter and simpler ones. Eventually, he would read the Iliad and the Odyssey, also in Greek. At eight, he began to study Latin, and thereafter, Roman literature. He was an accomplished Classical scholar before he entered his teens.
The only other subject he studied during this period was arithmetic, but not long after he became proficient in geometry and the higher mathematics. Mill wrote about all this, not to call attention to his extraordinary gifts nor even his massive learning, but rather as proof of how much can effectively be taught at an early age, and by implication, how much time is wasted. It is a lesson that educators and parents should take to heart. Besides all this, Mill was a prolific reader, and privately developed interests that would remain with him throughout his life, notably, popular accounts of the practice of experimental science.
When he was 12, Mill’s father introduced him to the study of Logic. He read all the logical works of Aristotle and modern studies on the subject. He also studied higher mathematics, history, philosophy and economics, in which he became expert. His two major works were the outcome of these studies: A System of Logic, which is an account of the method of scientific enquiry and explanation, and The Principles of Political Economy, which has become a classic account of economic liberalism. It is noteworthy that he treats politics and economics as parts of a whole, a practice that should be revived.
Mill took special note of the manner in which his father taught him, which was quite advanced. “Mine was not an education of cram. My father never permitted anything which I learnt to degenerate into a mere exercise of memory. He strove to make the understanding not only go along with every step of the teaching but if possible precede it.” They would take long walks together and discuss the lessons for the day.
Throughout the course of his studies, the motive that drove Mill—instilled in him by his father and clarified by Bentham—was the moral improvement of mankind. If this goal were lost sight of, all else would be wasted.
It was perhaps this motive that brought on a mental crisis. When he was 20, he was overcome by profound doubt. He questioned whether all this study had made him happy, and whether if, after all, the purposes in life he envisioned for himself and for humankind were realized, would it make the world happy? And the answer he found in himself was a resounding “No!”
He fell into a deep depression that lasted a year, during which time he examined himself and came to the realization that he had lived too much a life of the mind and that he had neglected to cultivate his emotions. Although he was well read in the poets and could quote them from memory and write critically of their works, he had never taken poetry and the emotions they evoked seriously enough. Part of his self-prescribed therapy was reading the Romantic poets, especially Wordsworth.
He recovered and resumed his course of life, continued to write, and gained a friend. She was Harriet Taylor (1807–58), a person of high intellect and moral seriousness, and an outspoken advocate for women’s rights. They formed a deep friendship. She was married. Their relationship was platonic and public. In 1851, after her husband’s death, they married.
Mill repeatedly writes of his enormous debt to her and credits her with many of his key ideas. It was at her behest that he wrote The Subjection of Woman, which opens with the declaration that “the legal subordination of one sex to the other is wrong in itself, and now one of the chief hindrances to human improvement. Furthermore, that it ought to be replaced by a principle of perfect equality, admitting no power or privilege on the one side, nor disability on the other.” The rest is well worth reading. Mill preferred to have his works regarded as collaborations and not due to his sole authorship.
Postscript: Mill’s is eminently readable. His autobiography and many of his shorter works are available in inexpensive paperback editions, in particular, Utilitarianism and On Liberty, which will be the subject of the next two essays.

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