John Stuart Mill's Odd Combination: Philosopher Kings & Laissez Faire

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John Stuart Mill's odd combination: philosopher kings & laissez faire John Stuart Mill: Victorian Firebrand by Richard Reeves (Reeves Atlantic Books, 2007, 616 pages)

Andrew Kemp reviews

To many, John Stuart Mill was the greatest 'public intellectual' of the last 200 years. His topics of interest were limitless-his Collected Works span 33 volumes. His written word remains staggering in its intensity of thought.

And so preparing a biography of John Stuart Mill is an enormous task. The polymath is a dying breed, and a good biography of Mill would require several experts in the field of philosophy, economics, politics and history.

Richard Reeves is a social and political commentator, and perhaps recognising his own limitations, has written a biography that concentrates on the character and values of Mill. This is not an intellectual biography. The reader will not learn of Mill's influence on modern neoclassical economics, or of the finer details of his System of Logic. The reader will, however, come away with a clear idea of who Mill was as a person, and how his values directed his intellectual conduct.

Seen in this light, Reeves succeeds remarkably well in achieving his intended aims.

There is a clear theme running through Victorian Firebrand. Reeves makes a deliberate effort to move Mill out of 'left' and 'right' labels of political thought and place him squarely in his own time. It is not necessarily what Mill thought that made him the giant he is today, but the disciplined manner in which he formed his own opinions.

Reeves argues that open-mindedness was perhaps Mill's strongest virtue. Perhaps in rebellion to the strict utilitarian upbringing which he received, Mill rejected any single philosophical model of institutions that could direct the endeavours of government. Rather, Mill saw that philosophy 'was to supply, not a set of model institutions, but principles from which the institutions suitable to any given circumstances might be deduced'.

Where his contemporaries would identify the radical rationalism of Benthem and romantic conservatism of Coleridge as conflicting opposites, Mill would rather describe them as 'competing counterparts'.

Of course, like all great intellectuals, Mill struggled to understand those whose ideas deviated from his own. His vulnerability lay in his impatience for reform. His dissatisfaction with the radicals in British parliament was evident by the 1830s-'now would be the time for knitting a powerful party', he wrote, 'and nobody holds the scattered threads of it in his hands except me'. …