Mill versus Liberty: A Review of Linda C. Raeder's John Stuart Mill and the Religion of Humanity

Article excerpt

Introduction

SINCE MAURICE COWLING'S CLASSIC BUT SADLY NEGLECTED STUDY 40 years ago, only Joseph Hamburger (1976, 1991, 1995, 1999) has identified the "anti-Christian theme" in the Essay on Liberty or has considered the significance for our understanding of Mill's thought as a whole of his "profound commitment to the Religion of Humanity" (Raeder 2002: 234). Most intellectual historians in the Anglo-American world, having no religious beliefs of their own and supposing therefore that religion has no effect on the minds of the great and the good, have ignored its part in the evolution of modern social theory. It is the purpose of Linda C. Raeder's John Stuart Mill and the Religion of Humanity (2002) to fill the gap so far as J. S. Mill is concerned; nothing less indeed, than to afford a definitive account of the way in which Mill's hatred and contempt for Christianity and his hopeless addiction to Comte's ersatz "religion of humanity" determined, or at any rate shaped, just about everything he ever wrote. In my opinion, Raeder succeeds triumphantly.

There are a few small quibbles and one not so small one. She gives us too little of the 18th- and early 19th-century English context of Mill's intellectual development, and what she does give us is often wrong. More serious, her willingness to blame Mill for the "social gospel," "liberation theology," and the "transformation of Anglo-American liberalism" into the present-day, leftist, soi-disant "liberalism" she so much dislikes (e.g., pp. 5, 275, 329) is naive and far-fetched. Moreover, Raeder is so passionate about her subject that the vocal register she employs is now and then a shade too strident. But though her book would have been even better without them, these minor blemishes leave her argument intact. All students of John Stuart Mill must be in her debt, as must all who are concerned with the intellectual evolution of economics and sociology--which includes readers of this journal by definition.

In what follows I shall first present what seem to be the more important features of Raeder's exposition, filling out the context here and there. In the remaining section, I consider the implications she draws from that exposition and raise two questions, both about the exposition and its putative implications.

II

Mill's Religious Opinions and Their Part in His Social Thought

THE FIRST TWO-THIRDS OF RAEDER'S BOOK is organized more or less chronologically, beginning with "Early Influences: James Mill and Jeremy Bentham." This chapter owes much to the work of James Crimmins (1990, 1998), handsomely thanked in the acknowledgments but (like Cowling) unaccountably omitted from the rather unsatisfactory index. There follows an account of Mill's engagement with French immanentism and its "secular messiahs" Saint-Simon and Comte, and of his conversion to the latter's Religion of Humanity in 1842; the ideological function of A System of Logic (1843) is briefly explicated, and the article on "The Spirit of the Age" (1831) brought in evidence of his early views. Chapter 3 considers two of the three posthumously published essays on religion, "Nature" and "Utility of Religion," which date from 1850-1858. Chapter 4 explains Mill's "notoriously intemperate polemic against [Canon Henry] Mansel" in An Examination of Sir William Hamilton's Philosophy (1865). And Chapter 5, the longest and most important, analyzes Mill's late essay on "Theism" written between 1868 and 1870 and included in Three Essays on Religion (1874). The purpose of these chapters is to trace the development of Mill's religious opinions and to establish their importance for our understanding of both his social thought and his political aims. The remainder of the book consists of illustrations and applications. Chapters 6 and 7, dealing with the essays "On Liberty" (1859) and "Utilitarianism" (1863), respectively, are intended to show that those famous and influential works were designed by Mill "as crucial instruments toward the accomplishment of his two-pronged religious goal--the evisceration [a word Raeder uses far too often] of traditional religious belief and the social establishment of the Religion of Humanity" (Raeder 2002: 5). …

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