A Half-Century of Greatness: The Creative Imagination of Europe, 1848-1884

By Frederic Ewen; Jeffrey Wollock | Go to book overview

Chapter Five
John Stuart Mill
The Majesty of Reason

Yet no one whose opinion deserves a moment's consid-
eration can doubt that most of the great positive evils of
the world are in themselves removable, and will, if
human affairs continue to improve, be in the end re-
duced within narrow limits. Poverty in any sense imply-
ing suffering, may be completely extinguished by the
wisdom of society, combined with the good sense and
providence of individuals. Even the most intractable of
enemies, disease, may be indefinitely reduced in dimen-
sions by good physical and moral education, and proper
control of noxious influences; while the progress of sci-
ence holds out a promise for the future of still more di-
rect conquests over this detestable foe … All the great
sources, in short, of human suffering are in a great de-
gree, many of them almost entirely, conquerable by
human care and effort.

—J. S. Mill, Utilitarianism

It would no doubt have shocked those two remarkable Utilitarians, both religious sceptics—Jeremy Bentham and James Mill—if they had been told that the latter's brilliant son, John Stuart Mill, was being brought up like one of those Old Testament youths ultimately to be dedicated to the priesthood, or to a prophet's mission. In this instance, the dedication would be to the gospel of “Philosophical Radicalism,” or “Utilitarianism.”

When John Stuart Mill was born in 1806, Jeremy Bentham was already fifty-five years old and renowned throughout England and the Continent for his works on legislation, and as the founder of a new political party challenging both Whigs and Tories. James Mill was then thirty-three, no less well endowed in mind, but much less so in worldly fortunes. Jeremy Bentham was rich and generous, and James Mill was lucky to have him as a patron. Between them grew up a strong and devoted friendship, now more firmly cemented by the presence of that remarkable boy—“a successor worthy of both of us,” as James Mill wrote to Bentham when, in a humorous letter full of sincere conviction, he bequeathed young John to Bentham's keeping in case of his own prior death.1

-67-

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