John Stuart Mill: Victorian Sage

By Timko, Michael | The World and I, April 2011 | Go to article overview

John Stuart Mill: Victorian Sage


Timko, Michael, The World and I


If one hears the name of John Stuart Mill today, and one seldom does, it probably is in connection with one or two of several topics: philosophy, social or political theory, the concept of liberty, or, most likely, utilitarianism, the major idea of which was, according to its founder Jeremy Bentham, "The greatest happiness [or good] for the greatest number."

Mill's name might also come up when feminism is the topic, or he might be mentioned with any essay on Dickens's Hard Times, since Utilitarianism is one of the major themes of that novel. All of this suggests, if nothing else, the tremendous range of thought of this Victorian sage. His influence during his lifetime was great, and his ideas, many of them modern in the best sense of the word, deserve to be better known. His ideas still ring true and his contribution to modern thought should be more widely recognized.

J.S. Mill was the first of nine children born to Harriet Barrow and James Mill, a "philosophical radical" and follower of Jeremy Bentham. True to his Utilitarian philosophical thought, James Mill was determined to have his eldest child become living proof of what Utilitarianism, with its empirical basis and rational approach, could create. When he was three Mill started to learn Greek; at the age of eight he began to Latin. As he was growing up he studied poetry, geometry, history, mathematics, and read widely in many other subjects, especially economics.

James Mill's goal, in all this, was to make his son one of the stalwarts of what were called philosophical radicals, many of them, of course, Utilitarians.

According to one critic, by the time Mill was fourteen he had "acquired the equivalent of a university education, as well as techniques for continuing self-learning throughout his life."

As might be expected, J.S. Mill began what has been cited as an "active literary career," editing journals (including the London and Westminster Review, and writing. In 1823, his father, anxious for his son's security, obtained a job for him in the East India Company; he remained with the Company until 1858.

One episode in his life deserves special mention. When he was twenty he suffered what we can only call a nervous breakdown, which he describes in great detail in chapter V of his Autobiography. His chief fear was that, because of the emphasis on reason and rational thought in his education, he lacked any capacity for emotion and feeling. He writes in his autobiography: "Suppose that all your objects in life were realized; would this be a great joy and happiness to you?

And an irrepressible self-consciousness directly answered, 'No!' I seemed to have nothing left to live for." This deep depression was eventually overcome by his reading of Wordsworth's poetry and the Marmontel's Memoires.

Another significant event in Mill's life was his meeting with Harriet Taylor in 1830, with whom he became intimate and eventually married in 1851, two years after her husband's death. In his autobiography Mill claims that Harriet was an important influence on both his thought and writing. Certainly she influenced his strong belief in the rights of women. She became ill on a visit to Europe in 1858 ill and died at Avignon, where she is buried. In her memory, Mill spent half a year to be close to her grave.

Mill served for a brief time in the House of Commons, and he continued to devote much time and energy to liberal, even radical, causes. He died in 1873 at Avignon and is buried next to his Harriet. Mill's writings include the System of Logic (1843), Principles of Political Economy (1848), On Liberty (1859), Utilitarianism (1863), and The Subjection of Women (1869).

Of his many works, two deserve special mention: "On Liberty" and "The Subjection of Women." The former is probably his most important work. One critic has called it "a major document in the long Victorian discussion of the relation of the individual to the group and a fine illustration of the 'enlightenment' of Mill's utilitarianism. …

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