Mill! Thou Shouldst Be Living at This Hour

By Brittan, Ssamuel | The Spectator, December 1, 2007 | Go to article overview

Mill! Thou Shouldst Be Living at This Hour


Brittan, Ssamuel, The Spectator


JOHN STUART MILL: VICTORIAN FIREBRAND by Richard Reeves Atlantic Books, £30, pp. 616 ISBN 9781843546436 £24 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

Britain has had few public intellectuals. The one undeniable example was John Stuart Mill who lived from 1806 to 1873 and whose utterances dominated the more intelligent public debates of the mid-19th century -- predictably he was keenly studied by Gladstone and mocked by Disraeli. In the last year of his life he was persuaded to be godfather to the infant Bertrand Russell, who was the nearest runner-up in the UK public intellectual stake. Mill's own influence was on the wane for much of the 20th century when Marx became the centre of attention. But it has been rekindled in the past few decades as faith in collectivist nostrums has evaporated and there have been numerous academic studies of different aspects of his work. The time is therefore ripe for a fullscale modern biography which provides reliable pointers to the main doctrinal issues, but concentrates on the man and his career.

This is amply provided by Richard Reeves in his well, but unobtrusively, documented new book.

Mill's father John was a close associate of the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham and himself a prolific writer. This is perhaps more important than the widely known fact that he taught his son to read Greek at the age of three. Another reasonably wellknown fact about John Stuart Mill was that he suffered a deep crisis of belief at the age of 20, when he concluded that, even if all the reforms which he advocated could be achieved in an instant, it would not bring him any great joy. He buried himself in the Romantic poets and was also influenced by the prose works of Coleridge.

Once he had got over his mental crisis, Mill returned to the political philosophy of his father and Bentham and tried to give it more content rather than turn it upsidedown. Not all the change was improvement.

His Utilitarianism remains a student text to this day, but is marred by a priggish distinction between 'higher' and 'lower' pleasures.

While Bentham was content to say that poetry was no better than the childish game of pushpin, Mill was having none of this. His definition of a higher pleasure was one which people who had experience of both kinds of pleasure would in the end prefer. Yet there are adults who have been exposed to classical music but would still prefer a rock or pop concert and if you believe in freedom of choice for adults, as Mill certainly did, there is not a lot more that can be said.

It was fortunate that, like his father before him, he was given a post at the East India Company which did not involve visiting that country and which left his afternoons and evenings free for his own writing.

Incidentally Reeves, like most other writers on Mill, says little about the content of Mill's Indian work and in what direction, if any, he influenced British policy towards the subcontinent.

Mill was also notable for his 28-year-long devotion to Harriet Taylor, who was attractive as well as a blue stocking. Reeves discusses, but cannot solve, the mystery of whether the two had sexual relations before -- or for that matter after -- her husband's death when Mill was free to marry her.

More interesting is that Mill went so over the top in his praise of Harriet's intellectual contributions to his work that he created a still unsolved mystery about how extensive they really were.

Reeves is perhaps a little too keen to show that Mill was not the dry-as-dust Victorian pedant of popular imagination. It is true that he was arrested for distributing very explicit birth-control pamphlets at the age of 17;

even so, he was hardly a laugh a minute and, if he was a firebrand, it was in a very cerebral way -- rather like his godson. Mill did have a short period from 1865 until 1868 when he, somewhat unwillingly, served as a RadicalLiberal MP. This period was notable for his opposition to detention without trial for Irish Fenian rebels. …

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