Last reviewed: June 2018
May 20, 1806
May 8, 1873
A persistently controversial intellectual leader, John Stuart Mill sought to develop the utilitarian movement, founded by Jeremy Bentham and promoted by Mill’s father James, into a force for humanitarianism. Though early readers took his Autobiography, a vital introduction to Mill’s life and thought, as factual, scholars have more recently recognized its fictional construction as a tripartite paradigm of both Hegelian thesis-antithesis-synthesis and a Dantean quest from Hell through Purgatory to Paradise. John Stuart Mill
John Stuart Mill
Born the first of nine children to James and Harriet Burrow Mill, John Stuart Mill exemplified the precocious child. Under his father’s tutelage, he began his study of Greek at the age of three, adding Latin at eight and logic at twelve. At eleven, he started writing a history of Rome, and by fourteen, he had acquired the equivalent of a university education.
Mill presented his childhood as a time of lonely reading and rigorous indoctrination in analysis, empiricism, and philistine Benthamite utilitarianism. Though Mill may have exaggerated his father’s severity and his own fear under his father’s coldly critical eye, he did experience a “mental crisis” in 1826—marking his second stage as a writer—which he claimed resulted from his stunted emotional growth. He recovered by studying the Romantic intuitionism of Thomas Carlyle and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the positivism of Count Saint-Simon and Auguste Comte, and especially the poetry of William Wordsworth. Janice Carlisle has, however, convincingly argued that Mill’s crisis arose mainly because his father, an assistant examiner at the East India House, forced him to work there as a clerk and refused to allow him to study law. Thereby prevented from promptly entering politics to actively advance the reform he championed, Mill was left to promote social improvement only through writing, which he considered passive dilettantism.
After his “mental crisis,” Mill entered his third stage, which reflects a preference for many-sided and balanced thinking, rather than narrow empiricism, and a recognition of the need to humanize utilitarian laissez-faire doctrine until it answered emotional as well as economic needs. In 1830, Mill met Harriet Hardy Taylor, a married woman. He pursued, with full knowledge of her husband, an apparently nonsexual but intimate attachment that provided further radical impetus for his evolution. Although scholars heatedly debate the extent of Taylor’s influence, Mill’s 1832 essay “On Genius” does sharply break from his conservative 1831 series, “The Spirit of the Age.” It reveals, according to Neville Masterman, “the Socratic Platonic roots of Mill’s liberalism, often ignored in studies of his philosophy.”
From 1835 to 1840, Mill edited the utilitarian journal The London and Westminster Review, where he published his essays “Bentham” and “Coleridge”—crucial documents for understanding Victorian ideology. The 1840s saw both Mill’s and Taylor’s relationship and their radical feminism deepen, with Taylor separating from her husband while accepting his financial support. At this time, Mill published his well-received popularization of empiricism, A System of Logic, and Principles of Political Economy, which initially rejected socialism, though later editions—possibly due to Taylor’s influence—endorse it.
When John Taylor died in 1849, his wife went into mourning, finally marrying Mill in 1851. Mill’s devotion to her may have reflected an idealization of himself projected onto her because Victorian England associated writing with a woman’s private world. Despite the break with Mill’s family that the marriage caused, the two lived together quietly at Blackheath until 1858, when the abolition of the East India House terminated Mill’s position as examiner of India correspondence. The couple then set out for southern France, but Harriet fell ill en route and died. Mill bought a house in Avignon within sight of her tomb, returning for a few months every year to meditate for hours beside her grave. In tribute to her, Mill published On Liberty without any changes beyond those they had agreed upon together. The work, probably Mill’s best known, stands as a monument to free thought, free expression, and freedom to live life according to one’s own conscience.
Thanks to his stepdaughter Helen Taylor, who from the 1860s assumed his wife’s role as muse and editor, Mill emerged from his paralyzing grief over her death to accomplish some of his most significant writing and to enter finally into the political arena. Elected to Parliament in 1865, he introduced a women’s suffrage amendment to the 1867 Reform Bill, supported Irish rights against British misrule, and called for the prosecution of Jamaica’s English governor, who had oppressed and murdered black Jamaicans. After he lost the 1868 election, he and his stepdaughter set to work for women’s rights, publishing The Subjection of Women to a largely unreceptive audience. Mill continued, nevertheless, to complete his Autobiography and then to write other radical essays until his death and burial beside his beloved wife. Thereafter, his stepdaughter oversaw the publication of the Autobiography and Mill’s Three Essays on Religion.
Although Mill viewed himself as free from ideology, he was very much a product of his age, and the utilitarian philosophy he mobilized to protect human rights has ironically become the single most virulent justification for the dehumanizing commodification and bureaucratization of the modern capitalist state.