Study Guide

Autobiography

by John Stuart Mill

Autobiography Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

The Autobiography is a unique and fascinating book, one of a handful likely to be read as long as nineteenth century Britain is remembered. It bears witness to the intellectual ferment that was part of the industrial and democratic revolutions of the time. Wider suffrage led to state-supported education in Britain and debate about its proper content. These circumstances supplied Mill’s chief motives for recording his life. He wished to recount his own intellectual development and mission in a period of cultural transition and to describe his remarkable education.

Mill, better than anyone, articulated the outlook of nineteenth century liberalism, and so, more than any other intellectual, shaped thinking about politics and society in English-speaking countries in the twentieth century. His interests included political philosophy, ethics, economics, psychology, logic, the scientific method, religion, liberty, the prejudice suffered by women. His ordered, lucid prose helped guarantee that his books would long be read. Generous by nature and fair-minded in considering the views of others, he was, as British Prime Minister William Gladstone declared, a “saint of rationalism.”

The book recounts in detail a truly remarkable instance of home schooling, through which Mill acquired by his middle teens knowledge and analytical skills far superior to those of most university graduates—to say nothing of a phenomenal capacity for work. Mill missed a real childhood, however, suffering emotional disabilities that led to a severe psychological crisis and lifelong insecurity. The Autobiography reveals and conceals the emotional dimension of a committed rationalist.

Mill’s education was provided by his father, James Mill, a gifted Scotsman of modest birth who had been sponsored at university by a squire, John Stuart. Trained in the classics and living by his pen in London, James commenced his eldest son’s education at the age of three with Greek. Beginning with Aesop’s Fables (fourth century, b.c.e.), Mill later read the historian Herodotus, the philosopher Plato, and numerous other works. Mill was tutored several hours each morning, then worked at his father’s table, asking for definitions when necessary. He also read modern histories of Greece and Rome, typically—as he remembered it—on his own initiative, discussing them from his notes on long daily walks with his father. James gave explanations his son was required to restate in his own words; this introduced him to the analysis of institutions and the biases of historians. He also studied math and wrote poetry.

Mill began Latin at eight, also teaching it to his sister. He studied Greek and Latin poets, the historian Thucydides, and the philosopher Aristotle, and he commenced geometry, algebra, and calculus. His “private reading” was still mainly historical, and at eleven he wrote a long history of Roman government (his father did not intervene in any way). By this time he was reading Greek philosophers “with perfect ease,” learning not just another language, but how to think critically. He was asked to explain and draw inferences. At about age ten he read aloud the entire manuscript of his father’s ten-volume History of British India (1818), helping correct the proofs. At twelve he commenced logic with Aristotle and later writers. The heavily classical training raised no religious doubts: “I never threw off religion because I never had any.”

Two friends of his father were important in his education. He learned economics from his father’s exposition, on walks, of David Ricardo’s thought. Mill took daily notes, which his father used when writing a book on political economy. Mill later made marginal summaries on the manuscript so the order of ideas could better be assessed. Philosopher Jeremy Bentham was James’s mentor. Bentham took a strong interest in Mill, and, via James, shaped his philosophical outlook.

By age fourteen most of Mill’s formal education was complete. He had no idea he was exceptional. When he learned otherwise, he judged his abilities average at best and credited his father. He spent a year, 1820-1821, in France with Bentham’s brother’s family. There he acquired excellent French, learned dancing and piano, and displayed little aptitude for fencing and riding. He learned to love mountain...

(The entire section is 1806 words.)

Autobiography Bibliography (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Further Reading

Barros, Carolyn A. Autobiography: Narrative of Transformation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998. Analyzes autobiographies by Mill and several other prominent Victorians, describing how these authors relate tales of major transformations in their lives; Mill’s autobiography recounts a significant change in his philosophy.

Mazlish, Bruce. James and John Stuart Mill, Father and Son in the Nineteenth Century. New York: Basic Books, 1975. The material on James Mill adds much to one’s understanding of his more famous son. The book has a strong “social science/psycho-history” perspective that is predicated on the validity of Freudian theory.

Mill, John Stuart. The Early Draft of John Stuart Mill’s Autobiography. Edited by Jack Stillinger. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1961. Reveals differences between early drafts and the published versions of the Autobiography.

_______. John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor: Their Correspondence and Subsequent Marriage. Edited by F. A. von Hayek. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1951. A study of an important relationship in Mill’s adult years. Drastically alters the glowing image of Harriet Taylor created by the Autobiography.

Packe, Michael. The Life of John Stuart Mill. New York: Macmillan, 1954. The standard biography. Comprehensive, intelligent, and elegantly written, setting many aspects of Mill’s career in historical context.

Reeves, Richard. John Stuart Mill: Victorian Firebrand. London: Atlantic Books, 2007. An authoritative and well-received biography that recounts Mill’s life, philosophy, and pursuit of truth and liberty for all.