Article abstract: Desiring the greatest possible happiness for individual men and women and an England of the greatest possible justice and freedom, Mill questioned all assumptions about knowledge and truth and made what was observed the starting point of his discussions.
John Stuart Mill was the eldest of nine children born to James Mill and Harriet Burrow. James Mill, the son of a shoemaker, with the help of his patron, Sir John Stuart, attended the University of Edinburgh, where he studied philosophy and divinity. He qualified for a license to be a preacher, but soon lost his belief in God. In 1802, in the company of Sir John Stuart, who was then a Member of Parliament, James Mill went to London to earn his living as a journalist.
Two years after the birth of John Stuart Mill, James Mill began his association with Jeremy Bentham, twenty-five years older and the founder of utilitarianism. James Mill became Bentham’s disciple and the principal disseminator of utilitarianism; along with free trade, representative government, and the greatest happiness of the greatest number, another major belief of utilitarianism is that through education the possibilities for improving mankind are vast. The association between James Mill and Bentham, therefore, was to have a profound effect on the childhood, and indeed on the entire life, of John Stuart Mill, for he became the human guinea pig upon whom Bentham’s ideas on education were acted out. Under the direction of his father, John Stuart Mill was made into a Benthamite—in John’s own words, “a mere reasoning machine.”
James Mill began John’s education at the age of three, with the study of Greek, and it was not long before the boy was reading Aesop’s Fables. By the time he was eight and began the study of Latin, he had read a substantial body of Greek literature, including the whole of the historian Herodotus and much of Plato. In the opening chapter of the Autobiography (begun in 1856 but published posthumously in 1873), Mill gives a detailed account of his prodigious feats of reading. Much of his studying was done at the same table at which his father did his writing. On the morning walks on which he accompanied his father, Mill recited the stories about which he had read the day before. In the Autobiography, he states: “Mine was not an education of cram. My father never permitted anything which I learnt to degenerate into a mere exercise of memory.” The purpose of the education was to develop the greatest possible skills in reasoning and argumentation. Those skills then were to be used for the improvement of humanity.
In the year of John’s birth, James Mill began to write a work that would be eleven years in the making, his History of British India (1818). In the Autobiography, John tells of his part in the making of that formidable work, reading the manuscript aloud while his father corrected the proof sheets. He goes on to say that the book was a great influence on his thinking. The publication of the History of British India led directly to James Mill’s appointment to an important position in the East India Company, through which he was able to have a considerable impact upon the behavior of the English in India.
The final episode in James Mill’s education of his son was the work they did with David Ricardo’s treatise On the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation (1817). On their daily walks, the father gave lectures to the son drawn from Ricardo’s work. On the following day, the son produced a written account of the lecture, aimed at clarity, precision, and completeness. From these written accounts, James Mill then produced a popularized version of Ricardo, Elements of Political Economy (1821); this exercise in the thinking of Ricardo also formed the basis of one of John Stuart Mill’s great works, the Principles of Political Economy (1848). When he and his father finished with Ricardo, John was fourteen and was allowed to be graduated from James Mill’s “academy.”
John then spent a year living in France with Samuel Bentham, brother of Jeremy. When he returned to England, he began the study of law with John Austin, a lawyer who was a friend of his father and Bentham. It was during this period that Mill had one of the greatest intellectual experiences of his life, the reading of one of Bentham’s great works, which, edited and translated into French by Bentham’s Swiss disciple Étienne Dumont, has come to be known as the Traité de législation civile et pénale (1802). Mill was exhilarated by Bentham’s exposure of various expressions, such as “law of nature” and “right reason,” which convey no real meaning but serve to disguise dogmatisms.
Mill also was greatly impressed by the scientific statement in this work of the principle of utility. Reading Bentham’s statement of the principle “gave unity to my conceptions of things.” Mill says in the Autobiography that at this time all of his ideas came together: “I now had opinions; a creed, a doctrine, a philosophy.” He had been transformed: “When I laid down the last volume of the Traité, I had become a different being.”
In 1823, James Mill obtained for his son a position in the same department as the one in which he worked at the East India Company. For the next thirty-five years of his life, John Stuart Mill worked in the office of the Examiner of India Correspondence. This was for Mill his “professional occupation and status.” He found the work wholly congenial and could think of no better way to earn a steady income and still be able to devote a part of every day to private intellectual pursuits.
It was in the London and Westminster Review, founded by Bentham, that Mill’s first writings of significance appeared in 1824 and 1825. Among others were essays on the mistaken notions of the conservative Edinburgh Review and on the necessity of absolute freedom of discussion. In 1826, however, at the age of twenty, Mill became seriously depressed and experienced what has come to be known as his “mental crisis,” a period in his life discussed in detail in the Autobiography. Mill explains that at twenty he suddenly found himself listless and despairing and that he no longer cared about the purpose for which he had been educated. He had to confess to himself that if all the changes in society and in people’s attitudes were accomplished for which he, his father, and Bentham were working, he would feel no particular happiness. He had been taught that such accomplishments would bring him great happiness, but he realized that on a personal level he would not care. Thus, he says, “I seemed to have nothing to live for.”
The Autobiography tells of his dramatic recovery. He read of a boy who, through the death of his father, suddenly had the responsibility for the well-being of his family thrust upon him. Feeling confident that he was capable of doing all that was expected of him, the boy inspired a similar confidence in those who were dependent on him. Mill claimed that this story moved him to tears: “From this moment my burden grew lighter. The oppression of the thought that all feeling was dead within me, was gone. I was no longer hopeless: I was not a stock or a stone.” He says further that he learned two important things from his mental crisis. First, asking whether you are happy will cause you to be happy no longer. Second, stressing right thinking and good behavior is not enough; one must also feel the full range of emotions.
It is thought that the intensity of his relationship with his father was the main cause of Mill’s crisis. He adored and worshipped James Mill, and thus found it impossible to disagree with him. In recognizing the value of feeling, however, the son was rejecting his father’s exclusion of feelings in determining what is desirable. As John came out of his depression, he let himself take an interest in poetry and art; William Wordsworth’s poetry was a medicine to him, bringing him joy, much “sympathetic and imaginative pleasure.” He was further helped in his emotional development with the beginning, in 1830, of his platonic love affair with Harriet Taylor and, in 1836, by the death of his father.
In 1830, Mill began to commit to paper the ideas that were to go into his first major work, A System of Logic (1843). Mill had come to believe that sound action had to be founded on sound theory, and sound theory was the result of sound logic. He was aware of too much argumentation that was not based on clear thinking; in particular, what were no more than habitual beliefs were frequently represented as truths. The subtitle of A System of Logic helps to explain Mill’s intention: “Being a Connected View of the Principles of Evidence and the Methods of Scientific Investigation.”
While Mill and the utilitarians regarded experience or observation as the exclusive determinant of truth, of considerable influence in both Great Britain and on the Continent were those who believed that truth could be known through intuition. Those who started with intuition, Mill believed, started with nothing more than prejudices, and these prejudices then provided justification for untrue doctrines and harmful institutions. In A System of Logic, Mill attempted to combat what he considered prejudices with philosophy by establishing a general theory of proof. Insisting that “facts” were facts only if they could be verified by observation, Mill argued the necessity of ascertaining the origins of individual ideas and belief systems.