John Stuart Mill

Start Your Free Trial

Download John Stuart Mill Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Introduction

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

John Stuart Mill 1806-1873

British philosopher, economist, autobiographer, essayist, and critic.

The pre-eminent British philosopher of the nineteenth century, Mill is admired for the probity of his theories and for their ability to transcend the conventional boundaries of philosophy, sociology, history, and politics. Critics regard his essay On Liberty as a seminal work in the development of British liberalism. Enhanced by his powerful, lucid, and accessible prose style, Mill's writings on government, economics, and logic suggest a model for society that remains compelling and relevant.

Biographical Information

Mill was born in London, the eldest of the nine children of James and Harriet Mill. His father was a devout follower of his friend Jeremy Bentham's radical brand of utilitarianism, which stressed pragmatism, agnosticism, and "the greatest good for the greatest number" as its philosophical ideals. As an educational theory, utilitarianism called for rigorous training with particular emphasis on logic and analysis. The elder Mill, anxious to raise his son in accordance with the strictest utilitarian principles, soon embarked on a training project that he dubbed the "Great Experiment." His education completely overseen by his father, young Mill was reading Greek at the age of three, had completed a university-level course of study by the age of eight, and by the age of sixteen had mastered French, psychology, law, and political economy and had founded the Utilitarian Society. To Mill's father, the experiment had proved a success, but it had also left the young man emotionally and socially under-developed.

In addition to handling the affairs of the society, Mill became embroiled in political debate over the merits of utilitarianism, writing in defense of Bentham's ideas for such periodicals as the Traveller, the Morning Chronicle, and the Westminster Review. Because his father wanted Mill to shun politics, Mill joined the East India Company in 1823. He remained with the company until his retirement thirty-five years later.

In 1825, as he participated in the Speculative Society debate series, Mill began to question his former utilitarian beliefs. This process culminated the following year in a "mental crisis" that precipitated several months of depression. Mill came to the realization that his early training had deprived him of an emotional life; he felt "stranded at the commencement of [his] voyage with a well-equipped ship and rudder, but no sail." Seeking to broaden his spectrum of knowledge, he began to read the works of Comte, Carlyle, Coleridge, and Wordsworth, and became particularly enchanted with Wordsworth's Romantic mysticism and Carlyle's passion for social reform. In addition, in 1830 Mill met Harriet Taylor, a woman who combined a remarkable intellect with emotional sensitivity, and the two soon formed what he described as a "perfect friendship." Taylor's husband acknowledged and accepted their platonic relationship, although it scandalized many of their friends. After corresponding and meeting publicly for twenty years, they married in 1851, two years after the death of Taylor's husband. Following their marriage, they became virtual recluses as they worked together in their villa in St. Véran, France. Mill credited Taylor with co-authoring almost all his works, particularly The Subjection of Women. Her death in 1858 was a devastating blow, but Mill gradually involved himself in new activities. He served in the House of Commons from 1865 to 1867 and was then elected to the honorary position of rector of St. Andrew's University. He continued to write prolifically and was at work on an essay on socialism when he died in Avignon, France.

Major Works

Mill distinguished himself in many fields. His public prominence as a political theorist and philosopher was first established in the 1820s with the publication of his early essays and continued to grow while he served as editor of the London and Westminster Review from 1835 to 1840. His...

(The entire section is 1,141 words.)