John Stewart Mill

Selected Writing


John Stewart Mill



William James,“Dedication,” Pragmatism (1907)


John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), philosopher, economist, and social critic, was during the middle decades of the 19th century the most influential public intellectual in the English-speaking world. As the dominant voice of English Liberalism, he championed many social and political reforms, including the abolition of slavery, justice for the oppressed peasants of Ireland, political rights for the English working class, and social and political equality for women. Dubbed the “Victorian Firebrand” in a widely praised recent biography [Richard Reeves. John Stuart Mill: Victorian Firebrand (2007)], Mill was an impassioned defender of individualism, which he regarded as an essential “element of well-being” and cultural progress.

The philosophical view that Mill adopted as young man and spent a life-time defending and developing is known as Utilitarianism. The basic principles of this philosophy can be traced back to (surprise!) Greece, but its modern founding figure was the Englishman, Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832). Noting that “nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure,” Bentham argued that the moral and social value of every human action was best measured by its “utility”—its social usefulness—in creating “the greatest happiness of the greatest number” of people.

John Stuart Mill was led to the ideas of Bentham by his father, James Mill (1773-1836), a gifted and energetic Scot with a talent for speaking and writing on a wide range of topics, including philosophy, politics, economics, history, and psychology. Attracted to Jeremy Bentham’s philosophy early in the 19th century, James Mill soon became Bentham’s most ardent disciple and public advocate, speaking and writing tirelessly to increase public acceptance of Bentham’s social, educational, legal, and political ideas.

Determined to mold his young son into a similarly effective defender of Utilitarian principles, James Mill took charge of John’s education very early. When the boy was hardly more than a toddler, his father began teaching him mathematics and Greek. By age eight, John was learning Latin. By age fourteen, he had read most Greek and Latin classics and many important books in philosophy, economics, logic, mathematics, and world history. Along the way, he also learned French and German. By age 17, steeped in the ideas of Jeremy Bentham and James Mill, John decided to dedicate his life to revolutionizing English institutions, cultural assumptions, and habits of mind by basing them on Utilitarian principles.

Since Parliament was the real sovereign of Great Britain and almost entirely controlled by prosperous business men, land-owning aristocrats, high-ranking professionals, and leading clergymen, John realized that his success depended on changing the minds of men much inclined to be very conservative. Consequently, while still in his teens he began a life-long authorship that eventually produced thousands of letters, hundreds of book reviews, pamphlets, essays and articles in scholarly journals, popular magazines, and newspapers, and several substantial books. His topics included not only current political and social issues, but also philosophy, logic, economics, sociology, history, politics, and psychology.

John Stuart Mill’s collected writings eventually filled thirty-three large volumes, an impressive achievement by any standard. It is even more impressive when we note that for most of his adult life, Mill by profession was neither a writer nor a scholar.

From age 17 to 52, he was, in fact, an employee of the British East India Company. This joint stock company, though chartered as a trading venture, early became deeply entangled in Parliamentary politics and British imperial expansion, and by the early 1820s virtually controlled commerce and civil administration in England’s East Asian colonial possessions. John joined the company in 1823 as a lowly clerk; by 1856 he was the second highest administrator in the London home office, where he supervised correspondence related to domestic administration in India, Burma, Malaya, Singapore, and Hong Kong. Taken together, these areas at that time contained about 20 percent of the world’s population.

In 1857, a major revolt in India against British authority resulted in the abrupt end of Mill’s business career. In the wake of the revolt (regarded in India as the “first war for independence”), Parliament decided to reconsider the East India Company’s vast administrative powers. The company’s board of directors asked Mill to defend its policies, which Mill did brilliantly. But English politics decreed that the company charter would not be renewed. Though offered a high position in the governments new Indian administrative system, Mill instead decided in 1858 to retire and, with his wife, Harriet Taylor Mill, devote his time to study and writing.

This plan, however, came almost immediately to an abrupt and tragic end. Late in 1858, while John and Harriet were vacationing in France, Harriet died suddenly and unexpectedly from complications caused by tuberculosis. She was 57. The couple long had been intimate friends and traveling companions, but they had been married only 7 years.

John’s devastation is expressed in the dedication that appears at the beginning of On Liberty, a book the two had for several years discussed endlessly and written jointly:

“To the beloved and deplored memory of her who was the inspirer, and in part the author, of all that is best in my writings—the friend and wife whose exalted sense of truth and right was my strongest incitement, and whose approbation was my chief reward—I dedicate this volume….Were I but capable of interpreting to the world one half the great thoughts and noble feelings which are buried in her grave, I should be the medium of a greater benefit to it, than is ever likely to arise from anything that I can write, unprompted and unassisted by her all but unrivaled wisdom.”

Freed from business responsibilities and needing to divert his attention from the heartbreak of Harriet’s death, John continued to write and publish. Though unwilling to revise On Liberty without Harriet’s advice and assistance, he did publish the book in 1859. Then in the following years, he published, among other writings, two books on politics [Thoughts on Parliamentary Reform, (1859) and Considerations of Representative Government(1861)], two major defense of his own philosophy [Utilitarianism (1863) and An Examination of Sir William Hamilton‘s Philosophy (1865)], and his major vindication of women’s rights [The Subjection of Women (1869)].

Though often dispirited and in poor health, he also continued to involve himself in public life. From 1865 to 1868 he served both as Lord Rector of the University of St. Andrews and as a member of the House of Commons, where he was the first members of Parliament to urge granting women the right to vote. As a leading Liberal, he also defended labor unions and farm cooperatives, and advocated voting reforms and improved treatment for the Irish. In 1872, he personally, though unknowingly, symbolically passed the torch of liberal reform to posterity by becoming the godfather of Bertrand Russell.

The following year in Avignon, John Stuart Mill, age 67, died.

Even his death, however, does not quite end his story. For some time before Mill died, he had been writing his autobiography. His assistant in this task, as in so many others after his wife’s death, was his step-daughter, Helen Taylor. Under her supervision in 1874, The Autobiography of John Stuart Mill was published. Of all his books, this one continues to be the most widely read.