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  Lectures on the Harvard Classics.
The Harvard Classics.  1909–14.
V. John Stuart Mill
By Professor O. M. W. Sprague
THE FIRST three chapters of the “Autobiography of John Stuart Mill,” 1 by far the most interesting part of the work, are concerned with the methods and results of his extraordinary education. Under the direct supervision of his father he began serious study with Greek at the tender age of three; at twelve he had covered the equivalent of the classical and mathematical requirements for graduation at the English universities, while in history and philosophy he had gone far beyond the requirements of those institutions of learning. Thereafter he continued his studies with unflagging industry, though along more special lines and in large measure independently, very much after the manner of scholarly graduates of the universities ten years his senior. Before he was twenty he had edited a ponderous legal treatise in a fashion which would have been highly creditable to any scholar in the full maturity of his powers. He was then, at twenty, clearly five, and perhaps ten, years in advance of that stage of intellectual acquirement which he would presumably have reached if he had received the education then, or, indeed, now, customary.  1

  By Mill himself this industrious childhood and youth was looked upon as an unmixed blessing. In the opening paragraph of the “Autobiography” he expresses the opinion that his experience shows that usually the early years of life are little better than wasted. But though no one can doubt that the rigorous mental discipline to which the younger Mill was subjected by his father was highly effective, educational methods fortunately have not been influenced by it in the slightest degree. Contrasted with accepted methods, his education was superior in only one respect—it did save time. It enabled Mill to begin work as a mature writer at an unusually early age. But even so it does not follow that he was consequently able to do more or better work during his life than he would have otherwise accomplished. The addition of five or ten years at the outset of a life of normal length, and the work accomplished during those particular years, are not necessarily a net addition to its total achievement. Before drawing this conclusion we should need to be sure that physical strength and mental alertness were not prematurely lessened in consequence of the early training. After all, for continuous constructive intellectual work, the keeping of the mind open to new impressions and ideas is the one thing fundamentally important; and, while Mill was far superior to many of the world’s great thinkers in this respect, this trait does not seem to have been due to the character of his education.

  That he was deprived of the ordinary activities and pleasures of childhood and youth does not seem to have been an occasion of regret to Mill. As a philosopher and psychologist he might have been expected to recognize that his exclusive absorption in study during his early years must have narrowed the range of his knowledge of life and his capacity to act with and to lead other men. Mill’s attitude toward life was always, and especially in the earlier years of his career, excessively intellectual. He exaggerated the force of reasoned conclusions as a factor in individual conduct and as a means of bringing about social improvement. One cannot but feel that the few years saved by Mill in the acquiring of knowledge from books involved some sacrifice of knowledge and understanding of the ordinary impulses and motives of men and women.
  Still another defect in an education such as Mill received remains for consideration, though happily he escaped its threatened consequences. His father was one of the foremost of the utilitarian philosophers. He applied the principles of that school to the various problems of individual and of social improvement earnestly and with no lack of dogmatism. He impressed his views upon the mind of his son when he was far too young to subject them to critical analysis and to form an independent judgment regarding them through comparison with the opinions of other thinkers and from experience of life itself. Mill’s early writings are, therefore, and quite naturally, little more than the expression of the views of his father with such acute modifications as might be expected from one gifted with his powerful intellect.  4

  In the course of time the utilitarian philosophy, in the form in which it had come to him from his father, ceased to satisfy the distinctly more emotional nature of the son. He became so completely disillusioned with the dry content of this philosophy that he became depressed, lost all joy in work and therewith the capacity for constructive intellectual effort. 2 Perhaps the most valuable part of the “Autobiography” is the account of this distressed and anxious period, and of the various influences which widened his horizon and humanized his views of life and its significance. Being a man of books, it was largely through a change in the character of his reading that he found solace. The poems of Wordsworth were the most potent single influence. It is altogether likely that a person born with less varied natural endowments would have remained content with and fixed in the cast of thought resulting from premature acquaintance with a single school of philosophy.

  This experience is reflected in the contribution made by Mill to utilitarian ethical theories. While adhering to the position that happiness is simply the sum total of pleasures, he made a distinction between higher and lower qualities of pleasure, regarding the higher as indefinitely more desirable than the lower. The criteria for making an exact classification of pleasures were, however, not fully and adequately worked out by Mill. Various branches of knowledge, in particular psychology and sociology, had not been developed sufficiently far for the purpose. On this, as on many other subjects, the work of Mill has been superseded, owing to fundamental differences in methods of approach even more than to the accumulation of additional data. Among influences of special far-reaching importance may be mentioned the evolutionary hypothesis, and what may be called, in contradistinction to the intellectual analytical psychology of Mill’s time, the scientific psychology of the present.
  The most influential of all Mill’s writings has been “The Principles of Political Economy,” published in 1848. In writing this treatise, Mill had two purposes in view. In the first place, he wished to bring together the many improvements which had been made in the principles of the subject since the appearance of “The Wealth of Nations” 3 in 1776 and, following the example of Adam Smith, to illustrate their practical applications. Here he was conspicuously successful. Many writers in recent years have set themselves the same task with no such measure of accomplishment. In the second place, he wished to relate economic principles and phenomena to his own social ideals and social philosophy. The character of these social ideals and the nature of his social philosophy are abundantly set forth in the “Autobiography,” 4 where particular attention is given to the influence upon his mind of his wife and of Auguste Comte, the father of the science of sociology. It can hardly be said that Mill was fully successful in this effort. The purely economic part of the treatise and the social philosophy are not fused together and at times are positively contradictory. Nevertheless, the treatise gained in human interest from the effort thus made, and at all events the way was indicated toward a broader treatment of social and economic questions than had been customary among economists since the time of Adam Smith.  7
  The personality revealed in the “Autobiography” is one that cannot fail to command respect and admiration. An ardent desire for social as well as individual progress is conspicuous both in the analysis of the growth of his own mind and in what is said about his own writings. Detailed consideration of the various reforms which he advocated in his writings is impossible within the narrow limits of a single lecture. In a general way it may be noted that Mill expected greater results from the removal of obstructions to freedom of thought and action 5 and from education than in fact have been realized. It is now more clearly evident that the removal of restrictions is often no more than an indispensable preliminary to positive means of improvement and that opportunities thus provided are by no means certain to be made use of. After making every qualification, however, the liberal movement of the nineteenth century surely made possible a long step forward in human progress. In this movement the writings of John Stuart Mill were a potent factor.  8
Note 1. Harvard Classics, xxv. [back]
Note 2. See H. C., xxv, 85–95. [back]
Note 3. H. C., x, and see lecture on Adam Smith in the course on Political Science. [back]
Note 4. H. C., xxv, 141–147. [back]
Note 5. See also the lecture on “The Idea of Liberty” in the series on Political Science. [back]


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