Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
John Stuart Mill (1806–1873)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Richard Theodore Ely (1854–1943)
THE LIFE of John Stuart Mill is in several particulars one of the most remarkable of which we have any record; and it can scarcely be an exaggeration to call his Autobiography—in which we find presented in simple, straightforward style the main features of his life—a wonderful book. Heredity, environment, and education are the principal forces working upon our original powers and making us what we become. It may be said that John Stuart Mill was favored with respect to each one of these three forces. His father was a philosopher and historian of merit and repute. His environment naturally brought him into close relations with the most distinguished men of his day, even in early youth; and his education, conducted by his father, was an experiment both unique and marvelous.  1
  John Stuart Mill was born in London, May 20th, 1806. His father, James Mill, was a Scotchman, who four years before the birth of his son John Stuart had moved to London. When his son was thirteen years old, James Mill received an appointment at the India House, in which he finally rose to the remunerative position of Head Examiner. John Stuart Mill had just begun his eighteenth year, when on May 21st, 1823, he entered the India House as junior clerk; where he remained, rising also to the position of Head Examiner, until the extinction of the East India Company and the transfer of India to the Crown, in 1858. Both of the Mills were thus associated with India in their practical activities, and one of James Mill’s principal works was a ‘History of British India.’ Two other works by the father must be mentioned, because they both exercised important influence upon the intellectual development and the opinions of the son; viz., the ‘Elements of Political Economy’ and the ‘Analysis of the Phenomena of the Human Mind.’  2
  James Mill decided what he wished his son to become, and began to train him for his destined career almost from infancy. In his Autobiography, John Stuart Mill says that he cannot remember the time when he began the study of Greek, but he was told that it was when he was three years of age. He could only faintly remember reading Æsop’s Fables, his first Greek book. When he was eight, among other authors he had read the whole of Herodotus, the ‘Cyropædia’ and ‘Memorabilia’ of Xenophon, and six Dialogues of Plato. At the age of eight he began the study of Latin, and had read more than most college students have in their college course when he was twelve years old. Besides this he had read a marvelous amount of history. It was at the age of thirteen that he began a complete course in political economy under his father’s instruction. James Mill lectured to his son during their daily walks; and then the son wrote out an account of the lectures, which was read to his father and criticized by him. The lad was compelled to rewrite again and again his notes until they were satisfactory. These notes were used in the preparation of James Mill’s ‘Elements of Political Economy’; a work which was intended to present, in the form of a school-book, the principles of his friend Ricardo. Ricardo’s writings and Adam Smith’s ‘Wealth of Nations’ were carefully studied under the father’s tuition. The son was questioned, and difficulties were not explained until he had done his best to solve them himself.  3
  An important event in Mill’s education was a year spent in France, in the house of Sir Samuel Bentham, a brother of the English philosopher and jurist Jeremy Bentham, who was a friend both of father and son. While in France he acquired the French language, and gained an interest in French affairs which he never lost. He also enjoyed the beautiful mountain scenery which he visited while on the Continent. While in Paris, on his way to Sir Samuel Bentham’s, he spent nine days in the house of the French political economist Jean Baptiste Say, a distinguished French disciple of Adam Smith. Mill returned to England in 1821, at the age of fifteen, and then began the study of Roman and English law. He began his writing for the press at the age of sixteen; and the day after he was seventeen, as we have seen, he entered upon a service of nearly forty years in the India House.  4
  There has been considerable controversy about the value of the education which he received in his early years, and also about the disadvantages which attended his father’s methods of instruction. John Stuart Mill himself states, and with apparent regret, that he had no real boyhood. But he does feel that otherwise his education was a success, and gave him an advantage of starting a quarter of a century ahead of his contemporaries. The following words are found in his Autobiography:—
          “In the course of the instruction which I have partially retraced, the point most superficially apparent is the great effort to give, during the years of childhood, an amount of knowledge in what are considered the higher branches of education, which is seldom acquired (if acquired at all) until the age of manhood. The result of the experiment shows the ease with which this may be done, and places in a strong light the wretched waste of so many precious years as are spent in acquiring the modicum of Latin and Greek commonly taught to schoolboys; a waste which has led so many educational reformers to entertain the ill-judged proposal of discarding these languages altogether from general education. If I had been by nature extremely quick of apprehension, or had possessed a very accurate and retentive memory, or were of a remarkably active and energetic character, the trial would not be conclusive: but in all these natural gifts I am rather below than above par,—what I could do, could assuredly be done by any boy or girl of average capacity and healthy physical constitution; and if I have accomplished anything, I owe it, among other fortunate circumstances, to the fact that through the early training bestowed on me by my father, I started, I may fairly say, with an advantage of a quarter of a century over my contemporaries.”
  We are quite safe in calling in question at least the statement that what John Stuart Mill did could be done by any boy or girl of “average capacity and healthy physical constitution.” It may be well to quote in this connection Mill’s statement about the impression produced upon him by a perusal of Dumont’s ‘Traité de Législation’ (Treatise on Legislation), which contained an exposition of the principal speculations of Jeremy Bentham:—
          “The reading of this book was an epoch in my life, one of the turning-points in my mental history. My previous education had been, in a certain sense, already a course of Benthamism. The Benthamic standard of the ‘greatest happiness’ was that which I had always been taught to apply; I was even familiar with an abstract discussion of it, forming an episode in an unpublished dialogue on ‘Government,’ written by my father on the Platonic model. Yet in the first pages of Bentham it burst upon me with all the force of novelty. What thus impressed me was the chapter in which Bentham passed judgment on the common modes of reasoning in morals and legislation, deduced from phrases like ‘law of nature,’ ‘right reason,’ ‘the moral sense,’ ‘natural rectitude,’ and the like; and characterized them as dogmatism in disguise, imposing its sentiments upon others under cover of sounding expressions which convey no reason for the sentiment, but set up the sentiment as its own reason. It had not struck me before, that Bentham’s principle put an end to all this. The feeling rushed upon me that all previous moralists were superseded, and that here indeed was the commencement of a new era in thought…. When I laid down the last volume of the ‘Traité,’ I had become a different being.”
All this, and much more like it, proceeded from a youth of fifteen! Assuredly his native powers were extraordinary.
  Among the men with whom Mill came in contact, and who influenced him, may be mentioned Ricardo, Bentham, Grote the historian, John Austin, Macaulay, Frederick Denison Maurice, and John Sterling.  7
  Even in so brief a sketch of John Stuart Mill as the present, mention must not fail to be made of Mill’s remarkable attachment to his wife, Mrs. John Taylor, whom he married in 1851, but with whom he had already enjoyed many years of devoted and helpful friendship. Mill’s demeanor in general society seems to have been cold, and perhaps almost frigid. Mention is made of his “icy reserve”; but no youth could surpass him in the ardor of his love for his wife, or in the warmth with which he expressed it. His exaggerated statements about her have brought upon him a certain reproach; and his entire relation to his wife, both before and after marriage, forms one of the strangest passages in his remarkable career. Mrs. Mill does not appear to have impressed others with whom she came in contact very strongly; but he speaks of her “all-but unrivaled wisdom.”  8
  Mill was once elected a Member of Parliament; but his career in the House was not especially remarkable, although he appears to have made a strong impression upon Gladstone, who dubbed him the “Saint of Rationalism.” “He did us all good,” writes the statesman.  9
  Mill’s moral worth and elevation of character impressed all who knew him. Herbert Spencer speaks of his generosity as “almost romantic”; and his entire life was one of singular devotion to the improvement of mankind, which was with him quite as strong a passion as with Adam Smith.  10
  Mill’s intellectual activity was remarkable on account of the various fields to which it extended. He was a specialist of distinction in logic and mental philosophy generally, in moral science, in political philosophy, in political economy, and in social philosophy—of which his political economy was only a part. While attaining high rank in each one of these fields, his interests were so broad that he avoided the dangers of narrow specialism. His interests even extended beyond the humanities; for he was an enthusiastic botanist, and even contributed botanical articles to scientific magazines.  11
  Mill took immense pains in the preparation of all his works, and also in their composition; with the result that whatever he wrote became literature. Taine in his ‘History of English Literature’ devotes forty pages to the ‘Logic’; and the ‘Political Economy’ is perhaps the only economic treatise which deserves to rank as literature.  12
  Mill’s first great work was his treatise on logic, which bears the title, ‘A System of Logic, Ratiocinative and Inductive: Being a Connected View of the Principles of Evidence and the Methods of Scientific Investigation.’ This was published in 1843. Along with this work should be mentioned his ‘Examination of Sir William Hamilton’s Philosophy and the Principal Philosophical Questions Discussed in his Writings,’ although this did not appear until 1865. These two works, together with his father’s ‘Analysis of the Phenomena of the Human Mind,’ edited by him in 1869, give a view of his philosophy. He belongs to the school of Locke, Hartley, and Hume. Individual experience is the foundation upon which he builds his system of knowledge. The connecting principle binding together what individual experience has given is the principle of association. Innate ideas and a priori reason—in fact, all knowledge antecedent and prior to experience—are rejected.  13
  The fearlessness and consistency with which Mill bases all knowledge upon individual experience cannot fail to excite a certain admiration even in those who differ widely with him. He will not acknowledge the universality of causation, but thinks it quite possible that in regions beyond our experience things may happen at random. These are the words in which he expresses this doctrine:—
          “I am convinced that any one accustomed to abstraction and analysis, who will fairly exert his faculties for the purpose, will, when his imagination has once learnt to entertain the notion, find no difficulty in conceiving that in some one, for instance, of the many firmaments into which sidereal astronomy now divides the universe, events may succeed one another at random without any fixed law; nor can anything in our experience, or in our mental nature, constitute a sufficient—or indeed any—reason for believing that this is nowhere the case.”
  Mill’s ‘Logic’ has in all countries a high reputation, and must take its rank among the great treatises on logic of all times. He is frequently called the founder of the inductive logic, so great was the contribution which he made in his treatment of induction.  15
  In his political philosophy he was an exponent of democracy. What he did for democracy in the nineteenth century has been compared with Locke’s contribution to the philosophy of constitutional monarchy in the seventeenth century. His principal work in this field is entitled ‘Thoughts on Representative Government.’ His work on ‘Liberty,’ however, belongs in part to the domain of political philosophy; and the volumes entitled ‘Dissertations and Discussions’ contain many essays on scientific politics.  16
  He advocated government by the people because, among other things, political activity carried with it an intellectual and ethical education. Political interests were the first, he maintained, to enlarge men’s minds and thoughts beyond the narrow circle of the family. One marked feature of what he wrote on politics was his advocacy of the enfranchisement of women. He was always a champion of women’s rights, and reference should be made in this connection to his work ‘The Subjection of Women.’ He disliked to think that there were any fundamental differences in mind and character between the sexes. One of his speeches in the House of Commons was on the ‘Admission of Women to the Electoral Franchise.’  17
  But Mill was keenly conscious of the dangers of democracy; and he wished that measures should be adopted, on the one hand to prepare men and women by education for self-government, and on the other to prevent a tyranny of the majority. Consequently he was an advocate of a representation of minorities in legislative bodies. He was always known as a friend of the workingman; but he was no demagogue, and would not stoop to flattery. When he was candidate for Parliament, he was asked in a public meeting whether he had ever made the statement that the working classes of England differed from those of other countries in being ashamed of lying, although they were generally liars. The audience was composed largely of workingmen, and his reply was a frank and instantaneous “I did.” The statement was greeted with applause, which was always to him a source of hope for the wage-earning classes. It showed that they wanted friends, not flatterers.  18
  It is noteworthy, however, that as Mill grew older he became less democratic and more socialistic. He says of himself and Mrs. Taylor, referring to the year 1843 or thereabouts:—
          “We were now much less democrats than I had been, because so long as education continues to be so wretchedly imperfect, we dreaded the ignorance and especially the selfishness and brutality of the mass; but our ideas of ultimate improvement went far beyond democracy, and classed us under the general designation of socialists…. The social problem of the future we considered to be, how to unite the greatest liberty of action with a common ownership of the raw material of the globe, and an equal participation of all in the benefits of combined labor.”
  Mill’s chief contribution to ethics is found in his little work entitled ‘Utilitarianism’; and this gives him a position in the history of ethical thought. His “utilitarianism” was what he himself called the “greatest happiness” principle; not the greatest happiness of the individual merely, but the greatest happiness of society. This thought of the greatest happiness as the ultimate test of conduct in the individual and in society runs all through his writing, and is fundamental. It must always be borne in mind by one who would understand what he wrote; and in it we find at least a certain unity amid many inconsistencies. The greatest-happiness rule was Bentham’s principle: but Mill added to considerations of quantity of happiness, the considerations of quality; it was not merely the highest quantity of happiness which must be sought, but the highest sorts of happiness. While this elevated utilitarianism, it introduced an element of idealism which has rightly been held to be inconsistent with the utilitarian philosophy. If happiness is fundamental, how can we distinguish between kinds of happiness on any other grounds than those of mere quantity? If we are able to say that one sort of happiness is higher than another, then we must have some different test and some more fundamental test than happiness itself.  20
  Mill’s ‘Political Economy’ is a transitional work; and indeed, it may not be too much to say of all his work that it was transitional. He brought to a close a line of development in economics proceeding from Adam Smith through Ricardo, Malthus, and James Mill, and opened a new era. He added on to the superstructure large humanitarian and social considerations which were hardly consistent with the foundations upon which he built; and this he himself recognized late in life. Yet the very imperfections of his book on political economy render it interesting and also instructive. It must be read carefully and in connection with his other writings to be fully understood; but its mastery has been called in itself a liberal education.  21
  The book is entitled ‘Principles of Political Economy, with some of their Applications to Social Philosophy.’ It is in truth as a part of a system of social philosophy that Mill’s political economy is most interesting. This enlargement of the scope of political economy, and its connection with general sociology, is something for which he was chiefly indebted to the French sociologist Auguste Comte, whose works he studied, with whom he formed a warm friendship which lasted for some years, and whom he always admired. It was from Comte that he learned his distinction between social statics and social dynamics: the first dealing with phenomena in their coexistence, and giving us the theory of order; the second dealing with social phenomena in their succession, and giving us the theory of progress.  22
  The view of nature found in his writing is in marked contrast to the eighteenth-century view entertained by Adam Smith. Nature is no longer a beneficent power, but inexpressibly cruel. Man is beneficent, and the good in the world is brought about through the subjugation of nature by man. Civilization means to him a contest with nature and a conquest of her forces. It is for man to overcome her inequalities and injustices.  23
  Mill’s thoughts were directed to the improvement of the condition of the masses; and this improvement was to be brought about gradually, through an enlargement of economic and political opportunities. He advocated views of the taxation and regulation of inheritance and bequest which would break down large fortunes and bring about a wider diffusion of property. In the same spirit was conceived his plan for the appropriation of the “unearned increment” of land, or future increments in the rent of land due to the progress of society and not to the exertions of the individual land-owner. His last public act was the foundation of the Land Tenure Reform Association, which was designed to carry out this idea of the appropriation of the future unearned increment by society, to be used for general social purposes and to encourage co-operative agriculture.  24
  It has already been stated that Mill’s views gradually changed in the direction of socialism. He was at work on the problem of socialism at the time of his death, but appears to have reached no definite conclusion. He dreaded anything like tyranny over the individual, and on this account rejected all schemes of socialism with which he was familiar. Nevertheless, he was working towards an ideal kind of socialism, which, as he said, should with the common ownership of the instruments of production and participation in the benefits of combined labor “unite the greatest individual liberty of action.”  25

Shakespeare · Bible · Strunk · Anatomy · Nonfiction · Quotations · Reference · Fiction · Poetry
© 1993–2015 · [Top 150] · Subjects · Titles · Authors · World Lit.