The Family Mill

John Stuart Mill
John Stuart Mill; drawing by David Levine

James and John Stuart Mill is a deeply flawed work. It is careless, naïve, and sentimental, relying on breathlessness of manner to disguise slackness of argument. Although its obsessive inquiries into the inner lives of the Mills yield some interesting insights into the personalities behind their intellectual and political achievements, it leaves those achievements looking very much as they always have. But the overambition that gets Professor Mazlish into difficulties also does something to save him; he is often irritating, but always interesting.

What he has tried to do is use psychoanalysis and social psychology to illuminate the odd mixture of personality, political opportunity, and intellectual inheritance from which classical English liberalism was made. Like John Stuart Mill himself, whose Autobiography dominates this book, Mazlish sees the transition from the Philosophic Radicalism of the 1820s to the liberalism of the 1860s mirrored by the younger Mill’s emotional development. But where John Stuart Mill was concerned with only one struggle—that in which he made himself independent of his father’s overpowering influence—Mazlish looks back as well to James Mill’s own Oedipal conflicts.

He begins, however, with the Autobiography, pointing out that it is as strange a book as it is important. The reader of the Autobiography will learn that Mill had a father and a wife; he will not discover that he had a mother. “I was born,” says John Mill, “on the 20th of May, 1806, and was the eldest son of James Mill, the author of the History of British India.” What, as Mazlish says, is this if not a new parthenogenesis; James Mill, scorning female assistance, apparently created his son in much the same way and for the same reasons that he created his most famous book. The odd opening of the Autobiography sets the tone for what follows; the mother who doesn’t appear at the birth doesn’t appear thereafter, In the published Autobiography, she is never mentioned. Even in Mill’s unpublished first draft,1 she emerges only in order to be blamed (unjustly) for the lack of love in the Mill family and for failing to control her children.

It is with James Mill, and, later, with Harriet Taylor, that the Autobiography is primarily concerned. The opening chapters tell the story of James Mill’s attempts to rear the perfect leader of the Philosophic Radicals, attempts that have seemed to many less like the education of a flesh-and-blood child than the programming of a reasoning machine. Many readers have, perhaps unwisely, seen this regime as the perfect expression of the educational policy of a man “grown mechanical in head and heart.”2 Professor Mazlish is properly cautious about accepting the younger Mill’s account at face value; but even he, I think, gives less weight than he ought to the circumstances of that account’s composition. It was written in the winter of 1853-1854, when Mill thought that he and…

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