Freedom Fighter

John Stuart Mill

by Nicholas Capaldi
Cambridge University Press,436 pp., $40.00


May 20, 2006, is the bicentenary of the birth of John Stuart Mill, so Nicholas Capaldi’s biography arrives at an appropriate moment. It is the first biographical account of Mill for some thirty years. There have been recent studies of Mill’s philosophy, of which the best by some margin is John Skorupski’s1 ; and several studies of Mill’s politics, from Joseph Hamburger’s hostile John Stuart Mill on Liberty and Control2 to the much friendlier portrait of Mill and other liberals in Stefan Collini’s Public Moralists.3 Attempts to integrate life and thought have been thinner on the ground. John Robson, whose thirty-volume edition of Mill’s Collected Works4> is beyond all praise, might have produced the definitive biography to supplement his account of Mill’s career as a social reformer in The Improvement of Mankind,5 but he died before it could happen.

John Robson helped Nicholas Capaldi with John Stuart Mill; and if Capaldi’s biography is far from definitive, it is solidly grounded, briskly argued, and agreeably free from the sound of grinding axes. Unlike some earlier critics, Capaldi does not blame Mill for rebellious students, unfeminine feminists, the rise of sexual license, and aggressive atheism. Nor should we mind too much that Capaldi too often describes Mill as a Roman-tic without qualification, makes Mill more hospitable to religious faith than some readers will find plausible, and even turns him into an unlikely disciple of Hegel. There is ample room for argument about just where Mill belongs in the history of nineteenth-century ideas, and Capaldi’s readers will not resent the occasional exaggeration. Mill wrote with a disarming simplicity, but he was not a simple thinker; Henry Sidgwick got it right when he observed that “he was the best philosophical writer—if not philosopher—since Hume.”

Writing the biography of a philosopher is not easy. The biographer balances on a knife edge: tip one way, and arguments lose their integrity in becoming outgrowths of the life; tip the other, and the personality of the philosopher vanishes beneath doctrinal commentary. Matters may be worse if the philosopher was also an autobiographer, as John Stuart Mill was. Mill was not a fantasist like Rousseau, or a self-dramatizer like Russell; but, liberal as he was, he was also an astonishingly authoritarian autobiographer. He firmly intended to get in the way of future biographers and did everything he could to dictate the terms on which they would write about him. On the very first page of the Autobiography the reader is told just what lessons to draw from Mill’s account of his life, enjoined to read the Autobiography only as Mill intended, and reminded that any disappointment felt by readers who do not follow Mill’s instructions is entirely their fault.

Why was Mill so intent on establishing his own account of his life as uniquely authoritative? For the same reason that he was so anxious to provide an account of it at all. He was known to have had an intense, though chaste, relationship with a married woman—Mrs. Harriet Taylor—for almost two decades, before her husband died and they were able to marry. Chaste though their relationship was, it was scandalous by the standards of Victorian middle-class morality; and the nastier of Mill’s critics seized on it after his death to denigrate his memory. Mill’s purpose was to show that theirs had been a spiritual union, animated by a desire for mutual improvement, not sensual attraction. It was exemplary: a relationship between equals, based on the mutual respect that flowed from treating each other as autonomous and intelligent beings.

The Autobiography is a Bildungsroman; that is, it is a dramatic account of Mill’s intellectual, spiritual, and emotional development and self-development. Mill himself described it more prosaically as the record of an education; the two chief educators are Harriet Taylor and James Mill, and Mill claimed that he learned more from Harriet Taylor than from anyone else, his father included. More importantly, Mill thought that what he had learned from her was an essential corrective to what his father had taught him. So the Autobiography is the story of two educational adventures, one in childhood and adolescence, the other in adult life, the second a corrective and completion of the first:

I have thought that in an age in which education, and its improvement, are the subject of more, if not of profounder study than at any former period of English history, it may be useful that there should be some record of an education which was unusual and remarkable, and which, whatever else it may have done, has proved how much more than is commonly supposed may be taught, and well taught, in those early years which, in the common modes of what is called instruction, are little better than wasted. It has also seemed to me that in an age of transition in opinions, there may be somewhat both of interest and of benefit in noting the successive phases of any mind which was always pressing forward, equally ready to learn and unlearn either from its own thoughts or from those of others. But a motive which weighs more with me than either of these, is a desire to make acknowledgment of the debts which my intellectual and moral development owes to other persons, some of them of recognized eminence, others less known than they deserve to be, and the one to whom most of all is due, one whom the world had no opportunity of knowing. The reader whom these things do not interest, has only himself to blame if he reads farther, and I do not desire any other indulgence from him than that of bearing in mind, that for him these pages were not written.

After that uncompromising opening, Mill goes on to describe himself as “the eldest son of James Mill, the author of The History of British India.” Many critics have observed the oddity of mentioning one parent and a multi-volume work of history, while ignoring the mother who bore her oldest son and his eight siblings. Sadly, the rhetorical role that Mill’s mother, Harriet Mill, née Barrow, occupies in the Autobiography is to provide the antithesis to Harriet Taylor’s thesis, a pattern of what a woman should not be—ground down by childbearing, devoid of intellectual interests of her own, and unable to be a companion to her hard-driving husband, who came to treat her with contempt. In life, Mill fancied that his mother had insulted Harriet Taylor on the occasion of their marriage in 1851, and he broke off relations. His letters to her and to his sister, her companion, make painful reading and cast doubt on his and Harriet Taylor’s ability to understand the behavior of anyone other than themselves.

Readers of Mill’s Autobiography divide sharply over Harriet Taylor. Many dislike her. Nicholas Capaldi is in a very small minority in thinking almost as highly of her as Mill did, but he makes as good a case as one can imagine, not only for Harriet herself but for the relationship that she and Mill constructed, and for the value of her contribution to Mill’s thinking about social and political issues. It is a considerable achievement. In particular, Capaldi emphasizes Harriet’s dogged insistence on the importance of individual autonomy. The dangers of majoritarian democracy, the prospects for female suffrage, the suffocating effects of Victorian respectability, and the merits of the various forms of socialism projected in their lifetime were all evaluated by Mill against the ideal of personal autonomy, and on Capaldi’s view of the matter, it was Harriet’s influence that ensured that this was so.

Simple communism was ruled out because it destroyed individual freedom and self-reliance; but worker cooperatives were welcomed because they brought the ideals of self-government into the workplace. Capitalism was morally obnoxious, not because the working class was poor—Mill rightly thought that working people were getting steadily better off—but because the workers always took orders from others and never ran their own working lives. As for democracy, Mill feared it would become the tyranny of the majority, or the tyranny of the respectable middle classes, or more remotely the tyranny of the working class.

In Mill’s view, real self-government, as distinct from the government of each by all the rest, required more than “one person, one vote.” It demanded proportional representation and the devolution of decision-making to the smallest possible units. It also demanded an unusual degree of self-control on the part of the electorate. In a democracy there would be few barriers to the tyranny of the majority, so it was imperative to teach the citizenry where to draw the line between the matters which were properly decided by law and public opinion and those which were not. The mechanisms of an acceptable form of democracy were elaborated in Considerations on Representative Government and the demands of liberal self-restraint in the essay On Liberty.

In each of those works, Mill treated the question whether women should have the same political rights as men as something that posed no more difficulty than the question whether red-haired men should have the same rights as their blond fellows; but in The Subjection of Women, he harried the enemies of female emancipation without mercy. The argument was in essence simple: men did not wish to remain children forever; why, then, should women remain perpetually under the tutelage of fathers and husbands? Whether Nicholas Capaldi is right to ascribe as much influence on this question to Harriet Taylor as he does may be doubted; he surely underestimates Mill’s need to assert his own personality against that of his overbearing father. What cannot be doubted is the centrality of the ideal of autonomy in all of Mill’s social and political writings.

Mill was famously subjected to an extraordinary educational experiment. His father, James Mill, thought that most children were capable of learning far more than anyone bothered to teach them; consequently, Mill learned Greek at three, using a homemade version of the “flash cards” that are used today, with Greek and English on opposite faces; by seven he was reading the ancient historians; and by fourteen he was a good logician and a competent economist. He was made to achieve this without any suggestion that his abilities were in any way unusual—though later ages have reckoned his IQ at 192—and, indeed, in an atmosphere that suggested that anything less than instantaneous and perfect understanding was a sign of real deficiency.

How far all this was supposed to further the projects of the radical political reformers of the first three decades of the nineteenth century has never been clear. Capaldi gives a very sensible account of the matter, emphasizing the political motivation behind Mill’s education without exaggerating it. Whatever Mill was brought up to, it was not life as an active politician. To play a part in Parliament, a man needed a substantial private income or an aristocratic patron; James Mill was a Scot of humble origins, whose finances were very shaky until he secured a post in the East India Company. His son would be in no position to enter Parliament—and John Stuart Mill was, in fact, an MP for three years only, late in life and after he had himself retired from the East India Company. If the younger Mill was to do great things for radicalism, it would be by influencing opinion among the educated classes. This he very successfully did; the extent to which the books of his middle years—A System of Logic of 1843 and The Principles of Political Economy of 1848—became the staple diet of undergraduates in British universities is best estimated by the vigor with which his critics set out to destroy their influence in the second half of the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth.

But what was it that Mill was supposed to teach the educated public when he was of an age to do it? And what was radical about it? To these questions, too, Nicholas Capaldi returns sensible answers, though sometimes less nuanced than they might be. The essence is not complicated: the enemy was a corrupt aristocratic establishment that wasted the taxes of the people, appointed relatives to sinecures, mismanaged prisons, and ran a system of poor relief that was riddled with perverse incentives. They could do this in part because the system of parliamentary representation was itself riddled with corruption and provided no way in which the people could hold their rulers to account, and in part because Britain subscribed to the retrograde political ideology given memorable rhetorical expression by Edmund Burke. The past was idealized; unthinking habit was passed off as deep intuitive wisdom; and governments neither had, nor noticed the lack of, clear standards against which to assess their own efficacy. The unwritten—in the eyes of radicals nonexistent—English constitution was declared the summit of political perfection.

The remedies were equally familiar: above all, the reform of Parliament, so that the voices of the rational middle classes could prevail, and along with the reform of Parliament, the abolition of abuses in all the obvious matters—the purchase of commissions in the military, the misuse of charitable endowments, the absence of anything resembling intellectual life in the ancient universities. Ideologically speaking, radicalism inverted Burke: our ancestors were not wiser than we but more ignorant, laws were not laws unless they were codified, clear, and knowable by the meanest intelligence, and the veneration of old institutions must be replaced by an analysis of their defects. These were the ideas that the young Mill would have acquired from his father, as well as from Jeremy Bentham and Francis Place, and which he would have seen himself brought up to propagate. On all of this, Nicholas Capaldi is a deft commentator.

He misses, perhaps, one nuance that is worth restoring. In 1818, James Mill published his Essay on Government, a long article in the Encyclopedia Britannica, which then appeared as a short book. It argued that the only way to secure a coincidence of interests between those who govern and those who are governed by them is through democracy: the people at large will not vote against their own interests. This is a familiar view in American political thinking; at the time of the Revolution John Adams dismissed anxieties about the dangers of majority tyranny with the observation that the people will not willfully damage itself. No sooner had James Mill reached this conclusion than he rowed back: men under forty, he argued, can be represented by their elders; women can be represented by their fathers and husbands; while the worse off can be represented by the better off. An argument for universal suffrage seemed to have become an argument for giving the vote to middle-aged, middle-class men. The younger Mill never followed his father down that track; he and his friends always thought that women should vote on their own behalf, and somewhat more hesitantly argued for genuinely universal suffrage.

Critics have often complained that James Mill meant to give a monopoly of power to the industrial and mercantile middle classes. Nicholas Capaldi thinks that this is unfair: Mill did not in fact say that women, young men, and the less well off should be denied the vote, only that they could be denied the vote without the general welfare suffering. What Capaldi does not say is how far this was from a defense of the rising industrialists and their allies. James Mill was as fierce about the failings of the manufacturers and merchants of the new industrial cities as he was about the failings of monarchs and aristocrats. It was their unwillingness to shoulder their civic responsibility that had created the slums of northern England. The “middle ranks” on whom James Mill relied were not Karl Marx’s industrial bourgeoisie, but the professional middle class to which James Mill himself belonged.


The fascination of the younger Mill’s life and ideas lies in the fact that he did not go on smoothly to fulfill the role mapped out for him by his father. At the age of twenty, he had one of the most analyzed nervous collapses in intellectual history. Oddly, it was a breakdown that none of Mill’s close friends noticed at the time, and one whose chronology is impossible to reconstruct from Mill’s account in the Autobiography. Wisely, Nicholas Capaldi does not attempt to supply a chronology of his own. Following as always the tempo of Mill’s own account, he emphasizes Mill’s analysis of the problem: that he had been brought up without an adequate sense of the role of the emotions, that his powers of analysis had been developed at the expense of his powers of imagination, that he had not appreciated the importance of a historical understanding of society. These are the thoughts that Capaldi describes as Mill’s turning toward Romanticism.

In the course of a few years on either side of 1830, Mill refashioned himself. He was not content to abandon the views he had acquired from his father and his father’s friends; he set out to weave what was worth keeping into what was worth acquiring from other sources. He took for his motto Goethe’s slogan of “many-sidedness,” and exposed himself to all the influences from which his father had shielded him. Sometimes this took little effort on his part. He was, for instance, the target of the Saint-Simonian “missionaries,” whose aim was to spread Saint-Simon’s ideas about the nature of historical progress and his plans for a semisocialist utopia. Saint-Simon was a minor aristocrat who had taken part in the American Revolution, formed the first—abortive—scheme for a Panama Canal, and hit on the idea that organization was the key to modern society. By the time Mill encountered his followers, they had created a semireligious cult around his ideas. Mill would have been a catch, but he kept a friendly distance.

Saint-Simon was only one of several influences pressing in the same direction; Mill came to think that projects of political, social, and economic reform had to be put in a historical frame. His father’s friends and allies had written as though they were in possession of timeless truths about good government. This was simply wrong. What reformers should press for depended on the stage of social and intellectual evolution a particular society had reached; so—he thought—one might hope to reform the practice of Christianity among the English, who had not yet thrown off religious convictions, but it was hopeless to try among the French, who had already passed into a post-Christian condition.

When he read Coleridge’s The Constitution of Church and State, he found the perfect foil to Bentham. Coleridge’s enthusiasm for German Idealism left him unmoved; Coleridge’s economics were those of an “arrant driveller,” but Coleridge’s delineation of the way that a national political culture shaped the psyche of the citizenry was exactly what Bentham was incapable of providing. Mill’s rapturous reaction to Tocqueville’s Democracy in America is therefore not surprising; Bentham’s analytical coolness and Coleridge’s insights into the interplay of culture and personality had been brought together to create a masterpiece.

Mill thus imported a distinctively sociological approach to politics into English radicalism. The initial effect was confusing to say the least. Mill’s friends wrestled with his new passion for poetry and his new concern to reach out to conservative thinkers he would previously have ignored. Perhaps the most spectacular confusion was the one that Mill created in the mind of Thomas Carlyle. In 1830, Mill published a series of articles in The Examiner; their title was The Spirit of the Age, itself an indication of Mill’s new enthusiasms, since the idea of the Zeitgeist was distinctly German, at home in the work of Schelling and Hegel and their British admirers but alien to Mill’s teachers. The theme of Mill’s articles was the erosion of intellectual and spiritual authority in modern Britain; it was, in essence, a call for a new kind of aristocracy, an aristocracy of spiritual and intellectual excellence, not of birth. Carlyle read the articles—they were published anonymously—and exclaimed, “A new mystic!” He sought out their author in the expectation that this shy young man would become a disciple.

But Mill was no more willing to become Carlyle’s disciple than he was to become the disciple of Saint-Simon or, later, of Auguste Comte. As Carlyle became steadily less enamored of democracy and more enamored of thuggish heroes, he and Mill drifted apart; their final intellectual differences were neatly summed up in an 1849 debate over Negro emancipation in the British West Indies. Carlyle lamented the ending of slavery and the loss of the beneficent effect of a master’s discipline on blacks unwilling to accept the gospel of work. Mill replied rather tartly. Carlyle characteristically retitled his original lecture for inclusion in his collected works—it began as “On the Negro Question” and became “On the Nigger Question”—and thereafter referred to the reform movement in British politics as animated by “Nigger philanthropy.”

Even when he met Harriet Taylor and fell in love, Mill did not become her disciple. There was, for one thing, no doubt of his intellectual superiority. She acknowledged it very willingly. What she had was a very strong sense that Mill was called on to educate the British public. She was a severe critic of his work—except for the technical fields of logic and economics where she knew she could not help him—but her criticisms were always directed toward making his ideas bolder, clearer, and more strongly expressed. Mill’s own inclination, as any reader can see by looking at successive editions of A System of Logic, was to qualify—on innumerable occasions an earlier “is” becomes a later “may be.” Hers was the reverse, and as Capaldi says, it did Mill a lot of good.

What else she did for him, it is hard to guess. In spite of Mill’s injunction that we should read the Autobiography as the record of an education and nothing else, curiosity is hard to suppress. There is nothing to be gained by wondering whether Mill and Harriet really were Seelenfreunde and nothing else; but it is hard not to wonder just how Mill felt about the renunciation that was required of him. From his letters, it is clear that in the first year of their relationship, he would have counted the world well lost for love, and would have thrown up his job and headed for France with Harriet. Harriet was more conscious of the fact that she was the mother of three small children, and in love with a man who had a public role to fulfill—which he could hardly do from a position of disreputable, if romantic, poverty and obscurity. Capaldi does not try to torment the inadequate evidence for an answer, but he does point out that there is no evidence that Mill found it easy to sustain a chaste relationship. Ever since Alexander Bain’s 1882 life of Mill, the conventional view has followed Bain in supposing that Mill had a less urgent sex drive than the average. But as Capaldi points out, this is pure conjecture on Bain’s side; all we know is that they both insisted it had been a chaste relationship, and it is at least as likely that self-abnegation was initially painful as that they found it easier than most would have done.

At all events, their joint program worked. Mill spent his brief working days in the offices of the East India Company and devoted his intellectual and political energies to radical causes. Attempts to exercise a direct influence on parliamentary politics foundered for lack of a plausible parliamentary leader; but Mill’s intellectual influence grew steadily. That is not to say that his views were widely accepted; they were generally thought to be too bleak, too demanding, suited to austere intelligences like himself and not to lesser mortals. But if they did not command assent, they commanded respect. On Liberty became an instant classic; the echoes of Milton’s defense of free speech and free thought in Areopagitica two centuries earlier did it no harm, but Mill’s own vision of what a truly autonomous life might be like owed a great deal to Goethe and Humboldt—a distinctively modern ideal of personal development. American critics of Mill have often thought On Liberty was devoted to the doctrine of “do your own thing,” but Capaldi sees very clearly that it is much more nearly “find the very best you can do, then make it yours.” It is a strenuous ideal that Mill sets before us.

There are two large questions that a modern reader might ask about Mill’s legacy. The first will occur to anyone who knows that Mill was a utilitarian who believed that the ultimate test of right and wrong was “the greatest happiness principle.” What does happiness have to do with freedom? It is a matter of observation that people frequently sacrifice their happiness for the sake of freedom—children want to lead their own lives no matter how benign their parents’ governance; no independent country would sacrifice its freedom in order to be better managed by a former colonial power; even if it is true that our schooldays are the happiest days of our lives, none of us wishes to return to the tutelage of our former teachers. Mill knew all this—the examples come from The Subjection of Women. He claimed two things, both of them contestable, and both of them defensible.

Mill thought that it was generally true—on average, and in most cases—that people were straightforwardly happier if they were left to lead their own lives as they thought fit. Sane adults are better placed than anyone else to make choices about their own lives, and have more incentive than anyone else to choose wisely. So the presumption is in favor of Mill’s principle that we should interfere with other people’s liberty only in self-defense. But this is true only on the whole, and not as a matter of absolute principle. More interestingly and contentiously, Mill thought that once we started behaving as autonomous self-respecting individuals, we would find our happiness in the exercise of moral, intellectual, and political freedom. Sunk in sloth and ignorance, we would not understand the pleasures of freedom; wide-awake and liberated, we would find it intolerable to be anything less. In arguing thus, Mill stakes everything on the belief that man is, as he says, “a progressive being.”

The second large question is therefore whether Mill has lost his bet on human nature. Conservatives invariably think he has. Those who are more impressed by our capacity for violence and cruelty than by our capacity for toleration and cooperation emphasize the need for discipline and order, not freedom. Gertrude Himmelfarb is only the most incisive of Mill’s critics from this perspective. But conservatives are not the only critics who think Mill overestimated our capacity for self-government. Most communitarians are doubtful that we can run our own lives without the assistance of the wider community, and the nonliberal left is deeply communitarian. Skeptics such as John Gray simply insist that there is no single direction in which human progress can sensibly be said to lie, and that Mill’s Enlightenment attachment to freedom and strenuous forms of self-improvement is just one of many possible tastes, none of them more defensible than any other.

It is easy enough to see where these anxieties lead: Is Mill’s view of human nature and its potential part of the self-deceiving optimism that leads liberals to support adventures like the war in Iraq, to embark on social experiments like gay marriage, to argue for relaxed drug laws, and to embrace “child-centered” or student-centered education? There is no easy answer. Mill does not provide dogmas to swallow but ideas to think with: in foreign affairs, a sane course can be steered between the pursuit of national self-interest by any means possible and self-defeating crusades; a democratic electorate should be self-restrained, but it need not abjure self-defense; parents should be willing to set their children free, but must teach them the skills they need to exercise that freedom intelligently. This is not vacillation, but an invitation to Mill’s readers to think their own way through the inescapable dilemmas of adult existence. On Liberty invites us to engage in “experiments in living.” We do not yet know how the liberal experiment will turn out.

John Stuart Mill is a good and persuasive book. Among its virtues is a good eye for the telling quotation. Mill had a sharp pen when he was sufficiently irritated; it was he who described Conservatives as “being by the law of their existence the stupidest party,” and who retorted to critics of utilitarianism that any moral creed might be shown to work badly, “if we suppose universal idiocy to be conjoined with it.” And Capaldi duly records the wonderful moment when Mill was asked at an election rally whether he had described the lower classes as “habitual liars,” and gave the one-word answer, “yes.”

The only small complaint one might level at this account of Mill as a “public intellectual” is that it does not quite do justice to the sheer quirkiness of the private Mill. To take one small instance, it is hard to believe that the man who wrote to Harriet to say how puzzled he was that the fuel bill was higher in December than in June, could write so exuberantly from Sicily, describing himself stumbling through chest-deep mud in the pouring rain in order to visit newly excavated Greek temples—and then returning to country inns where the nightly sport was hunting fleas in the seams of his clothes. Still, readers who wish to see more of this Mill can turn to Mill’s letters for themselves; Capaldi’s book gives them every incentive to do so.

  1. 1

    John Stuart Mill (Routledge, 1989).

  2. 2

    Princeton University Press, 1999.

  3. 3

    Oxford University Press, 1991.

  4. 4

    The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill (Toronto University Press, 1963).

  5. 5

    University of Toronto Press, 1968.