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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.

  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.

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