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The Passionate Hero, Then and Now

Granger Collection
John Stuart Mill with his stepdaughter Helen Taylor, circa 1860

Richard Reeves’s biography of John Stuart Mill is, surprisingly, the first full-scale biography in more than fifty years. There have been many accounts of different aspects of Mill’s life and work since Michael St. Packe published his Life in 1952,1 but a life in the round is overdue, and Reeves has done the job admirably.

Fifty years ago, Mill’s historical reputation as an icon of Victorian liberalism was unchallenged, but his intellectual reputation was low. It was thought that his moral philosophy had been destroyed by G.E. Moore’s attack in Principia Ethica. His logic and philosophy of science had been relegated to the cabinet of historical curiosities. His astonishing education—he learned Greek at three, Latin at eight, logic and economics at twelve—was regarded as barely short of child abuse. The disciples of F.R. Leavis cited it in their war against the so-called “technologico-Benthamite” deformation of English culture, and the figure of Gradgrind in Charles Dickens’s Hard Times was taken to be, if not drawn from James Mill, at any rate a satire on him.

Today, things are very different. Richard Reeves never mentions Lea-vis or the war against “technologico-Benthamism.” Thomas Carlyle and Charles Dickens do not appear in their former roles as critics of the culture of the new industrial Britain, but as the racist defenders of slavery in Jamaica and the American South that they certainly were. The political climate has changed as dramatically as the cultural. Fifty years ago, Mill was attacked from the left in the name of socialist egalitarianism or proletarian insurrection; today, he is criticized by conservatives who fear the corrosive effect of uninhibited freedom of thought and expression, or by the politically correct who think respect for difference should trump the liberal defense of the open society. When Mill is attacked by radicals, it is by radical feminists who think that The Subjection of Women does not get to the heart of the oppression of women. Mill attacked the legal disabilities that handicapped Victorian women, within marriage and in the worlds of education and work; but he had nothing to say about the distinctively sexual forms of oppression that late twentieth-century feminists such as Andrea Dworkin wrote about.

His philosophy of science and his utilitarian ethics are now treated with vastly more respect than they once were. Anyone who wants to know why philosophers still grapple with the problems in the philosophy of logic, mathematics, and science that Mill laid out in his System of Logic in 1843 can do no better than turn to John Skorupski’s John Stuart Mill of 1989.2 Skorupski is equally illuminating on Mill’s moral and political philosophy, but here he is in distinguished company—Nicholas Capaldi and Anthony Appiah on the side of those who think Mill has much to teach us and Gertrude Himmelfarb among his most effective critics.3

Mill’s reputation has more surprisingly benefited from the sophisticated attacks on utilitarianism launched in John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice and throughout Ronald Dworkin’s work, from Taking Rights Seriously onward. Rawls and Dworkin take very seriously the plausibility of the utilitarian’s insistence that social, legal, and political arrangements should maximize the welfare of those they affect, even while they criticize utilitarianism’s failure to explain our intuitions about rights and justice. There is none of the contemptuous dismissal of Mill’s ideas that was common fifty years ago.

Bernard Williams’s attacks on utilitarianism perhaps go deeper. Williams claimed that a morality that rests on the thought that it is our duty to maximize the general welfare—“the greatest happiness” principle—can find no room for the thought that an individual’s own projects are rightly a matter of serious moral concern to the individual. The Mill of On Liberty was quite as committed as Williams to the thought that our own projects not only do but should matter to us, so Williams’s complaint was essentially that the Mill of On Liberty, whom he admired, had built his liberalism on the wrong foundations. Defenders of Mill continue to argue that utilitarianism and individualism are not so obviously at odds as Williams thought; the argument remains a staple of philosophical debate.

The analysis of Mill’s ideas has sometimes obscured the man behind them; much as James Mill appears in his son’s Autobiography as the author of The History of British India, his son often appears in commentators’ writings only as the author of a string of books and essays. We should not complain. When philosophers and political theorists write about their predecessors, they focus on their arguments; the tensions, ambitions, affections, political loyalties, and political antipathies that prompted them to produce those arguments are another subject.

Richard Reeves reverses the emphasis. The John Stuart Mill he gives us is the radical political figure whose career culminated not with the publication of A System of Logic in 1843 or the publication of The Principles of Political Economy in 1848, but with his term as a member of Parliament from 1865 to 1868 and in the polemical works of the dozen years that began with On Liberty in 1859 and ended with The Subjection of Women in 1869. This is the right way around; Mill was a propagandist, and almost everything he wrote was meant to strike a blow for progress as he conceived it. Richard Reeves is something of a propagandist too, and the book portrays Mill as a firebrand for our times as well as his own.


It is a cliché that a major obstacle to writing about Mill is Mill’s own Autobiography. It is engrossing, evasive, and, like most autobiographies, it sets out to prevent future critics from making inroads into the author’s account of himself. Mill starts with a forbidding opening: his first paragraph tells the reader that the purpose of the book is to provide an account of an unusual education—though one he thinks that more young people could be given—and, second, to acknowledge his debts to his father and his wife. Anyone who wants something different “has only himself to blame if he reads farther.” Mill then announces himself as having been born in London on May 20, 1806, “the eldest son of James Mill, author of the History of British India.” Seemingly, this did not require the intervention of a female parent.

Mill’s mother had in fact made an appearance in a first draft of the Autobiography, where Mill complained, as he did not in the more restrained final version, that he had suffered acutely from the lack of parental affection in his childhood. His father was an irascible, driven man, a hard-up journalist at the time of his first son’s birth; his mother was a mere drudge, ground down by rearing six children and by the bullying and contempt of her husband. Here, surely, was a theme for the author of The Subjection of Women. Not a bit of it. The published Autobiography does justice to James Mill’s many virtues: he never told the young Mill what to think, always encouraged him to argue back, treated him as a colleague and collaborator from the age of twelve, and so on. Mrs. Mill simply disappears from the story.

Richard Reeves is more interested in the finished product than in the inner agonies of childhood. He briskly marches the reader through the texts James Mill made his son read from early childhood on—the Greek and Latin authors, the logicians and economists—until he dispatches the fourteen-year-old John Stuart to France, where he spent a happy year with Jeremy Bentham’s brother, Samuel. This was the beginning of a love affair with France and the French. Mill remained unflinchingly loyal to the memory of the French Revolution and French radicalism; he was not an enthusiast for mindless bloodshed or insurrection for its own sake, but he had no doubt that the French Revolution had achieved great things at a very high price. His was almost the only English voice raised in defense of the 1848 revolution; his loathing for Napoleon III was unbridled, and at the end of his life his view of the Paris Commune, before the event at least, was almost identical to Marx’s. An insurrection while Prussian troops were on French soil would result in the slaughter of the insurgents. Unlike Marx, he thought enthusiasm for the idea of revolution had been unhelpful to French politics and would not be helpful in Britain. But much like Marx in later life, he thought that the crucial question to be asked about revolution was whether peaceful reform was impossible and whether a revolution could succeed, however necessary it might seem.

That, according to his friend and first biographer Alexander Bain, was the question he addressed to demonstrators in London on the eve of the passage of the Reform Bill of 1867 when they threatened to knock down the barriers preventing them from meeting in Hyde Park and to take on the troops stationed behind the barriers. On reflection, they thought their grievances did not require a pitched battle with the British army, and they were able to demonstrate peacefully. This degree of coolness was not usual even among liberals. On the other hand, Matthew Arnold wanted the demonstrators treated as the Romans had treated proletarian rioters: the rank and file were to be flogged and their leaders thrown from some modern equivalent of the Tarpeian Rock.

Richard Reeves’s hero, the radical Mill who thought proletarian revolution a discussable option for Britain, emerged slowly. Mill began as an acolyte of his father and Jeremy Bentham. It took some anguish to detach himself from them, and when he did so in his twenties, it was by becoming more socially, politically, and even intellectually conservative than they. This is a much-explored terrain, but Reeves takes us through Mill’s fraught and anxious youth with a light touch and not too much sentiment.

At the age of seventeen, in 1823, Mill went to work in the East India Company’s London headquarters, initially as a clerk in the office headed by his father. The “Examiner of India Correspondence,” as James Mill was called, was a much more important figure than the name suggests. He—like his son thirty years later—was the head of the administration of British India. His son was soon promoted to head the office that handled the political affairs of the “princely states” that were governed at one remove through their traditional rulers. One of the least explicable aspects of Mill’s life, and one that goes unilluminated here, was his apparent uninterest in the work.

Like his father, whose influence on the administration of India was very much greater than his, Mill never saw the country he was governing. He was emphatic that the government in London needed advisers who had long experience of the country, and that the role of a government far distant from India itself was to determine the broad lines of policy to be followed and to investigate whether they had been carried out. Mill was not a passionate imperialist. He told a House of Lords committee that the task of the East India Company was to train Indians to govern themselves, and then to leave.

  1. 1

    Michael St. Packe, The Life of John Stuart Mill (London: Secker and Warburg, 1952). 

  2. 2

    London: Routledge. 

  3. 3

    Nicholas Capaldi, John Stuart Mill: A Biography (Cambridge University Press, 2004); Anthony Appiah, The Ethics of Identity (Princeton University Press, 2005); Gertrude Himmelfarb, On Liberty and Liberalism: The Case of John Stuart Mill (Knopf, 1974). 

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