The Passionate Hero, Then and Now

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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 …

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  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).