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.

A cartoon deriding Mill’s support for women’s rights by dressing him in women’s clothes, published in Judy, November 2, 1868

Indian commentators on Mill divide between those who see the emphasis on Indian self-government as an inspiration for Indian nationalism and those who cannot stomach Mill’s paternalist assumption that the Indians whose affairs he was managing were incapable of ruling themselves. His contemporaries were much more astonished at the suggestion that the task of an imperial power was to educate its subjects for independence than at the idea that these subjects were not yet ready for it. After the Indian Mutiny of 1857, which led to the British Crown assuming direct rule the following year, Mill was an intelligent and articulate defender of the system of indirect administration by which the British had ruled India through the agency of the East India Company, writing:

There is far more danger in India than in any Colony, of the ignorant or corrupt misuse of Ministerial power, because India is less understood than any Colony, because its people are less capable of making their voice heard, and because it is more difficult for Parliament to interfere in its administration with adequate knowledge, than in the affairs of any other Colony.

But of his own work he said only that it was interesting enough to be better than drudgery and allowed him a lot of time to think and write.

Mill’s working habits were wonderfully described by a colleague whom Reeves quotes here. Mill would arrive around ten in the morning, eat a boiled egg, and set to work; he stripped off his jacket, and more surprisingly, his trousers, and wrote at a high desk, “pacing back and forth like a hyena” to collect his thoughts and dashing down his ideas at a furious pace. His interests lay outside the office. He became a contributor to radical journals in his teens and the long journal article remained his natural and most persuasive medium. But at the age of twenty, he suffered one of the most famous nervous breakdowns in history; having embraced utilitarianism with a religious passion, he asked himself a fatal question: If all his plans for the happiness of others were realized, would he himself be happy? “An irrepressible self-consciousness distinctly answered, ‘No!’” Only after eighteen months of depression did he regain his poise.

His recovery involved a second conversion, this time to the belief that no one view of the world was likely to contain the whole truth about human existence; he read Wordsworth for emotional sustenance, and Coleridge to understand the ideas of thoughtful conservatives; he was pursued by the emissaries of the Saint-Simonian socialists and never lost his taste for their views on historical change. Although On Liberty defends uninhibited criticism as the route to progress, Mill never lost his hankering after the “organic” society that the Saint-Simonians saw at the end of the road. He now took as his motto Goethe’s own: “many-sidedness.” His radical friends thought he had become muddled; but Thomas Carlyle read a series of essays on “The Spirit of the Age” that Mill wrote in 1831, declared that he had discovered “A new Mystic!,” and hastened to make friends with the author.

As Goethe would have predicted, “It was in this confused, newly liberated state that Mill fell in love.” As Reeves goes on to say:

In many ways it was not a surprising match. Harriet Taylor was intelligent, pretty, vivacious, progressive, open-minded and poetic. But his admiration was shared by others—not least by her two children, and her husband.

To say that Mill was besotted with Harriet Taylor for the twenty-eight years between their first meeting and her death in 1858 entirely understates the case. Whatever one thinks of Harriet Taylor—and the hostile critics outnumber the friendly ones—it is impossible not to feel for Mill. His father’s determination that his astonishingly intelligent and well-educated offspring should not become conceited had succeeded all too well. He had been deprived of the company of other children, had been taught at an early age to despise his mother, and was all too prone to see himself as barely competent—and domestically he was. He was intellectually arrogant but otherwise wholly lacking in self-confidence.

Harriet supplied exactly what was missing; she had his father’s strength of will combined with the intelligence and education his mother had lacked, and—which must have been quite irresistible—she was besotted with him as he with her. Richard Reeves is admirably even-handed as between Harriet’s critics and her admirers. He concedes readily enough that nobody could have had the qualities Mill ascribed to her: a greater poet than Shelley, a clearer thinker than himself, and so on. The epitaph he composed for her grave at Avignon claimed that “her influence has been felt in many of the greatest improvements of the age,” and ended with the touching peroration, “Were there but a few hearts and intellects like hers the earth would already become the hoped-for heaven.” Since she had published only one essay, on female suffrage, and under Mill’s name, it is hard to know how she had done the good Mill ascribed to her. Setting that to one side, she was what Mill needed.

They both needed a good deal of determination to pursue their unorthodox relationship for the twenty years before the death of her husband John Taylor freed them to marry. During that time, Taylor behaved in a way that excites admiration: he was a Unitarian, a prosperous pharmacist, and a member of the radical circle around the Reverend William Johnson Fox. He saw that his wife had fallen out of love with him and in love with Mill; he did not complain. All he asked was that they did not make him ridiculous.

They did not, but Richard Reeves’s account of their behavior shows how much reason he had to fear they might. They went on holidays together—for good measure, they went to Paris, which had the same reputation then as later. They subsequently took Harriet’s daughter Helen as a chaperone, but nothing could palliate the fact that Harriet and Mill were constantly in each other’s company, alone and unobserved. Yet they insisted that this was a strong friendship built on common interests and not dependent on a sexual relationship. Reeves is too good-natured to echo the comments of contemporaries who thought they were behaving very strangely: they suffered all the opprobrium that an illicit sexual relationship would have attracted without getting any of its benefits.

There is a plausible defense of their behavior. They wished to make a point: that there could be complete intimacy in thought and feeling without a sexual relationship. To sacrifice themselves to prevailing notions of respectability would be a defeat for their cause; to be known to be engaged in an adulterous affair would destroy her reputation and his career. They may have been wrong about the inevitability of such consequences but they were not foolish to fear them.

After a miserable few years, they settled into a relationship that endured for twenty-eight years, until Harriet’s death at the age of fifty-one from the Victorian scourge of consumption. His emotional stability restored by his life with Harriet, Mill set out to remodel his contemporaries’ understanding of almost every subject outside the exact sciences. In 1843, A System of Logic defended the idea that there could be a science of the social world that went beyond economics on the one hand and the rules of thumb that served most politicians on the other. The first volume of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America persuaded him that his hopes for a new social and political science might soon be realized. Five years later, his Principles of Political Economy provided a masterly summary of the economic theory of the day, but went on to defend market socialism and workers’ cooperatives, and came close to advocating the nationalization of land. The Logic and the Political Economy did much to improve higher education; when Oxford and Cambridge were reformed in the 1850s, Mill’s work became the favored texts.

His position was never unchallenged. Mill was a ferocious critic of “intuitionism,” the view that the aim of science and other forms of inquiry is to reach an understanding of the world that we can see to be right and incontrovertible. It has some plausibility in geometry and mathematics, but Mill thought that people who believed in infallible intuitions in mathematics would rely on their intuitions in ethics and politics. That, he said, amounted to the sanctification of any opinion that had been held long enough and deeply enough. It was the great intellectual buttress of social, moral, political, and intellectual conservatism. Mill’s opponents retorted in kind.

In 1865 Mill published a six-hundred-page work that was widely read and highly controversial, and has ever since been wholly neglected. This was An Examination of Sir William Hamilton’s Philosophy. It is largely remembered for Mill’s insistence that if anyone wishes to argue that the world is ruled by a good God, that God must be good in a recognizably human sense. If a God who is not good in that sense can sentence us to Hell for not worshiping him, then, said Mill, “To Hell I will go.” That phrase unleashed the furies. Outraged clergymen, philosophers, and conservative journalists attacked not only the intemperateness of Mill’s prose, but what they well understood to be the agnosticism that underlay it.

Hamilton’s philosophy is impossible to describe briefly.4 But large numbers of pious thinkers thought that Mill’s empiricism brought agnosticism in its wake, while Hamilton left the door open for religious faith. Quite what Hamilton’s “philosophy of the conditioned” amounted to was obscure even to his admirers; its central plank, however, was the unexceptionable thought that human knowledge is circumscribed by the nature of our human faculties. But in emphasizing that, Hamilton certainly intended to suggest that where knowledge failed, faith could properly step in. So several generations of students were taught to admire Hamilton, and nowhere more than in the United States. His philosophy was imported by James McCosh, the president of Princeton and a determined enemy of Mill; and it permeated American liberal arts colleges until the early twentieth century. John Dewey was fed it at the University of Vermont in the 1870s, and revolted against it in the 1890s when he found his way to pragmatism. Like Mill, Dewey had decided that piety was bad for philosophy.

Richard Reeves rightly does not linger on the question of who had the better of the philosophical argument. What interests him is Mill’s career after he left the service of the East India Company when it was closed down in the wake of the Indian Mutiny of 1857. Mill seemed, if anything, even more liberated by the death of Harriet in 1858. Having announced that “the spring of my life is broken,” Mill proved remarkably resilient. His domestic needs and much of his correspondence were looked after by his stepdaughter Helen—who rather surprisingly became a friend of Eleanor Marx, with whom she shared the longing for a stage career.

Mill took up old friends whom he had not seen during his seven-year marriage, and threw himself into an active political career. The old radicalism bubbled back to the surface; by the early 1860s he was defending the insurrection of the Polish peasants against their Russian overlords, on the grounds that when the Russians abolished serfdom they had not redistributed land to the peasants, as the French revolutionaries had done. This had obvious resonances in Britain, where a major grievance of the Irish was that they suffered from absentee landlords who did nothing to improve their estates but extorted the highest possible rents nonetheless. Mill was squarely hostile to landlords: merely owning a piece of land did not entitle anyone to an income; income should reward effort and imagination, and only the work a landlord did in improving his property gave him any claim on what his tenants produced. The law went in the opposite direction: improvements made by a tenant belonged to the landlord. Unsurprisingly, Mill became chairman of the Land Tenure Reform Association.

In 1865, he was persuaded to stand for Parliament as MP for Westminster. Reeves tells—very well—all the extraordinary stories associated with his candidacy. He refused to do anything that a modern American might recognize as running for the position: he stayed in France during the campaign, refused to spend any money on the contest—others spent a good deal on his behalf—and insisted on addressing a tumultuous meeting of working-class constituents, who at that time were still without the vote; it was there that he was asked whether he had written that the working class were habitually liars. “Yes,” said Mill. The audience cheered, and one of their number stood up to announce that the workers needed friends, not flatterers.

Mill’s parliamentary career was brief—he lost his seat three years later in 1868—but full of incident. Initially, he was an unsuccessful speaker, with too weak a voice to be heard above the hullabaloo that traditionally passes for parliamentary debate in Britain; but Disraeli saw that his Tory supporters were discrediting themselves and thereafter Mill had an attentive audience. His greatest achievement was to secure more support than anyone else for giving the vote to women on the same terms as men, before it finally happened in 1918. Women’s efforts in World War I laid to rest the old superstition that only those prepared to pick up weapons in the service of the state were entitled to a say in its affairs, but during the debate on the Reform Act of 1867, whose primary purpose was a modest expansion of the (male) electorate, Mill secured seventy-three votes for an amendment to treat women in the same way as men.

Readers may wonder whether Mill really was a “Victorian Firebrand.” Surely someone who emphasized the need to hear all sides of a question, who was eager to institute a system of plural voting so that the votes of the educated would counteract the ill-thought-out enthusiasms of the ignorant, cannot have been a firebrand? Bagehot got it right in 1868 when criticizing Mill’s view on Ireland. Conservatism, stupidity, the casual acceptance of brutality and injustice “had on him the same effect that a red rag has on a bull,” and the dispassionate philosopher turned into a political revolutionary. Confronted by evil, he was willing to go to all lengths to suppress it.

The most memorable instance of this was the Governor Eyre case. Eyre was governor of Jamaica; in the fall of 1865 he declared martial law after some minor disturbances. The disturbances ended in a week, but he maintained martial law for two months. Reeves writes, “During this time his troops burnt a thousand houses, executed 439 Jamaicans and flogged at least 600 more. There were no casualties among the soldiers.” The most prominent victim of this murderous exercise was a local politician, George William Gordon, who was accused of high treason, summarily tried by court-martial, and hanged.

Mill set out to enhance his reputation as a “Nigger-lover,” already well established by his unflinching support for the Northern cause in the American Civil War. With the help of the Jamaica Committee, he set out to have Eyre tried for murder. Mill wanted Eyre hanged. Indeed, he was so intent on having him hanged that only with the utmost reluctance did he finally concede that there was no hope of success; by the time he did so almost all his allies had deserted the cause. But he was wholly unrepentant. Dickens, Ruskin, and Carlyle were naturally on the other side.

As a general proposition, Mill did not wish to see people hanged. He was, among other things, instrumental in saving several Fenian terrorists from the gallows. But he was very far from squeamish, and unhesitatingly defended the death penalty for extreme cases. It has to be said that his reasons were far from commonplace. Criminals, he thought, regard the death penalty as worse than life imprisonment, so it is a far more effective deterrent than the threat of imprisonment. But the criminals are wrong; it is—in Mill’s view—better to die swiftly than to languish in jail for the rest of your life, so the death penalty combines effectiveness as a deterrent with humanity as a punishment. The cool rationalism of that is some distance from his reaction to Governor Eyre.

Mill’s capacity for rhetorical savagery was well to the fore on a less well known occasion quoted by Richard Reeves. Mill was all his life enraged by how little attention was paid to domestic violence against women, even when it ended in a woman’s death. During the debate on extending the suffrage to women, he told his colleagues:

I should like to have a return laid annually before the House of the number of women who are annually beaten to death, kicked to death, or trampled to death by their male protectors: and in an opposite column, the amount of sentences passed….

He went on to propose that a third column should set out the offenses against property that had attracted the same sentences as these murders:

We should then have an arithmetical estimate of the value set by a male legislature and male tribunals on the murder of a woman, often by torture continued through years, which, if there is any shame in us, would make us hang our heads.

There will be some readers of Richard Reeves’s biography who will think that he should have spent longer on Mill’s philosophy or economics or—though this seems less likely—on Mill’s complicated views about parliamentary procedure and proportional representation. This would be a mistake. The extraordinary thing about Mill was the depth of his conviction that the reason for taking abstract issues seriously was that error has consequences: mistaken views kept women in subjection, turned workers into near slaves, and prevented the emergence of a truly free and progressive society. It is good to be reminded of the passion behind that formidable intellect, and Reeves does an excellent job of reminding us.

  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). 

  4. 4

    I do it at length in the “Introduction” to Volume IX of The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill (University of Toronto Press, 1979).