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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.