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Thursday, 26 May 2016

John Stuart Mill


John Stuart Mill was born on Rodney Street in the Pentonville area of London on May 20, 1806. He was the eldest son of James Mill, and Harriet Burrow. John Stuart was brought up at 40 Queen Anne's Gate, London.

His Scottish philosopher, historian and economist father was a lower middle class radical who worked for the India office. James Mill wrote a pioneering book History of India, which changed people's attitude towards the British colony and was the spark that led to reform.

His mother, Harriet Burrow, ran an establishment for lunatics.

John Stuart was educated by his father, with the advice and assistance of Jeremy Bentham and Francis Place. He was given an extremely rigorous upbringing, and was deliberately shielded from association with children his own age other than his siblings. His father, a follower of Bentham and an adherent of associationism, had as his explicit aim to create a genius intellect that would carry on the cause of utilitarianism and its implementation after he and Bentham had died.

John Stuart was a notably precocious child.  At the age of three, he was taught the Greek alphabet and long lists of Greek words with their English equivalents. By the age of eight, he had read Aesop's Fables, Xenophon's Anabasis,  the whole of Herodotus and other great Greek and Roman authors, By the age of ten he could read Plato and Demosthenes with ease. At about the age of twelve, John began a thorough study of the scholastic logic, at the same time reading Aristotle's logical treatises in the original language. In the following year he was introduced to political economy and studied Adam Smith and David Ricardo with his father--ultimately completing their classical economic view of factors of production.


At the age of eight Mill was appointed schoolmaster to the younger children of the family.

Between 1822 and 1858, Mill worked at East India Company following in his father's footsteps.

Mill was a Member of Parliament for City and Westminster, sitting for the Liberal Party between 1865 and 1868. During the election he had refused to canvass for votes or have anything to do with the local business of his constituency, but he was still elected for three years.

John Stuart Mill

Mill was one of the founders of the original Woman's suffrage society. As a Radical MP, he became in 1866 the first person in the history of Parliament to call for women to be given the right to vote, vigorously defending this position in subsequent debates.


A child prodigy who became a philosopher and economist, Mill reacted to the lack of normal childhood in his twenties and suffered accordingly. He asked himself the question, "suppose that all your objects in life were realized; that all the changes in institutions and opinions which you are looking forward to could be completely effected at this very instant: would this be a great joy and happiness to you." When he realized the answer was no, Mill sank into a deep depression for a year questioning life's purpose. He was rescued by Wordsworth's poetry.

Mill believed that the only way by which actions can be judged right or wrong is on their propensity to further personal or social happiness thus throwing out a basic ethical guide and tearing up much of the Christian message. He wrote, "It is conceivable that religion may be morally useful without being intellectually sustainable."

Nietzsche abhorred Mill's philosophy of the happiness for the greatest number describing him as a blockhead, ignoramus and cretin.

His libertarianism threatened the moral doctrine of Victorian England. Apart from some pioneering work on woman's suffrage, Mill and his humanistic followers achieved little compared to the Evangelicals in bringing social reform to 19th century England.

"A Feminine Philosopher". Caricature by Spy published in Vanity Fair in 1873.


Mill's Principles of Political Economy, first published in 1848 established his reputation as a leading public intellectual. One of the most widely read of all books on economics in the period, Mill's Principles dominated economics teaching for many decades. In the case of Oxford University it was the standard text until 1919, when it was replaced by Marshall's Principles of Economics.

John Stuart Mill, Principles of Political Economy with some of their Applications to Social Philosophy, London, 1848

Mill's book Utilitarianism argued that actions are right if they bring happiness and wrong if they bring sadness and despair.  The essay first appeared as a series of three articles published in Fraser's Magazine in 1861; the articles were collected and reprinted as a single book in 1863.

Mill's 1873 Autobiography of John Stuart Mill was arguably the leading autobiography of the 19th century.

Mill's maid burnt the manuscript of his friend, Thomas Carlyle's History of the French Revolution which had taken him five months to write. Mill had borrowed it to read it but the maid thought it was waste paper. It was the only copy of the manuscript.


James Mill once lived at 19 York Street, Marylebone, the same house as where John Milton lived during Cronwell's Commonwealth of England.. Later it belonged to Jeremy Bentham, and was occupied successively by James Mill and William Hazlitt, and finally demolished in 1877.

The back of No. 19, York Street (1848). 

In 1851 Mill married the charming, wise, dark eyed Mrs Harriet Taylor, They had originally met at a dinner party 20 years earlier when she was unhappily married to John Taylor, a wholesale druggist. Until the death of her husband Harriet and John Stuart had a deep friendship, but being sensitive to gossip they kept their relationship platonic. After a while (divorce being out of the question) she split her time between the two men seeing Mill during the weekends.

Though it was a marriage of intellects, the modest John Stuart regarded Harriet as his intellectual superior. She was a significant influence on Mills's work and ideas during both friendship and marriage. Their relationship inspired Mill's advocacy of women's rights.

Harriet Taylor Mill

After Taylor developed consumption they lived in the country and she died on November 3, 1858  at the Hotel de l’Europe in Avignon, France after seven years of happy marriage.

A few months after Harriet's death, John bought a small white house in Avignon. He installed the furniture from the hotel room in which she'd died.

Mill's stepdaughter, Helen, from Harriet's first marriage became John Stuart's constant companion She helped Mill continue his and Harriet’s reforming work.

John Stuart Mill and Helen Taylor. 

A few months before Mill died, he became godfather to the newly born Bertrand Russell in May 1872.


Much of the last five years of Mill’s life were much spent at his Avignon home, often with Harriet’s daughter Helen Taylor,

Mill suddenly died on May 8, 1873  at his Avignon home aged 66. The cause of death was erysipelas, a skin infection caught a few days earlier, which caused his face to swell.

Mill was buried with his beloved wife at the Cimetiere Saint-Veron, Avignon.

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