A British philosopher and civil servant, John Stuart Mill was an influential contributor to social theory, political theory, and political economy. He was considered as the most influential English speaking philosopher of the nineteenth century. His views are generally recognized among the deepest and effective defenses of empiricism and a liberal political view of society. He was an advocator of utilitarianism; a theory developed by Jeremy Bentham but had profound difference in the conception as compared to Bentham. His principle works includes texts in logic, epistemology, economics, social and political philosophy, ethics, metaphysics, religion, and current affairs. Some of his famous and known works are “A System of Logic”, “Principles of Political Economy”, “On Liberty”, “Utilitarianism”, “The Subjection of Women”, “Three Essays on Religion”, and his “Autobiography of John Stuart Mill”. He was also the Member of Parliament and the distinct figure in liberal political philosophy.
John Stuart Mill Childhood & Life
John Stuart Mill was born in Pentonville, London on May 20, 1806. His father, James Mill was a notable historian, philosopher and economist. His mother was Harriet Burrow. With the advice from the social reformers like Jeremy Bentham and Francis Place, his father gave young John an extremely strenuous upbringing. He was intentionally shielded from the association with other children of his age. His father, who was an ardent follower of Jeremy Bentham and the theory associationism, was trying to create an intellectual genius who would further carry out the cause of utilitarianism after him and Bentham. Mill was an exceptionally intelligent child. At the very small age of three, he was taught Greek and by the age of eight, he had read Aesop's Fables, Xenophon's Anabasis and the Herodotus. He also knew Lucian, Diogenes Laertius, Isocrates and six dialogues of Plato. He had been taught arithmetic and also read great deal of history. At the tender age of eight, Mill began learning Latin, Euclid, and algebra and could teach the younger children of the family. As he went to read all the known authors of Latin and Greek language, he, at the age of ten, could easily read the Plato and Demosthenes.
His father thought that it would be important for his son to study and compose poetry. Mill’s earliest composition was the continuation of Iliad. During his leisure time, he used to read popular novels like Don Quixote and Robinson Crusoe. At the age of twelve, Mill started a thorough study of the scholastic logic, simultaneously reading Aristotle's logical treatises in the original language. The next year, he was introduced to political economy. Mill, along with his father, studied Adam Smith and David Ricardo and completed their classical economic view of factors of production. His daily economic lessons helped his father in writing the Elements of Political Economy in 1821. When Mill was fourteen, he was sent to France for a yearly stay with the family of Sir Samuel Bentham, brother of Jeremy Bentham. Mill liked the beautiful mountain sceneries along with the lively nature of French people. He didn’t stop studying and attended the winter courses on chemistry, zoology and logic in Montpellier. He also stayed in Paris in the house of the renowned economist Jean-Baptiste Say who was a friend of Mill's father. During this stay in Paris, he met many leaders of Liberal party and notable people like Henri Saint-Simon.
The intensive and excessive studies however proved detrimental, for Mill soon started having injurious effects on his mental health. At 20, he suffered from a serious nervous breakdown. Nevertheless, soon his depression started fading with the reading of Mémoires of Jean-François Marmontel and the poetry of William Wordsworth. During the early 1820s, Mill came in contact with Auguste Comte, the founder of positivism and sociology. The two were engaged in pen-friendship. Comte’s positive philosophy helped Mill’s wide rejection of Benthianism. It, further, led to his refusal to take Anglican orders. Consequently, he refused to study at University of Oxford or the University of Cambridge. Instead, Mill went along with his father to work for East India Company. He worked for the company till 1858. He served as Lord Rector of the University of St. Andrews between the years 1865-1868. During the same time period, he was a Member of Parliament for City and Westminster. During his membership, he voted for the ease of burdens on Ireland. In 1866, Mill became the first person in Parliament to advocate women’s right to vote. Apart from being the strongest advocator of women’s rights, he was also the worked for social reforms like labor unions and farm cooperatives.
Mill’s “On Liberty” covers the nature and limits of power that can be legitimately imposed by society on individual. One of the significant achievements of Mill was developing the theory of harm principle. Harm principle states that each individual has the right to act according to his wants until his actions don’t harm others. He also debates that free discourse is a necessary condition for intellectual and social progress. According to Mill, people can be allowed to give false opinion in two cases. In the first case, individuals are more likely to leave erroneous beliefs if they are engaged in an open exchange of ideas. In second case, if other individuals are forced to re-examine and re-affirm their beliefs in the process of debate, these beliefs will be kept from declining into mere dogma.
Mill considered women issues important and thus, started writing in favor of better rights for women. Due to his efforts, he can be tagged as one of the earliest feminists. In his article “The Subjection of Women”, he wrote about the role of women in marriage and his views about the change required. Mill said that there are three factors in the life of women that were hindering them - society and gender construction, education, and marriage. His book “The Subjection of Women” was one of the earliest works on feminism by a male writer. In his view, oppression of women was a set of ancient prejudices that was seriously hindering the progress of humanity.
In his work “Utilitarianism”, Mill formulated his famous "greatest-happiness principle". According to the principle, one must always act so as to produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people, within reason. His main contribution towards utilitarianism is his argument for the qualitative separation of pleasures. His views differed from Bentham in the fact that Bentham believed all forms of happiness were equal, whereas Mill considered that intellectual and moral pleasures are superior to physical forms of pleasure. According to Mill, happiness was a higher value than contentment. He defined the difference between higher and lower forms of happiness with the principle that those who have experienced both tend to prefer one over the other.
After 21 years of intimate friendship, Mill married to Harriet Taylor in 1851. She had a great influence on Mill’s ideas and work. However, Harriet Taylor died due to severe lung congestion in 1858, after seven years of their marriage.
Mill died at Avignon in France in 1873. He was buried next to his wife.