*Mill, John Stuart
Mill, John Stuart
John Stuart Mill published many essays, some as articles in periodical journals, many collected and separately published, some as pamphlets, and others as monographs. His first publications were two letters in 1822. for an evening newspaper, the Traveller. His earliest writing was in an epistolary style, formal and argumentative, for a faceless audience of readers. However, his topics were not merely topical, since he sought to advance the liberal cause of free inquiry into any subject; he signed his earliest writings as “Wickliffe,” to associate himself with the continuing reformist spirit of John Wycliffe.
Mill sought to emulate the lucid, transparent style of classical 18th-century British authors, such as Jonathan Swift, Edward Gibbon, and the early Jeremy Bentham. His compositions were analytical, taking apart the elements of ideas suffering from loose and ill-defined usage, such as “Nature” (wr. 1854, pub. 1874). Mill’s intellectual heroes were authors of Greek history and philosophy, and it was from the model of classical Greek (which he began learning at the age of three) that he took his cue for precision of expression.
There has never been a want of readers for Mill’s writings, from his first audience to today. Whether his subject has been political reform or biography, logic or autobiography, he has had responsive and responsible readers. His most frequently chosen form of essay was the review article for periodicals, from the Westminster Review in 1823 to Fraser’s Magazine and the Fortnightly Review in the last decade of his life.
Mill collected some of these articles as Dissertations and Discussions (1859), to which he added later essays for new editions in 1867 and again in 1875.
As a polemicist and practicing politician, Mill was an advocate for moderation in tone, even while promoting radical ideas of utilitarianism and agnostic materialism. Indeed, his tone and style both aimed for balance, to assuage skeptical readers whose prejudices he often took apart. He had a passion for the Socratic dialogue, cast in the Aristotelian form of a dissertation. To establish an intellectual dialectic within which he could pursue a common truth through the many-sidedness of experience, he would often set one argument against another, much as in a debate. Thus did he compose his two significant essays on the influences of Jeremy Bentham (1838) and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1840), illustrating the complementary virtues of their seemingly different methods and philosophies: Bentham wanted to know the truth of things, Coleridge the meaning of them. These two great teachers brought together for Mill the logic of both induction and deduction. “They were the two great seminal minds of England in their age,” he wrote.
Having learned from his father and Jeremy Bentham the power of syllogistic reasoning and deductive logic, Mill had to discover from another the way to truth by experience and induction. An important resource for this purpose was Alexis de Tocqueville’s study Democracy in America, which Mill reviewed for the London and Westminster Review when it was translated into English in 1835 (vol. 1) and 1840 (vol. 2). As with other works which he admired, Mill quoted long passages from the volumes under review, and sought to present the case for the author’s argument in both positive and negative lights.
At a time when many English writers (such as Matthew Arnold) were pointing to America as a place of anarchy, Mill found in its political experiment a great laboratory for optimism. This was reinforced by the analysis Tocqueville made from his observations while living in America. Mill found in this work much of the evidence he sought for his belief that democracy required something more than an identifying of interests between the government and the governed, something more than “the greatest happiness for the greatest number,” as Bentham had taught. A vital democracy needed a means for representing the interests of minority groups as well as those of the majority.
Otherwise, America demonstrated through Tocqueville, individuals and minority groups would suffer from the tyranny of a majority exercising its authority as mere “public opinion.” Mediocrity would then reign in a democratic state. These are faults, not of democracy, as Tocqueville would have it; instead, Mill says, they are the consequences of a triumphant commercial spirit in the progress of “civilization.”
His major essay, by his own assessment, is the work On Liberty, which he wrote with the assistance of his wife, Harriet Taylor, and which he published in 1859, soon after her death. This was a long exposition of the value central to modern civilization, a value whose power was threatened by the very forces to which it gave birth. If democracy were indeed a result of majority rule, when sheer numbers would prevail, then democracy might annihilate the possibility for continuing intellectual progress. If truth were protean in experience and its meaning a function of its rich variety, then democracy might suffocate truth and choke life of its meaning. Following a great English tradition which includes John Locke’s Letters on Toleration (1689–92) and John Milton’s Areopagitica (1644), On Liberty analyzes and champions the idea of liberty as a condition for the meaning of life in every individual’s experience of it. From liberty of thought to liberty of expression, there is a logical progression toward liberty of action, when individuality proceeds to its fullest realization. There is, however, no liberty where there is no tolerance for the liberty of others; liberty endures only so long as it extends to all. Mill entertains the possibility of social values prevailing over individual ones, but concludes that “the worth of a State, in the long run, is the worth of the individuals composing it.”
The one individual about whom John Stuart Mill knew the most was himself; he composed an essay on his own mental development in the Autobiography, published posthumously by his stepdaughter in 1873. This work is a complex narrative which Mill wrote in three different stages of his life. The first draft he composed soon after his marriage in 1851, the second he revised over three years after his wife’s death in 1858, and the last version he completed in 1869. Among the several notable features of this work are Mill’s estimate of his father, his tribute to his wife, and his psychological selfanalysis. It is this last feature which has most consistently attracted reader interest, because it lies at the center of the book, as a crisis in the young man’s mental life.
Drawing upon his later reading of the English Romantic poets Wordsworth and Coleridge, as well as upon his friendship with and respect for Thomas Carlyle, Mill deftly dramatized the incidents of 1826, when he discovered an emptiness of spirit which he had to fill to become a whole human being. He realized that reasoning required feeling, that utility of means without an end to life would be meaningless. He found integrity in a balancing of individuality with circumstances, subjectivity with objectivity, analysis with synthesis.
While he was author of many other important essays, such as A System of Logic (1843), Principles of Political Economy (1848), and The Subjection of Women (1869), Mill remains best known for his essay On Liberty and his Autobiography. In all his writings, he labored for clarity of expression and never sought a rhetorical style of ornamentation or selfconscious display. Nevertheless, some distinctive characteristics of metaphor and imagery communicate forcefully, with aesthetic pleasure, the ideas carried by his style. For example, Coleridge and Bentham created movements of influence which were “two concentric circles which the shock given by them is spreading over the ocean of mind.” Liberty of individuality lost to State interests would produce “a State which dwarfs its men” until it finds “that with small men no great thing can really be accomplished.” Reading the works of 18th– century master writers, Mill “lost the jejuneness of my early compositions; the bones and cartilages began to clothe themselves with flesh, and the style became, at times, lively and almost light.”
Born 20 May 1806 in London. Studied privately with his father; studied law, 1822–23.
Lived in southern France with the family of Jeremy Bentham’s brother Samuel, 1820–21.
Worked for the East India Company, London, 1823–58. Founding member, the Unitarian Society, 1823–26. Contributor to various journals, including the London and Westminster Review, the Edinburgh Review, and the Monthly Repository. Experienced a mental crisis, 1826. Met Harriet Hardy Taylor, 1831, carried on a platonic relationship with her until her husband’s death (1849), and married, 1851 (she died, 1858). Lived in Avignon, France for part of each year, after 1858. Liberal Member of Parliament for Westminster, 1865–68. Rector, University of St. Andrews, Fife, 1866. Died in Avignon, 7 May 1873.
Essays and Related Prose
A System of Logic, Ratiocinative and Inductive, 2 vols., 1843
Essays on Some Unsettled Questions of Political Economy, 1844
Principles of Political Economy, with Some of Their Applications to Social Philosophy, 2 vols., 1848; edited by W.J.Ashley, 1909, and Jonathan Riley, 1994
Thoughts on Parliamentary Reform, 1859; revised, enlarged edition, 1859
On Liberty, 1859; edited by R.R.McCallum, 1946, Gertrude Himmelfarb, 1981, Stefan Collini, with The Subjection of Women and Chapters on Socialism, 1989, and John Gray and G.W. Smith, 1991
Dissertations and Discussions, Political, Philosophical, and Historical, 4 vols., 1859–75
Considerations on Representative Government, 1861; in Three Essays, 1912.
England and Ireland (pamphlet), 1868
The Subfection of Women, 1869; edited by Stanton Coit, 1906, Mary Warnock, with A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft, 1986, Susan Moller Okin, 1988, and Stefan Collini, with On Liberty and Chapters on Socialism, 1989
Chapters and Speeches on the Irish Land Question, 1870
Nature, The Unity of Religion, and Theism: Three Essays on Religion, 1874
Socialism, 1879; as Chapters on Socialism, edited by Stefan Collini, with On Liberty and The Subjection of Women, 1989, and Jonathan Riley, 1994
Early Essays, edited by J.W.M.Gibbs, 1897
Mill on Bentham and Coleridge, edited by F.R.Leavis, 1950
Prefaces to Liberty: Selected Writings, edited by Bernard Wishy, 1959
Essays on Politics and Culture, edited by Gertrude Himmelfarb, 1963
Essays on Literature and Society, edited by J.B.Schneewind, 1965
Literary Essays, edited by Edward Alexander, 1967
Essays on Sex Equality, with Harriet Taylor Mill, edited by Alice S. Rossi, 1970
Essays on Poetry, edited by F.Parvin Sharpless, 1976
On Politics and Society, edited by Geraint L.Williams, 1976
Utilitarianism and Other Essays, edited by Alan Ryan, 1987
On Liberty and Other Essays, edited by John Gray, 1991
Other writings: works on philosophy, politics, and sociology, and correspondence.
Collected works edition: Collected Works, edited by F.E.L. Priestley, F.E.Minecka, John M.Robson, and others, 33 vols., 1963–93.
Laine, Michael, Bibliography of Works on John Stuart Mill, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1982
MacMinn, Ney, and others, Bibliography of the Publisbed Writings of John Stuart Mill, Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University, 1945
Briggs, Asa, Victorian People: A Reassessment of Persons and Themes, 1851–67, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, revised edition, 1970
Donagan, Alan, “Victorian Philosophical Prose: J.S.Mill and F.H. Bradley,” in The Art of Victorian Prose, edited by George Levine and William A.Madden, New York: Oxford University Press, 1968
Halévy, Élie, The Growth of Philosophic Radicalism, London: Faber, 1928; Boston: Beacon Press, 1955
Himmelfarb, Gertrude, On Liberty and Liberalism: The Case of John Stuart Mill, New York: Knopf, 1974
Himmelfarb, Gertrude, The De-Moralization of Society: From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values, New York: Knopf, 1995
Levi, William Albert, “The Value of Freedom: Mill’s Liberty (1859–1959),” Ethics 70 (1959):37–46
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