One of the most important thinkers and writers of the Victorian era, John Stuart Mill was also a political activist, involved in struggles for social reform throughout his life. Born in 1806 in London, Mill was the son of the prominent philosopher and historian James Mill. James Mill believed that the mind of a child is a blank slate that requires a strict regimen to be properly trained and educated. Accordingly, young John was isolated from boys his own age and kept under the austere eye of his father, who saw to it that his son was learning Greek by the age of three and had mastered Latin by the age of eight. Mill’s day was filled with intellectual work, and he was allowed only one hour of recreation, which consisted of a walk with his father—who used the opportunity to conduct oral exams. By the age of fourteen, he had read deeply in history, logic, mathematics, and economic theory. When he was fifteen, he began studying the radical English philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832), the founder of utilitarianism. Utilitarianism is the theory that laws and actions should be judged as good or bad based on their utility, meaning the results they produce. For a utilitarian, the best actions or laws are those that produce the greatest good for the most people, and the greatest good over the least amount of pain. The influence of utilitarianism launched Mill on a lifelong pursuit of social reform.
Mill visited France in 1820 and was thoroughly enchanted by the country and its culture, history, and literature. This enchantment would last his entire life. When he was seventeen, Mill’s father secured for him a position in the East India Company, where he worked until he retired in 1858.
Mill began publishing in 1822, and in 1823 he helped form the Utilitarian Society, which met at Jeremy Bentham’s house. He took regular part in the London Debating Society, and by this time had adopted the views of Thomas Malthus, who had argued that the human population would eventually outgrow its food supply, leading to a dire catastrophe. Consequently, in 1824, Mill was arrested for distributing birth control literature to the London poor. In 1826, he suffered a severe bout of depression, which he attributed to the emotionally restricted life he had led as a child. He recovered and began an active intellectual life, but with a changed outlook. He now made room for a human dimension in his thought that offset the starkness of utilitarianism, stressing an intellectual approach to life at the expense of emotions.
In 1830, at the age of twenty-four, Mill met the woman he would love for the rest of his life. This woman, Harriet Taylor, was already married to a wealthy London merchant. The two waited patiently until the death of Taylor’s husband in 1849, finally marrying two years later, in 1851. Harriet was Mill’s constant companion from the time they met, and she took an active interest in his writing. The couple’s years of happiness were brief, for Harriet died in 1858. Thereafter, Harriet’s daughter from her first marriage, Helen, was Mill’s companion. He remained a committed social reformer all his life, and in 1865 was elected to Parliament, where he actively campaigned for women’s rights and suffrage. He spent his last years in Avignon, France, with Helen, and died there in 1873. He was buried beside his wife.
Mill’s philosophy is based on an empiricist approach to the world. Mill sees experience as the only true foundation of knowledge, and thus his philosophy allows no place for traditional or received ideas of right and wrong. As an empiricist, Mill continually privileges observation and experiment over theorizing, and his thought tends to be inductive (drawing general conclusions from particular instances) rather than deductive (drawing conclusions by extrapolating from general principles).
Although Mill was influenced by utilitarianism, a theory that directs people to work for the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people, Mill nevertheless worked to protect the rights of individuals, particularly women. Mill’s interest in social reform stemmed from his belief that the majority often denies liberty to individuals, either through laws or through moral and social judgments.
The theme of individual liberty recurs throughout Mill’s writings. Mill believed that an individual may do anything he or she wishes, as long as that individual’s actions do not harm others. He maintained that governments have no right to meddle in an individual’s affairs, even when they enact laws that are designed for the good of the individual. In fact, the only viable reason for any government to exist in the first place is to protect the individual so that he or she experiences safety in peacetime, defense in times of war, and security from fraud and cheating.
Mill’s thoughts on individual liberty led him to discover the power of emotion in human life and thought. Through the tutelage of his father, his mind had been trained to think in a rigid and mechanical manner, leaving no room for emotion. Following his mental breakdown, Mill came to feel that his father’s stress on the contemplative life over the physical was wrong and that emotion allows us to connect in a real and valid way with nature and with our natural self. Moreover, emotions bind individuals in a unique bond, and Mill’s relationship with Mrs. Taylor provided him the opportunity to reflect on this idea. This transformation in Mill’s thinking led to his humanizing the inherent severity of utilitarianism, as practiced by his father and Jeremy Bentham, which sought only to lay bare the principles of pleasure and pain, as they became evident through the negative and positive associations of punishment and praise. Consequently, Mill was a strong activist of socialist views, women’s rights, political reforms, labor unions, and farm cooperatives.