John Stuart Mill (1806-1873)

One of the most important thinkers and writers of the 19th century, 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 Mill 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.

On Liberty Background

On Liberty can be partly understood as an attempt to broaden the meaning of utility and show that utilitarianism can provide a strong protection of rights. The essay also reflects Mill's passionate belief that individuality is something that should be protected and nurtured. As such, the essay illustrates his disgust at how he believed society squelches nonconformity. On Liberty is just one example of the social and political writings of Mill. Other works of his include, Considerations on Representative Government, On the Subjection of Women and The Principles of Political Economy.

The Victorian period of England during which On Liberty was written and the mores that held sway within it should also contribute to our understanding of the work, since Mill's essay is product of and response to them. This period was characterized by a particular set of social values (often called Victorian values) that emphasized hard work, thrift and "respectable" comportment and behavior. While there was some criticism of these values at the time, they enjoyed wide-spread appeal. The Victorian period was also characterized by a series of reform movements, such as the temperance movement. These movements often reflected a desire to promote Victorian values throughout society. Mill found these social institutions to be restrictive, however, and saw their all-consuming nature as a profound problem for mankind.

Popular pages: On Liberty