Becoming Human: The Modern Liberalism of John Stuart Mill
The child is thirteen. He has been subjected to the most rigorous and complete education which his genius father could invent and has already learned Latin and Greek, calculus, oratory, economic theory, syllogistic logic, and metaphysics together to a degree that most adults could only aspire singly after. Brought up in isolation from other children, with the greatest minds of the era as his regular associates, he was meant to demonstrate the transformative power of immersive education.
Usually, placing that amount of constant pressure on a child is a recipe for prodigy burnout on a Toddlers and Tiaras scale, but the young John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) took the stratospheric expectations in stride for two dense decades. The child who casually read Ricardo’s economic treatises, Quintilian’s philosophical works, and Hobbes’s tract on logic spent his days studying with his father and teaching his younger siblings, while in his leisure he consumed such light matter as Hooke’s volumes on Roman government or Watson’s history of Holland.
His father and teacher James Mill was, with Jeremy Bentham, the founder of a philosophical movement his son would dub Utilitarianism, a school of thought that sought a purely secular theory of morality which took its lead from the burgeoning sciences of psychology, political economics, and sociology.
Before he was yet twenty, the young Mill was a sought-after editor and commentator on matters political and economic, his home and debating societies a rallying point for a young and radical liberalism that was staggering to its feet again after the conclusion of the Napoleonic wars. For decades, the necessities of war and the lingering dread of the Terror’s long shadow had kept advanced opinion in England subdued. But with the coming of peace, political self-reflection was back on the menu. While part of society lost itself in nostalgic revelries or mystical and poetic musing, a more analytic minority reached back to the promise of the Enlightenment for inspiration in the midst of industrialization’s rising social unrest.
The facts were that most men could not vote, economic policy was determined by a protectionist oligarchy that set profit above suffering, women existed in a legal state only a step above slavery, and the mounting brutalities of colonialism were consistently ignored by a Parliament that turned a blind eye to the methods of England’s foreign administrators. England had beaten Napoleon and assembled an empire stretching the globe, but it still couldn’t universally educate its people or even guarantee them justice and sustenance.
Mill’s contribution to Western civilization consists not so much in bringing his massive erudition to bear on these issues, but rather in his habit of exhaustively investigating the leading arguments from all sides of an issue before venturing an opinion on it that synthesized the best of all traditions. In his career, he produced a radical liberalism that could be intellectually respected even by arch conservatives for the care with which it criticized its own capacity for sectarianism and populist tyranny. In 1826, he had a mental breakdown occasioned by the fear that, after a youth of pure analysis and learning, he had lost the basic ability to possess deep emotions. Working through that breakdown gave him an appreciation for the insights of certain Wordsworthian slices of Romanticism, and the realization that, if Utilitarianism were to flourish and evolve, it would have to combine continental insights with its British rigor.
As a writer for periodicals and organizer of intellectual events, Mill let England know with an eloquent insistence that its days of plenty came at a cost. The foundations of society were shifting, and what had stood for two millennia as Why Things Were Done could not be tolerated by a responsible intelligence one day longer. The people must be educated and permitted to have a vote on the course of their future—and that most definitely included the half of humanity with the misfortune of being born female. He warred against the influence of money in politics and brought to England the socialist insights of Auguste Comte moderated by his own awareness of the limits of the state.
Of course, there was the small matter of what to do with religion. Mill optimistically supposed that nineteenth-century England was in a religious transition phase that would soon be surmounted. Religion had had exclusive control of morality for a millennium and more, but that hegemony was on its way out. Nobody educated honestly believed that Christianity had any particular insight into the evolution of social morality, and it was only a matter of time, Mill believed, before a new, psychological approach to human law and behavior would usher in an age of universal personal liberty. “I am one of the very few examples,” Mill reveals in his memoirs, “of one who has, not thrown off religious belief, but never had it: I grew up in a negative state with regard to it. I looked upon the modern exactly as I did upon the ancient religion, as something which in no way concerned me.” He continues,
The world would be astonished if it knew how great a proportion of its brightest ornaments—of those most distinguished even in popular estimation for wisdom and virtue—are complete sceptics in religion; many of them refraining from avowal, less from personal considerations, than from a conscientious, though now in my opinion a most mistaken apprehension, lest by speaking out what would tend to weaken existing beliefs, and by consequence (as they suppose) existing restraints, they should do harm instead of good.
Sound familiar? Up until perhaps twenty years ago, this was the situation of the skeptical community, a mass of scientists, philosophers, and other gifted people who could not believe in religion as a source of either cosmological or moral truth, but who stayed silent for fear of disquieting the faithful. Mill had his suspicions that the growing sentimental and idealistic strains of European thought, cultivated in reaction to the austere intellectualism and bawdy practicality of the Enlightenment, would keep religion alive beyond its time, but I don’t think even he reckoned that it would take a hundred and thirty years to reach the state of frank and general openness about religion’s shortcomings that we are just beginning to enjoy now.
For him, a theory of man based on the ideas of Jeremy Bentham provided such an evident path out of the quandary, “How can we be good, without religion?” that, with a little bit of education, the moral necessity of religion would disappear as a societal fact. Act in a way that will help the greatest number, and don’t hurt others to help yourself. We are already psychologically hardwired to take pleasure in such a personal code, Mill points out (and subsequent research has shown him correct), and it is that wiring which gives our collected moral sense its imperative weight. Religion is a gaudy paint swabbed over our basic capacity for sympathy, a tacky and entirely secondary afterthought with delusions of primacy. Scrape it away, and you open up the opportunity for actual goodness, and remove the great moral evils that religion casually allows:
[My father] regarded religion with the feelings due not to a mere mental delusion, but to a great moral evil. He looked upon it as the greatest enemy of morality: first, by setting up factitious excellencies—belief in creeds, devotional feelings, and ceremonies, not connected with the good of human kind—and causing these to be accepted as substitutes for genuine virtues: but above all, by radically vitiating the standard of morals; making it consist in doing the will of a being, on whom it lavished indeed all the phrases of adulation, but whom in sober truth it depicts as eminently hateful….The time is drawing near when this dreadful conception of an object of worship will be no longer identified with Christianity; and when all persons, with any sense of moral good and evil, will look upon it with the same indignation with which my father regarded it.
In Utilitarianism, a term he coined to describe the Benthamite beliefs of he and his friends, Mill combined all he knew about modern psychology, economic theory, logic, and history to create modernity’s first exhaustive theory of a purely secular society based on democracy, open markets, full women’s equality, biologically derived morality, personal liberty, the diminution of money in politics, an economically and psychologically savvy justice system, and universal state-run education. It was a daring reimagining of society that sprung from Mill’s massive and manifold knowledge bases, which combined the practicality of a man experienced with bureaucracy (Mill worked for the East India Company for three decades) with the theoretical fearlessness of a man raised without the reigning societal prejudices. He was the unique man who could balance Burke and Comte, Carlyle and Marx, and synthesize from them a workable future for Europe.
All of which is decidedly very fine, but I think particular space needs to be carved out for Mill as an advocate of women’s rights during a time when women were either idealized to nothingness as part of the Victorian tradition or intellectually satirized in that of the Ancien Régime. Mill’s The Subjection of Women (1869) is one of humanity’s crucial texts, which brought the arguments of the nascent women’s rights movement forcefully into the mainstream. He co-wrote the work with his wife, Harriet Taylor, who had written about women’s suffrage in 1851, and together they brought to the British liberal establishment a shocking picture of female domesticity.
They traced the psychology of the male cult of self-worship as it wended its way through the institutions of Europe, and most particularly as it entrapped femininity in coils of inescapable obligation. Mill and Taylor compared the structure of European matrimony to that of the only recently defeated American slavery with a thoroughness that demanded attention. How could a society that reacted with such high dudgeon to the plight of America’s slaves yet continue to ignore the laws of England that made a wife the property of her husband, her own property forfeit, her body to be surrendered upon demand to lust or violence without recourse, her children not legally hers once they leave her body? Unlike all other forms of subservience, she is expected, at all times, to be available and worshipful, and every sinew of civilization has been bent to reinforce that mindset, education systematically denied her as well as occupation and influence. It was a sprawling, frightful tale of a whole gender rendered artificially docile in the service of men’s boundlessly inflated sense of metaphysical superiority, a sense fostered and furthered by organized religion at every step.
The great tragedy of Mill’s life was the death of Harriet Taylor, just seven years into their marriage. His memoirs reel with the impact of it, and the rest of his life following that event were a dedication to her memory. He worked with Taylor’s daughter from a previous marriage to found the National Society for Women’s Suffrage, and, in 1866, he presented to Parliament the first petition for women’s suffrage which, at 73 yea votes, showed a much greater amount of legislative support for the cause than anybody had suspected and inflated the sails of the movement. He died in 1873 and was buried next to his wife and intellectual partner in the soil of Avignon, France.
John Stuart Mill’s Autobiography is one of the great works of the genre. It was written in two parts, the first in 1857 covers Mill’s unique education, mental breakdown, and early activities as a utilitarian propagandist and is a fascinating account of a mechanical prodigy who slowly learns how to feel. The second half, written in 1869, was composed in the long shadow of Harriet’s death. It is given over to long sections of intense but not particularly specific praise of Harriet and her impact on his life. In the light of mourning, she comes across as the best of all possible humans, a faultless paragon who is consequently totally devoid of actual attributes or interest. Even so, it’s the best place to go to get Mill’s life and thought in one concentrated package. Nicholas Capaldi’s John Stuart Mill: A Biography (2004) is a good source to fill in the specifics that Mill leaves out about the second half of his life. It’s particularly useful as it focuses on the extent of Taylor’s influence and that of Romanticism generally on Mill’s development that early Mill biographies tended to overlook.