John Stuart Mill
An Author Profile
By Gabriel Blanchard
Despite coming late in its history, Mill may have been the single most potent shaper of classical Liberal political theory.
❧ Full name: John Stuart Mill [jŏn stû-ärt mĭł; see our pronunciation guide for details]
❧ Dates: 1806–1873
❧ Areas active: principally London, but also parts of France (mainly near Paris) and Scotland (mainly St. Andrew’s University)
❧ Original language of writing: Modern English
❧ Exemplary or important works: On Liberty; The Subjection of Women; Utilitarianism
Classical Liberalism is probably best summarized as a political theory that seeks to limit state power as far as possible in favor of individual autonomy—that is, if we prefer summaries along these lines to those put in crude and superstitious language, as “that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights … that to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed”. The main phase of the development of classical Liberalism took place in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and is associated with names like John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Charles Montesquieu. However, a second phase took place, largely following the revolutions that occurred in France and throughout the New World between about 1775 and 1820; this second phase (which later gave rise to the modern Left) was concerned to apply the principles of the first a bit more consistently than its adherents had troubled to. Exemplary figures with ties to this second phase included the poet and mystic William Blake, the fiery pamphleteer Mary Wollstonecraft, and the subject of today’s profile, John Stuart Mill.
Even proponents of classical education might find the training Mill was put through a little severe: his father started him on Greek at the ripe old age of three, and by age eight he had already polished off Herodotus’s Histories and Xenophon’s Anabasis, and made a good start on the dialogues of Plato. Mill’s father was advised and at times assisted in educating him by Jeremy Bentham (an erstwhile member of our Author Bank), from whom he likely got the rudiments of his ethical theory, later formulated as utilitarianism—of which more in a moment. He was also raised as, and throughout his life remained, a skeptical agnostic with respect to religion, which was still fairly unusual in the nineteenth century (though this perhaps makes it fitting as well as ridiculous that he was godfather to Bertrand Russell!). He followed his father into the East India Company, working as an administrator during the period of Company rule* there. From 1865 to 1868, he served as Lord Rector for the University of St. Andrews in Scotland; in the same period, he also sat for the Liberal party in the House of Commons, where he argued eloquently in favor of alleviating the burdens the British crown had placed upon Ireland, and also of extending suffrage to women—the first person in the House’s history to do so.
Mill’s influence upon the history of ideas comes above all from his formulation of utilitarianism. Now, this theory has drawn a great deal of criticism from scholars of ethics, and some of this criticism is certainly deserved (no one who has read or heard it could ever forget Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones That Walk Away From Omelas”). But the critiques sometimes drown out the thing criticized, and—both for the merits it does possess, and simply in light of its influence—that thing should be fairly set forth on its own terms.
Like Aristotle, Mill began from the principle that the goal of human activity is happiness, and that this is the goal of ethics as much as anything else; less like Aristotle and more like Epicurus, he defined happiness in terms of pleasure. The utility for which utilitarianism is named is usefulness in producing happiness, and thus far, Mill was reproducing the ethical theory of Bentham; however, he parted from his predecessor in two significant ways. One was to discard Bentham’s egoism.† Inspired in part by the poetry of William Wordsworth, Mill considered empathy and compassion natural elements of human nature; he therefore gave utilitarianism a stronger pro-social interpretation that worked to balance its emphasis on autonomy. The right course of action, in his view, was defined not merely by whatever would bring oneself the greatest happiness, but by whatever would promote the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people (oneself included).
The other was to divide pleasures into two types: the “sensational” type—those afforded by food, sleep, sex, etc.—which he classified as lower; and the higher type, comprising intellectual, spiritual, and æsthetic pleasures. Mill regarded this latter type as so far superior to the former that even complete contentment, if brought about through the lower pleasures, was inferior to discontent caused by a grasp of the higher pleasures; the expression better Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied is a paraphrase of something Mill himself wrote. While by no means perfect, if “operated” according to the principles Mill set down for it, utilitarianism does furnish us with a great deal of cause for preferring principle to immediate advantage, setting a quixotic example, and even practicing self-sacrifice.
The more direct impact of Mill’s thought upon democratic societies was a little simpler, and consisted mainly in the enunciation of the harm principle, a concise statement of how the Liberal principle of autonomy can be reconciled with having any sort of government at all. He did not invent the concept, but he expressed it with unusual clarity in On Liberty: “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” In some societies, this has been treated (at least some of the time) as the actual basis of all law; Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously described the limitations placed on free speech by US law as being defined by “whether the words used are used in such circumstances, and are of such a nature, as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that the United States Congress has a right to prevent.”
*Company rule in India was the first phase of British colonial rule there. The East India Company operated from 1600 to 1874; it possessed private armies larger than Britain’s own, and dominated British—and worldwide—trade in dozens of goods, such as silk, cotton, indigo dye, spices, saltpeter (an ingredient in gunpowder), tea, and opium. Between 1757 and 1773, the EIC assumed increasing control over India to secure economic advantages, sometimes by direct conquest but more commonly through puppet rulers. Following a rebellion prompted largely by incompetence on the part of EIC agents, in 1858, Company rule was abolished and control of its territories transferred to the crown, beginning the period of the British Raj (which lasted until 1947).
†Egoism (in this context) means the belief that human beings are always motivated by self-interest (albeit not necessarily competitive or hostile self-interest), even in acts of apparent altruism.
Gabriel Blanchard serves as CLT’s editor at large. He lives in Baltimore, MD.
If you’d like to see more on the ideas and history of Western thought, check out our profiles of Seneca the Younger, Procopius, Margaret Cavendish, or Robert Boyle, or take a look at essays from top CLT students, on topics like which papal line in the Western Schism was valid and the operation of the American prison system. Thank you for reading the Journal.
Published on 28th August, 2023. Page image of an anonymous 1858 line drawing of Big Ben, which is in fact the name of the principle bell of the famous clocktower of the British Parliament building, not of the clocktower itself (a common error on this side of the Atlantic).