This page contains a list of the seven best books on or by John Stuart Mill. Finding good introductory philosophy books can be difficult for two reasons. First, searching google for recommendations usually doesn’t bring up anything useful. Second, phrases like “best books on Mill” are ambiguous. One person may be looking for a short, beginner friendly introduction, someone else may want a comprehensive academic overview, a third person may be looking for classic works by Mill. This list tries to account for this ambiguity by recommending different types of books on Mill. Here are the best books on or by Mill in no particular order:
On Liberty – John Stuart Mill
Publisher description: Discussed and debated from time immemorial, the concept of personal liberty went without codification until the 1859 publication of On Liberty. John Stuart Mill’s complete and resolute dedication to the cause of freedom inspired this treatise, an enduring work through which the concept remains well known and studied.
The British economist, philosopher, and ethical theorist’s argument does not focus on “the so-called Liberty of the Will…but Civil, or Social Liberty: the nature and limits of the power which can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual.” Mill asks and answers provocative questions relating to the boundaries of social authority and individual sovereignty. In powerful and persuasive prose, he declares that there is “one very simple principle” regarding the use of coercion in society — one may only coerce others either to defend oneself or to defend others from harm.
The new edition offers students of political science and philosophy, in an inexpensive volume, one of the most influential studies on the nature of individual liberty and its role in a democratic society.
Utilitarianism – John Stuart Mill
Publisher description: How do we decide what is “good” and what is “bad”? According to the ethical theory of Utilitarianism, to do good is to “always perform that act, of those available, that will bring the most happiness or the least unhappiness.” By far the most widely read introduction to this theory, John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism is one of the most important and controversial works of moral philosophy ever written.
In this major contribution to ethical history, Mill’s treatise defends the view that all human action should produce the greatest happiness overall, and that happiness itself is made up of “higher pleasures,” such as the cultural, intellectual, and spiritual, and “lower pleasures,” such as the physical. The relationship of utilitarian theory to other ethical systems, and powerful arguments in its favor — especially when concerning justice — are brilliantly discussed. How do we weigh options to maximize happiness for self and for those around us? From common-day dilemmas to large-scale social decisions, this exposition remains as relevant today as it was to intellectual and moral dilemmas of the nineteenth century.
The Subjection of Women – John Stuart Mill
Publisher description: The Subjection of Women is an essay by English philosopher, political economist and civil servant, John Stuart Mill published in 1869, with ideas he developed jointly with his wife Harriet Taylor Mill. Mill submitted the finished manuscript of their collaborative work On Liberty (1859) soon after her untimely death in late 1858, and then continued work on The Subjection of Women until its completion in 1861.
Autobiography – John Stuart Mill
Publisher description: One of the greatest prodigies of his era, John Stuart Mill (1806-73) was studying arithmetic and Greek by the age of three, as part of an astonishingly intense education at his father’s hand. Intellectually brilliant, fearless and profound, he became a leading Victorian liberal thinker, whose works – including On Liberty, Utilitarianism, The Subjection of Women and this Autobiography – are among the crowning achievements of the age. Here he describes the pressures placed on him by his childhood, the mental breakdown he suffered as a young man, his struggle to understand a world of feelings and emotions far removed from his father’s strict didacticism, and the later development of his own radical beliefs. A moving account of an extraordinary life, this great autobiography reveals a man of deep integrity, constantly searching for truth.
Why Read Mill Today? – John Skorupski
Publisher description: John Stuart Mill is one of the greatest thinkers of the nineteenth century. But does he have anything to teach us today? His deep concern for freedom of the individual is thought by some to be outdated and inadequate to the cultural and religious complexities of twenty first century life. In this succinct and shrewd book, John Skorupski argues that Mill is a profound and inspiring social and political thinker from whom we still have much to learn. He reflects on Mill’s central arguments in his most famous works, including “Utilitarianism” and “On Liberty”, and traces their implications for democratic politics. With the use of topical and controversial examples, including privacy, religious intolerance, and freedom of speech, he makes Mill’s concerns our own at a time when what liberalism means, and why it matters, is once again in dispute. He concludes that Mill’s place in the pantheon of ‘great thinkers’ rests not only on his specific political and social doctrines, but above all on his steadfastly generous and liberal vision of human beings, their relations to one another, and what makes life worth living.
John Stuart Mill: A Biography – Nicholas Capaldi
Publisher description: Nicholas Capaldi’s biography of John Stuart Mill traces the ways in which Mill’s many endeavors are related and explores the significance of his contributions to metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, social and political philosophy, the philosophy of religion, and the philosophy of education. Capaldi shows how Mill was groomed for his life by both his father James Mill and Jeremy Bentham, the two most prominent philosophical radicals of the early 19th century. Mill, however, revolted against this education and developed friendships with both Thomas Carlyle and Samuel Taylor Coleridge who introduced him to Romanticism and political conservatism. A special feature of this biography is the attention devoted to Mill’s relationship with Harriet Taylor. No one exerted a greater influence than the woman he was eventually to marry. Capaldi reveals just how deep her impact was on Mill’s thinking about the emancipation of women.
The Cambridge Companion to Mill – John Skorupski
Publisher description: John Stuart Mill was one of the greatest thinkers of the nineteenth century. His impact on modern culture and thought has been immense, and his continuing importance for contemporary philosophy and social thought is widely recognized. This companion furnishes the reader with a systematic and up-to-date account of the many facets of Mill’s thought and influence. New readers will find this the most convenient and accessible guide to Mill currently available. Advanced students and specialists will find a conspectus of recent developments in the interpretation of Mill.
This list was created by following a method that I’ve found to be useful when searching for introductory philosophy books. It involves:
- browsing required reading lists on university course syllabi
- searching for books using the Open Syllabus Project
- browsing the bibliographies of articles on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- searching for recommendations on philosophy forums
The following sources were used to build this list:
University Course Syllabi:
- Bibliography for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on John Stuart Mill
- Bibliography for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on John Stuart Mill
If you’d like to learn more about Mill, check out:
- this collection of beginner friendly resources on Mill
- this collection of quotes by Mill
- this short reading from Mill’s ‘On Liberty’
And if you’d like to get more philosophy in your life, follow us on Facebook or Twitter or enter your email below to get a quote/passage from a classic work of philosophy delivered to your inbox each day. They include key passages from Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics, Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil, and many more. Each passage is paired with a link to a beginner friendly article, video, or podcast, so you can easily learn more about that day’s idea. The goal is to make it easier for everyone to get a little bit more philosophy into their life.