Who Was John Stuart Mill?

It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, is of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question.

- John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism, II

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Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the great nineteenth century political philosopher John Stuart Mill. He believed that, 'The true philosophy is the marriage of poetry and logic'. He was one of the first thinkers to argue that a social theory must engage with ideas of culture and the internal life. He used Wordsworth to inform his social theory, he was a proto feminist and his treatise On Liberty is one of the sacred texts of liberalism. J S Mill believed that action was the natural articulation of thought. He battled throughout his life for social reform and individual freedom and was hugely influential in the extension of the vote. Few modern discussions on race, birth control, the state and human rights have not been influenced by Mill's theories. How did Mill's utilitarian background shape his political ideas? Why did he think Romantic literature was significant to the rational structure of society? On what grounds did he argue for women's equality? And how did his notions of the individual become central to modern social theory?

Listen to the In Our Time episode on John Stuart Mill

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Mill believed in complete equality between the sexes, not just women’s colleges and, someday, female suffrage but absolute parity; he believed in equal process for all, the end of slavery, votes for the working classes, and the right to birth control (he was arrested at seventeen for helping poor people obtain contraception), and in the common intelligence of all the races of mankind. He led the fight for due process for detainees accused of terrorism; argued for teaching Arabic, in order not to alienate potential native radicals; and opposed adulterating Anglo-American liberalism with too much systematic French theory—all this along with an intelligent acceptance of the free market as an engine of prosperity and a desire to see its excesses and inequalities curbed.

Continue reading Adam Gopnik's article: Right Again: The Passions of John Stuart Mill

Further Reading

John Stuart Mill was born on 20 May 1806 in Pentonville, then a northern suburb of London, to Harriet Barrow and James Mill. James Mill, a Scotsman, had been educated at Edinburgh University—taught by, amongst others, Dugald Stewart—and had moved to London in 1802, where he was to become a friend and prominent ally of Jeremy Bentham and the Philosophical Radicals. John’s remarkable education, famously recounted in his Autobiography, was conducted with the intention of equipping him for leadership of the next generation of radicalism. For this, at least, it prepared him well. Starting with Greek at age three and Latin at age eight, Mill had absorbed most of the classical canon by age twelve—along with algebra, Euclid, and the major Scottish and English historians. In his early teenage years, he studied political economy, logic, and calculus, utilising his spare time to digest treatises on experimental science as an amusement. At age fifteen—upon returning from a year-long trip to France, a nation he would eventually call home—he started work on the major treatises of philosophy, psychology and government. All this was conducted under the strict daily supervision of his father—with young John holding primary responsibility for the education of his siblings.

The intensity of study and weight of expectation took its toll. Mill had internalised the radical and utilitarian creed during his education—a process capped off with a close reading of Bentham in Dumont’s French translation and editorial responsibility for Bentham’s Rationale of Judicial Evidence—and had begun to put it into practise as a youthful propagandist. But he quickly found that his education had not prepared him for life. Mill suffered, aged twenty, a “mental crisis”...

Continue reading the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on John Stuart Mill by Christopher Macleod

Related Topics

If you’re interested in John Stuart Mill, check out some of the following related topics for more resources:

 FeminismFreedom | Free Speech | Hedonism | The History of Philosophy | Utilitarianism

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