John Stuart Mill - Biography

Biography

John Stuart Mill was born on Rodney Street in the Pentonville area of London, the eldest son of the Scottish philosopher, historian and economist James Mill, and Harriet Burrow. John Stuart was educated by his father, with the advice and assistance of Jeremy Bentham and Francis Place. He was given an extremely rigorous upbringing, and was deliberately shielded from association with children his own age other than his siblings. His father, a follower of Bentham and an adherent of associationism, had as his explicit aim to create a genius intellect that would carry on the cause of utilitarianism and its implementation after he and Bentham had died.

Mill was a notably precocious child. He describes his education in his autobiography. At the age of three he was taught Greek. By the age of eight he had read Aesop's Fables, Xenophon's Anabasis, and the whole of Herodotus, and was acquainted with Lucian, Diogenes Laërtius, Isocrates and six dialogues of Plato. He had also read a great deal of history in English and had been taught arithmetic.

At the age of eight he began studying Latin, the works of Euclid, and algebra, and was appointed schoolmaster to the younger children of the family. His main reading was still history, but he went through all the commonly taught Latin and Greek authors and by the age of ten could read Plato and Demosthenes with ease. His father also thought that it was important for Mill to study and compose poetry. One of Mill's earliest poetry compositions was a continuation of the Iliad. In his spare time, he also enjoyed reading about natural sciences and popular novels, such as Don Quixote and Robinson Crusoe.

His father's work, The History of British India was published in 1818; immediately thereafter, about the age of twelve, Mill began a thorough study of the scholastic logic, at the same time reading Aristotle's logical treatises in the original language. In the following year he was introduced to political economy and studied Adam Smith and David Ricardo with his father, ultimately completing their classical economic view of factors of production. Mill's comptes rendus of his daily economy lessons helped his father in writing Elements of Political Economy in 1821, a textbook to promote the ideas of Ricardian economics; however, the book lacked popular support. Ricardo, who was a close friend of his father, used to invite the young Mill to his house for a walk in order to talk about political economy.

At age fourteen, Mill stayed a year in France with the family of Sir Samuel Bentham, brother of Jeremy Bentham. The mountain scenery he saw led to a lifelong taste for mountain landscapes. The lively and friendly way of life of the French also left a deep impression on him. In Montpellier, he attended the winter courses on chemistry, zoology, logic of the Faculté des Sciences, as well as taking a course of the higher mathematics. While coming and going from France, he stayed in Paris for a few days in the house of the renowned economist Jean-Baptiste Say, a friend of Mill's father. There he met many leaders of the Liberal party, as well as other notable Parisians, including Henri Saint-Simon.

This intensive study however had injurious effects on Mill's mental health, and state of mind. At the age of twenty he suffered a nervous breakdown. In chapter V of his Autobiography, he claims that this was caused by the great physical and mental arduousness of his studies which had suppressed any feelings he might have developed normally in childhood. Nevertheless, this depression eventually began to dissipate, as he began to find solace in the Mémoires of Jean-François Marmontel and the poetry of William Wordsworth.

Mill had been engaged in a pen-friendship with Auguste Comte, the founder of positivism and sociology, since the two were both young men in the early 1820s. Comte's sociologie was more an early philosophy of science than we perhaps know it today, and the positive philosophy aided in Mill's broad rejection of Benthamism.

Mill refused to study at the University of Oxford or the University of Cambridge, because he refused to take Anglican orders. Instead he followed his father to work for the East India Company until 1858, and attended University College, London (UCL) to hear the lectures of John Austin, the first Professor of Jurisprudence. He was elected a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1856.

In 1851, Mill married Harriet Taylor after 21 years of an intimate friendship. Taylor was married when they met, and their relationship was close but generally believed to be chaste during the years before her first husband died. Brilliant in her own right, Taylor was a significant influence on Mill's work and ideas during both friendship and marriage. His relationship with Harriet Taylor reinforced Mill's advocacy of women's rights. He cites her influence in his final revision of On Liberty, which was published shortly after her death. Taylor died in 1858 after developing severe lung congestion, after only seven years of marriage to Mill.

Between the years 1865–1868 Mill served as Lord Rector of the University of St. Andrews. During the same period, 1865-8, he was a Member of Parliament for City and Westminster, and was often associated with the Liberal Party. During his time as an MP, Mill advocated easing the burdens on Ireland. In 1866, Mill became the first person in the history of Parliament to call for women to be given the right to vote, vigorously defending this position in subsequent debate. Mill became a strong advocate of such social reforms as labour unions and farm cooperatives. In Considerations on Representative Government, Mill called for various reforms of Parliament and voting, especially proportional representation, the Single Transferable Vote, and the extension of suffrage.

He was godfather to the philosopher Bertrand Russell.

Mill died in 1873 of erysipelas in Avignon, France, where he was buried alongside his wife.

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