Written by: Martha Stutchbury
John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) is a man whose lasting influence on the Western liberal tradition cannot be overstated. He is recognised for attempting to reconcile utilitarianism – the political philosophy which notoriously prioritises ‘majority rule’ over the individual, with self-governance and individual rights. He is perhaps most famous within academic circles for articulating the ‘harm principle’, an argument for near-absolute freedom of thought and expression. Despite these enshrined successes, it is often accepted that Mill’s greatest failing as a political thinker was his inability to convincingly reconcile his adoration for the British Empire – for which he worked for over three decades within the East India Company – with his disdain for government intervention and paternalism. However, this article focuses predominantly on the abnormal childhood of the political philosopher, whose rigorous homeschooling programme was meticulously constructed by his father, James Mill, with additional supervision from the father of utilitarianism – Jeremy Bentham himself – to academically ‘stretch’ Master Mill from an extraordinarily young age.
In his autobiography, (published in the year of Mill’s death), Mill claims that he is publicising the details of his childhood for the purposes of studying educational theory – the development and discussion of which he advocated for throughout his career. He details the chronology of his homeschooling, which we now understand to have taken place for 8-10 hours a day, from the approximate age of three, with consistent reverence for his father’s teaching methods. Mill, in elderly life, remains grateful to his father for his personal investment in his academic and psychological development. He also describes his father’s History of India as: ‘one of the most instructive histories ever written, and one of the books from which most benefit may be derived by a mind in the course of making up its opinions’. The publication – and its attitude towards the maintenance of colonialism – was likely influential in Mill’s entry into the East India Company at the age of 17.
Mill’s curriculum was somewhat ‘co-authored’ by Godfather Jeremy Bentham, the man who had famously declared that human rights were ‘nonsense on stilts’, and later – in the month leading up to his death, commissioned the public preservation of his body in the lobby of University College London. It was essential to Bentham that his remains could be ‘utilised’ as a source of educational inspiration for the University’s students. This, he argued, was more beneficial to society, considering his societal and academic significance, than burial or cremation. It was important to the two men that Mill be raised both as academically extraordinary, and principled in utilitarianism.
By the age of three, young Mill was proficient in Greek. The precocious child would accompany his father on daily walks in the ‘green lanes towards Hornsey’ near their London home, where he would relate the notes he had taken from his previous day’s reading to his father. At the age of 8, he was fluent in Latin, to the degree that he was made responsible for the tutelage of his younger siblings. This was an activity and responsibility which Mill expressed contempt for, largely on the grounds of such lessons being academically ‘inefficient’.
At the age of 12, having been inspired by Homer, Mill composed ‘one book of a continuation of the Iliad’ at his father’s instruction. His father’s justification for such an ambitious venture into poetry was interestingly ‘artificial’, with James Mill arguing that ‘people in general attached more value to verse than it deserved, and the power of writing it, was, on this account, worth acquiring’. Mill’s training in syllogistic logic and mathematics also began in his pre-teens, a discipline which he believes to have been instrumental in the construction of his philosophical and political principles.
Despite Mill’s tone of interest and approval when relating the thoroughness and proficiency of his home-schooling, the reader of Autobiography is left to wonder whether the child’s intensely strenuous curriculum, his deliberate isolation from other children, and the strength of discipline he endured from such a young age, contributed to Mill’s self-professed mental collapse at the age of 21.
Mill’s many publications remain the subject of both admiration and contention in the modern world, particularly On Liberty, the discussion of freedom and authority published in 1859, which is believed by some scholars to have been at least partially co-written by Mill’s wife, Harriet Taylor. Mill remained dedicated to his spouse even after her death in the same year as the text’s publication. He is believed to have annually ventured to Paris for six months after her passing, to remain closer to the grave of his partner. Mill’s reverence for his wife – a proficient author in her own right – would later inspire On the Subjection of Women, a seminal text in the campaign for female suffrage and rights recognition, published in 1869. The strength of the pair’s relationship is one in a myriad of fascinating elements that make up the personal life of John Stuart Mill, whose resonance in Western political culture shows little sign of diminishing, 145 years after his death in 1873.
Image: George Frederic Watts’ portrait of John Stuart Mill, 1873.
Mill, J., & Stillinger, J. (1961). The early draft of John Stuart Mill’s autobiography. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Bell, D. (2010). John Stuart Mill on Colonies. Political Theory, 38(1), 34-64.