Short Biography of John Stuart Mill

As James Mill decided to teach his son all by himself at home, the latter was denied the usual experience of going to a regular school. His education did not include any children’s book or toys for he started to learn Greek at the age of four and Latin at eight. By the time he was ten he had read many of Plato’s dialogues, logic and history.

He was familiar with the writings of Euripides, Homer, Polybius, Sophocles and Thucydides. He could solve problems in algebra, geometry, differential calculus and higher mathematics. So dominant was his father’s influence that John Stuart could not recollect his mother’s contributions to his formative years as a child.

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At the age of thirteen he was introduced to serious reading of English Classical Economists and published an introductory textbook in economics entitled Elements of Political Economy (1820) at the age of fourteen. From Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881), Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), Isidore Auguste Comte (1798- 1857), Goethe (1749-1832), and Wordsworth (1770-1850) he came to value poetry and art. He reviewed Alexis de Tocqueville’s (1805-59) Democracy in America in two parts in 1835 and 1840, a book that left a thorough impact on him.

From the training that John Stuart received at home he was convinced that nurture more than nature played a crucial role in the formation of character. It also assured him of the importance education could play in transforming human nature. In his Autobiography, which he wrote in the 1850s’he acknowledged his father’s contribution in shaping his mental abilities and physical strength to the extent that he never had a normal boyhood.

By the age of twenty Mill started to write for newspapers and periodicals. He contributed to every aspect of political theory. His System of Logic (1843) which he began writing in 1820s tried to elucidate a coherent philosophy of politics.

The Logic combined the British empiricist tradition of Locke and Hume of associational psychology with a conception of social sciences based on the paradigm of Newtonian physics. His essays On Liberty and The Subjection of Women were classic elaborations of liberal thought on important issues like law, rights and liberty.

His ‘The Considerations’ on Representative Government provided an outline of his ideal government based on proportional representation, protection of minorities and institutions of self government.

His famous pamphlet Uncilitarianian endorsed the Benthamite principle of the greatest happiness of the greatest number, yet made a significant departure from the Benthamite assumption by arguing that this principle could only be defended if one distinguished happiness from pleasure. His essays on Bentham and Coleridge written between 1838 arid 1840 enabled him to critically dissect Benthamism.

In 1826, Mill experienced ‘mental crisis’ when he lost all his capacity for joy in life. He recovered by discovering romantic poetry of Coleridge and Wordsworth. He also realised the incompleteness of his education, namely the lack of emotional side of life. In his re-examination of Benthamite philosophy he attributed its one-sidedness to Bentham’s lack of experience, imagination and emotions.

He made use of Coleridge’s poems to broaden Benthamism and made room for emotional, aesthetic and spiritual dimensions. However, he never wavered from the fundamentals of Benthamism though the major difference between them was that Bentham followed a more simplistic picturisation of human nature of the French utilitarians whereas Mill followed the more sophisticated utilitarianism of Hume.

Mill acknowledged that both On Liberty and The Subjection of Women was a joint endeavour with Harriet Hardy Taylor whom he met in 1830. Though Harriet was married Mill fell in love with her. The two maintained an intimate but chaste friendship for the next nineteen years. Harriet’s husband John Taylor died in 1849.

In 1851 Mill married Harriet and described the honour and chief blessing of his existence, a source of a great inspiration for his attempts to bring about human improvement. He was confident that had Harriet lived at a time when women had greater opportunities she would have been ’eminent among the rulers of mankind’. Mill died in 1873 at Avignon, England.

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