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John Stuart Mill (1806–73). Autobiography.
The Harvard Classics. 1909–14.

Introductory Note

JOHN STUART MILL was born in London, May 20, 1806. He was the eldest of the nine children of James Mill, the chief disciple of Bentham and one of the most important leaders in the Utilitarian movement in England. J. S. Mill as a child was almost incredibly precocious. He began Greek at three, and by the time he was eight had read such authors as Herodotus and Plato in the original, besides such English historians as Gibbon and Hume. At twelve he was studying logic “seriously”; at thirteen he went through a complete course in political economy which his father gave him in conversation during their walks, and the summaries he made of these talks were the basis of James Mill’s treatise on this subject. These and other intellectual feats will be found related in the “Autobiography,” not in a spirit of boastfulness, but in support of more profitable educational methods.

So far young Mill had been educated entirely by his father; but when he was fourteen he was sent to France for a year, where he mastered the language, learned much of French society and politics, and continued his studies in mathematics, economics, and science. In 1823 he entered the India House as a clerk in the examiner’s office, of which his father was the head; rose rapidly, and finally succeeded to his father’s position as chief examiner.

His official labors left him considerable leisure, which he employed with the industry that had been habitual with him almost from infancy. He wrote for the papers, helped his father on the “Westminster Review,” and, before he was twenty, edited Bentham’s “Treatise on Evidence.” His first original work of importance was his “Essays upon Unsettled Questions of Political Economy,” written when he was about twenty-four, but not published till 1844.

In religion, Mill had been brought up an agnostic, and, in philosophy, a utilitarian of the school of Bentham; but after a nervous illness in 1836, he began to be dissatisfied with the high and dry intellectualism of his father’s circle. He “learnt that happiness was to be found not in directly pursuing it, but in the pursuit of other ends; and learnt, also, the importance of a steady cultivation of the feelings.” He had already a wide acquaintance among the most active minds in London, and some of these, like F. D. Maurice and John Sterling, aided in the process of humanising Mill’s philosophy. He became a disciple of Wordsworth’s and a friend of Carlyle’s; and a second visit to France still further helped to broaden his views and sympathies, more especially through the influence of the St. Simonian school and Comte. Important also among the friendships which affected his development was that with Mrs. Taylor, an invalid lady of whose intellectual powers Mill had the most exalted opinion, and whom he ultimately married.

In 1835, the “London Review,” later combined with the “Westminster Review,” and for a time owned by Mill, was started as the organ of the “philosophical radicals”; and till he gave it up in 1840 he wrote much in it on political and literary topics, and sought to make it an influence in practical politics. But the party it represented fell for the time into obscurity, and Mill resumed his logical studies, which culminated in 1843 in the publication of his “Logic.” This work, which met with great and immediate success, established Mill as the leader of the empirical school of thought in England, and it holds its position still as a standard work on the subject.

His interest now passed for the time to economics, and within five years he issued his “Principles of Political Economy,” a treatise which stands on the political side, as his “Logic” does on the philosophical, as the representative statement of the principles of the school of philosophical radicalism. Much in its teaching is still regarded by economists as valuable, and the book ranks as perhaps the most important systematic treatise on the subject since “The Wealth of Nations.”

In 1858 the East India Company was dissolved, the administration of India being taken over by the English Government, and Mill retired on a pension. The same year his wife died, just after completing with her husband the revision of his famous “Essay on Liberty.” In this book, along with his “Representative Government” (1860) and his “Utilitarianism” (1861) one may find an exceedingly compact presentation of his views on the most important questions of social and political philosophy. His function with regard to the Utilitarian doctrines in which he had been trained by his father was that of broadening and elevating the conception of “the greatest happiness of the greatest number” as the true end of human conduct, by the recognition of difference of quality among pleasures, and by the addition of a new sanction for altruism in a “feeling of unity with his fellow creatures” which makes it a “natural want” of a person of “properly cultivated moral nature” that his aims and theirs should harmonize. With the rise of the evolutionist school on the one hand and the spread of the doctrines of Kant and his successors on the other, the influence of Mill’s philosophy has declined.

Mill’s philosophical activity culminated in his searching “Examination of Sir William Hamilton’s Philosophy,” originally published in 1865, and reissued later with replies to critics. In this work he reviewed thoroughly all the main points of difference between the empirical and the intuitional schools; and though, with the shifting of issues in the progress of philosophic thought, the controversy has now died down, the criticism remains an interesting and lively example of Mill’s acuteness and skill as a controversialist.

So far Mill’s part in politics had been confined to the writing of pamphlets and articles, but in 1865 he was elected to Parliament as member for Westminster. In spite of a weak voice and a nervous manner, he impressed the House by his fluency and exactness in speech, and by his honesty and independence of judgment. He favored the extension of the franchise, and the reform of the Irish land laws; and he argued in favor of a number of projects which long after his time were carried into effect. When Parliament dissolved in 1868, he was not re-elected.

He now returned to literature, writing frequently in the “Fortnightly Review,” then edited by his friend John Morley; and in 1869 he issued his “Subjection of Women,” in the production of which both his wife and his step-daughter had had a share. During his Parliamentary career he had urged the granting of the voting power to the other sex, and this work is still a standard plea for the rights of women. His health now began to give way, and he died on May 8, 1873.

Although the dominant impression conveyed by the record of Mill’s life in his candid and interesting “Autobiography” is one of intellectuality, he was a man of high sensibility and of a tender and affectionate nature. The purity of his motives, the vigor of his thinking, and the energy and independence with which he strove for the realization of his ideals, had their effect not merely on the large circle with whom he came into personal contact, but in the stimulating and elevating of the general intellectual and moral life of his time.

It is as the story of such a man’s life, told by himself when it was about six years from its close, that his “Autobiography” is here printed. The “Essay on Liberty” has an interest of a different kind. It belongs to that splendid series of pleas for intellectual freedom, which, beginning with Milton’s “Areopagitica,” or speech for the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing, and coming down through Locke’s “Letters concerning Toleration” to the utterances of Mill himself and his friend and fellow liberal Morley, form the literary expression of the gradual realization of the passion for individual freedom which is one of the glories of the English-speaking peoples.