Why You Should Know the Life and Work of John Stuart Mill

John Stuart Mill is the image of 19th century England: a mixture of intellectual rebellion and social conformism. Mill was an intellectual always in crisis, struggling between nonconformity to tradition and the rules that nurture and have always nurtured social welfare and security. Perhaps he is the greatest exponent of utilitarianism, an inductive philosophical thesis that preaches the apprehension of reality and the categorization of human actions through the perception of need and the search for personal – and, they say, social satisfaction.

As defended as it is maligned, this school is, even today, the most irritating thesis of modern moral philosophy; irritating because while it is difficult to fully believe its most radical ideas — and to put up with its faithful followers — it is almost impossible to abandon it altogether, for the material causes and self-satisfied impulses that cement such a theory are, in fact, determinants in everyone’s choices, no matter how altruistic and holy you are.

In this way, John Stuart Mill sat in that hall of personalities necessary to be understood to understand modern society well and its variations. It should be noted, from now on, that we will not explain specifically what it is and the features of the utilitarian school, for that there are many good summaries and books. The intention is to clarify the life and work of the English thinker.

Reading in Greek and Latin at age eight

Son of historian and economist James Mill, John was born on 20 May 1772, in a London where his father enjoyed great popularity in large intellectual circles. From his birth, it seems, his father placed in John Mill a hope of gigantic intellectual greatness, to the point that, later, the philosopher said, in his ‘Autobiography’, that, at 15 years, his father took him away from friendships that shared similar ages to his.

His childhood is studied until the present day by psychologists, enthusiasts and historians, because of the rigorous way in which his father conducted his teaching. It is unanimous among experts that his childhood affected — positively and negatively — his life as a whole. By the age of eight, he had already read entire works in Greek and Latin, alternating between satirical classics, fables, and epics; at 12, he was already able to read at least in four languages; at 12, he began to read Plato and Aristotle compulsively, Scholastic logic quickly became the center of attention for him. The moral dilemma, intellectual rectitude and the question of “what moved individuals” seemed to be his youthful concerns that would later become mature philosophical inquiries.

Aos years ago, he met the great intellectual influence of his youth, the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham, the oldest and most traditional thinker of the utilitarian school. It is not possible to say that from an early age he was enraptured by the utilitarian theses, but the later steps of his intellectual life led him to that. Of the broad intellectual interests he pursued as a hobby, from advanced botany to applied mathematics, Stuart Mill seems to have a particular fondness for psychology and Roman law. Regarding psychology, there is an interest in the search for why men thought, liked and chose what they chose, and for this he read a lot Claude-Adrien Helvétius, a French philosopher and protopsychologist, whose focus on feeling and choice out of necessity marked Mill’s ideas deeply.

At the same time, Mill, little by little, became a social nonconformist, believing that the arbitrary rule of the State was a kind of abusive and unnatural paternalism before the individual; while his childhood was not “unhappy,” he was also not fully satisfying, and many understand that his liberal, anti-state view of mature life was a reflection of his tightly controlled childhood. At 15 years old, he suffered from severe depression, which, according to him, ended up destroying their self-esteem and ability to relate intimately.

Intense debates


years ago, he began working at the still controversial English East India Company, specifically with correspondence and contracts. At 23, he fell in love with Harriet Taylor, a thinker who defended women’s rights. Harriet was married to John Taylor at the time Mill met her at her home at the invitation of Harriet’s own husband. For a long time, they exchanged love letters and essays and discussed the ethics of divorce and a woman’s right to be in a relationship for affection. John Taylor passed away 15 years after Mil and Harriet first met, so they got together. married in the middle of 1851. But before we delve into his wife’s political views and influences, we need to go back to the 1930s 1830 to understand the evolution of Mill’s thought and works.

For the young Mill, the clash between the need for social rules and individual freedom will always exist, his later interest in logic and ethics will only reflect his deeper concerns about these issues. In his ‘Autobiography’ he shows that it was at the Debating Society, a London society of intellectuals, where he tested his youthful ideas — he was not yet a utilitarian. It was there, in frank and open confrontation with thinkers of respectable stature, that he gradually abandoned the harsher concepts defended by his father, and adopted a singular vision of “ultimate ends”, the path to metaphysics.

At a certain point, Mill became interested in the very definition of ethics and how its practicality would become real through pragmatic choices of everyday life; the thinker’s famous criticism of Catholic and Protestant theses was to remain always oblivious to the factual reality of individual choices while ideal models and perfection goals are conjectured. The central question of human ethics, points out John Stuart Mill: what makes a choice right or wrong?

After leaving the aforementioned debate club, in 1829, he was prepared to oppose ideas, but also to polish his own. He told friends that the frank and sometimes almost animalistic debates made him challenge his own views and reformulate others. From 1830, his life took a turn in the world of public debate, writing for various periodicals and magazines such as The Jurist, The Monthly Repository and

Tait’s. In 1844 he wrote his most famous essays for The Edinburgh Review ; I especially highlight his appreciation of Tocqueville’s notebooks: “M. De Tocqueville on Democracy in America” (1830).

Influence positivist

But he also wrote works of a more perennial scope, his interests in logic, ethics and social sciences only increased. In addition to psychology, Roman law and logic, another important influence on Stuart Mill’s ideas was August Comte, the positivist who cemented in Mill the idea that the social sciences could rise to scientific positions of an empirical character.

Uniting Comte’s ethical convictions of real utility and analytical pragmatism, Mill’s utilitarianism upgraded the one he had inherited from Jeremy Bentham. With Comte, he corresponds personally from 1844 to 1851 , a period in which they discuss specific points of French positivism and liberal theses. But it would be a mistake for this biographer not to highlight Isaac Newton’s influence on his ideas — Mill was a voracious reader of Newton himself and his commentators. Following the positivist line, Newton’s mathematical and physical theses generated in Mill a mild materialism, tending to see ethics and logic as rational machines acting under determined and indivisible laws.

In 1830, he has contact with ‘Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences’ , by William Whewell. Through this work, Mill manages to build his own philosophy, an inductive logical system that he promises not to be a counterpoint to formal logic, but its complement. For him, the ethical actions of man, and this is the core of utilitarianism: all moral action passes through the possibilities of real action. The choice for the most satisfactory is the moral choice possible, with a view to the good of the individual and of the majority. Later, he will explain that the inductive choice, that is, from the given fact to suit the ideal, tends towards social utility, even if the first parameter is the individual.

But Mill does not stop at the moral debate, he was also one of the most brilliant economists. In 1841, he launches Essays on Some Unsettled Questions of Political Economy [Ensaios sobre algumas questões não resolvidas da economia política, sem edição no Brasil], a technical book of commentaries of an economic nature, showing- clearly a follower of the ideas of the British economist David Ricardo (1806-1823).

In 1848, he launches his greatest work on economics, ‘Principles of Political Economy’, where he produces a truly authorial, authentic work that places him on the shelf of the great economists of his time. The work is seen as liberal, as it navigates the philosophical principles of John Locke, Adam Smith, but develops an independent view when it comes to the concept of property, for example, which strongly endorses a socialist and agrarian rhetoric.


In 1848, he writes the most popular and accessible of his ideas: Utilitarianism. The book covers the general aspects of the theory, and shows how Mill updated and, for some, even reformulated Bentham’s thesis. The book has become canon for many countries, necessary for courses in political philosophy in the English-speaking world. Speaking of political philosophy, Harriet Taylor deepened Stuart Mill’s convictions about women’s rights, to the point where he wrote essays with a character of indignation at some traditional English attitudes towards women.

His political and moral perception is deeply shaped by Harriet’s private ideas, and, after her death, in 1848, Mill becomes a bulwark in the defense of the women’s rights in England—including raising the remaining daughter of Harriet’s marriage to John Taylor, Helen Taylor. Such influence is widely perceived in the work ‘On Liberty’, written a year after his wife’s death. The book became a kind of manifesto, despite disagreeing with this nomenclature for being a deep and grounded book, much more than a simple political apologetics.

After the release of ‘On the freedom’, John Stuart Mill is dedicated to research and writing sporadic essays. He openly supported the North in the American Civil War, saying that the abolition of slavery was an indispensable human duty.

In 1867 , he takes office in the House of Commons, representing Westminster; with positions considered radical for the time, he became something of a polemicist much loved and hated by both traditional parties. He also openly supported English intervention in countries around the world in defense of individual liberty and against “constituted tyrannies”, while preaching leniency in the excessive taxation of colonies and groupings conquered by the King’s army. In 1867 he was elected rector of the University of St. Andrews, delivering his inaugural address that same year.

Effectively earning the title of Libertarian, he effusively advocated women’s suffrage and divorce. In 1865, after the dismantling of the House of Commons, Mil loses his position, and is no longer elected. In 1869 he writes his most controversial book, ‘Subjection of Women’, not so controversial because of the main theme, but because there he defends a radical agrarian reform, in certain aspects approaching the a quasi-socialist posture of land redistribution, which earns him liberal criticism and partial defenses from the left until the day the current. The British philosopher, polemicist, activist and economist died on May 8, 1878 of infectious erysipelas. He is buried next to his beloved, in Avignon, South of France — a country he loved and hated at various points in his career.

“Liberal Spirit”

John Stuart Mill had a relatively simple public life, despite his ardor in defending the ideas he worshiped, he always remained oblivious to the personal problems of those around him. In the private sphere, in turn, he consciously cultivated a peaceful existence.

It is indisputable, however, the mark he left on what the English call the “Liberal Spirit”, the search for of an independent construction of a cohesive philosophy is commendable, even if we do not like the ideas themselves. His ethical materialism is somewhat paradoxical, as it ended up establishing in the English mentality of the late 19th century a kind of metaphysics of political freedom, giving thinkers an impulse of independence and fighting against ideological and academic servility.

However, the utilitarian thesis that made him known was never fully developed in all matters concerning an enduring philosophical idea. Not that it is a rule that a philosophical thesis fully addresses the dilemmas of knowledge and human action, but it was effectively what Stuart Mill defended utilitarianism.

Utilitarianism, sometimes , falls into a political gap from which it is difficult to get rid of, is hopelessly linked to political liberalism, even though he has invariably committed himself to typically socialist theses on many occasions. Thus, for many scholars and critics, Mill has not developed his own idea sufficiently, nor has anyone of his caliber yet come along to do so. As stated at the beginning of the text, Mill developed an absurdly impactful idea and a philosophical path that cannot be ignored, but it is not even close to a complete philosophy in the sense of a “philosophical school”, as is Thomism, Hegelianism or the praxiology.

Mill flirted with positivism, materialism and inductive logic, trying to make his idea an exact science as much as possible, but he also fell in love with idealism romanticism of progressivism, transforming much of his scientific developments into ideological boards of the moment.

None of this takes away from the importance of the author, who, we can safely say, will never be an “non-important” , reading John Stuart Mill is necessary even if it is to refute him, because, despite not having built a complete philosophy, he was not even close to making a simple and unimportant philosophy, on the contrary, sometimes Mill and his utilitarianism seem to be the only satisfactory answer to contemporary ethics.


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