Mill, John Stuart
Mill, John Stuart the British philosopher whose writings have done much to shape the thinking of this generation, was the son of James Mill (q.v.), and was born in London May 20, 1806. His intellectual training was conducted by his learned father, who, holding that all men are born with equal faculties, and that character is the result solely of association and circumstance, preferred, it would seem, the sole control of the boy in order to test upon him the theories he had espoused and preached. At an age when children are usually weaned, John Stuart began the study of Greek, followed shortly after by arithmetic, with Latin at eight, and logic in his twelfth year, and before he had completed his fourteenth year, as he tells us himself, he had gone over the whole range of ancient literature and philosophy, as well as the most noted of modern historians, civil and ecclesiastical, besides having himself composed volumes of history. Such an education, conducted by a person of his father's ability, could not fail of remarkable results. By it he also gained lasting, habits of application, and a wonderful power of sustained and accurate thinking; and by the constant use of his pen he early became master of a style whose point and lucidity are unrivalled among logical and metaphysical writers. But with these advantages there came also a most serious drawback. The training intentionally left one side of his nature untouched. It ignored all culture of the imagination, the emotions, or the sympathies. Of the tender associations, the sweet charities that cluster about the thought of home, this young philosopher knew nothing. He cannot bring himself to say that he loved his father, and of his mother he makes no mention whatever. Nor was the solitude of his early life broken by the cheerful intercourse of school. Indeed, he was carefully kept apart from all his contemporaries lest he should be corrupted by their prejudices or their example, insomuch that he was not himself aware that his own education and acquirements were not those of any other boy of his age. As this education, especially with respect to religion, has an important bearing on the life and work of this so justly celebrated man, we quote here at length from his Autobiography:
"I was brought up from the first without any religious belief, in the ordinary acceptation of the term. My father, educated in the creed of Scotch Presbyterianism, had by his own studies and reflections been early led to reject not only the belief in revelation, but also the foundations of what is commonly called Natural Religion... Finding no halting-place in deism, he remained in a state of perplexity until, doubtless after many struggles, he yielded to the conviction that concerning the origin of things nothing whatever can be known. This is the only correct statement of his opinion, for dogmatic atheism he looked upon as absurd; as most of those whom the world has considered atheists have always done. These particulars are important, because they show that my father's rejection of all that is called religious belief was not, as many might suppose, primarily a matter of logic and evidence: the grounds of it were moral still more than intellectual. He found it impossible to believe that a world so full of evil was the work of an Author combining infinite power with perfect wisdom and righteousness . . .
His aversion to religion, in the sense usually attached to the term, was of the same kind with that of Lucretius he regarded it with the feelings due not to a mere mental decision, but to a great moral evil. He looked upon it as the greatest enemy of morality: first, by setting up fictitious excellences, belief in creeds, devotional feelings, and ceremonies, not connected with the good of the human race-and causing them to be accepted as substitutes for genuine virtues; but, above all, by radically vitiating the standard of morals, making it consist in doing the will of a being on whom it lavishes all the phrases on adulation, but whom in sober truth it depicts as eminently hateful. I have a hundred times heard him say that all ages and nations have represented their gods as wicked in a constantly increasing progression; that mankind have gone on adding trait after trait till they reached the most perfect conception of wickedness which the human mind cant devise, and have called this God, and prostrated themselves before it. This ne plus ultra of wickedness he considered to be embodied in what is commonly presented to mankind as the creed of Christianity. Think (he used to say) of a being who would make a hell who would create the human race with the infallible fore knowledge, and therefore with the intention, that the great majority of them were to be consigned to horrible and everlasting torment!" It does not seem to have occurred to James Mill to inquire whether what was presented as the creed of Christianity by the Kirk and its divines really was the only lesson to be learned from the religion of the Gospel and the idea of God. But, holding this entirely negative belief, essentially and directly, as was well said by Browne before the Christian Evidence Society, because he did not admit the freedom of the will, he based the education of his son upon it. Hence we are not astonished when a little after the passage quoted above we find John Stuart Mill writing:
"It would have been wholly inconsistent with my father's ideas of duty to allow me to acquire impressions contrary to his convictions and feelings respecting religion; and he impressed upon me from the first that the manner in which the world came into existence was a subject on which nothing was known; that the question, 'Who made me?' cannot be answered, because we have no experience or authentic information from which to answer it; and that any answer only throws the difficulty a step further back, since the question immediately presents itself, 'Who made God?"'
That is to say, because he could not solve the problem of the origin of evil, he took refuge in a cheerless nescience, and denied the possibility of knowing anything relative to the origin or the destiny of mankind, denied the authority of conscience, and substituted the principle of utility for any intuitive standard of right and wrong. In his own life this dismal philosophy had already borne its bitter fruit, and his son writes that "He deemed very few pleasures worth the price paid for them; he thought human life a poor thing after the freshness of youth and of unsatisfied curiosity had gone by. He would sometimes say that if life were made what it night be by good government and good education, it would be worth having; but he never spoke with any enthusiasm even of that possibility. He used to say he had never known a happy old man, except those who were able to live over again .in the pleasures of the young." At first young Mill accepted without hesitation the leading ideas of his father, and of the circle of his father's friends, among whom were chief the philosopher Bentham (q.v.) and the political economist Ricardo. They had many projects on foot for the improvement of mankind, and the youthful and inexperienced Mill entered into their plans with the zeal becoming his age and wisdom; indeed, he believed he had a call "to be a reformer of mankind," and felt as if all his earthly happiness hung upon this design. His studies were directed to this end, and he began when only sixteen to employ his pen in the work. The enthusiasm lasted until his twentieth year. He was in the midst of eager discussion, he had already made himself a reputation in the new Westminster Review, and was hard at work upon his edition of Judicial Evidence, when he stopped to ask himself this question, "Suppose that all your objects in life were realized, that all the changes in institutions and opinions which you are looking forward to could be completely effected at this very instant, would this be a great joy and happiness to you?" He got the inevitable answer, "No." In an hour the light faded out of all his visions. His labor had lost its motive and its charm. He had nothing, he thought, to live for; and he sank into a dull and dreary melancholy. He had heretofore made happiness the end of existence, and the test of all right action; but he now found it impossible, in his own experience, to realize that end or apply that test, because he was forced to. confess that no action, however apparently successful, was competent to bring him happiness. His philosophy of life had broken down under him. It was evidently necessary to reconstruct it; and as the six months' melancholy wore away he elaborated his new theory. He still considered happiness the end of life, but "thought this end only to be attained by not making it the direct end. Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so, The only chance is to treat, not happiness, but some end external to it, as the purpose of life." These utilitarian doctrines became the life of his theory of morals, and the principles in his expansion of the Benthamite formulas. They are, it must be confessed, "the least earthy forms of this earthy philosophy," and yet how very far from the Christian doctrine of duty and of right is any such theory of morals as this! Still, had he but followed the free and uncontrollable bent of his philosophical growth from this point in his life, or had he fallen into hands other than those which subsequently enchained him, we think that he might have arrived at far higher and more sound results in moral and metaphysical science than he ever attained to. For it may be here remarked that one of the distinctive peculiarities of Mill was what, for want of a simpler term, must be called his receptivity. Seldom has so powerful a thinker been so subject to the unconscious influence of others; but in him sympathy was more powerful than individuality — he had more of the feminine principle that receives than the masculine power which imparts an impression. Hence through life, whenever his sympathies and affections were excited, his opinions followed.
In 1820 John was first suffered to pass beyond the narrow limit of his father's study, and he was sent for a year to France, where he studied some of the sciences and the higher mathematics. On his return he continued his philosophical studies, and in the winter of 1822-23 had the pleasure of starting a "Utilitarian Society," where he enjoyed discussions upon some of the heaviest metaphysical topics that occupied the British mind. and he himself tells us that he always dated from them his own "real inauguration as an original and independent thinker." He also obtained valuable instructions from the "Co-operative Society," composed of the disciples of Owen, the Communist, with 'whom Mill and a few other political economists, sworn enemies of Communism, had discussions in order to "settle" the question whether the Owenites had any right to exist. The result was the formation of a "Speculative Society," composed of a body of young men who became almost as famous as Mill — Macaulay, Thirlwall, Wilberforce, and the Bulwers, among others, were of that circle. In May 1823, his father procured for him employment in the East India Company, which he himself was serving, and John was thus afforded the necessary competency for the continuation of his literary labors, besides enjoying that training in accurate and perspicuous writing for which he afterwards became noted. There can be no doubt that his work in the India House was of great value to him. It considerably enlarged his knowledge of social and political subjects, and in a more direct and human way than by the study of books. He was led to study mind in the concrete. His despatches had to pass the scrutiny of the directors; then they were to be read and acted on by men living on the other side of the world — both of which facts led him to choose not only the strongest arguments, but the strongest way of putting them. Mr. W.T. Thornton, his colleague, thus describes the vast amount of his work in that relation:
"In 1828 he was promoted to be assistant examiner, ind in 1856 he succeeded to the post of chief examiner, after which his duty consisted rather in supervising what his assistants had written than in writing himself; but for the three-and-twenty years preceding he had had immediate charge of the political department, and had written almost every 'political' despatch of any importance that conveyed the instructions of the merchant princes of Leadenhall Street to their pro-consuls in Asia. Of the quality of these documents it is sufficient to say that they were John Mill's; but in respect to their quantity, it may be worth mentioning that a descriptive catalogue of them completely fills a small quarto volume of between 300 and 400 pages, in their author's handwriting, which now lies before me; also that the share of the Court of Directors in the correspondence between themselves and the Indian government used to average annually about ten huge vellum-bound volumes, foolscap size, and five or six inches thick, and that of these volumes, two a year, for more than twenty years running, were exclusively of Mill's composition: this, too, at times when he was engaged upon such voluntary work in addition as his Logic and Political Economy" (Memorial, page 31).
Mill remained with the East India Company until its extinction in 1858. In 1865 he was elected to Parliament, and acted with the advanced liberals, but lost his seat in 1868. In 1867 he was chosen rector of St. Andrew's University, Edinburgh. In 1869 his wife, whom he adored, died, and in order to be ever near her grave he removed to Avignon, France, and there spent the remainder of his life. He died May 9, 1873.
While yet a youth we have seen Mill a writer of various essays. They were of such a bold and thoughtful character as to secure him even then a prominent place in the Edinburgh and Westminster Reviews, and from 1834 to 1840 he was editor in chief of the latter. In 1827 he was intrusted with the editorship of Bentham's Rationale of Judicial Evidence. But his great production he brought out when he was thirty-eight years old, and at once secured by the System of Logic, Ratiocinative and Inductive (Lond. 1843, 2 volumes, 8vo; republished, N.Y., Harpers, 1864, from the 8th ed.), a worldwide reputation. It is a perfect exhibit of his philosophy, notwithstanding his claim that he seeks simply to discover and expound the proper method of investigating truth, without pledging himself to any system of speculative philosophy. "There are so many points of a speculative nature touched upon, all in the spirit of the Analysis, that he must necessarily be regarded as a partisan of the modern Lockian school of metaphysics" (Morell, page 252). Mill has developed in his Logic the deductive principle and its application to logic as a science, and thus has lent special value to his work. The last hundred pages are taken up with what the author calls "the logic of the moral sciences." Here, as he tells us, he makes "an attempt to contribute towards the solution of a question which the decay of old opinions, and the agitation which disturbs European society to its inmost depths, render as important in the present day to the practical interests of human life as it must at all times be to the completeness of our speculative knowledge, viz. whether moral and social phenomena are really exceptions to the general certainty and uniformity of the course of nature, and how far the methods by which so many of the laws of the physical world have been numbered among truths irrevocably acquired and universally assented to can be made instrumental to the formation of a similar body of received doctrine in moral and political science." The Logic, together with an Examination of Sir William
Hamilton's Philosophy (1865), and his editorial corrections and comments on his father's Analysis of the Human Mind, constitute John Stuart Mill's philosophical works. From these it is apparent that, as Dr. Porter says (in Ueberweg's Hist. of Philos. 2:427-429), "The physiological foundation on which he builds is the system of James Mill, modified by that of Dr. Thomas Brown. He carefully insists, however, that he neither accepts nor inculcates any system of metaphysics. But the system of metaphysics which he usually applies is substantially that of Hobbes, Hume, and Comte. He does not rigidly adhere, however, either to the psychology or to the philosophy which characterizes or controls his conclusions. He differs from his father in holding the act of belief to be something more than an inseparable association of one object with another (compare James Mill's Analysis, 2d edition, chapter 11 note); that causation is a term which it is indispensable we should use in our analysis of the conceptions of matter and mind; and that certain axioms are the necessary foundations of mathematical and physical sciences, but are themselves the products of induction (comp. Logic, passim). After a long and laborious analysis, he reaches the conclusion that matter must be defined as 'a permanent possibility of sensation,' and that 'mind is resolved into a series of feelings, with a background of possibilities of feeling.' He concedes that in adhering to this definition 'we are reduced to the alternative of believing that the mind, or ego, is something different from any series of feelings or possibilities of them, or else of accepting the paradox that something which, ex hypothesi, is but a series of feelings can be aware of itself as am series.' In respect to the belief in the real existence of the external world, he concedes that it cannot be proved philosophically, and can only be justified by the consideration that 'the world of possible sensations, succeeding one another according to laws, is as much in other beings as it is in me; it has therefore an existence outside me; it is an external world' (comp. Exam. of Sir W. Hamilton's Philosophy, chapter 11:12, 13)." Mill's posthumous publications — Three Essays on Religion; Nature; The Utility of Religion (Lond. and N.Y. 1874, 8vo) — teach more clearly, however, than the preceding works that he believed very positively in matter and very hesitatingly in spirit; very strongly in man and very feebly in God; very earnestly in human government and social organization, and not at all in divine providence. Indeed, "the perfectibility of man through an enlightened self-interest — by means of popular government and universal education, especially in the elements of political economy and the Malthusian doctrines of population — was the chief article of his philosophical creed" (Dr. Porter, in Internat. Rev. N.Y. 1874, May-June, part 6). For further particulars, we refer our readers to Allibone, Dict. of Brit. and Amer. Authors, 2:1280; see also Edinb. Rev. July 1866, art. 4; January 1874, art. 4; January 1875, art. 1; Brit. Qut. Rev. July 1868, art. 1; January 1874, art. 9; New-Englander, October 1874, art. 1; Westminster Rev. January 1875, art. 1; Christian Qu. April 1874, art. 1; Masson, Recent Brit. Philos. (N.Y. 1866, 12mo), especially pages 245-335; Porter, Human Intellect (see Index) John Stuart Mill, his Life and Works (1873), twelve sketches by J.R. Fox Bourne, W.T. Thornton, Herbert Spencer, and others (reprinted in Popular Science Monthly, July 1873, art. 12; and the Autobiography (Lond. and N.Y. 1873, 8vo).