John Stuart Mill

Mill left no systematic legacy— there is no "Millism." But 200 years after his birth, his liberalism is still relevant. And Britain's greatest ever public intellectual was often surprisingly contrarian
May 19, 2006

In May 1873, the British establishment was shaken by a bitter row. It concerned the legacy of John Stuart Mill, who had just died. The Times had printed an obituary which was an exercise in posthumous character assassination. It was written by Abraham Hayward, a Tory lawyer and fierce critic of liberals, feminists and philosophers. Mill (who was guilty on all three counts) had been a target of Hayward's vitriol ever since the two had faced each other in the London Debating Society half a century earlier and Mill, in the words of one observer, had "gone over Hayward as a ploughshare goes over a mouse."

The Thunderer's obit caused a retaliatory strike by the liberal cleric Stopford Brooke, during his Sunday sermon at St James's. This provoked Hayward to print an even more savage attack, focusing on an incident from 1823, when the 17-year-old Mill had been arrested for the distribution of literature on contraception. More articles and pamphlets appeared, on both sides, and the controversy raged for weeks. One of the unfortunate by-products of the row was the decision by William Gladstone to withdraw his support from a committee to erect a monument to Mill's memory, an act of cowardice for which he has been condemned by even his most eulogistic biographers. It was Gladstone who called Mill "the saint of rationalism," which, though meant affectionately, contributed to the false picture of Mill handed down to us today: a boy crammed with facts who grew into an ascetic, dry, humourless, sexless, lofty intellectual.

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The furious exchanges following Mill's death point to the inadequacy of this caricature. Mill's greatness does not in fact lie in the power of his intellectual endeavour: he is far from being Britain's greatest thinker. Nor does it lie in his political skills—by traditional criteria he was a political failure. The greatness of John Stuart Mill lies in his refusal to separate thought and action. He was a man who, like his godson Bertrand Russell, went to jail for his beliefs. He said that "ideas have consequences"—but was rarely content to limit himself to the former.

He wrote one of the definitive 19th-century works on political economy—and also worked tirelessly for Irish land reform. He produced a landmark argument for equal rights for women, and throughout his life pushed for legal and political reform on their behalf—Millicent Fawcett described him as the "principal originator" of the women's movement. Mill made, in his famous On Liberty, a timeless case for freedom of speech and action that has inspired generation after generation around the world. But as an elderly MP he also led the successful campaign against Disraeli's attempt to ban demonstrations in public parks, especially Hyde park—a corner of which remains a symbol of free speech to this day.

Mill was a man who saw little value in ideas unless they were tethered to human improvement, and was brilliantly successful at using his intellectual stature to influence the politics and culture of his age. He is the greatest public intellectual in British history. This fact—or claim—alone makes his life worthy of re-examination in the light of the current debate about the status of public thinkers, prompted by the Prospect league tables of public intellectuals and books such as Stefan Collini's Absent Minds. Moreover, this May marks the bicentenary of Mill's birth, allowing his admirers the world over to gather in conferences and seminars, including a three-day Mill-fest at University College London.

Mill occupies an iconic status in contemporary political discourse. Now that he is no longer seen as dangerously partisan, his name is dropped by politicians and commentators of all stripes. He was often quoted, for example, during the debate on the ban on smoking in public places—on both sides, which would have pleased him. Simon Jenkins, opposing the ban in the Guardian, quoted Mill's famous harm principle: "The only purpose for which power can rightfully be exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others." Chris Huhne MP cited the same principle in favour of the ban. Mill's ghost has hovered over many such debates. The 1960s dispute between the Wolfenden committee and Lord Devlin about the legal status of homosexuality turned into an argument about the robustness of Mill's definition of liberty.

Another reason for Mill's appearance in 21st-century political speeches and op-ed pages was his ability to coin a telling phrase. He was an early master of the soundbite: "Better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied"; "There remain no legal slaves except the mistress of every house"; England is "the ballast of Europe, France its sail"; and, of course, "I never meant to say that the Conservatives are generally stupid. I meant to say that stupid people are generally Conservative."

But it was Mill's lifelong attempt to define and promote individual liberty which most powerfully calls us back to his work, not least because it represents his break for freedom from his own upbringing. His childhood was an experiment in rational utilitarianism conducted by his father, James Mill, and godfather Jeremy Bentham. Thanks to the intense, bullying attentions of his father he became an infant prodigy. He was steeped in classical language, history and culture, and an accomplished logician and political economist by his mid-teens. He also had no friends, no toys and little love. At 20 he suffered a "mental crisis," from which he eventually recovered with the help of Wordsworth's poetry. But the result of his breakdown was the beginning of a long, slow desertion from utilitarian ranks. Compare his views about Socrates, fools and pigs with this from Bentham: "Call them monks, call them soldiers, call them machines; so they were but happy ones, I should not care."

Mill wrote a famous essay called "Utilitarianism," but he ended up not as a proselytiser on behalf of the utilitarian principle of "the greatest happiness of the greatest number" but as the most eloquent advocate of human freedom ever to write in the English language. Mill was a second-rate utilitarian, but a first-rate liberal. He retained many of his father's and Bentham's views about psychology, especially that the avoidance of pain and seeking of pleasure were the primary human springs for action. But he never saw happiness as more important than freedom—an important consideration today, when a new science of happiness is being fashioned in university economics and psychology departments. He quoted Bentham's opinion that "pushpin was as good as poetry," but only as evidence of his godfather's short-sightedness.

Mill's philosophical vision derives both its power and its weakness from his various attempts to knit together a number of diverse threads. He certainly wanted to preserve a space for individual action which should be free from interference. But he also wanted to fill the idea of freedom with a rich conception of a good life. He was convinced that people should be masters and mistresses of their own lives—but also that some forms of life are better than others. The resulting zigzag trajectory of Mill's work destroys any attempt to construct a coherent system from his voluminous writings (the newly reissued Collected Works run to 33 volumes). But Mill would not have been too bothered. For all his francophilia, he had an English mistrust of philosophical systems claiming to provide, once and for all, the answers to all economic, social and political difficulties. He learned from the sensible bits of Comte and Fourier, but it is impossible to imagine him as grand pontiff of a new religion of humanity. He liked one of Marx's later speeches—on working-class attitudes towards the Franco- Prussian war—but would have abhorred Marxism. There is no "Millism."

But if he left no systematic legacy, he addressed a number of issues and in a fashion that remains topical—often startlingly so. When is freedom of speech trumped by national security? What is the place of religion in secular politics? When and on what basis can the state interfere in the behaviour of individuals? How should gambling, drinking and prostitution be licensed or regulated? Mill was asking and answering these questions 150 years ago.

Thinking politicians are aware of the attractions of Mill's liberal heritage. David Miliband calls himself a "liberal socialist"; David Cameron is a "liberal conservative." David Willetts has argued that the Conservatives need to regroup around a concept of human liberty drawn from Mill. The Liberal Democrats are trying to work out what it means to be liberal and several of their leading thinkers are dusting off their Mill. Roy Hattersley has been a long-standing Mill fan (although stretches him too far towards socialism). Gordon Brown, however, took a more critical view in his Hugo Young memorial lecture last December, rejecting Mill's "extreme view of liberty" as a "crude libertarianism" and accusing him of underestimating the importance of community, belonging and collective loyalties.

But Mill's intellectual life was spent in rebellion against the individualist philosophies of the 18th century. He said of his own father that "as Brutus was called the last of the Romans, so was he the last of the 18th century." It is true that libertarians often try to claim Mill as their own. Yet the briefest acquaintance with Mill's work shows that his version of human freedom went far beyond non-interference—what Isaiah Berlin called "negative liberty." Mill saw an important role for government, believing that people needed educational and economic resources to lead their lives along paths of their own construction.

Brown should add to his sizeable reading pile both On Liberty and "Centralisation," a little-read 1862 essay by Mill on the need to protect voluntary organisations and local initiative—vital incubators of liberty and diversity—from the power of the central state. Labour should not allow Mill's inspiring vision of human freedom to be stolen by the Tories. John Stuart Mill was an eclectic, open-minded thinker. But he was emphatically, irrefutably, of the left.

When Mill entered parliament in 1865, Disraeli exclaimed: "Ah, the finishing governess!" The barb captured something of Mill's moralistic tone. But the comment also reflects his position as the pre-eminent intellectual of the time, as the thinking man's (and woman's) writer. Walter Bagehot described his position with regard to 19th-century political economy as "monarchical." More recently, Stefan Collini has written that his "account of the nature and methods of 'science,' in the broadest sense, attained an authority in England that was positively papal." And Arthur Balfour—a harsh late 19th-century critic of Mill—complained that his authority in the universities "was comparable to that wielded 40 years earlier by Hegel in Germany and in the middle ages by Aristotle."

How did he come to acquire this status? Like most public intellectuals, he had one breakthrough book that brought him to wide attention. He did not expect his "scholastic" System of Logic, published in 1843, to sell very well. In fact, it sold out within a few weeks, becoming the standard text at both Oxford and Cambridge and retaining canonical status for most of the rest of the century. Mill's success rested on three factors. First, he wrote clearly and attractively. Second, he managed to attract liberal opinion without provoking too much opposition from the church, by simply putting to one side questions of supernatural power. Third, he appealed to the Romantics by giving poetry and art a vital role in establishing many of the goals for human improvement while remaining firmly on the side of reason and science against "intuitionism"—the idea that certain truths are known a priori without any need for experimental proof.

Mill used his new status as the brain of liberal Britain to beat away at the complacency of the ruling class in the face of the tragedy of the Irish famine. In 1846 he wrote 52 newspaper articles—39 of them headed "The Condition of Ireland." For Mill, the Irish situation was "the most unqualified instance of signal failure which the practical genius of the English people has exhibited." He tore into schemes to promote emigration, compensate landlords, or offer paltry amounts of poor relief to starving peasants. Redistribution of common land was the only solution to Ireland's problems. And he boiled over at Victoria's proclamation of a day of devout fasting as a "piece of empty mummery… on the occasion of a public calamity."

Mill's torrent of words and argument made not the slightest difference to policy towards Ireland. As he recognised in his autobiography (a classic work in its own right), here he "entirely failed." It was one of the many moments in Mill's life when he was made sharply aware of the limits of outside influence on the House of Commons and on government policy. Public intellectuals can help to shape the general climate of ideas, but are rarely able to effect specific changes in law: one of the reasons why Mill later became an MP.

The Irish debacle encouraged Mill to complete his Principles of Political Economy, published in 1848, which was a bestseller running to 32 editions. Most of the work is an eloquent restatement of Ricardo. But there are a couple of prophetic flashes. First, he spoke of the environmental dangers of economic growth and advocated a "stationary state" in the economy once sufficient affluence was secured. Second, Mill issued a sharp warning about the long-run risks of economic competition. Unlike many Victorian intellectuals, he was not opposed to factories and trains and real income growth. But he was concerned, like Keynes 80 years later, that the habits of competition might become entrenched: "I am not charmed with the ideal of life held out by those who think that the normal state of human beings is that of struggling to get on; that the trampling, crushing, elbowing, and treading on each other's heels… are the most desirable lot of human kind."

Mill himself was freed from the need for any trampling or elbowing thanks to a comfortable position as an "examiner" with the East India Company—a kind of civil servant governing the colony (which he never visited) by remote control. The dispatches from India House, as well as giving him a secure income and filling at most half of each working day, also gave him a daily lesson in the need for practicality. By his own reckoning, the Indian work was a defence against the debilitating perfectionism of so many intellectuals: "I became practically conversant with the difficulties of moving bodies of men, the necessities of compromise, the art of sacrificing the non-essential to preserve the essential. I learnt how to obtain the best I could, when I could not obtain everything."

But Indian affairs had little influence on Mill's thinking. He was certainly no supporter of Indian independence or democracy. For Mill, self-government and democracy had to be earned—and should only be granted to a nation or class that had reached the necessary level of social and intellectual maturity. So while he supported self-government for Canada, he felt differently about less developed nations: "I myself have always been for a good stout Despotism—for governing Ireland like India. But it cannot be done. The spirit of democracy has got too much head there, too prematurely." These "imperialist" views (expressed privately, it should be added) are foreign to the modern liberal mind. But if Mill was an imperialist, he was also deeply internationalist, with a particularly profound (and rare) knowledge of the history, culture and politics of France (he is buried in Avignon) and a fascination with the emerging democracy of the US. He constantly berated his own countrymen for their insularity and unwillingness to learn from other nations. The very conservatism which protected the nation from revolution also immunised it against innovation. "England has never had any general break-up of old associations," he complained. "Hence the extreme difficulty of getting any ideas into its stupid head."

But Mill was respectful of the thoughtful conservatives of his era. He admired Wordsworth. And although he fell out with Thomas Carlyle—over what Carlyle famously called the "Nigger question" in Jamaica—he drew on his ideas about individual character. The opium-raddled Coleridge provided Mill with several important insights: the need to understand what institutions stand for before simply sweeping them away; the potential for an intellectual elite—what the poet called a "clerisy"—to guide the nation; the importance of respecting what Goethe called the "many-sided" nature of most problems; and the unifying significance of national culture.

This last strain in his thinking has a particular resonance today, given the attempt to reconcile the collective idea of "Britishness" with a diverse and individualistic culture—and it is another reason why Gordon Brown should reconsider his view of Mill. Mill was an enemy of jingoism and the adulation of military heroes—he persistently attacked Wellington, a national hero. But he did see the need for a common national locus, whether provided by religions, secular political values or individuals: "In all political societies which have had a durable existence, there has been some fixed point; something which men agreed in holding sacred… We mean a feeling of common interest among those who live under the same government… that one part of the community do not consider themselves as foreigner with regard to another part… that they… feel that they are one people, that their lot is cast together."

Mill's willingness to take conservative ideas seriously lost him countless friends and allies. On topical political issues, Mill was still usually to be found on the radical side of the argument, being in favour of extending the suffrage, removing all aristocratic and ecclesiastical privileges, introducing compulsory national education and repealing the corn laws. In some areas, such as his insistence on equality for women, he was far ahead of even advanced liberal opinion. But Mill was also happy to disagree with the liberal consensus. He supported the secret ballot when the majority were against it—but become an opponent as it gained in popularity, to the fury of his old radical friends. His opposition to voting in secret was, nonetheless, consistent with his mature reflections on human liberty. The danger with voting in secret was that people would vote out of self-interest rather than the broader public interest. And as individuals, people should stand up for their beliefs rather than scribble them furtively in booths.

Mill relished his reputation as a contrarian, even before he become famous. His friend Henry Cole, the man behind the 1851 Great Exhibition—reported a conversation with Mill: "With utilitarians, said he, he was a mystic—with mystics a utilitarian—with logicians a sentimentalist and with the latter a logician."

These apparent contradictions in Mill's thinking also reflect the fact that he was often operating on two different timescales. On the one hand, he was concerned to bring about certain changes in the short term—wider suffrage, greater freedom of speech, the rationalisation of welfare and government, freer trade—and on the other was concerned about the longer-term consequences of the measures he was advocating: collective mediocrity, a tyranny of public opinion, an overweaning state and wasteful competitiveness. He supported the centralising poor law amendments, while writing about the dangers of state centralisation. He supported a wider electorate (not quite universal—he wanted a basic educational qualification), but worried that mass democracy might drive down standards in public life. He wanted the widest possible dissemination of ideas, but was concerned about how public opinion might hamper freedom just as effectively as despotic governments.

Mill's concern with the way today's solutions could be creating tomorrow's problems finds its fullest expression in his most famous and enduring work, On Liberty. Plenty of ground is covered, including a rich argument for freedom of speech and a meditation on the role of government. It is most famous, however, for the "simple" harm principle cited earlier, which guides the limits of interference in a person's actions. But the harm principle is a poor summary of the essay taken as a whole, and a small ingredient in Mill's liberalism. The principle is, to this day, a powerful counterpoint to paternalism. But for Mill, liberty consists of much more than being left alone. It requires choice-making by the individual. "He who lets the world… choose his plan of life for him, has no need of any other faculty than the ape-like one of imitation," he writes. "He who chooses his plan for himself employs all his faculties." For Mill, a good life must be a chosen life.

Mill's principal target was not state coercion. A potentially bigger threat to individual freedom was the constricting effects of public opinion, or what he variously called "the despotism of custom" and the "tyranny of public opinion." Mill had been greatly influenced by Tocqueville's assessment that American democracy and freedom were homogenising, rather than diversifying, opinions and lifestyles.

For some, the value of the essay was immediate. Charles Kingsley, the radical clergyman, wrote to Mill to say that reading On Liberty had made him "a clearer-headed, braver-minded man on the spot." But the general reception in 1859 was cooler (although not as cool as for The Origin of Species, published in the same year). Many agreed with Macaulay that Mill was overstating in On Liberty the dangers of conformism and the power of public opinion to hobble individuality. The Whig historian scribbled in his diary after reading the essay that "He is really crying 'Fire!' in Noah's flood." Mill knew this, arguing that On Liberty contained more lessons for the future and that the danger of an "oppressive yoke of uniformity in opinion and practice, might easily have looked chimerical to those who looked more at present facts than at tendencies." There may also be a biographical factor at work here: Mill spent most of his adult life in love with Harriet Taylor, who was inconveniently married to someone else. The prevailing social mores about divorce was probably the greatest barrier to their union; they were able to marry only in 1851, after her husband's death two years earlier.

Some modern critics—especially those hostile to the excesses of the 1960s—accuse Mill of undervaluing in On Liberty the importance of social custom and order as a source of security and even freedom. I think Mill would have conceded some of this argument—as we have seen, he argued elsewhere for a consensus around certain "fixed points." In On Liberty he writes of "moral disapprobation in the proper sense of the term" acting as a useful check against anti-social behaviour (such as a father squandering his wages on gambling). It is true that he stressed the tyrannical dangers of opinion and custom, rather than their positive aspects. But the point is that "whatever crushes individuality is despotism, by whatever name it may be called." The individual can be lost in the crowd as well as crushed by the state.

Mill's liberalism is also weakened, in some eyes, by his unrealistically optimistic view of human nature. He assumes that humans are conditioned to engage in a continuous search for personal development via "experiments in living," resulting in a great diversity of lifestyles, personalities and viewpoints. The 19th- century Mill certainly has a rosier view of humanity than most of his 21st-century readers, at least in part because of the events of the intervening century. It is this optimism which explains why so many thinkers—John Gray is a striking contemporary example—are initially inspired by Mill, only to turn against him later. His unquenchable optimism is attractive to the hopeful young but often fails to survive mature scepticism.

On Liberty also addresses freedom of thought and discussion in terms that remain instructive. His view is that progress depends on truth, that the truth is most likely to emerge from a constant collision of opinions, and that freedom of speech is necessary to generate such collisions. There are three essential components to his argument that free discussion is truth-generative. First, any opinion may be true, no matter how eccentric it seems at first, and so to suppress it is to slow the march of knowledge. Second, few opinions contain the whole truth, while many contain a "portion" of it—and only by bringing them into contact and conflict can any approximation of the whole truth be constructed. In an echo of Coleridge, he declares that usually "conflicting doctrines, instead being one true and the other false, share the truth between them." Third, even if a received doctrine happens to be true, it becomes less vitally so unless subjected to open critique: "both teachers and learners go to sleep at their post, as soon as there is no enemy in the field." (He certainly would have opposed the jailing of David Irving.)

Mill insists that religion should be subject to the same criticism as any other system of thought, regardless of the offence caused. I think we can be confident that Mill would be disappointed by the progress made on this issue in the last century and a half, and by the regress of the last half decade. He certainly anticipated those who wanted to turn only "intemperate" expressions of religious criticism into crimes. Mill gave no ground, pointing out that serious offence is taken "whenever the attack is telling and powerful." There is no doubt where he would stand on the current debates on religious hatred, or on publication of the cartoons of Muhammad.

There are weaknesses in Mill's free speech arguments, of course. It is not clear, as Bernard Williams pointed out in his last book, Truth and Truthfulness, that an absolutely free exchange of opinion is indeed the surest route to the production of truth, or its dissemination. But Mill's case has considerable force in the contemporary debates about speech crimes. And it is all the stronger for its reliance on instrumental outcomes rather than on "human rights" grounds. I am not at all sure that I have a "right" to freedom of speech, but I am absolutely clear that it is to the detriment of us all if I am denied it.

Mill's liberalism also made him a staunch advocate of local government and associations rather than central control. He saw the primary role of central government as "a central depository, and active circulator and diffuser, of the experience resulting from many trials." He thought parents should be obliged to educate their children, but was fiercely opposed to a central, state-run education system: a "national curriculum" would have appalled him.

Mill being Mill, setting out his intellectual stall so beautifully in On Liberty was not enough. Six years after the publication of his great book, he stood for the constituency of Westminster, which he represented for the next three years. Once in parliament, he introduced an amendment to the Reform bill, giving women equal voting rights—the first attempt to do so—and won, to everyone's surprise, 73 votes to the cause. He loudly denounced the suspension of habeas corpus in Ireland; saved Epping forest and the elm trees of Piccadilly; and introduced a bill to establish a corporation for London. He also relentlessly pursued Governor Edward Eyre, who had brutally suppressed an uprising in Jamaica—a struggle in which he was pitted against not only Carlyle but also Ruskin, an inspirer of the young Labour party (Mill did get him to change sides later). In many of these initiatives Mill was unsuccessful in the short term. But his reputation meant that he was able to use the Commons, as he had prophesied decades earlier, as "a teacher's chair for instructing and impelling the public mind."

He was not a natural politician; he lacked the clubability and ruthlessness of a political great. But by insisting on taking his ideas to their conclusions, he marked out a place for himself as one of the giants of the 19th century, and someone able to inspire as much by his living deeds as by his timeless words.