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John Stuart Mill

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

John Stuart Mill and freedoms

[Translation of John Stuart Mill y las libertades by Pedro Schwartz published in La Vanguardia Digital on 24-May-2006.]

John Stuart Mill was born on 20th May 1806 and became one of the greatest symbols of freedom of all time. To celebrate the bicentennial of his birth, this article examines his fascinating and complex character, which in common with most intellectuals has contrasting aspects. It will also summarise his ideas that are particularly relevant now when individual and political freedoms are being threatened in Spain.

John Mill was the son of James Mill, a Scottish historian (History of India), radical economist and very strict disciplinarian. James Mill and the philosopher Jeremias Bentham decided to educate the young child to take the Utilitarianism philosophy that they had both created forward after their deaths. This philosophy had two significant doctrines that are relevant to the development of John Mill: the obligation for all good men to dedicate themselves to working for the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people - a democratic and materialistic belief that was quite shocking in those Christian times; and the belief that that human mind was like a blank slate on which the most esoteric ideas and the most disciplined behaviours could be inscribed - without being restricted by the natural abilities of the child. They brought up the young John into this secular religion. They were really fortunate because John was a prodigious child: at three years of age he knew a long list of classical Greek words and their English translations by heart; at eight he started studying Latin and algebra; at ten he was familiar with the Greek and Latin classics and had read the dialogues of Plato; at thirteen his father taught him political economics during their morning walks, which the child summarised in the afternoon and these notes were published in 1819 under the title of, Elements of Political Economy with the father listed as the author. At this age he finished his formal education: he never went to college or university except to some university extension courses as an adolescent in France. It is not surprising that he suffered severe mental depression at twenty, following which he departed from orthodox Utilitarianism. From here his biography becomes really interesting. John Mill embraced the new ideas of romanticism, socialism and feminism, especially after meeting the intelligent and non-conformist Harriet Taylor.

The split with his father caused by their philosophical differences widened when he fell in love with a married woman, who he could only marry when she became a widow. Like other young people in the 19th century he briefly visited revolutionary Paris in 1830 and again in 1848. He never abandoned the classical economic theories of Smith and Ricardo, but he gave them a slant of his own: he continued to believe strongly in laisser-faire and free trade, but in his Principles of Political Economy (especially in the third edition in 1852) he made reference to socialism, which was emerging at that time, and defended co-operation. He also returned to the Utilitarian philosophy, but in a much more flexible version: for someone who had been educated into the conviction that it was the quantity of happiness that was the most important, it was a huge step to say, “I would prefer to be an unsatisfied Socrates than a satisfied pig.”

He is remembered as a notable scientific economist, despite the fact that he supported the idea of redistribution of wealth, especially land, and because of his weakness in response to union demands, defending their privileges in opposition to the idea of free competition. This same attitude of sitting on the fence between two philosophies, classical radical individualism and new Victorian left wing socialism, appears in his other writings. It provokes a mixture of admiration and alarm in a classical liberal like myself. I have already mentioned his new Utilitarianism which he published in 1864. Equally innovatory was The Subjection of Women in 1869 where he called for equal treatment for women, for which [as a Member of Parliament] he had already demanded the vote early in 1867. We can admire, in Considerations on Representative Government, his careful defence of liberalism against the dangers of popular sovereignty and fanatical nationalism. Here he also criticised the pretensions of politicians who want to define the content (and the language) of educational curricula and materials.

The book which should be studied with the greatest attention is his On Liberty (1859). The two principal ideas are the following: that free discussion of all ideas is essential for finding errors or reaffirming the truth; that adults must be allowed to behave according to their desires and convictions as long as the consequences affect them alone. In the field of ideas, Mill asked for unrestricted freedom to be critical. As regards how one should live, Mill called for an environment without social restrictions that allowed people of critical, original, imaginative, independent, non-conformist and even eccentric character to flourish. Perhaps it was too far from the road of romanticism for him to think about the other areas of life equally respectable to that of romantic artists and bohemians: the persistent scientific investigator, the creative businessman, the careful administrator, the good father, the disciplined and courageous soldier and the caring and virtuous missionary.


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