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John Stuart Mill | Biography

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John Stuart Mill was a 19th-century philosopher, agent for the colonial British East India Company, and Member of Parliament.

Born on May 20, 1806, in Pentonville, London, to James Mill, also a philosopher and historian, and Harriet Burrow, Mill grew up in a vibrant and elite intellectual community. As a boy he was surrounded by some of the leading 19th-century English scholars including Samuel and Jeremy Bentham; economists Jean Baptiste Say and Henri Saint-Simon; Auguste Comte, the father of sociology; and close family friend, political economist David Ricardo. Mill studied Greek, Latin, classics, and political economy as a youth while he was being groomed by his father to become the next generation's proponent of the philosophy of "utilitarianism," the idea that the greatest personal and collective happiness is the only abiding social principle.

That pressure caught up to Mill, who in his early 20s had a nervous breakdown. He spent 35 years as an administrator for the East India Company, which oversaw the British commercial and colonial empire in India. That experience left Mill dedicated to British imperialism as long as colonial subjects seemed to benefit from the experience. In many other respects, Mill was a progressive in his era and a well-known public intellectual, supporting women's rights, workers' rights, the abolition of slavery, and animal rights at various times.

In his philosophical career Mill became the leading proponent of liberalism, which he saw as a principled defense of individual rights. His major works, the textbook The Principles of Political Economy (1848), On Liberty, and Utilitarianism (1861), all espoused systems that protected individual rights, including property, and markets. In much of this he was indebted to his wife, Harriet Taylor Mill, herself a philosopher, whom Mill credited with co-authoring On Liberty. Later in life Mill would modify these positions somewhat, advocating "progressive liberalism," including taxation based on the principle of utilitarianism, and worker collective ownership of private firms. However, throughout his life Mill's dedication to individual rights and systems of markets made him the standard bearer of political liberalism, a position he maintains to this day.

John Stuart Mill died in Avignon, France, on May 8, 1873, of a skin disease called erysipelas and is buried there with his wife, Harriet.

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