On Liberty | Study Guide

John Stuart Mill

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On Liberty | 10 Things You Didn't Know


John Stuart Mill's On Liberty, published in 1859, helped to define democracy as we know it. On Liberty stresses the shortcomings of a democratically elected government and offers solutions for avoiding catastrophic problems in politics. The worst outcome of any political structure, as Mill saw it, is tyranny, and he realized that even elections weren't a fail-safe against the rise of despotism.

Mill was a champion of individual freedom, as the title "On Liberty" declares. At its core, Mill's work is a testament to the need for liberty as a conduit to a satisfactory life. Since its publication, On Liberty has become a fundamental work of political thought that resonates with any democratic society.

1. Mill started writing philosophical essays at age 17.

Mill's love of philosophy began when he was 8 and started studying the classical philosophical tradition of Plato, Aristotle, and Euclid. A brilliant student, Mill was sent to France to live with Sir Samuel Bentham, brother of Jeremy Bentham—the founder of utilitarianism—in 1820. At only 17, Mill founded the Utilitarian Society with a group of friends. It was then that he began publishing his first articles in the Westminster Review.

2. Mill wasn't allowed to study at Britain's top two universities.

During the 19th century, Britain's most esteemed universities—Oxford and Cambridge—had a requirement that all students subscribe to the 39 Articles of the Church of England, which governed the country's Protestant faith. Mill objected to this requirement on philosophical grounds and refused to subscribe to the teachings of the Church. Therefore, he was not eligible to study at either Oxford or Cambridge despite his good academic standing. Instead, he began working at the East India Company and attended the University College of London, which had a more lenient religious policy. In his autobiography, Mill reflected on the ways in which people unquestioningly accept the teachings of the Church, writing:

I have never been able to find any other explanation of this, than by attributing it to that timidity of conscience, combined with original sensitivity of temperament, which has so often driven highly gifted men into Romanism from the need of a firmer support than they can find in the independent conclusion of their own judgement.

3. On Liberty resulted from Mill's nervous breakdown.

In 1826 Mill experienced what he described as a "mental crisis"—a nervous breakdown caused by depression. Mill attributed this breakdown to his stressful education as well as to a rigorously academic childhood that had left him little time for self-enjoyment. This marked a turning point in Mill's philosophy and, in particular, his break with the traditional, analytic doctrines of utilitarianism. His new theories emphasized the importance of individuality and eventually led to the composition of On Liberty.

4. On Liberty was heavily influenced—and possibly cowritten—by Mill's wife.

Mill's wife, Harriet Taylor Mill, reportedly had a hand in the writing of On Liberty. Mill credited his wife for playing a large role in the composition of On Liberty as well as several other works. Scholars debate the exact nature of this collaboration: whether Mill simply engaged in philosophical discussion with his wife, or whether she should be considered a legitimate coauthor. It is known, however, that she did indeed coauthor Mill's 1851 feminist treatise, The Enfranchisement of Women.

5. Despite his praise of individual freedom, Mill spent years working for the imperialistic East India Company.

One of the greatest criticisms leveled against Mill is that his corporate career contradicted his philosophical principles of individual freedom. Mill took over his father's position at Britain's East India Company in 1836. The massive 19th-century trading company was notorious for its human rights abuses, exploitation of indigenous populations in India, and use of mercenary soldiers to affirm its presence. Mill never wrote of India in his philosophical works, and he retired from his position when the company disbanded in 1858, stating his "job was done." He also made the now-controversial claim that British colonial rule in India during the 19th century was in the interest of the Indian people.

6. Mill was the first member of Parliament to call for women's suffrage.

Mill is often considered one of the earliest British feminist philosophers. From 1865–68, Mill was a member of Parliament. A Liberal, Mill championed several causes, including reform of Britain's stringent policies toward Ireland. His most notable and, at the time, controversial political view, however, was that he was the first politician in Parliament to call for giving women the right to vote in the United Kingdom. In 1865 three prominent women—Barbara Bodichon, Emily Davies, and Bessie Parks—helped run his campaign, which was utterly unheard of in England at the time.

7. Contemporary scholars have pointed out Mill's troubling defense of racism and colonialism in On Liberty.

In accord with Mill's career in the East India Company, critics have noted that Mill's praise of freedom in On Liberty contrasts with his troubling defense of racist practices. Mill believed colonialism was often in the best interest of the people subjugated by colonial rule—a common intellectual defense of Britain's imperialism during the 19th century. He also believed democracy wasn't always the proper form of government for all populations, noting:

Despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement, and the means justified by actually effecting that end.

Scholars note that, in addition to his use of the word barbarian, Mill should've known from his time in the East India Company that imperialism did not have the best interests of colonized populations in mind.

8. A copy of On Liberty is a symbol of a British political party.

Mill has had a lasting impact on British liberals, and On Liberty is considered a nearly sacred text by the Liberal Democrats Party in the United Kingdom. On Liberty is the official "book of office" of the party, and a copy is passed to each new party leader upon beginning a term. Mill himself was a prominent member of the party's precursor, the Liberal Party, before it was renamed after a merger with the Social Democratic Party in 1988.

9. Mill's term, "tyranny of the majority," dates back to America's founding fathers.

Mill is often credited with coining the phrase "tyranny of the majority," referring to an inherent problem with democracy in which a small majority of voters can subjugate everyone who doesn't share their views. Mill popularized the phrase, but it was actually first used by U.S. founding father James Madison. The Founding Fathers were aware of the risks of democracy, with John Adams writing that "Democracy never lasts long." The earliest use of the phrase was from Alexis de Tocqueville's 1835 study of U.S. government, Democracy in America, in which he saw "tyranny of the majority" as a potential problem for the young country's future.

10. Mill was the godfather of another famous British philosopher.

The famous philosopher and logician Bertrand Russell, coauthor of the 1910 mathematical treatise Principia Mathematica, owed his philosophical spirit to Mill. Russell's parents named Mill his godfather when he was born. However, because Russell's parents weren't followers of any traditional religious doctrine, scholars often jokingly describe Mill as a "secular godfather" to Russell—albeit one who had a profound influence on Russell's scholarly interests.

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