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John Stuart Mill | Biography

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John Stuart Mill was a 19th-century British philosopher, agent for the colonial British East India Company, and member of Parliament. He wrote many influential books about a range of topics, including education, society, and economics. Among his notable accomplishments was his work as an early advocate for women's rights. As a member of Parliament, Mill introduced a bill to give women the right to vote. Although defeated, the bill reflected Mill's uncompromising commitment to equality.

Early Life and Education

Born on May 20, 1806, to James Mill, also a philosopher and historian, and Harriet Barrow, the eldest Mill boy grew up in a vibrant and elite intellectual community. As a boy he was surrounded by some of the leading 19th-century scholars, including English philosophers Samuel and Jeremy Bentham, French economists Jean Baptiste Say and Henri Saint-Simon, the French philosopher and father of sociology Auguste Comte, and close family friend and British political economist David Ricardo. As early as age three, Mill studied Greek. By age eight, he began studying Latin, classics, and political economy. He was groomed by his father and family friend Jeremy Bentham 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.

Mill's father James was not himself born into a gentlemen's life. He was a Scottish shoemaker. With help, his mother arranged for James to study at Montrose Academy, after which he went to the University at Edinburgh to study for the ministry. There, he fell in love with the works of ancient Greek philosopher Plato, and read thinkers such as Scottish philosopher David Hume, Genevan philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and French writer Voltaire. He supported himself for a time as a tutor, and eventually left Scotland for England, where he wrote for periodicals and did editing work. It was in England that James Mill developed the influential relationships and ideas that young John would inherit.

Business Career

The pressure of his socially prominent upbringing caught up to Mill, who had a nervous breakdown in his early 20s. He then 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—so long, he argued, as colonial subjects benefited from the experience. In many other respects, however, Mill was progressive for his era. A well-known public intellectual, he supported women's rights, workers' rights, the abolition of slavery, and animal rights.

Philosophical Career

In his philosophical career Mill became the leading proponent of liberalism, which he saw as a principled defense of individual rights. His major works, On Liberty (1859), Utilitarianism (1861), and the textbook The Principles of Political Economy (1848), all espoused market systems and the protection of individual rights, including property. 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. He advocated "progressive liberalism," including taxation based on the principle of utilitarianism, and collective worker 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.

Although Mill was never a professional academic, two of his works, A System of Logic (1843) and Political Economy, were used as textbooks in and out of university classrooms. Both established him as a philosopher and economist.

Mill's relationship with Taylor was, for years, unorthodox. They fell in love while she was still married to John Taylor, with whom she had three children. They met in 1830 and carried on an affair, apparently tolerated by her husband. He died in 1849, and in 1851, John Stuart and Harriet Taylor were married. Their relationship was not simply romantic, but one that entailed a years' long intellectual collaboration.

Death and Legacy

Mill died on May 8, 1873, of a skin disease and is buried with his wife, Harriet, in Avignon, France. He is considered one of the most influential 19th-century English philosophers.

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