May 20, 1806 (a Tuesday)

John Stuart Mill

On this date, John Stuart Mill was born in England. Mill, who met Jeremy Bentham as a young man, became a champion of individual liberty. With Bentham, Mill advanced utilitarianism, a philosophy advocating that the role of government is to create the greatest amount of good with the least evil. Mill, known for his clear writing style and compelling logic, advanced and popularized such ideals as social and sexual equality, the public ownership of national resources, and political liberty. Mill was tutored at a tender age by his father, James Mill, who was an agnostic. Mill could not remember a time when he could not read Greek, writing in his autobiography that he started Greek study by age three. Mill wrote in his Autobiography (1873) that his father “impressed upon me from the first, that the manner in which the world came into existence was a subject on which nothing was known: that the question, ‘Who made me?’ cannot be answered, because we have no experience or authentic information from which to answer it; and that any answer only throws the difficulty a step further back, since the question immediately presents itself, Who made God?”

Even as a teenager, Mill wrote a defense of skeptic Richard Carlile, jailed for six years for “blasphemous libel.” After a clerkship in India House, Mill became part of the “philosophic Radicals,” and wrote for number of journals. A System of Logic, in two volumes, came out in 1843, followed by Principles of Political Economy (1848), On Liberty (1859), Utilitarianism (1863), and The Subjection of Women (1869). The latter book was influenced by his wife Harriet Hardy Taylor, a longtime friend whom Mill married in 1851. “Every established fact which is too bad to admit of any other defense is always presented to us as an injunction of religion,” he noted in this work. In On Liberty, a work dedicated to his wife, who died in 1858, Mill rejected a standard of ethics predicated on obedience, or the crushing of individuality, whether by “enforcing the will of God or the injunctions of men.” Mill termed Christianity “essentially a doctrine of passive obedience; it inculcates submission to all authorities found established.”

Mill was a member of Parliament from 1865 to 1868, rising to the defense of Charles Bradlaugh, the atheist politician who had to fight for years to be seated in Parliament. Although Mill’s views were unpopular, Gladstone once referred to Mill as “the saint of Rationalism.” Mill’s Reform Bill of 1867, the first attempt to grant the vote to British women, while unsuccessful, ignited the British suffrage movement. Three essays on religion were published posthumously. In them, Mill hints that he had adopted a Deistic belief in what he termed a “limited liability god,” surprising his freethinking friends. But his strong repudiation of miracles and dogma, while outraging the public, was a seminal defense of rationalism. Mill wrote in Utility of Religion, published in 1874, that belief “in the supernatural . . . cannot be considered to be any longer required. . .” Another famous passage by Mills states:

Religiously wrong [is] a motive of legislation which can never be too earnestly protested against. Deorum injuriae Diis curae. Injustices to the gods are the concern of the gods. It remains to be proved that society or any of its officers holds a commission from on high to avenge any supposed offense to Omnipotence which is not also a wrong to our fellow creatures. The notion that it is one man’s duty that another should be religious was the foundation of all the religious persecutions ever perpetrated, and, if admitted, would fully justify them … A determination not to tolerate others in doing what is permitted by their religion, because it is not permitted by the persecutor’s religion. It is a belief that God not only abominates the act of the misbeliever, but will not hold us guiltless if we leave him unmolested.

The issues Mill dealt with–and did so admirably consistently– are still relevant today. This becomes evident when we feel sure that we can tell where he would have stood on the issues of our day. To borrow the judgement of another great mind and thinker, Isaiah Berlin, Mill’s On Liberty “is still the clearest, most candid, persuasive, and moving exposition of the point of view of those who desire an open and tolerant society.” (Berlin, Four Essays on Liberty, p.201).

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