Radical son: the apprenticeship of john stuart mill.

Author:Taylor, Quentin

Few parents raise their children from infancy to assume a specific occupation or role in life. Fewer still raise them to be radical reformers. This, however, is precisely what James Mill did with his first-born child, John Stuart Mill (1806-1873). At the time of his son's birth, James Mill was a struggling man of letters who had left his native Scotland for London after stints as a scholar, a preacher, and a tutor. In 1808 he met Jeremy Bentham, the eccentric philosopher and legal reformer, and adopted his doctrines wholesale, while Bentham in turn embraced the radical politics of Mill. The two would join forces in a crusade to transform an aristocratic and semi-feudal England into a modern democracy. Mill, Bentham, and their followers would become known as the "Philosophic Radicals" and were for a time represented by a small, but vocal, contingent of MPs in the House of Commons. Thoroughly convinced of the truth, justice, and practicality of his creed, James Mill nonetheless understood that the battle for reform would require additional talents if the final victory was to be won. His mother had taken great pains to see that he was highly educated, exempting him from all duties save study. The precocious child won a scholarship to the University of Edinburgh where he distinguished himself in a number of fields. Bentham was also a prodigy of learning, perhaps the youngest student ever to graduate from Oxford. Given the ideas and ambitions of these two men, it was no surprise that John Mill would be groomed from an early age in the image of his father.

As told in his famous Autobiography, Mill began learning Greek at the age of three and arithmetic shortly thereafter. By eight he was reading Greek authors and learning Latin. Over the next four years his studies expanded to encompass the entire circle of the liberal arts: history, mathematics, the classics, logic, political economy, and literature. He took notes, made abstracts, compiled tables, and conversed intelligently with his father. He was a petit monstre of learning. As a result of this ambitious "experiment" in home-schooling, John Mill by the age of fourteen possessed "an advantage of a quarter of a century over [his] contemporaries." (1)

In the Autobiography, Mill says almost nothing about his early political education, but there can be little doubt that he imbibed the doctrines of Radicalism as readily as his Greek and Latin. The Mill household was the Radicals' effective headquarters, and young John grew well-acquainted with a number of the group's leading figures. (2) From David Ricardo, a close friend of his father's, he learned the principles of classical political economy--principles he largely retained for the rest of his life. Bentham himself took a special interest in the boy, and agreed to continue the "experiment" if his father should not live to oversee its completion. Pere Mill survived a serious illness and in 1820 arranged for John to stay a half-year with the family of Bentham's brother (himself a man of distinction) in Restoration France. In Paris Mill fils was introduced to a number of liberals, some of whom were correspondents of English Radicals, including the noted economist Jean-Baptiste Say. Settled in southern France, John would continue his rigorous course of study--logic, zoology, chemistry, higher mathematics, and literature. (Religion and theology, as under his father's tutelage, were conspicuously absent from the curriculum.) He also kept a journal, mastered French, attended lectures, explored the countryside, and made his first boyhood friend. So pleasant was his stay that he was permitted to extend his sojourn for an additional six months. He returned to England in July, 1821, a confirmed Francophile.

What occurred shortly thereafter would change his life forever and reveal the higher purpose of his hot-house education. Confident that his "experiment" had been a success, James Mill decided the time was nigh to bring young John into the church of Radicalism. First, he arranged for him to study law under John Austin, an eminent jurist and convert to Benthamism. He then gave John a copy of Bentham's Traite de legislation civile et penale, a French redaction of Bentham's utilitarian philosophy. Young Mill had already absorbed the "greatest happiness principle" at the heart of utilitarianism, for his education had been "in a certain sense, already a course in Benthamism." He had yet to realize, however, that Bentham had utterly exploded the foundations of all previous systems of morals and legislation and replaced them with a new standard at once universal and revolutionary. For Bentham, hoary phrases such as "law of nature," "right reason," and "moral sense"--used for centuries to anchor legal and moral theory--were simply "fictions," or worse still, "dogmatism in disguise." With a single sweep of the scythe, Bentham's principle of utility, with its sole concern for the consequences of conduct (public and private) on human happiness, had (in Mill's words) rendered all prior moral reasoning obsolete, ushering in a "new era of thought."

The impact of these revelations on Mill was electric. "I felt taken up to an eminence from which I could survey a vast mental domain, and see stretching out into the distance intellectual results beyond all comprehension." To this intellectual epiphany was added "the most inspiring prospects of practical improvement in human affairs." With each leaf of the Traite he turned over, Mill gained a "clearer and broader conception of what human opinions and institutions ought to be, how they might be made what they ought to be, and how far removed from it they now are." As he finished the last page of the last volume, he was fully transformed--he "had become a different being." The efficient cause of this transformation was Bentham's "principle of utility," which supplied the unifying "keystone" to Mill's "detached and fragmentary" body of knowledge. The boy who had "never had" religion had undergone a religious experience, and emerged with a faith. "I now had opinions; a creed, a doctrine, a philosophy; in one of the best senses of the word, a religion." And just as epiphany had led to conversion, so conversion led to evangelism. The young disciple now saw that "the inculcation and diffusion" of the Benthamite gospel "could be made the principal outward purpose of my life," and he delighted in the "grand conception. . . of changes to be effected in the condition of mankind." The fifteen-year-old polymath now had a vocation, "an object in life"--he would be "a reformer of the world."

A second event that occurred near this time served to give historical color and context to Mill's new-found creed and career: his intellectual encounter with the French Revolution. (3) Remarkably, his vast (if selective) historical studies, and his stay in France, had left him untouched by the most stupendous event of modern times. He knew of the Revolution per se--the overthrow of the monarchy and execution of the King, the Terror and the rise of Bonaparte--but was unaware of its ultimate significance. Upon reading a history of these events, he was amazed to learn that "the principles of democracy" had triumphed in France just three decades ago. This lacuna in the education of a young radical is explained easily enough. While sympathetic to the aspirations of the French people and enemies of aristocracy everywhere, neither Bentham nor James Mill was an enthusiast of the principles or practices of the revolutionary leaders. The men who proclaimed the natural and universal "rights of man" and declared war on the crowned heads of Europe--while removing countless others along the way--could hardly have supplied a fitting model for young John. Indeed, it was the excesses of these "ruffians" (as James Mill called them) that had set back the cause of reform in England for a generation.

Bentham and the elder Mill did not sharply distinguish the moderate from the extreme French revolutionists, but John Mill did. In addition to embracing the grand narrative at the heart of the Revolution--the struggle of liberty vs. tyranny--he identified the Gironde party, the relative moderates who attempted to establish a constitutional monarchy, as the heroes of the Grand Drama. He even entertained the prospect of a parallel event occurring in England and could envision nothing more glorious than "figuring, successful or unsuccessful, as a Girondist in an English convention." Later Mill would not only defend the Girondists, but shower praise on "the purest and most disinterested body of men, considered as a party, who ever figured in history. . . ." (4) Here it is sufficient to note that as an aspiring "democratic champion," he was willing to sacrifice himself in the crusade for reform: the Girondists were ultimately unsuccessful, and not a few paid for failure with their heads.

This is not to say that Mill was literally willing to give his life for the cause of radical reform. Like his mentors, he abhorred violence and hoped to achieve the goals of Radicalism without the chaos and uncertainties of revolution. (5) The main point of the foregoing is simply to underscore the peculiarity of Mill's upbringing as a protege and a "successor worthy" of Bentham and his father,6 and highlight the bathos of a fifteen-year-old boy who guilelessly identified himself as a "reformer of the world." Students of Mill have tended to lay stress on his education (which was certainly peculiar) but have downplayed the more remarkable fact that he was being groomed as a tool in the service of an ideology. This was hardly uncommon in the cause of religion, but in politics it was something new and startling. True enough, Mill came to maturity in the Age of Reform, a period consumed with human betterment, and cluttered with philanthropists, cranks, and visionaries. Alongside these exotic growths were the practical reformers, both in and out of...

To continue reading