Published in 1859, On Liberty was perhaps John Stuart Mill's finest and most controversial work. Released shortly after his beloved wife, Harriet's death, On Liberty is Mill at his finest arguing for the principles he had espoused over his fifty...
The oldest of nine children, John Stuart Mill was born on May 20, 1806 in north London. His father, James Mill, was a student of Jeremy Bentham, a radical utilitarian. John was accelerated through school and shared the company of many of his father's intellectual friends throughout his adolescence. In fact, young John was sent to France to live with Samuel Bentham, Jeremy's brother. It is often lamented that John lacked a childhood thanks to his father's intense propulsion of his son into the academic world. Soon after his education, John followed his father into a job at the East India Company where he remained in leadership positions until the company's demise in 1858.
Mill's early writings and contributions to philosophy were published in two newspapers, The Traveller and The Morning Chronicle, both edited by associates of his friends. The radical philosophical journal Westminster Review served as another pulpit for Mill and a means to further elaborate on his views.
Mill's autobiography, completed shortly before his death in 1873, recounted the experiences he had in the London Debating Society, where his views were seen as the product of an obsessive academic upbringing, more a product of rote memorization than true philosophical thought. The experience he gained as a member of the Society taught him the value of political philosophy - not as a mode to create the ideal political system, but a means of determining the principles necessary to establish any successful governing system.
Mill continued to contribute to many philosophical journals and various newspapers in later years as he worked on A System of Logic and Principles of Political Economy.
In 1851, John Stuart Mill married Harriet Taylor after twenty years of friendship and two years after the death of her first husband. Harriet died seven years later, just months after Mill's retirement from the East India Company. Her impact on Mill's life was undeniable; he referred to her as his biggest influence and as a more intelligent thinker than himself. He credits her with inspiring his spontaneity and original thoughts in his life and writings. He also became an advocate for her issues of interest, such as birth control and women's rights. After Harriet's death, Mill turned his adulation on her daughter (his stepdaughter) Helen.
Mill published a series of writings on politics and ethics based on discussions he and Harriet had and manuscript writings on which they had collaborated. On Liberty, one of Mill's most renowned essays, opens with a moving dedication to his late wife. It was published in 1859; Thoughts on Parliamentary Reform followed closely that same year, and Considerations on Representative Government was published in 1861. Mill's own treatise on utilitarianism, initially published that same year, laid out Mill's own take on the moral theory of Jeremy Bentham; while it was fundamentally similar to Bentham's work, Mill drew several important doctrinal distinctions, such as different tiers of pleasure which he thought ought to be valued differently in moral calculus.
Mill ran for and won the Parliamentary seat of Westminster; he did so without any campaigning because he believed it improper to attempt to sway the vote in any way. He actively debated the 1867 Reform Bill on the floor of Parliament, convincing the government to make many useful changes to the bill. He worked diligently for the fair representation of women, and the reduction of the national debt.
Mill died in Avignon on May 6, 1873, after a successful career in Parliament and a lifetime of influencing and changing political and philosophical thought of his day.
Study Guides on Works by John Stuart Mill
First published in 1861, Utilitarianism constituted Mill's fullest treatment of the moral theory that was responsible for much of his philosophy. Following in the footsteps of Jeremy Bentham, in this work Mill provides the capstone paper outlining...