Raising a Genius: James and John Stuart Mill

Yale University Press’ Little Histories collection is a family of books that takes a closer look at some of the most significant events, ideas, discoveries and people throughout history. As part of our ongoing coverage of the collection, here’s an excerpt from Nigel Warburton’s A Little History of Philosophy, a book that presents the grand sweep of humanity’s search for philosophical understanding from Socrates to Peter Singer. Today, our focus is on James and John Stuart Mill, two influential philosophers who also happened to be father and son.

“JAMES MILL 1773 – 1836 JOHN STUART MILL 1806 – 1873 Philosophers lived here 1814 – 1831” by Spudgun67 is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Think your childhood was tough? ‘Imagine,’ Nigel Warburton writes, ‘that you had been kept away from other children for most of your childhood. Instead of spending time playing, you would have been learning Greek and algebra, taught by a private tutor, or you’d be in conversation with highly intelligent adults. How would you have turned out?’

The subject of this ‘educational experiment’, we find out in Chapter 24 of A Little History of Philosophy, was none other than John Stuart Mill (1806-73). Mill’s father was the famous James Mill, a Scottish philosopher, historian and economist who helped to found the theory of Utilitarianism. According to Warburton, James taught his son at home, keeping him away from other children so that he wouldn’t learn any bad habits from them. John grew up on the Socratic method—learning by answering questions—because his father wanted to make sure that he learned things actively, rather than passively listening to James’ lectures.

James’ efforts paid off: by the time he was six, John had written a history of Rome, and by the next year, he could read Plato’s dialogues—in their original language.  He eventually became a ‘campaigner against injustice, an early feminist (he was arrested for promoting birth control), a politician, a journalist, and a great philosopher, perhaps the greatest philosopher of the nineteenth century’.

One of Mill’s biggest influences on philosophy was his book, On Liberty. Warburton introduces the principal theory of the book:

‘Mill’s message was simple. It is known as the Harm Principle. Every adult should be free to live as he or she pleases as long as no one else is harmed in the process. This was a challenging idea in Victorian England when many people assumed that part of the role of government was to impose good moral values on the people. Mill disagreed […] He hated what he called ‘the tyranny of the majority’, the way that social pressures worked to prevent many people from doing what they wanted to do or become.’

At the same time, Mill’s theory comes with some troubling consequences. Warburton raises the example of a man with no family who drinks two bottles of vodka every night—we know that he will soon drink himself to death, but there is no good reason for the law to intervene because the man is not risking harm to anyone else. Given his free will, the man should be able to choose whatever he likes.

As one would expect, Mill faced quite a number of objections to his ideas. Some people thought he was ‘opening the doors to a permissive society that would wreck morality for ever’. But no matter what you think about Mill’s ideas, the fact remains that he was a very important figure in the nineteenth century who influenced many people—all thanks to a toy-deprived, philosophy-fuelled childhood.

A Little History of Philosophy by Nigel Warburton

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