John Stuart Mill: A Biography

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9781107407039: John Stuart Mill: A Biography

Nicholas Capaldi's biography of John Stuart Mill traces the ways in which Mill's many endeavors are related and explores the significance of his contributions to metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, social and political philosophy, the philosophy of religion, and the philosophy of education. Capaldi shows how Mill was groomed for his life by both his father James Mill and Jeremy Bentham, the two most prominent philosophical radicals of the early 19th century. Mill, however, revolted against this education and developed friendships with both Thomas Carlyle and Samuel Taylor Coleridge who introduced him to Romanticism and political conservatism. A special feature of this biography is the attention devoted to Mill's relationship with Harriet Taylor. No one exerted a greater influence than the woman he was eventually to marry. Capaldi reveals just how deep her impact was on Mill's thinking about the emancipation of women. Nicholas Capaldi was until recently the McFarlin Endowed Professor of Philosophy and Research Professor of Law at the University of Tulsa. He is the founder and former Director of Legal Studies. His principal research and teaching interest is in public policy and its intersection with political science, philosophy, law, religion, and economics. He is the author of six books, including The Art of Description (Prometheus, 1987) and How to Win Every Argument (MJF Books, 1999), over fifty articles, and editor of six anthologies. He is a recent recipient of the Templeton Foundation Freedom Project Award.

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Book Description:

Nicholas Capaldi's biography of John Stuart Mill traces the ways in which Mill's many endeavors are related and explores the significance of Mill's contribution to metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, social and political philosophy, the philosophy of religion, and the philosophy of education. A special feature of this biography is the attention devoted to the relationship with Harriet Taylor. No one exerted a greater influence than the woman he was eventually to marry. Nicholas Capaldi reveals just how deep her impact was on Mill's thinking about the emancipation of women.

From The Washington Post:

Writers and publishers make much of the distinction between biographies and intellectual biographies. But for some subjects that distinction does not hold. John Stuart Mill is not only, as Nicholas Capaldi says, "the quintessential Victorian liberal"; he is also the quintessential intellectual. The great merit of this latest biography is that, in spite of its modest subtitle ("A Biography"), it is also truly an intellectual biography, thus doing justice to this remarkable man.

There was drama enough in Mill's life, as there was in the lives of other quintessentially Victorian intellectuals. Thomas Carlyle, Matthew Arnold, Cardinal Newman and Lord Acton all went through riveting personal experiences. And all of them took those experiences not only to heart, as the saying goes, but to mind, causing them to consider, and often reconsider, the largest questions of philosophy, society, politics and religion. The drama of Mill's life -- and of his mind -- revolves around two figures: his father and his wife.

"I was born in London," Mill's Autobiography opens (after a paragraph justifying the writing of an autobiography), "on the 20th of May, 1806, and was the eldest son of James Mill, the author of the History of British India." This introduction was entirely fitting for an autobiography in which the father plays a major part and the mother appears not at all. (The few sentences about her in the original draft, expurgated by his wife, are dismissive, almost contemptuous.) It was his father who was responsible for the young Mill's awesome education: Greek at the age of 3, Plato (in Greek, of course) at 7, Latin (belatedly) at 8 and so on; the list of the books he read as a youth constitutes something like a bibliography of Western civilization. He was also initiated in the methodology and ideology of utilitarianism, and it was this that provoked the "crisis in my mental history," as Mill put it -- the discovery that the rigorously analytic, rationalistic, utilitarian philosophy was destructive of feeling, sentiment and imagination, and that life as he was meant to live it, as a thinker and reformer in the Benthamite mode, was meaningless and heartless.

One of the most dramatic moments in the Autobiography is Mill's description of the "small ray of light" that began to dispel his deep depression. He was reading a memoir by the French philosopher Marmontel when he came upon a passage recounting the death of the father and the boy's realization that he would now take his father's place in the family. Suddenly, Mill says, he was moved to tears, and his "burden grew lighter." It is curious that, even in a pre-Freudian era, Mill could have related this with no apparent perception of what it signified about himself and his father, pleased only with the discovery that he could be moved to tears, that all feeling was not dead in him, that he was not "a stock [sic] or a stone." That epiphany was reinforced in the next few years by his reading of Wordsworth and Coleridge, Carlyle and the St. Simonians. For most biographers, this marks yet another passing stage in Mill's education. For Capaldi, it represents the Romanticism that was to be the essential and enduring character of his life and thought. It was this Romantic element that gave to every subject -- logic and political economy, liberty and utilitarianism, women and representative government -- its distinctive character, and united them all into a coherent whole. And united, moreover, Mill's personal and intellectual life.

If Mill's father monopolized his youth, Harriet Taylor monopolized his mature life -- personally, certainly, and to a remarkable extent, intellectually as well. Mill met her when he was not quite 25 (there is no intimation that he was ever interested in any other woman until then) and she was 23, married and the mother of two sons (a daughter was to be born the following year). Their "affair," if it can be called that (and some of their friends did call it that), started almost immediately and went on for almost two decades while she remained married to her husband.

They did the "honorable thing," according to Capaldi, "at great personal sacrifice," by not sleeping with each other -- and by her not sleeping with her husband. John Taylor conveniently went to his club so that his wife and Mill could dine together, and he remained home while they went to her country home or traveled abroad, sometimes, but not always, chaperoned by her children. After he died in 1849, they waited almost two years (for the sake of propriety) before marrying.

Whether they continued to be celibate is still a matter of debate among biographers. What is not in doubt is that they chose to live a thoroughly reclusive life, alienated from his family and deliberately dissociating themselves from their old friends. It was a brief marriage; Harriet died seven years later, in 1858, and was buried at Avignon, where they happened to be at the time. Mill bought a house overlooking the cemetery and spent part of every year there for the rest of his life. But he also resumed an active personal and public life, rekindling old friendships, serving briefly in Parliament, and writing and publishing voluminously.

There are not many biographers of Mill who take so thoroughly a sympathetic view of Harriet Taylor as Capaldi does, crediting Mill's many effusive tributes to her. In the Autobiography (that she read and approved of in manuscript), he likened her to Shelley, except that in "thought and intellect," Shelley was "but a child" compared with her. She was also, Mill insisted, his own superior in "the highest regions of speculation" as well as in "the smallest practical concerns of daily life." Capaldi also credits Mill's attribution to her of a decisive influence on all of his work, during and after her lifetime. It was to her, Capaldi says, that Mill was indebted for the synthesis of the Enlightenment and Romanticism that Capaldi takes to be the motif of his life and thought.

Capaldi is critical of those commentators (he mentions Friedrich Hayek and myself) who have been less than enchanted with Harriet Taylor and who find her influence upon Mill to have been less than salutary. He is also impatient with those (again, like Hayek and myself) who do not share his view of the unified, consistent, systematic, coherent nature of the whole of Mill's work. The single exception Capaldi allows concerns religion; "Theism," the last of Mill's three essays on religion, published posthumously, was far more tolerant than the earlier ones both of the social utility of religion and of the existence of God, even of the possibility of immortality.

More dramatic are the changes in Mill's views of socialism, as exhibited in successive editions of Political Economy. It is here that Harriet Taylor's influence was most evident, his letters to her showing him adding or deleting one passage after another upon her suggestion so as to present socialism (or communism -- he often used the words interchangeably) in a more favorable light. At one point he protested that he would make the change although he did not agree with her, but would come to do so, he was sure, eventually. At another, he said that the effect of the proposed deletion was to belie the whole of his preceding argument (that socialism was inimical to liberty), in which case there was "nothing to be said against Communism at all -- one would only have to turn round and advocate it," which might be better done in another work. Yet that deletion, too, was made. Almost his last work, published posthumously as Chapters on Socialism, reverted to his earlier objections, on economic as well as liberal grounds.

Capaldi's Mill may not be everyone's Mill. Indeed, the final sentence of the book, "Mill was the greatest of the English Romantics," almost invites dissent. Yet even when one disagrees with his analysis of one or another of Mill's works, one can appreciate its seriousness and thoughtfulness -- the distinction, for example, in On Liberty between "freedom" and "liberty," the former signifying an internal quality of "autonomy," the latter an external lack of constraints. One may also admire his determination to give Mill the status of a major thinker by insisting upon the integrity and unity of his entire body of work -- and, moreover, of his personal life in relation to his work. Yet surely it does not diminish a thinker to recognize that "circumstances," as Burke would say, are, if not everything, surely something -- that changes of opinion and principle are worthy responses to new conditions, events, experiences and, not least, to renewed reflection and reconsideration.

Reviewed by Gertrude Himmelfarb


Copyright 2004, The Washington Post Co. All Rights Reserved.

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