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Trouble at’ Mill

Notes on the life (and afterlife) of JS Mill, philosopher

The classical liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill was born and died this month – in, respectively, 1806 and 1873 – and in between he wrote (or co-wrote, with his wife, and then his step-daughter) On LibertyUtilitarianism, Principles of Political Economy, Considerations of Representative Government, The Subjection of Women, and A System of Logic, Ratiocinative and Inductive, Being a Connected View of the Principles of Evidence, and the Methods of Scientific Investigation.

I – The Incidental Mill Symposium

Everything I know about John Stuart Mill I learned in a beach hut on the West coast of Sri Lanka.

Some 18 months ago, perhaps, a former thinktank sparring partner got in touch to say that he was on the staff of a new politics-and-culture magazine, and they were looking for somebody to write a ‘Curious Lives’ pen-portrait feature. Possibly regularly. Would I be interested? Well, yes, of course I would.

The rest of the conversation I can broadly summarise as follows:

JS MILL: [writes 33 thick volumes of economics, history, philosophy and earnest journalism]
MARC: ‘Please write 800 words on JS Mill’s life and output. We’d need it in by Tuesday at the latest. Oh, and make it funny.’

That wasn’t space (or time) even to summarise the YouTube Mill tutorials. Also, one cannot, sadly, pop out to a bookshop in Colombo and expect to find a tome on JS Mill. What’s more, my family and I were just about to leave for a long seaside weekend.

So I downloaded Mill’s Autobiography and Richard Reeves’ John Stuart Mill, and set about urgently ‘researching’ the (I suspected) piously steady JS Mill on my daughter’s purple rubberised kids’ Kindle, from a cabana at my friend Dilsiri’s distractingly-beautiful kitesurfing resort outside Kalpitiya.

And when, predictably, my mind began to drift, I flipflopped across the sandy coconut groves to the bar (duh), where I was promptly introduced, both in person and, creepily, by Facebook, to a barrister called Niran, whom I had never met but with whom I had, inexplicably, all of the degrees of Kevin Baconayagam, and so spent much of the evening drunkenly discussing… the philosophy of JS Mill.

The next day’s prep was somewhat slower than the first, but to my surprise – and certainly relief – I found that Mill’s life had indeed been very curious. I got the piece done (OK, 200 words over: Mill was too interesting!), and sent it off, and was quite handsomely remunerated.

And then the mag went bust before it even came into existence.

II – Put through the Mill

When JS Mill was born, his father, the Scots philosopher-historian-economist James Mill, challenged one of his friends to ‘race with you in the education of… the most accomplished and virtuous young man’ – and wasn’t kidding. The name of that other child has not gone down in history; but he may well have dodged a serious bullet.

Learning Greek at 3, writing a history of Rome at 6, and tutoring his own siblings from the age of 8, John Stuart’s childhood quickly became synonymous with intellectual hothouse upbringings.

Groomed to be the strict Utilitarian offspring of his father and Jeremy ‘greatest happiness’ Bentham (Mill’s mother goes resoundingly unmentioned in his Autobiography), he was prevented from associating with kids his own age, was permanently off-games, and was woken up at 5 each day to work, unpaid, on James’s History of British India. If mistakes were made, he got no lunch.

Some of his father’s peers expressed concern – while those merely impressed were kept away from John in case he got a big head. Mill was occasionally allowed such treats as Don Quixote, or Jeremiah Joyce’s Scientific Dialogues; but reading poetry for pleasure was banned, despite the fact the family had once lived for a spell in Milton’s cottage, and that for homework he once wrote a sequel to the Iliad.

At 14 he took a gap year (as well one might), which he spent hobnobbing with French politicians and taking university courses in chemistry, zoology, and higher maths. (It was noted, though, that at this advanced stage he could still not comb his hair or tie a tie.) Back in England, he was arrested for distributing frank family-planning literature in poorer areas, and by the age of 20 he had nothing left to do but have his mid-life crisis.

In the circumstances, it is amazing that Mill turned out not merely functional but, in the assessment of Reeves, ‘the greatest public intellectual in the history of Britain – and perhaps even the world.’

With the help of Wordsworth’s verse (indeed), he began to distance himself from the Utilitarians, deciding he should worry less about ‘the greatest happiness’ in the doctrinal sense and more about his – and others’ – personal freedom and bog-standard contentment.

Already educated beyond university, and almost employability, Mill purposely took an untaxing clerical job with the East India Company (he finished work round 1pm), and embarked on the enormous side-career of strident political journalism that would make his name: or, in Edward ‘Clerihew’ Bentley’s wry summary, ‘By a mighty effort of will, / Overcame his natural bonhomie / And wrote Principles of Political Economy‘.

A unembarrassed ‘elitist democrat’, Mill believed that people could and should govern themselves, in the interests both of personal choice and broader social improvement, free from the tyrannies of law or majoritarian social attitudes – but that The People needed education and constraint. His faith in parliamentary democracy was not unqualified.

Individuals should be free to act as they wished, unless it would cause harm to others. ‘Offence’, NB, did not count as ‘harm’. In fact free speech was critical, for the airing of minority opinions and for bringing questionable views into contact with much better ones.

As an indication of the currency of these and other high-minded attitudes, when he was 31 The Spectator included Mill in a fantasy (sic) radical cabinet, though he was not even at that time a politician.

Politically and personally, he was probably a hard man to be friends with. He viewed Coleridge as a poetic genius, but also an ‘arrant driveller’ on economic matters. Macaulay he called a ‘dwarf’, and Carlyle a ‘true voice for the Devil’ – an a/enmity not defrosted by his maid using the only copy of Carlyle’s French Rev vol.1 to light the fire (cf. Blackadder).

He found eccentricity preferable to uniformity and stagnation, and his fallings out with former allies were almost always over their perceived political inflexibility. He had a marked penchant for slaying heroes, including, famously, Jeremy Bentham himself.

Pensioned off after the East India Company’s disbandment, Mill was finally at liberty to put his money where his professional mouth had been for over 40 years. In 1865 the titanic philosopher became a Liberal MP, by the unusual expedient of admitting at the hustings that he had called his working class would-be constituents ‘habitual liars’ (much cheering).

In a typically idiosyncratic and principled career, he prophesied the environmental dangers of unchecked economic development, but referred to the abolition of the death penalty as ‘effeminacy’; he continued to argue against the ‘tyranny of the majority’ in domestic politics, but was at peace with ‘despotism’ (his word) when it came to British rule in, e.g., India; he suggested learned folks should have more votes than the uneducated, but was the first man to bring a parliamentary vote on women’s suffrage.

He was, perhaps surprisingly, willing to compromise in the name of practical governance; but interested neither in party politics nor in ministerial advancement, he used the Commons as a pulpit to speak on as-yet-hopelessly-unpopular progressive issues. Unhelpfully, he also turned out to be an unconvincing public speaker. Having wound up Conservatives and Liberals alike, he lost his seat just three years later.

In 1851 he’d married the widow Harriet Taylor, with whom he had been spending considerable time – ‘platonically’ – for decades, notwithstanding, and sometimes in, the presence of her husband (alive and, well, unstimulating). Tragically for Mill, she died in 1858; but such was the impact, both morally and intellectually, of ‘the most admirable person I had ever known,’ that he dedicated much of the final phase of his life to the National Society for Women’s Suffrage, recruiting Florence Nightingale (originally sceptical) and being hailed by Millicent Fawcett as the ‘principal originator of the women’s movement.’

And so, while Bentham sat in state in his ‘auto-icon’ pickle-jar at UCL, Mill – later described by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy as ‘the most influential English-speaking philosopher of the nineteenth century’ – died an outsider, thrown out of one last club, just months before his death, for his outspoken views on land redistribution.

As the man himself wrote, there is ‘a tinge of melancholy in all biographies; the more interested we are in the hero, the sadder is our foreknowledge of the inevitable fifth act.’ Despite Monty Python‘s slanderous assertion that Mill became particularly ill on half a pint of shandy, it was actually a skin disorder what got him: erysipelas, or ‘holy fire’ (fittingly or otherwise, for an avowed agnostic in the former papal state of Avignon). He received the diagnosis with consummate dignity – “I have done my work” – and went to his grave believing his life had been ‘uneventful’, leaving one stepdaughter, Helen, and one godson (surely not the mot juste), Bertrand Russell.

He is commemorated by an unremarkable statue in Embankment Gardens, a portrait by GF Watts, an austere and lumpy-headed photo by the London Stereoscopic Company, and no small number of caricatures.

III – Chair of philosophy

Last weekend, I was unpacking the final boxes of my stuff laboriously imported from South Asia, and found my (highly collectible!) proof copy of S—- magazine. For a couple of minutes I leafed idly through it – looking wistfully at the frankly excellent piece on Mill, as well as all the other names like Tom Holland, Matt Ridley, Joy Lo Dico and Vernon Bogdanor, and wondering what might have been if only whichever oligarch/trustafarian had not gone bust and/or withdrawn his funding – before realising I really didn’t have time for this, as we’d a dinner obligation (not at all the right word) across the racecourse, in just under half an hour.

Our date being with a philosopher (three quarters of his immediate family are philosophers, in fact – or, at any rate, Philosophers), it was really no more than expected that when we arrived Ru thrust a glass of Bollinger in my direction and invited me to sit down in a characterful antique, mahogany, upholstered armchair. “Of course,” he mentioned, casually, “you do know this was JS Mill’s chair?”

I nearly leapt up out of it. Why the hell would I have known that?? And what in the System of Logic could Mill’s chair possibly be doing in the damn Falkland Islands, anyway!?

Well, I’m glad you asked. It turns out the chair more directly belongs to mine host’s wife Eliza (an educationalist in her own right), whose great great uncle – Frederick Langmead FRCP – purchased it, while in France, from a sale of Mill’s Avignon household effects, most likely in the years following Helen Taylor’s departure and death in the early 1900s.

Despite being one of the medical profession’s first paediatric specialists, in one of life’s sad ironies, Langmead and his wife were themselves unable to have children. So when he died he left the chair to his niece, Eliza’s grandmother, who in turn gave it to them as a wedding present, since Ru had (indeed still has) a degree in Philosophy as well as – nice triangulation – a professional interest at the time in medical ethics.

A couple of days later, Eliza dropped round with a copy of great great uncle Fred’s obituary, and a 1960 Times article about the Avignon house.

Travelling through France with her husband in November 1858, Harriet Mill suddenly fell ill, and died in a room at the Hotel d’Europe, Avignon. The story goes that the bereft JS promptly bought all the furniture from her hotel room (so it’s quite possible – likely even? – that Ru’s chair first belonged to the hotel), and re-established it in a small, two-storey, tile-roofed house bought for this purpose, from the study window of which he could look out and see Harriet’s grave (and indeed, from 1873, his own), fashioned from the same marble as the Pantheon.

The piece goes on to mention that, besides the Mills’ two ‘ghosts’, the house perhaps contained a third, that of Mill’s friend, the entomologist Jean-Henri Fabre, whom Darwin called ‘inimitable’ and whose ‘free thinking’ (teaching girls biology) got him into trouble at the local university. Sacked and turfed out of his accommodation, Fabre was aided, both financially and emotionally, by the militant defender of the conscience Mill. They became good friends, and went on various bugs-and-botany trips together (on which Helen proved a historically-important assistant). And, as if to demonstrate that philosophers, too, are not immune to Fate’s cruel humour (no good deed going unpunished, etc.), it was on one of these trips that Mill caught his fatal disease.

Alas, the article – capped with a weird black-and-white photo that appears to show three ‘types’ breaking into the already fire-ruined house through the perimeter fence, like some piece of Chapman Brothers art – turns out to be about the post-war population boom in France, and the drive for far more social housing.

Although ‘Our Own Correspondent’ allows that in many cases French cities and towns desperately needed to ‘throw off their nineteenth century aspect’, and that such changes ‘are welcome to the working class families’, the main thrust of his article is that ‘the new wave of housing means that the homes of France’s famous visitors, which have for years been places of pilgrimage for foreign travellers, are gradually disappearing.’

The following year, just over a century after Mill himself moved into it, the house was bulldozed and replaced by a large block of flats. How terribly Utilitarian.

For Falklands Radio

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