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The Core Curriculum

Historical Context for On Liberty and Other Essays by John Stuart Mill

An 1844 fashion plate depicting clothing for men and women. (Wikimedia Commons) Mill was writing in the Victorian age, in which formality and highly restrictive moral convention carried the day. An 1844 fashion plate depicting clothing for men and women. (Wikimedia Commons) Mill was writing in the Victorian age, in which formality and highly restrictive moral convention carried the day. The 19th Century marked the heyday of the British Empire. After the defeat of Napoleon, Britain had few serious rivals in Europe. Through balance of power diplomacy and unchallenged naval dominance, Britain underwrote a 100-year peace, lasting from the 1815 Congress of Vienna until WW I. At the same time, Britain carried out a vast expansion of its overseas colonies and reaped the fruits of its extensive global trade network. As Chief Examiner of the East India Company and a leading thinker on colonial policy, Mill played an important role in this golden age of British imperialism.

Within England, the industrial revolution was meanwhile having its full transformative effect. Average income and population numbers rose steadily – a hitherto unknown phenomenon. Large cities grew around factories, and the working class emerged as a political actor. Where Mill fit into this picture is up for debate. Although he often advocated for laissez-faire policies, he was also sympathetic to many socialist ideas and causes.

In 1837 Queen Victoria began her reign that would last almost seven decades. Today the Victorian era is often associated with its rigid moral code, demanding sexual restraint and strict adherence to manners. Despite (or perhaps because of) this value straitjacket, the Victorian period witnessed a cultural turn to romanticism. The romantic movement celebrated the gifted, creative, and spontaneous individual that is open to intense emotions and unfamiliar experiences, and defies social standards if they hinder its personal development.  Mill embraced this notion – it underlies his original conception of human happiness. 

Mill did however not go so far as to accept the idealist philosophical assumptions that many followers of the romantic movement espoused. In Germany, Kant, Fichte, and Hegel  – to name just the most important figures – had developed influential philosophies depending heavily on a priori knowledge (knowledge that is independent of experience). To Mill, such ”knowledge” is equivalent to subjective religious belief and hence unsuitable evidence for philosophical argument. He claimed that his utilitarian ethics had an objective foundation in the human desire to experience pleasure.

As he developed his moral theory from this starting point, Mill took for granted that the pleasure of each individual counts equally. Thus he followed a different path than another great 19th century thinker who likewise rejected metaphysical reasoning: Friedrich Nietzsche looked to their contemporary Darwin, whose “survival of the fittest” inspired him to altogether reject moral equality and to develop the ideal of the amoral Übermensch.

 

Written by Axel Domeyer, Department of Political Science, Columbia University

 

Works Consulted

"John Stuart Mill," Stanford Encyclopedia. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/mill/

Isaiah Berlin, “John Stuart Mill and the Ends of Life”, in Four Essays on Liberty (Oxford, Oxford University Press: 1969)