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The Core Curriculum

John Stuart Mill

1806 CE – 1873 CE

John Stuart Mill was the son of the philosopher, historian, and economist James Mill. Together with Jeremy Bentham, Mill the elder was a leading advocate of social reform based on utilitarianism, or the idea that government should pursue “the greatest happiness of the greatest number.” He envisaged his son as the future leader of this radical movement, and to that end John Stuart underwent a rigorous education. The experiment initially seemed a great success, despite . Before he turned eighteen, the young Mill was fully prepared to embark on his own career as a public intellectual.

But in 1826, Mill began to suffer from a severe depression, which he attributed to his excessive analytical training and the resulting impairment of his emotional capacities. Reading the romantic poetry of Wordsworth and Coleridge helped Mill to overcome this mental crisis. It also inspired him to form a more complex view on human flourishing than the Benthamite utilitarianism of his father's generation, with its dogmatic rationalism and unidimensional concept of pleasure.

In 1830, Mill met Harriet Taylor, a married woman with whom he began a very close and – at the time – rather scandalous friendship, even if it remained Platonic. Taylor was a brilliant intellectual herself, and Mill credits her as – in effect – the coauthor of his major works. They married in 1851, after Taylor's first husband died.  Unconsolable when she passed away seven years later, Mill continued to collaborate with her daughter Helen Taylor, in particular on the essay The Subjection of Women (1869).

During his literary career, Mill published important works in political economy, philosophy, and social criticism. His most notable works are Principles of Political Economy (1848), On Liberty (1859), and Utilitarianism (1861). He worked for the East India Company from age seventeen onward and rose to its chief managerial post. He retired from this office in 1858. Later in his life, Mill was elected to Parliament for one term, where he became a relentless advocate for progressive causes, in particular for women's rights. He died in 1879 in Avignon, where he is buried alongside his wife.

Historical Contexts

On Liberty, Utilitarianism, and Other Essays

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.


Works Consulted

Stanford Encyclopedia:

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

Axel Domeyer, Department of Political Science, Columbia University