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The Core Curriculum

John Stuart Mill

1806 CE – 1873 CE

John Stuart Mill with Helen Taylor, the daughter of Mill’s late wife and sometimes writing partner, Harriet Taylor, in 1858 (Wikimedia Commons)John Stuart Mill with Helen Taylor, the daughter of Mill’s late wife and sometimes writing partner, Harriet Taylor, in 1858 (Wikimedia Commons) 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.


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


Works Consulted

"John Stuart Mill," Stanford Encyclopedia.

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