It is entirely typical of the anti-intellectualism in British life that one of its great political thinkers, John Stuart Mill, should have been ignored or ridiculed. Fortunately a new biography (John Stuart Mill: Victorian Firebrand by Richard Reeves) has been widely covered on both sides of the Atlantic. Let's hope it sparks renewed interest in Mill's books, especially his classic libertarian tract, On Liberty.
Mill’s ideas on personal freedom seem so obvious to ex-hippies and ex- punks like me that it is hard to believe that more than 100 years after his death they have to be defended more than ever. Here is the nub of his argument:
The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in its own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs or impede their efforts to obtain it. … Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest. On Liberty
Isn’t that just so blindingly obvious, and yet how come so many people, from Bush to religious fundamentalists of all stripes, just don’t get it?
Anyway, I am very glad to hear of this new biography and I shall certainly read it. Mill was not only a great thinker, he also had one of the most bizarre and pressure cooked childhoods on record.
Here is an extract from the introduction to my copy of On Liberty:
he read Greek by the age of three, had assimilated a considerable body of classical and historical literature before he was eight, and had mastered philosophy, political economy, mathematics and the like by the ripe age of 12.
Guess what? Mill also suffered a nervous breakdown when he was 20. Well, what a surprise!
Postscript: Something makes me think that if Mill were (i) alive, (ii) American, and (iii) a registered democrat John Stuart Mill would be rooting for that skinny guy from Chicago.