Autobiography (John Stuart Mill book)

Published 2022-01-12.

I started reading this book on my Kindle late one night when I was feeling restless. I hoped it would help me fall asleep, but it did the opposite. Mill charmed me almost immediately, and by the end of the book I felt like I knew him almost like a friend.

His childhood was extraordinary. His father, James Mill, aspired to turn him into a genius who could carry the torch of utilitarianism. (James was a close companion of Jeremy Bentham’s.) Mill was taught to read both in English and in Greek at age three. Then, sitting at the table next to his father, who was writing The History of British India at the time, Mill spent the following five years reading ancient and contemporary works of philosophy, history, and literature. By age eight, he had read all the following books. (Thanks to Lapham’s Quarterly for compiling them.)

In Greek

  • Aesop, The Fables
  • Xenophon, The Anabasis, Memorials of Socrates, The Cyropaedia
  • Herodotus, The Histories
  • Diogenes Laertius, some of the Lives of the Philosophers
  • Lucian, unspecified works
  • Isocrates, parts of To Demonicus and To Nicocles
  • Plato, Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Phaedo, Cratylus, Theaetetus

In English

  • William Robertson, The History of America, The History of the Reign of the Emperor Charles V, The History of Scotland During the Reigns of Queen Mary and of King James VI
  • David Hume, The History of England
  • Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
  • Robert Watson, The History of the Reign of Philip II, King of Spain
  • Robert Watson and William Thomson, The History of the Reign of Philip III, King of Spain
  • Nathaniel Hooke, The Roman History, from the Building of Rome to the Ruin of the Commonwealth
  • Charles Rollin, The Ancient History of the Egyptians, Carthaginians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Medes and Persians, Macedonians, and Grecians
  • Plutarch, Parallel Lives
  • Gilbert Burnet, Bishop Burnet’s History of His Own Time
  • The Annual Register of World Events, A Review of the Year (1758–1788)
  • John Millar, An Historical View of the English Government
  • Johann Lorenz von Mosheim, An Ecclesiastical History
  • Thomas McCrie, The Life of John Knox
  • Willem Sewel, The History of the Rise, Increase, and Progress of the Christian People Called Quakers
  • Thomas Wight and John Thomas Wight and John Rut, A History of the Rise and Progress of the People Called Quakers in Ireland
  • Philip Beaver, African Memoranda
  • David Collins, An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales
  • George Anson, A Voyage Round the World
  • David Henry, An Historical Account of All the Voyages Round the World
  • Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe
  • The Arabian Nights and Arabian Tales
  • Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote
  • Maria Edgeworth, Popular Tales
  • Henry Brooke, The Fool of Quality; or, The History of Henry, Earl of Moreland

At one point, Mill’s father told him that when interacting with other children his age, he shouldn’t be surprised to learn that they knew less than him. No wonder. The sad thing is that Mill was allowed to have very few such interactions, so he had quite a solitary childhood.

In his teens, Mill read Bentham’s work closely for the first time. This is how he describes the experience:

I felt taken up to an eminence from which I could survey a vast mental domain, and see stretching out into the distance intellectual results beyond all computation. As I proceeded further, there seemed to be added to this intellectual clearness, the most inspiring prospects of practical improvement in human affairs. […] The “principle of utility,” understood as Bentham understood it, and applied in the manner in which he applied it through these three volumes, fell exactly into its place as the keystone which held together the detached and fragmentary component parts of my knowledge and beliefs. It gave unity to my conceptions of things. I now had opinions; a creed, a doctrine, a philosophy; in one among the best senses of the word, a religion; the inculcation and diffusion of which could be made the principal outward purpose of a life.

When he was twenty, however, he lost his sense of purpose and fell into a depression that lasted about six months. This period doesn’t seem to have been prompted by any particular event. He felt that he had lost his ability to take pleasure in reading and learning, and believed it may have been partly due to his upbringing. Because he had been forced to devote himself to scholarship from such a young age, he hadn’t been able to properly develop any intrinsic motivations for the activity.

I was thus, as I said to myself, left stranded at the commencement of my voyage, with a well-equipped ship and a rudder, but no sail; without any real desire for the ends which I had been so carefully fitted out to work for: no delight in virtue, or the general good, but also just as little in anything else.

Eventually he started to feel better, and he attributes this to his reading of William Wordsworth, especially the epic poem Prélude.

I needed to be made to feel that there was real, permanent happiness in tranquil contemplation. Wordsworth taught me this, not only without turning away from, but with a greatly increased interest in, the common feelings and common destiny of human beings.

Around that time, he made the following reflections on happiness:

Those only are happy (I thought) who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness; on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit, followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end. Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness by the way. The enjoyments of life (such was now my theory) are sufficient to make it a pleasant thing, when they are taken en passant, without being made a principal object. Once make them so, and they are immediately felt to be insufficient. They will not bear a scrutinizing examination. Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so. The only chance is to treat, not happiness, but some end external to it, as the purpose of life.

Mill therefore considers happiness to be a self-effacing end.

Let me share a couple more passages. Mill was quite unequivocal that a great deal of his writings, especially later in life, belonged as much to his wife, Harriet Taylor Mill as they did to him:

When two persons have their thoughts and speculations completely in common; when all subjects of intellectual or moral interest are discussed between them in daily life, and probed to much greater depths than are usually or conveniently sounded in writings intended for general readers; when they set out from the same principles, and arrive at their conclusions by processes pursued jointly, it is of little consequence in respect to the question of originality, which of them holds the pen; the one who contributes least to the composition may contribute more to the thought; the writings which result are the joint product of both, and it must often be impossible to disentangle their respective parts, and affirm that this belongs to one and that to the other. In this wide sense, not only during the years of our married life, but during many of the years of confidential friendship which preceded, all my published writings were as much here work as mine; her share in them constantly increasing as years advanced.

In general, I’m quite moved by the way Mill describes his love for his wife. After she died:

Since then I have sought for such allevation as my state admitted of, by the mode of life which most enabled me to feel her still near me. I bought a cottage as close as possible to the place where she is buried, and there her daughter (my fellow-sufferer and now my chief comfort) and I, live constantly during a great portion of the year. My objects in life are solely those which were hers; my pursuits and occupations those in which she shared, or sympathized, and which are indissolubly associated with her. Her memory is to me a religion, and her approbation the standard by which, summing up as it does all worthiness, I endeavour to regulate my life.

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