The Autobiography of John Stuart Mill

by Paul Mathers


It is not that I disliked the book by any means. It is not even that I actively disliked John Stuart Mill. I need to make a distinction between “to dislike” and “to not like.” But I also need to express that one can like and not like a book at the same time. One can agree with an author on some points and strongly disagree with him on others. One can be interested in what an author is saying and in no way be moved by it.

This was roughly my experience with John Stuart Mill’s Autobiography.

Dr. Eliot explained the placement of the book in this series by drawing particular attention to Mill’s philosophy of education. Eliot takes care to establish that this is not a brag book (which, after reading it, I am not sure I buy. For example, Mill says at one point about reading The Wealth of Nations and discovering the logical flaws in Mr. Smith’s ideas. But he doesn’t tell us what they are, which strikes me as being a show-off smarty-pants) but rather a way of using his own superior education as a model for young people. It is, indeed, rigorous and, indeed, enviable. The first third of the book is primarily things that his father made him read or allowed him to read and his reactions to them. This serves as a sort of autobiography of ideas. This was my favorite part of the book.

Mill’s relationship with his father struck me as a bit cold and distant, although Mill seems to be entirely unaware of this. This brings me to the coldness of the book. Any emotional reaction I had to this book I was entirely responsible for. To put it another way, so often I find that I prefer to read the ancient or at least historical voices because I like building the bridge of time and being able to interact with people long gone, to see that they aren’t really dead in that meme sort of way, that the human experience has not really changed from the earliest of writings to the most modern. Mill was a rare instance where I felt as if the author barred that gate for me.

So now we need to talk about Mill’s Utilitarianism and atheism. Mill’s father was close friends with Jeremy Bentham and instrumental, as it were, in the cohesion of Utilitarianism into a philosophical school. Mill’s father was also an atheist. Both seemed to transfer completely to Mill. While Mill and I would feel the same about slavery or women’s suffrage, we would have very different reasons for feeling that way. Mill would feel that way because his philosophy states that the highest good is that which produces pleasure. I would feel that way because my beliefs state that humans are made in the image of God and ought to be treated with dignity and reverence for life.

This, of course, matters. It doesn’t just matter that people agree with you. It matters why they agree with you. Someone can find their way to the same conclusion on a matter by entirely different means, means which are abhorrent. However, I would also state that this is a valuable thought exercise. One thing I did not feel was that reading this was in any way a waste of time. It forced me to think through why I feel the way I do about certain things.

Next up is Mill’s essay on Liberty with I am already creatively disagreeing with. More soon.