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John Stuart Mill, who has been called the most influential English-speaking philosopher of the 19th century, was a British philosopher, economist, and moral and political theorist. His works include books and essays covering logic, epistemology, economics, social and political philosophy, ethics, and religion, among them A System of Logic, On Liberty, and Utilitarianism.
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Under the tutelage of his imposing father, himself a historian and economist, John Stuart Mill began his intellectual journey at an early age, starting his study of Greek at the age of three and Latin at eight. Mill’s father was a proponent of Jeremy Bentham’s philosophy of utilitarianism, and John Stuart Mill began embracing it himself in his middle teens. Later, he started to believe that his rigorous analytical training had weakened his capacity for emotion,
that his intellect had been nurtured but his feelings had not. This perhaps led to his expansion of Bentham’s utilitarian thought, his development of the “harm theory,” and his writings in the defense of the rights of women, all of which cemented his reputation as a major thinker of his day.
The life and thought of John Stuart Mill might best be understood in the context of his father, who was a huge influence on the younger Mill. John Stuart Mill’s father, James Mill, met political theorist Jeremy Bentham in 1808 and received financial assistance from him while Mill struggled to establish himself. The two men’s friendship and similar political thought prompted them to start and lead the movement of “philosophic radicals.” The group, which was in direct opposition to the Whigs and the Tories, pushed for legal and political reform by way of universal voting rights (for men), a new place for economic theory in political decision making, and politics that took into account human happiness instead of “natural rights.” The group also sought to restructure social and political institutions under the guidance of principles of what would become known as utilitarianism, a school of social thought founded by Bentham.
Born in 1806, John Stuart Mill was the eldest son of James Mill and Harriet Barrow (whose influence on Mill was vastly overshadowed by that of his father). A struggling man of letters, James Mill wrote History of British India (1818), and the work landed him a coveted position in the East India Company, where he rose to the post of chief examiner. When not carrying out his administrative duties, James Mill spent considerable time educating his son John, who began to learn Greek at age three and Latin at age eight. By the age of 14, John was extremely well versed in the Greek and Latin classics; had studied world history, logic and mathematics; and had mastered the basics of economic theory, all of which was part of his father’s plan to make John Stuart Mill a young proponent of the views of the philosophical radicals.
By his late teens, Mill spent many hours editing Jeremy Bentham’s manuscripts, and he threw himself into the work of the philosophic radicals (still guided by his father). He also founded a number of intellectual societies and began to contribute to periodicals, including the Westminster Review (which was founded by Bentham and James Mill). In 1823, his father secured him a junior position in the East India Company, and he, like his father before him, rose in the ranks, eventually taking his father's position of chief examiner.
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