Reeves on Mill – Chapters 1-5

The following are my comments on Richard Reeves biography  John Stuart Mill Victorian Firebrand (2007) taken directly from my comments on Trollope-l – some of the remarks therefore refer to debates on list but these are pertinent so I have refrained from any editing.
Chapters 1 and 2
I have now started Richard Reeves book on John Stuart Mill and so far (2 chapters) I am enjoying it very much. I take Ellen’s point – so far this is very much an intellectual rather than a psychological biography but that is a type of which I am fond. I would stress that it is very different from the Powell book on Fox  (see– whatever else Reeves writes well and has clearly done an immense amount of research (the notes/bibliography/index take up over 100 pages – Powell didn’t even have a bibliography!) – this is certainly a
serious scholarly exercise. Powell’s book was just poor and the later chapters were only slightly redeemed by the fact that Fox from about 1790 onwards is such an admirable and charming character that even the worst writer can hardly fail.

Mill by contrast in these early chapters – which cover his first twenty years – is rather unsympathetic. Somewhat ambitious and calculating. Of course given his extraordinary hot-house childhood this is perhaps no surprise.

I don’t intend to summarise the book but merely pick up the points of interest to me.

Reeves is very good and clear in explaining the Benthamite philosophy – later known as ‘utilitarianism’ – which was so influential on the young Mill. The central idea – ‘the greatest happiness (not good) of the greatest number’ is well known. William Godwin gave a practical example by asking whether in the event of a fire the reader would save Archbishop Fenelon or his chambermaid – supposing that the chambermaid was the reader’s wife or mother (noteworthy how misogyny was built in – why didn’t he say valet?) – the utilitarian answer was the Archbishop because he had the greatest capacity to increase happiness. Reeves dryly notes ‘Godwin himself later retreated from this impossibly doctrinaire position’.

Still the kind of thinking behind this could be extremely radical as can be seen when it was applied theologically – Mill’s friend George Grote said that what mattered about God was ‘not whether he existed but whether belief in his existence added to human happiness’.

I noted the following as of interest pace Trollope (although this is some time earlier)…

‘a parliamentary career was an important facet of the nineteenth century gentleman’s portfolio’.

Mill himself got a job with the East India company which provided him with an adequate income but still left him with plenty of leisure for his intellectual pursuits.

Of those activities (of Mill and his friends on the magazine Westminster Review which they founded) Reeves writes….

‘Theirs was a modernized, anglicized version of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment project, a parallel the young Mill made explicit and relished. ‘The French philosophes of the eighteenth century were the example we sought to emulate’ he said ‘ and we hoped to accomplish no less results.’ (Autobiography)

It is very significant to remark that in this post-Romantic period Mill at this point was still looking directly back to the Enlightenment.
Reeves notes that even at this early stage Mill was making contributions in three areas which were to be of major importance later: feminism, France and free speech (the three F’s!). Of these the paramount was the last. Not a single voice should be silenced. ‘Dissent was a necessary ingredient of intellectual and social progress’.
I have quoted his satiric passage on fox-hunting in our discussion of The Duke’s Children but will also reproduce it here for the sake of completeness (and it is worth it anyway)….
Mill on fox-hunting and the ruling-class..

‘an employment….admirably fitted to keep the constitutions in repair – and themselves out of mischief… is much better that they should torment foxes, than men; and….foxhunting is a far more proper pastime for such persons than judging or legislating’ (‘Influence of the Aristocracy’ 1825) – delicious!
(not that Trollope would have appreciated the sentiment).

In terms of democracy Mill’s position was a complex and evolving one – he feared any kind of tyranny including that of the majority – which is why he feared ‘the people’ ; he was also concerned that they were not ‘ready’ for democracy. But he still preferred ‘stupid ignorant people who have not a sinister interest to stupid ignorant persons who have’ – meaning landowners (The British Constitution 1826).
This whole fear of the unreadiness of the working-class, the idea that they need education – present in various ways in both Trollope (Mrs Bubbs) and Mill is a great liberal theme. For a revolutionary outlook on this matter here is Alexander Herzen from 1862…..
‘The pedagogic method of our civilising reformers is a bad one. It starts from the fundamental principle that we know everything and the people know nothing’
(page 649 of My Past and Thoughts)
(and Herzen is talking of the Russian peasantry who’s educational opportunities at the time were infinitely more limited than those in Western European countries such as Britain).
(This may appear digressive but for me the importance of reading about Mill or Carlyle or any thinker is the chance to make connections and try to clarify
political and philosophical positions).
Chapter 3
At the age of 20 ‘Mill lost his faith’ – in his case it was the faith of Benthamism – but ‘the trauma was acute nonetheless’. The crisis came about when Mill carried out a’thought experiment’ – ‘Suppose’ he suggested to himself, ‘that all your objects in life were realised; that all the changes in institutions and opinions which you are looking forward to could be effected at this very instant: would this be a great joy and happiness to you? And an irrepressible self-consciousness answered, ‘No!’. At this my heart sank within me: the whole foundation on which my life had been constructed fell down’. (Autobiography)

Apparently various explanations have been put forward for this crisis – Reeves’ own is that….’it was a miserable winter, he was desperately lonely, and he suddenly saw the hollowness of the philosophical religion to which he has subscribed’

Personally I would have thought it almost inevitable that at some point the utter lack of any sort of emotional life would wreak some havoc. Whatever the cause Mill found the solution in getting in touch with his feelings and reading poetry – especially Wordsworth at this point. He came to see poetry as important in
describing the ’emotional dimension of human life’. He also became convinced that radicalism must take account of individuals. – what he described as ‘the internal culture of the individual’. Mill had in fact discovered Romanticism (or one facet of it at least).

‘Human autonomy – his version of ‘liberty’ ‘ became central to his philosophy. He adopted the concept of ‘remaking’ – what Goethe and the German romantics
called Bildung; and his mature thinking set the ‘range of opportunities for self-creation and autonomy’ as a standard against which political systems, cultures,
institutions and ideas should be set.

He was heavily influenced by his discovery of the French philosopher Saint-Simon and his ideas about history – that history passed through ‘alternating
eras of stability and change’ – ‘organic’ and ‘critical’ periods (as Reeves note Saint-Simon was also an influence on Marx).

Mills’ radicalism was not blunted by these developments but it was deepened and broadened. By the age of 25 he had accumulated what Reeves calls ‘a rag-bag of opinions’. But one thing he was very clear on was that absolute certainty was always wrong – he ‘would judge the greatness of a person’s intellect by their capacity to change their mind rather than by their fixed attachment to a particular view’.

Chapter 4

In 1830 Mill first met Harriet Taylor at a dinner-party; Harriet was married with 3 children. By 1832 the couple were definitely in love but Harriet did not want, for a variety of reasons, to leave her husband. Taylor himself was partially accepting of the situation, and bought her a house in Kent – he visited for the occasional weekend and Mill was there for most of the others. Whether there was a sexual relationship remains open to question; Harriet’s version was that she was faithful to both men by having sex with neither.

Mill meanwhile was developing his thoughts on education; he ‘would be a lifelong, passionate supporter of universal, compulsory education but at the same time he would always fret that curricula were being designed to encourage conformity rather than individualism’. More importantly philosophically, was his insistence that ‘genius’ is not about dazzling intellect or discovery but self-determination and autonomy (Mill is now advancing very Romantic views)…

“Whosoever, to the extent of his opportunity, gets at his convictions by his own facilities, and not by reliance on any other person whatever – that man, in proportion as his conclusions have truth in them, is an original thinker, and is, as much as anybody ever was, a man of genius.” (On Genius).

By this time Harriet and Mill were influencing each other intellectually though it is difficult to untangle who was influencing who. In particular they were discussing the position of women and the institution of marriage in a series of private letters. Mill wrote….

“The question is not what marriage ought to be, but a far wider question, what woman ought to be. Settle that first, and the other will settle itself. Determine whether marriage is to be a relation between two equal beings, or between a superior & an inferior, between a protector and a dependent; & all other doubts will be solved.”

Together they poured ‘vitriol’ on the current state of marriage. These of course were extremely radical positions and Mill only felt brave enough to go public nearly 40 years later (in 1869).

Mill then preceded to establish with the backing of a wealthy radical MP, William Molesworth, a new radical journal – The London Review. His prospectus represented his own philosophical position…

“The review ought to represent not radicalism but neo-radicalism, a radicalism which is not democracy, not a bigoted alliance to any forms of government or to one kind of institutions, & which is to be called radicalism inasmuch as it does not palter or compromise with evils but cuts at their roots – & a utilitarianism which takes into account the whole of human nature and not the ratiocinative faculty only…which holds Feeling at least as valuable as Thought, & Poetry not only on a par with, but the necessary condition of, any true and comprehensive Philosophy.”

In print however he was generally still restraining himself for fear of offending his father ; Reeves comments ‘It is one of the great ironies of Mill’s life that even in 1834, approaching thirty and declaiming in favour of free speech, argument and dissent, he was muzzling himself for fear of his father.” He was more candid in private correspondence as when writing to Carlyle…

“Though I hold the good of the species….to be the ultimate end (which is the alpha and omega of my utilitarianism) I believe with the fullest belief that this end can in no other way be forwarded but by the means you speak of, namely by each taking for his exclusive aim the development of what is best in himself.”

Meanwhile his relationship with Harriet was imposing a strain as he pressed her to leave her husband. She refused arguing that it would ‘spoil four lives and injure others’.  Reeves notes sardonically ‘ Harriet, in fact, was taking a strictly utilitarian line: the current situation was one which collectively maximised the happiness of all the people involved, even at the cost of less happiness for herself and Mill. He, the supposed heir of utilitarianism, was urging the path of selfish romance’.

In April 1836 Mill produced a major essay on ‘Civilisation -Signs of the Times’ in which he argued that while wealth creation and population were advancing, a lack of individual character and of moral and cultural leadership were signs of malaise. In this he was influenced by the French historian Guizot and his distinction between what Mill described as ‘the improvement of society and outward life, and that of the inward nature of man.’ (also Mill is surely influenced by Carlyle here, as Reeves discusses in the next chapter).

In June 1836 James Mill died. Reeves comments ‘Watching the coffin of the man who had been both his mentor and tormentor being lowered into the ground, John Stuart Mill felt a great loss, but also a flicker of freedom’ (Reeves does not adduce any evidence that this is actually how Mill felt – he wrote ‘As good may be drawn out of evil – the event which has deprived the world of of the man of greatest philosophical genius it possessed…that same event has made it far easier to…..soften the harder and sterner features of [the review’s] radicalism and utilitarianism.’ Mill also apparently had ‘an almost ceaseless twitching over one eye.’ from this day according to a contemporary. But as to how he actually felt as the coffin was lowered Reeves offers no proof; the ‘flicker of freedom’ is therefore, I assume, his speculation and ought to be indicated as such by being phrased as an interrogative. This kind of portrayal as fact of the biographer’s assumption – however reasonable – is always unacceptable.)

Chapter 5

In this chapter Reeves deals with ‘conservative influences’ – what he calls the wolves howling – on Mill. He identifies 5 strands to Mill’s ‘conservatism’ — commitments to…

  1. ‘intellectual eclecticism and open-mindedness’
  2. robust institutional defences against the danger of ‘mob rule’, which he saw as inherent in democracy
  3. ‘a guiding, intellectual elite as a safeguard of liberal culture’
  4. a commitment to nationalism as a ‘necessary societal glue’
  5. the need for moral education to ‘ensure the survival of robust individualism, virtue and heroism’.

(I fail to see how 1. is conservative but Reeves is using it in the sense of non-utilitarian).

In all this a major influence was Coleridge, the bete-noire of many radicals, although Mill was never in danger of becoming politically conservative in the way Coleridge was.

Turning back to the five points..

  1. Mill was also influenced by the German Romantics here especially Goethe. In the 1830’s he became a ‘fierce opponent of sectarianism in intellectual endeavour’. There was no blueprint or perfect system – ‘no necessity for a universal synthesis’ Mill wrote in an essay on Comte.
  2. Here Mill was strongly influenced by de Tocqueville – the two formed something of a mutual admiration society in fact.  While offering some financial support to the Chartists Mill never really sided with them. These fears about universal democracy were a common theme in the 19thC (cf: Trollope) but Mill was in fact more optimistic than Tocqueville, who he believed conflated democracy and free-market economics – ‘The most serious danger to the future prospects of mankind is the unbalanced influence of the commercial spirit’ (Letter to Tocqueville 1835). Mill also believed social progress could improve the conditions for democracy. His view of a proper democracy was Periclean – an active system in ‘which citizens enhanced their own autonomy by shaping the conditions of their own existence’. Part of this consisted in MPs being free to act as they wanted and saw fit, rather than being bound by pledges as the radicals demanded – here of course Mill followed Burke.
  3. But leadership was not to be left to MPs. Here Mill followed Coleridge’s argument for the creation of a ‘clerisy’ – an intellectual elite, including but not restricted to the clergy comprised of ‘the learned of all denominations’ (it is astonishing just how stark Mill’s elitism could be!). This clerisy would be able to guide the tide of progress. Admittedly by 1847 Mill had moved away from the idea of a clerisy and he certainly never adopted Comte’s notion that these men should be authoritarian leaders (any form of authoritarianism was always anathema to Mill).
  4. Mill’s nationalism was of course of the so-called progressive kind….’We need hardly say that we do not mean nationalism in the vulgar sense of the term; a senseless antipathy to foreigners; an indifference to the general welfare of the human race, or an unjust preference of the supposed interests of our own country; a cherishing of bad peculiarities because they are national; or a refusal to adopt what has been found good by other countries. We mean a principle of sympathy, not of hostility; of union, not of separation.’ (Coleridge). Reeves says that modern critics of Mill have a ‘field day’ with the contradiction between this strand of Mill’s conservatism and the later liberalism of On Liberty. Reeves admits there are problems, but argues that Mill often overstated his case, as he wrote to persuade rather than to achieve philosophical exactness, and that he later revised and softened his views on nationalism.
  5. Here the principle influence was, very obviously, Carlyle – whom Reeves describes as ‘tempestuous, egotistical and bitchy’. The relationship between Mill and Carlyle was temporarily a close one, and even survived the infamous incident in which Mill’s kitchen-maid burnt the sole draft of Carlyle’s French Revolution (which always reminds me of the Blackadder episode involving Johnson’s Dictionary!). Mill actually repaid Carlyle by laudatory praise for the book when it eventually appeared. On their philosophies there was actually a clear divide ‘even from the start it was clear that while Carlyle’s focus was on the necessary virtues of a tiny, heroic class, Mill was concerned with the character of all people: unlike Carlyle, Mill wanted not just a handful of heroes but a whole society of them’. It was this difference which meant their friendship was a brief-lived thing and they would end as very public opponents in the Governor Eyre case. Nonetheless ideas about individualism continued to mean much to Mill (I think to some degree Reeves fails to recognise the importance or nature of Carlyle’s thinking and writing on the subject of autonomy [see note 1]).

For all of the ‘important lessons’ which Reeves says Mill learned from conservatism, he was never in danger of becoming a conservative himself because he retained an essentially optimistic outlook.  His ‘fears about the future were real enough, but they were outweighed by his hopes’.


1). I believe it is really hard to re-capture or underestimate Carlyle’s importance for the 19thC UK – but I would suggest it is always useful that he should always be placed against his great contemporary Macaulay (with whom Mill was at almost perpetual war). Carlyle and Macaulay and their opposing philosophies provide the most wonderful example of a duality which works – born with 5 years of each other, both of Scottish descent. It really is possible, because of the firmness of their positions and writings, to say that here we have on the one hand Romanticism and on the other the Enlightenment.  It is from On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History  that Isaiah Berlin quotes when he places Carlyle as a Romantic figure. One of Carlyle’s heroes is Muhammed who is described as ‘a fiery mass of Life cast up from the great bosom of Nature herself’. Berlin comments…’He is a man of blazing sincerity and power, and therefore to
be admired (like Abbot Joachim in Past and Present) ; what he is compared to, what is not liked, is the eighteenth century, which is withered and useless, which to Carlyle, as he puts it, is a warped and second-rate century. Carlyle is not in the least interested in the truths of the Koran, he does not begin to suppose
that the Koran contains anything which he, Carlyle, could be expected to believe………The importance of Muhammed is his character and not his beliefs. The question of whether what Muhammed believed was true or false would have appeared to Carlyle perfectly irrelevant’. (The Roots of Romanticism p11).

Oddly enough it was at a meeting in May 1840 that Mill’s break with Carlyle became public and complete ; Carlyle was giving a lecture on ‘The Hero as Prophet’ and he taunted ‘Bethamee utility’ saying according to Reeves ” ‘If you ask me which gives, Mahomet or they (the Utilitarians), the beggarlier and falser view of Man and his Destinies….’ at which Mill, preventing him from completing his sentence and with Harriet at his side, stood up and shouted ‘No!’ ” (a good story).

But to continue with Carlyle and Macaulay : historical movements as violent, passionate and sincere as possible are meat and drink to Carlyle. Hence his approval of the French Revolution, of Cromwell (another great hero – Carlyle edited and commented on Cromwell’s Letters and Speeches). The passion not the issue. It is often hard to get a handle on this right-wing Romanticism, but the well known route through Wagner to Hitler passes by Carlyle as well. The
adulation of the ‘will’ over the ‘intellect’.

All this would have been anathema to Macaulay. His glorious revolution is the bloodless one of 1689, the eighteenth century a glorious gradual spreading of what he would define as the  absolute values of civilisation; a gradual spreading which was continuing across the globe in the 19th Century and was fundamental
to the British Imperial Mission – so cultural imperialism is still known as Macaulayism after the kind of doctrine outlined in his Minute on Indian Education (1835)…

>>It is impossible for us, with our limited means, to attempt to educate the
>>body of the people. We must at present do our best to form a class who may
>>be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of
>>persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in
>>morals, and in intellect. To that class we may leave it to refine the
>>vernacular dialects of the country, to enrich those dialects with terms of
>>science borrowed from the Western nomenclature, and to render them by
>>degrees fit vehicles for conveying knowledge to the great mass of the

Interestingly Reeves has written of this in relation to Mill in Chapter 4 – Mill strongly opposed Macaulay’s decision (Macaulay was Mill’s superior at the India Office) to abolish subsidies for colleges teaching Sanskrit and Arabic and to make English the language of instruction. Mill believed in winning the loyalty of the ruling class by supporting an elite Indian education. Mill called Macaulay a ‘coxcombical dilettante literateur’ on this occasion ( although actually both seem to have supported the idea of winning over an elite – the difference was in how to set about it; different versions of imperialism).

If we represent Macaulay and Carlyle as two poles of political philosophy in 19thC England (of course we could find many other poles – which would make far more sense in modern-day terms of Left and Right – but none perhaps so well encapsulating the Enlightenment/Romantic divide) we can see Mill as somewhere between the two, but certainly more to the side of Carlyle because of his belief in the importance of self-autonomy.

2 thoughts on “Reeves on Mill – Chapters 1-5

  1. ellenandjim

    Mill, Ruskin, Carlyle. In the introduction to Meredith’s Beauchamp’s Career, the scholar also cited as important more minor people like Morley and some of the free-thinking about religion scholars (influential on George Eliot). In Rose’s book on couples she argues that Taylor was strongly influential on Mill, and he did himself say so.

    It was a strongly disciplinarian age towards children and I can well believe Mill stood in awe of his father. Most of these Victorians seem to have.

    I wish I could write more but can’t manage it tonight.


  2. Pingback: July Miscellany « Moving Toyshop

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