Books: The Victorian polymath who lights up the 21st century

The fusty philosopher of liberty and utilitarianism has been dusted off and brought to new life. Andrew Saunders welcomes a definitive account of a prodigious talent.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

John Stuart Mill: Victorian firebrand
Richard Reeves
Atlantic Books £30.00

As the editor of Richard Reeves' MT column, I am glad to be reading this book. For one thing, it's good to see one of your own achieve a personal ambition - and a 616-page biography of Britain's greatest public thinker is a pretty grand ambition, you must admit. For another, now it's finished I can look forward to a future where his magazine column arrives more or less on schedule again.

Lengthy gestation or no, the timing of this book could hardly be better. For most of the 20th century, Mill languished in respectable semi-obscurity, seen as a kind of Victorian prototype for Star Trek's Dr Spock: irrefutable, but absolutely no fun at all. In Monty Python's 1970 Philosopher's Drinking Song, while Heidegger, Kant, Nietzsche et al are all busy thinking themselves under the table, Mill is a Billy No-mates who can't hold his booze: 'John Stuart Mill, of his own free will, on half a pint of shandy was particularly ill.'

But in these more temperate times, the sober Mill is on a roll. His thoughts on individual freedom, democracy and the limits of state power resonate loudly in our troubled world; he was recently quoted by Gordon Brown (and David Cameron) and voted the greatest Liberal of all time. To cap it all, the last attempt to document his life was published 30 years ago.

In this avowedly 21st-century take, Reeves is at pains to give us not only his interpretations of Mill's political philosophy, but also to shine some long-absent light onto the character and lifestyle of the man himself. So, alongside detailed and insightful analyses of his works, we get numerous painstakingly collated and fascinating glimpses of the world of 19th- century activism and of Mill's singular private life.

He was a child prodigy, the appallingly successful result of his father's wager with another new dad to produce 'the most accomplished and virtuous young man'. Even the pushiest of modern parents would blanch at the way James Mill set about winning his bet.

By the age of six, the infant John had written a history of Rome. Only a year or two later he was rising at 5am to enjoy Sophocles, Thucydides, and Aristotle - in Greek. He was also expected to tutor his younger siblings, and would be denied lunch not only for his own mistakes but also for those of his charges.

He remained eccentric - and something of a contrarian - all his life, deliberately supporting unpopular causes (often dropping them again if they achieved currency), as well as indulging in personal idiosyncrasies such as removing his trousers when he needed a really good think.

His entry into parliament in 1865 is illustrative of the Mill approach to public life. He only agreed to stand subject to his own set of conditions, seemingly designed to guarantee failure: no public appearances before the election, no favouring his constituents' interests if he were elected, and none of his own cash spent on campaigning. He won anyway, as he probably knew he would.

Reeves is also eager to address what he sees as Mill's undeserved reputation for fustiness. So, we learn that the teenage Mill was briefly imprisoned for distributing explicit advice on contraception to the poor, that he was a great fan of Wordsworth and Coleridge, and that he doggedly pursued a married woman - Harriet Taylor - for over 20 years, driving a coach and horses through the social mores of the day, before marrying her when her husband eventually died.

Their alliance even poses that most contemporary of celebrity questions: did they shag on the first date? Or at any point afterwards, come to that... The jury, says Reeves, is out.

As someone with a professional interest in work, I would like to have learnt more about Mill's employment at the East India Company. What did he do, and how much influence did he have over all those Imperial subjects?

Passages from his most famous essay, On Liberty, published in 1859, remain as fresh and pertinent today as they ever were: 'There is also in the world at large an increasing inclination to stretch unduly the powers of society over the individual, both by force of opinion and even by legislation.' ID cards, anybody?

Or the famous harm principle, as it came to be called, one of the best known of all philosophical tenets: 'The only purpose for which power can rightfully be exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or mental, is not a sufficient warrant.' Does any other single concept go so readily to the heart of liberal democracy?

Mill has one final claim to contemporary consideration. His 1867 petition calling for the substitution of the word 'person' for the word 'man' in the Reform Bill effectively makes him the country's first New Man. But his support for female suffrage won him almost universal derision in his own time. For years afterwards, he was known as the 'Ladies' member' and cartoons depicted him in women's clothing.

Reeves' great achievement is to show us not only the man and his work, but also to reveal the ways in which the one inevitably shaped the other. Now, about your next deadline, Richard... Andrew Saunders is MT's deputy editor.

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