James Mill, father of John Stuart Mill, was born in 1773 to a shoemaker in England. He was ordained in 1798 but left the church in 1802 to take up journalism. He moved to London where he began writing and where he became a friend and disciple of Jeremy Bentham. He supported Bentham's ideas on utilitarianism and became a member, with Bentham, of the Philosophical Radicals.

He completed his major treatise, History of British India in 1817, after which he was offered, and accepted, a position with the East India Company. He continued to write and publish and in 1824 established the Westminster Review with Bentham. Mill wrote several important books, including Elements of Political Economy (1821) and Analysis of the Phenomenon of the Human Mind (1829), in which he tried to elucidate the psychological basis for utilitarianism. He died in 1836.

James Mill (1773-1836)

Brief Life

James Mill was of very humble origins. He was the eldest son of a not particularily successful shoemaker from the Scottish village of Northwater Bridge. His mother tried her best to allow her son to pursue his studies without the distraction of house chores. Furthermore he was lucky in having a patron in the form of Sir John Stuart who aided his studying first at Montrose Academy and then when he moved on to Edinburgh University where he read Divinity and educated a lady of the Stuart family. He graduated and was licensed as a preacher but never took up the profession. He worked as a tutor until in 1802 he went to London

Little is known of his political views at this time, however it is known he was not a radical from the fact that he joined a volunteer regiment to fight the threatened Napoleonic invasion. He was for education reform in that he favoured extension by class and age. He was also a supporter of the freedom of the press. In order to finance himself he was editor of the Literary Journal and wrote for various reviews. It was his luck to be writing in a time of change. It was the begining of the growth of the middle class in a context of a relatively restrictive political system and legal and administrative system.

In 1805 he married Harriet Burrows, who was the daughter of a wealthy widow. In 1806 his famous son John Stuart Mill was born.

His History of India

It was in 1807 that he began writing his History of India which made his name and is an unappreciated classic. He adhered to the traditional Scottish idea of progession (e.g. that of Hume). He, however applied the principle of utility as well. This meant that each state was marked out from its predecessor by a better application of the principle of utility. He disagreed with men like Burke who were sympathetic to Oriental cultures. He judged civilizations by the degree to which actions were directed towards the happiness of mankind. Hence even greatness at astronomy could not grant India the status of a great society in his view.

"Exactly in proportion as Utility is object of every pursuit, may we regard a nation as civilized. Exactly in proportion as its ingenuity is wasted on contemptible or mischievous subjects, though it may be, in itself, an ingenuity of no ordinary kind, the nation may be denominated barbarous."
Mill attacked the British administration of India on the grounds that it accepted local law and custom. Hence in his view the vast resources of an advanced culture were being wasted on an inferior one without an attempt at improvement.

Mill's work when published in 1818 was successful enough to secure him a position as Assistant Examiner at the East India House. This ended his financial problems and allowed him to buy a house in the country. Furthermore it freed him to write on Political and Philosophical questions which interested him. Until his retirement in 1858 he remained working for the British government of India.

His Philosophy

He was profoundly influenced by Jeremy Bentham and David Ricardo. Mill took a utilitarian perspective. He also believed in associationist pyschology which was derived from John Locke. The basic point this made was that differences between people in society were to due to environmental rather than innate abilities. This was crucial in supporting educational and political reform. These points were made in his Essay on Education (1820) and his Analysis of the Phenomena of the Human Mind (1829). In the latter he argued that the mind was a dark room. The senses were the windows through which the mind gained knowledge of the external world. Basically morals are decided by one's experiance of pleasure and pain and fact. This leaves the mind open to making quick decisions.But the educated mind is capable of considering experiances in depth and reassess its prejudices. Clearly this theory left the mind at the mercy of environmental factors undermining any conception of man being born with conceptions of good and evil. However this theory makes it difficult for a reformer to have an influence on society. Mill tried hard to argue how change was possible. His son, John Stuart Mill's education was an example of how to proceed.

To Mill "To act, without regard to consequences, is the property of an irrational nature. But to act without calculation is to act without regard to consequences." Hence although a man might have general principles he argued that each action should be thought through carefully. To him it was crucial to associate pleasure with greater good. However, in Mill's philosophy there was little room for pleasure as a sensation. Instead it assumed a Puritanical twist. Mill's human being would be alert and altruistic and completely lacking in ego. In Thomas' view: "The principle of Utility in his hands sheds its hedonistic elements and becomes almost an ascetic ideal." However one should not assume because of this that Mill was elitist although one can see Plato's influence. He believed in some form of democracy which saw the people as the guardians of the path of society. Hence Mill believed that all humans were capable of receiving the truth and that it was the aristocracy, the Church and the law which corrupted man. His reform would be achieved through education rather than violent revolution. His philosophy was significant in the way it combined Bentham's utilitarianism with Ricardo's economic theory. Yet his most famous influence was that on his son John Stuart Mill's philosophy who shared his basic idea that society should be ruled by its wisest and most virtuous members.


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