His Father’s Children

Sissela Bok

  • Collected Works of John Stuart Mill. Vol. I: Autobiography and Literary Essays edited by John Robson and Jack Stillinger
    Toronto, 766 pp, £35.00, March 1982, ISBN 0 7100 0718 3

‘I was born in London on the 20th of May, 1806, and was the eldest son of James Mill, the author of The History of British India.’ The father-author thus announced at the beginning of John Stuart Mill’s Autobiography dominated his life from early childhood on. Did he in any sense author his son’s life as he authored his books? John Stuart Mill wrote his own Life in large part to work out an answer to that question.

No other thinker of comparable stature was ever so relentlessly groomed for a life of reflection, writing and reform as John Stuart Mill: his achievement is all the more noteworthy in the light of the education that was both the making of him and very nearly his undoing. The father’s project is well-known. James Mill expended all the ‘labour, care and perseverance’ at his disposal to give his son what he considered the best possible education. Despising what schools did to destroy the minds of children, and bent upon avoiding ‘the contagion of vulgar modes of thought and feeling’ that classmates would bring, he kept his son at home and tutored him single-handedly. Greek was begun at three, Latin at eight, and the study of world history and of advanced mathematics at an age when most children struggle to learn the alphabet. In the course of long morning walks, the child accounted to his father for what he had learned the day before. He read an astounding number of books and prepared written analyses for his father to criticise, only to work them over and submit them once again. At six Mill wrote a history of Rome; even before then he had attempted to write a history of India like his father; and by 14 he had written a treatise on logic in French.

It is one of the achievements of the superb new edition that John Robson and Jack Stillinger have prepared of Mill’s Autobiography and Literary Essays that it allows a fuller understanding of what Mill took and what he tried to reject from his education. Even readers long familiar with the Autobiography will find that this volume sheds new light on Mill’s growth as a writer and as a thinker, and on his steps in authoring his Life. On facing pages, the editors have juxtaposed drafts of the Autobiography never before published together: the draft of 1853-4, that of 1861, and the parts written around 1867, some years before Mill’s death. Each is carefully annotated to show alterations and variants. The literary essays which are included differ in quality: Mill himself had judiciously chosen to exclude a number of them from republication. The scope and liveliness of each is nevertheless refreshing; and the wealth of ideas is as striking as the breadth of his reading. An excellent Introduction to the volume helps to interpret the circumstances of the different drafts and essays. Appendices provide Mill’s juvenilia, formidable lists of his early reading and writing, and a bibliographic index of persons and works cited by him in this volume. This index is the more helpful since Mill, as the editors point out, resembles most 19th-century authors in being somewhat cavalier in his attitude to sources.

Seeing the drafts and changes together, one is struck by Mill’s efforts to master the craft of writing. Again and again he comments on matters of consistency, organisation and style. In a few articles he tries out the style of his then friend Carlyle, only to discard it in revising them, eliminating one by one the words he had come to think too shrill and removing the frequent use of italics he had once relished. Throughout, Mill reflects on the question of what it takes to be a great writer. He distinguishes the prolific from the great, singling out Voltaire as the only writer he could think of who was both a great and a frequent writer. He attributes overcoming the jejuneness of his own early writing to a careful study of Bentham’s vivid style before it grew cumbersome, and to reading authors who, like Goldsmith, Pascal and Voltaire, ‘combined, to a remarkable degree, ease with force’. As a result, ‘the bones and cartilages began to clothe themselves with flesh, and the style became, at times, lively and almost light.’ Similarly, he explains how working as an assistant to his father in the East India Company gave him practical experience in writing so as to influence his readers: in conducting political correspondence, he was ‘in a good position for finding out by practice the mode of putting a thought which gives it easiest admittance into minds not prepared for it by habit’.

Mill succeeds memorably in conveying the unique advantages and perils in his education. But few readers have been persuaded by his claim to being ‘rather below than above par’ in memory and other ‘natural gifts’. Nor have many taken seriously his assurance that any normal child given the same education could acquire comparable learning and brilliance. Still the question nags: what might one have been, or failed to become, if subjected to a similar regimen?

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