Published Humanitas, Volume XXVI Nos. 1 & 2, 2013

Few parents raise their children from infancy to assume a specific occupation or role in life. Fewer still raise them to be radical reformers. This, however, is precisely what James Mill did with his first-born child, John Stuart Mill (1806-1873). At the time of his son’s birth, James Mill was a struggling man of letters who had left his native Scotland for London after stints as a scholar, a preacher, and a tutor. In 1808 he met Jeremy Bentham, the eccentric philosopher and legal reformer, and adopted his doctrines wholesale, while Bentham in turn embraced the radical politics of Mill. The two would join forces in a crusade to transform an aristocratic and semi-feudal England into a modern democracy. Mill, Bentham, and their followers would become known as the “Philosophic Radicals” and were for a time represented by a small, but vocal, contingent of MPs in the House of Commons. Thoroughly convinced of the truth, justice, and practicality of his creed, James Mill nonetheless understood that the battle for reform would require additional talents if the final victory was to be won. His mother had taken great pains to see that he was highly educated, exempting him from all duties save study. The precocious child won a scholarship to the University of Edinburgh where he distinguished himself in a number of fields. Bentham was also a prodigy of learning, perhaps the youngest student ever to graduate from Oxford. Given the ideas and ambitions of these two men, it was no surprise that John Mill would be groomed from an early age in the image of his father.

As told in his famous Autobiography, Mill began learning Greek at the age of three and arithmetic shortly thereafter. By eight he was reading Greek authors and learning Latin. Over the next four years his studies expanded to encompass the entire circle of the liberal arts: history, mathematics, the classics, logic, political economy, and literature. He took notes, made abstracts, compiled tables, and conversed intelligently with his father. He was a petit monstre of learning. As a result of this ambitious “experiment”…

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