A result of nature, nurture or a combination…

Women have felt victims of inequality with men for centuries often blaming men for lack of income, prestige, and success and yet it is due to the efforts of a number of men that women have realized many freedoms and rights. Frederick Douglas, Dr. Henry Morgentaler, Alan Alda, Patrick Stewart, T.C. Norris, Frederick Pethick-Lawrence are a few of the men that have stood up for and with women as equals.

John Stuart Mill also was one of these men but he based his theory on a belief that we are all equal, if we so choose to be. John Stuart Mill was a British philosopher, political economist and civil servant who wrote extensively about liberty, freedom and equality for all. His writings have contributed to social, political theory and political economics making him recognized as “the most influential English-speaking philosopher of the nineteenth century.”

JSM's father, James Mill

JSM’s father, James Mill

The son of the Scottish philosopher, historian and economist James Mill and Harriet Burrow, he was born in London England in 1806 where he was raised in an environment of isolation and enforced academia. John Stuart was not permitted to socialize with any children excepting his own siblings in order that he be shielded from the ‘common’ thinking and behavior of the average child. He was home schooled and educated by his father with the single goal of creating a genius. No pressure there right?

Having already conquered the Greek language at three years old, by the time John had reached the ripe old age of eight years, according to his autobiography, he had read Aesop’s Fables, Xenophon’s Anabis and the entire of Herodotus. He dabbled with Lucian, Diogenes Laertius and six dialogues of Plato. In order to round out his education he read a great deal of English, and had was taught arithmetic and astronomy. I don’t know about the rest of you but I was delighted if by eight years old my own boys could spell their names, tie up their shoes and remember to put the seat down. The latter is now their wives’ problem.

jeremy bentham

Jeremy Bentham

The life of John Stuart Mills raises the old question of ‘nature vs. nurture’. There can be little debate that John Stuart Mill possessed an incredible mind. His knowledge was remarkable, his thinking and writing was so advanced that even today reading his work is challenging and enlightening. Did his Father with the advice and assistance of Jeremy Bentham and Francis Place create this great mind or was he born with the intelligence as a result of being the progeny of another great intellect?

Personally, I feel there can be little doubt that his eventual emotional and, mental breakdown at the age of twenty can be directly attributed to the intense stress and pressure brought to bear upon the child, teen and young man. I cannot conceive of the awesome responsibility that little boy must have felt to be virtually perfect and with no outlet for childish energy and enthusiasm. Mill confirmed this in his autobiography in which, he claims that this (the breakdown) was caused by the “great physical and mental arduousness of his studies which had suppressed any feelings he might have developed normally in childhood.” This strikes me a very high price to pay for in order to create a ‘genius’. However, it seems once past this crisis, Mill was able to carry on in a relatively normal and happy life ultimately marrying the also brilliant Harriet Taylor in 1851 after a 21-year friendship. Taylor was married when she and Mill met and while they became very close it has never been suggested their relationship was anything but proper.

John and Harriet Mill

John and Harriet Mill

They married when her first husband died and then in 1858 just seven years after their own marriage, Taylor also died. Harriet Taylor had a significant influence on Mill’s work and ideas. Mills credits his relationship with Harriet Taylor for reinforcing his advocacy of women’s rights. He comments on her influence in his final revision of, On Liberty published shortly after her death. (Please see offering)



John Stuart Mill appeared to spend his entire life in the pursuit of and then sharing his knowledge. Through his exposure to other fine minds such as Sir Samuel Bentham and his family (the brother of the aforementioned Jeremy Bentham) with whom he lived in France as a young teenager, August Comte, the founder of positivism, John Austin, the first Professor of Jurisprudence. and sociology, he developed a keen knowledge of social issues and concerns. From 1822 until his death in 1873, Mill was prolific in his writing producing thought provoking and brilliant works almost annually in which he expounded his massive amount of knowledge and learning that was remarkably advanced for his time and to this day very appropriate and insightful.

His writing addressed various subjects including:

Liberty “The sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise, or even right…The only part of the conduct of anyone, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns him, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign” (On Liberty pg. 13)

john-stuart-millFreedom of Speech: I choose, by preference the cases which are least favourable to me – In which the argument opposing freedom of opinion, both on truth and that of utility, is considered the strongest. Let the opinions impugned be the belief of God and in a future state, or any of the commonly received doctrines of morality… But I must be permitted to observe that it is not the feeling sure of a doctrine (be it what it may) which I call an assumption of infallibility. It is the undertaking to decide that question for others, without allowing them to hear what can be said on the contrary side. And I denounce and reprobate this pretension not the less if it is put forth on the side of my most solemn convictions. However, positive anyone’s persuasion may be, not only of the faculty but of the pernicious consequences, but (to adopt expressions which I altogether condemn) the immorality and impiety of opinion. – yet if, in pursuance of that private judgement, though backed by the public judgement of his country or contemporaries, he prevents the opinion from being heard in its defense, he assumes infallibility. And so far from the assumption being less objectionable or less dangerous because the opinion is called immoral or impious, this is the case of all others in which it is most fatal.” (On Liberty ppg. 83 – 85)

Women’s Rights: “Mill argues that the issue persists because of the way society looks at women. Mill argued our society was shaped to subconsciously oppress women from the roots it grew from, marriagA Feminine Philosophere. Along with several other roots as well that Mill mentions, such as the predetermined idea of the woman’s role in the family. Mill exploited the differences between male and female privilege and equality. This inequality in marriage is what hurts the image of women in today’s society.” (the Legal Subjection of Men)

“Mill argues that the image of women is at risk because of inequality in marriage and in the household. In particular, he discusses the ways in which the subordination of women negatively affects not only the women, but also the men and children in the family. This subordination stunts the moral and intellectual development of women by restricting their field of activities, pushing them either into self-sacrifice or into selfishness and pettiness. This leads to the gap in male and female development and equality. If women are subconsciously oppressed in any form by society it automatically has a negative effect on a woman’s interests or dreams.” (the Subjection of Women 1869)

So, is the brilliance of John Stuart Mill a result of nature, nurture or a combination of the two? Does it really matter? Was he able to enjoy the company of friends over a glass of wine? Did he have the opportunity to laugh at the antics of little children playing, find pleasure listening to music or viewing art? Was his world comprised only of academia, learning, writing? I hope so.


For a list of J.S Mill books we offer, click here


Article written by Julia McLaren, The Lord Durham Report editor julia@LDRB.ca

© text  Lord Durham Rare Books, all rights reserved.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *