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John Stuart Mill: Victorian Firebrand by…

John Stuart Mill: Victorian Firebrand (edition 2009)

by Richard Reeves

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994178,516 (3.92)4
Title:John Stuart Mill: Victorian Firebrand
Authors:Richard Reeves
Info:Overlook TP (2009), Paperback, 544 pages
Collections:Your library
Tags:philosophy, biography

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John Stuart Mill: Victorian Firebrand by Richard Reeves



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From his unusual childhood education to his climax as a leading intellectual of his day John Stuart Mill's biography is an intriguing one. I would not say he was a firebrand but more of a smoldering ember. Mill contributed to the political and intellectual life of Britain over the course of many years.

He made the mistake of falling in love with his soul mate who unfortunately was the wife of another. Eventually, once Harriet was widowed, the two love birds formed an intellectual duo that survived for years. The relationship was undoubtedly sincere and loving given the fact that Helen, Mill's step daughter, remained close to him for years after her mother's death.

Mill was strenuously raised on books by his rather severe and dour father. Mill's intellectual output on a wide variety of topics including politics, sociology, economics, and feminism was prodigious. Arguably best known for On Liberty, he is also known as the father of feminism.
  gmicksmith | Feb 4, 2012 |
This is pretty much everything you could ask for in a biography of Mill. It covers the whole spectrum, from his personal life to his work to the intellectual and political contexts in which he did it, and does so with sympathy and verve. You could do much worse for a history of the progress and development of liberal reform in Victorian England, which is appropriate since his ideas were so central to it. What's unique here is that the author makes it clear that Mill was much more than a man of ideas, and that his was a throughgoingly humanist life, in which he was willing to put his fortune and reputation on the line to fight for his beliefs, even when the times were not yet ripe and the odds weren't in his favor.

The one strange exception to his universal generosity and esteem was his family, and it was a bit jarring to learn that someone who I admire so much and who seemed so far ahead of his time on so many issues, could be so callous to some of the people closest to him in life, albeit for complicated reasons arising from his nonconformist beliefs and his famed relationship with Harriet Taylor. That's a good lesson though, and reinforces the need to judge the personal, political, and intellectual spheres separately and on their own merits. ( )
  jddunn | Nov 8, 2010 |
J S MILL – “The most open-minded man in England”

Although he was a Liberal, don’t get confused by his ‘open-mindedness’ when leading Victorian Liberal William Gladstone labelled the great John Stuart Mill. I suspect all students will have tremendous affection for Mill even though they may not care for liberals.

In this short review, I will concentrate on the value of the book for the jurisprudence undergraduate because Richard Reeves has produced the first proper and worthwhile study of Mill for 50 years which will be of great benefit to scholars aiming for a ‘First’.

The Content of the Book

The first thing to do is look at the index at the back because the fifteen chapters, plus the prologue and epilogue, give you the essence of the man as a human being whilst some careful cross-referencing with the likes of Bentham and Co. will give you your legal learning and quotes.
Look specifically at chapters 11(‘On Liberty’) and 12 (‘To Hell I Will Go’) because Reeves offers some useful twenty-first century quotable insights into our “Victorian Firebrand” and some of his overt political failings such as his opposition to the introduction of the secret ballot! Frankly, I have never thought of Mill as a firebrand as the world he left us with was unquestionably better for his efforts as Reeves acknowledges... and, as he concludes, it still is.


This masterly work gives Mill his proper place in jurisprudence and the wider field for his utilitarianism, described by Reeves as “a word with a divided personality, meaning one thing in common use and the opposite in formal philosophy”. What I found particularly inspiring with this biography is the political and historic context in which Mill has been placed because, to understand the value of philosophy and the importance of jurisprudence either as a tutor or learner, is clearly to understand also the historical period in which the thoughts first prevailed, and I am not talking Plato here.

Mr Reeves manages to succeed with his task magnificently throughout the 487 pages and the massive details contained in the notes afterwards. Of particular delight, as a break from the prose, are the splendid series of illustrations and the photographs which firmly place this book at the forefront of both legal and political biography. It is a work which I felt at home with from the outset, written in readable English with the detail needed (and without the footnotes). I am sure that great American, Benjamin Franklin, whom Mill so clearly admired, would agree entirely.

As some commentators have acknowledged, this work is long overdue but it does give us the complexities and contradictions of the man together with his ideals which many of us would like to have if we had our feet firmly taken out of the cemented ground. Will Hutton feels the book comes at a timely moment ‘when both socialism and liberalism have lost their way’! Hmm! I would not really equate today’s Liberal Democrats or New Labour (if it still is under Gordon Brown) in any way, shape or form with John Stuart Mill- Mill was a man of his time just as my forebears were liberals and radicals, whilst I am a radical Tory in the modern David Cameron tradition as contemporary politics continues to be turned on its head ideologically.


I will end where Reeves begins...which is a defining moment for Mill in the 1823 St James’s Park walk and discovery of the newly killed baby which led to the sort of behaviour which singles Mill out as the highest-ranking philosopher of his century and someone we need a great many more of today: being a human being, an activist and a thinker.

This authoritative work illustrates that the problems faced by Mill in the nineteenth century have such similar relations today when one reads of his passion for reforms of alcohol, gambling, prostitution (and their lordships), and whose life was spent in the pursuit of truth and liberty, and the promotion of happiness for all. It is a remarkable story and Richard Reeves gives us a new insight into this radical reformer who’s shaping of Victorian England has so many messages left still unread now: it is a great read as well as being a great book about a great man - I am a fan, and you will be, too, when you read the book. ( )
  PhillipTaylor | Dec 26, 2008 |
John Stuart Mill was a philosophical piñata. Break open his mind and it would be chock-a-block full, with treats enough for everyone, no matter their political ideology. Of course, it would be impossible to piece it all back together again.

But Richard Reeves’s goal in his new Mill biography is not to make a coherent whole out of Mill’s economic and political philosophy. In John Stuart Mill: Victorian Firebrand, Reeves sets out to make Mill contemporarily relevant to modern political liberals. Reeves acknowledges that bits and pieces—some quite large—do not fit this paradigm, but he does his best to cram as much of Mill as he can into the mold he wants to use.

Born in 1806, Mill turned out to be a child prodigy. His father James home-schooled him relentlessly, so that by the time he was 12 he knew Latin and Greek. He undertook “a complete course in political economy” at 13, and published his first substantive essays when he was 16. At 17, Mill followed his father professionally by joining him at the East India Company, ultimately succeeding his father as Examiner at India House.

Mill also followed his father philosophically, becoming an ardent Utilitarian in his youth, influenced by his father’s friend Jeremy Bentham. Mill went on to tinker with the Utilitarian “greatest happiness principle,” arguing that qualitative differences in forms of happiness need to be considered in analyzing what would produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. Mill argued that intellectual and moral pursuits brought true happiness in a way that entertainment and amusements could not, explaining:

It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question.
Mill’s own happiness centered on Harriet Taylor, his one true love, possibly his mistress and ultimately, his wife. Harriet influenced Mill’s philosophic development, primarily by fostering his interest in causes near and dear to her, such as women’s rights. She helped him with his work, and her influence can be seen in many of his best-known books, including Principles of Political Economy, On Liberty, and The Subjection of Women. The latter, published after Harriet’s death, earned Mill the title of the Father of British Feminism.

There was a lot going on in Mill’s mind and career. After leaving India House, he focused on his writing. Later, he served a term in Parliament. He was an avid traveler, hiker, and botanist, dividing his time between England and his adopted France, where he had a house in Avignon. Reeves’s efforts at corralling this massive amount of information about Mill raises a minor, but nagging, problem with the book—the lack of visual breaks in the text. Reeves uses no page breaks, subheadings, or any other indication of a change of subject. In chapters fifty or sixty pages long, covering multiple subjects, it is daunting to face nothing but dense text. For example, in the 58-page chapter titled “A Short, Bad Parliament (1865-8),” Reeves covers Mill’s involvement in causes as diverse as Irish land reform, the secret ballot, cooperative ownership of business, Jamaican governance, and women’s suffrage, without any visual transition. There is no hint of where to take a break. At 487 pages, the book is long, but not so long that a few double spaces between topics would not be welcomed.

A twenty-first century examination of Mill’s writing and actions is a worthwhile, if daunting, undertaking. There is no question but that evaluating Mill’s wide-ranging, nuanced, often anachronistic, and sometimes contradictory thinking makes for heavy sledding. But not content to simply examine Mill’s work, Reeves goes one step further, perhaps one step too far, to try to find a hook that will make Mill appealing to a modern audience. There is enough in Mill’s thinking to catch the attention of political animals of every stripe, from free traders to die-hard Marxists. As Reeves explains:

Politically, Mill has been claimed, and continues to be claimed, by pretty much everyone, from the ethical socialist left to the lasses faire, libertarian right—and at various points by every major political party.
Faced with this hodgepodge of thinking impossible to fit into a modern-day political cubbyhole, Reeves engages in a little semantic sleight of hand to make his point. He uses political labels like “conservative,” “liberal,” “radical,” and “progressive” as if they have always had the same meaning from Mill’s day to ours. By consistently labeling Mill as a liberal, with progressive ideas, sometimes undertaking radical causes, Reeves positions Mill as a hero of the modern left. But Mill’s liberal ideology was often closer to the “classic liberalism” of Milton Freidman and others of a libertarian bent. The progressive causes Mill pursued were often the opposite of what today’s progressives would support, whereas conservative notions of Mill’s time would be championed by today’s liberals. For example, Mill’s liberal agenda stressed greater freedom for companies to industrialize, while the conservatives in opposition “railed against the rise of cities [and] industry” and called for “worship of nature and proper acknowledgement of the value of the human spirit.”

For readers new to Mill—and there are many—a straightforward analysis of how the various aspects of Mill’s philosophy square with contemporary political and economic thought would be valuable. However, because in the century or more following Mill’s death in 1873, “Mill’s intellectual stock fell, and his radicalism was covered over with dust,” Reeves needed an angle to try to renew interest in Mill’s life and works. By trying to make Mill a standard bearer for modern liberalism, Reeves may indeed appeal to a broader audience, but he contributes less to solid scholarship. Nonetheless, Victorian Firebrand adds much to an overall analysis of Mill’s philosophy and is as good a starting point as any for a contemporary study of this prolific writer and controversial thinker.

(Review posted on Internet review of Books at http://internetreviewofbooks.com/oct08/john_stuart_mill.html.) ( )
  RoseCityReader | Nov 14, 2008 |
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Striding across St James's Park on his way to work, John Stuart Mill noticed a bundle lying beneath a tree.
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"John Stuart Mill was the 'Saint of Rationalism' according to William Gladstone. But in the first definitive biography of Britain's greatest public intellectual, Richard Reeves reveals Mill as a passionate man of action: a philosopher, radical MP and reformer who profoundly shaped Victorian society and continues to illuminate our own." "Mill's activism started early: walking across St James' Park in 1823 at the age of seventeen, he discovered a recently murdered baby. London was full of families who could not afford another child. Mill took action, touring working-class districts distributing a pamphlet describing forms of contraception. He was arrested and jailed for promoting obscenity." "By this time, Mill had already embarked on a successful career in the East India Company, wowed the Cambridge Union and completed a prodigious course of learning. But his achievements had only just started. This youthful activist would become the highest-ranked English thinker of the nineteenth century, the author of the landmark essay On Liberty and one of the most passionate reformers and advocates of his revolutionary, opinionated age. As a journalist he fired off a weekly article on Irish land reform as the people of that nation starved, as an MP he introduced the first vote on women's suffrage and fought to preserve free-speech and, in his private life, pursued for two decades a love affair with another man's wife. Mill also fearlessly tackled issues such as the regulation of gambling, prostitution and alcohol, as well as reform of the House of Lords and domestic violence."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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