Why John Stuart Mill Matters: Think for Yourself

The first post in a series looking at John Stuart Mill and the defence of individual liberty.


The great English philosopher and thinker John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) regarded himself as “unremarkable”. In his Autobiography (1873), he considered his early education to be something that “could… assuredly be done by any boy or girl of average capacity and healthy physical constitution.” That sentence, however, occurs after several pages detailing an upbringing both remarkable and terrifying.

At age three, he began studying Greek, which resulted in him reading the whole of Herodotus, Xenophon’s Anabasis, Lucian, Isocrates and Plato within five years. Eight resulted in the study of Latin, Euclid and algebra. By ten, Mill was reading all of Plato and Demosthenes (in original Greek). Twelve saw a change in his education, as he said: “I entered into another and more advanced stage in my course of instruction; in which the main object was no longer the aids and appliances of thought, but the thoughts themselves.” Here the teenage Mill grappled with political economy and Aristotle’s logic, which can be clearly seen in Mill’s own System of Logic and Principles of Political Economy.

Despite this daunting amount of learning, what mattered to Mill was not merely fact consumption. There were no Gradgrindian goals in Mill’s education. James Mill, John’s father and the main thrust of John’s education (along with the great utilitarian Jeremy Bentham who originated the basis for John's education), remained unimpressed by the state of education. It seemed, to the older Mill, as nothing but a factory that produces people with too many facts and too little intelligence. What mattered in young Mill’s education was the ability to arrive at ideas, conclusions and viewpoints that seemed the most rational. The purpose of these great works was a way to show the best thinking the world has offered – that is, these are great works, not because they were written by great minds, but because they are examples of the best ideas and thought proposed. “Anything which would be found out by thinking, I was never told, until I exhausted my efforts to find it myself.” This was the importance of the Socratic method - or elenchus - that James Mill considered essential for education.

John had no companions his own age to associate with; no holidays or a real respite during his entire education. The English social reformer, Francis Place, visited the household in 1817 and considered it “excessively severe” when James punished his children, by withholding lunch, because they mistranslated a single word. But Place was also prescient, finding the young John to be “truly a prodigy, a most wonderful fellow; and when his Logic, his Language, his Mathematics, his Philosophy will be combined with a general knowledge of mankind and the affairs of the world, he will be a truly astonishing man.” And, within his lifetime, this is precisely what John became.

Obscenity and prevailing opinion

When Mill was sixteen, he found a bloody bundle beneath a tree, while walking through St James Park. Wrapped inside, was a recently strangled newborn. Mill reported his discovery to an impassive watchman who indicated the ubiquity of the action. Poor families in London could not afford another child and often killed them, the watchman said. Mill, with a friend, decided to start distributing pamphlets, discussing the importance, method and safety of contraception. He was arrested and charged with the promotion of obscenity. Considering Mill’s renown in British society, the case was given to the Mayor who kept the teenager locked up for several days. This incident serves as a template for the rest of Mill’s life. John Morley said as much of Mill in 1906: “His life was not stimulated by mere intellectual curiosity, but by the resolute purpose of furthering human improvement.”

Mill recognised that in order for people to live fulfilled lives, they required freedom to explore their thoughts. You cannot live a fulfilled life, unless you’ve contemplated what kind of life you want, what kind of person you want to be, what kind of world it is you want to live in.

The problem is that society is roughly a balance between the interests of individuals and the interests of social stability (and one can sense the social contract theory underlying this viewpoint). Mill’s problem was that society, especially British, had slumped too far toward a concept of stability. Indeed, stability was just another word for control, power, dominance, maintaining the status quo.

This was why when Mill tried to prevent the murder of infants, the wasted lives of children who would die at early ages even if parents kept them, the squandered resources of poor families on unplanned progeny, he was arrested instead of helped. As he wrote in On Liberty:

There needs protection … against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development, and, if possible, prevent the formation, of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own.

As we’ve noted, his crime was one of “obscenity” – a word we still use today, when banning pornography or protecting children from allegedly soul-destroying, morality-decaying words. But obscenity, as it should be clear to anyone with a vague knowledge of history, is merely that which prevailing opinion is not fond of. We need no government authority telling us what does and does not (merely) disgust us. We are adult enough to decide such things for ourselves and react accordingly. Murder and rape, however, are not merely disgusting but do actual harm to non-consenting people. That is why we need government stopping murders, not swear-words or pornography.

Indeed, by making obscene actions and entities punishable, we are not allowing ourselves to think, as individual, rational beings. We are allowing someone else to decide for us, hollowing out the foundation Mill thought essential for individual fulfillment. Who decides which books can and can’t be read? Who decides which words should be banned? Who decides this is art, this is pornography, this is punishable?

This is not a call for license, but for properly engaged liberty when considering these matters. If we are not able to look away, close a book, turn off a channel, how powerless have we become? For Mill, whenever we give just a little without thinking, we’ve already given all without realising.

Next time, we'll look at how Mill developed this idea through the defence of free speech.

Image Credit: 18percentgrey/Shutterstock

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

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  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.