May 20

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May 20: John Stuart Mill

John Stuart Mill (1806)

John Stuart Mill

It was on this date, May 20, 1806, that John Stuart Mill was born in London, the eldest son of philosopher James Mill. Under his father’s strict teaching, Mill was able to read Greek at age seven and study political economy at age 13. “[My father] impressed upon me from the first,” wrote Mill (Autobiography, 1873), “that the manner in which the world came into existence was a subject on which nothing was known: that the question, ‘Who made me?’ cannot be answered, because we have no experience or authentic information from which to answer it; and that any answer only throws the difficulty a step further back, since the question immediately presents itself, ‘Who made God?’” Possibly referring to his own father, Mill also wrote, “The world would be astonished if it knew how great a proportion of its brightest ornaments—of those most distinguished even in popular estimation for wisdom and virtue—are complete sceptics in religion.”

Mill’s philosophy was influenced by the freethinker Jeremy Bentham and, to this day, John Stuart Mill’s name is almost synonymous with the philosophy of Utilitarianism. He summarized that philosophy in Chapter Two of his 1863 book of that title, sounding almost Epicurean: “Actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness; wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.” But he also exercised a strong moral sensibility, saying famously in his Inaugural Address Delivered to the University of St. Andrews (1 February 1867), “Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.” And Mill included this sentiment in his Principles of Political Economy (1848): “Since the state must necessarily provide subsistence for the criminal poor while undergoing punishment, not to do the same for the poor who have not offended is to give a premium on crime.”

Mill’s 1859 essay, On Liberty, masterfully details why free speech is a logical necessity:

First, if any opinion is compelled to silence, that opinion may, for aught we can certainly know, be true. To deny this is to assume our own infallibility. Secondly, though the silenced opinion be an error, it may, and very commonly does, contain a portion of truth; and since the general or prevailing opinion on any subject is rarely or never the whole truth, it is only by the collision of adverse opinions that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied. Thirdly, even if the received opinion be not only true, but the whole truth; unless it is suffered to be, and actually is, vigorously and earnestly contested, it will, by most of those who receive it, be held in the manner of a prejudice, with little comprehension or feeling of its rational grounds. And not only this, but, fourthly, the meaning of the doctrine itself will be in danger of being lost, or enfeebled, and deprived of its vital effect on the character and conduct: the dogma becoming a mere formal profession, inefficacious for good, but cumbering the ground, and preventing the growth of any real and heartfelt conviction, from reason or personal experience. (Chap 2)

Echoing Thomas Paine, in 1865 Mill wrote, “I will call no being good who is not what I mean when I apply that epithet to my fellow creatures; and if such a creature can sentence me to hell for not so calling him, to hell I will go.”

Elsewhere, Mill wrote,

A being who can create a race of men devoid of real freedom and inevitably foredoomed to be sinners, and then punish them for what he has made them, may be omnipotent and various other things, but he is not what the English language has always intended by the adjective holy.

And finally, as a warning to our current generation, perhaps, Mill said, “So natural to mankind is intolerance in whatever they really care about, that religious freedom has hardly anywhere been practically realized.”

Not quite an Atheist, Mill said he believed in a “probable God,” or a “limited liability God”—that is, one that is not all-powerful. After his death, on 8 May 1873, Mill’s stepdaughter published his Three Essays on Religion (1874), in which Mill admitted he disbelieved in miracles and immortality. John Stuart Mill was called by Liberal Member of Parliament William Ewart Gladstone “the Saint of Rationalism.”

Originally published May 2003 by Ronald Bruce Meyer.

About the author

Ronald Bruce Meyer

Freethought Almanac was created by Ronald Bruce Meyer, in collaboration with freethoughtradio.com, in March 2003. What started with a brief notice on the birthday of Albert Einstein, grew into almost 250,000 words on not only biography but history, philosophy, theology and politics — one day at a time. Freethought Almanac looks at these daily subjects from a godless point of view, that is, a point of view that is based not on fantasies, delusions or wishful thinking, but a view that is evidence-based.

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