Autobiography by John Stuart Mill, 1873

but [I] thought myself much superior to most of my contemporaries in willingness and ability to learn from everybody; as I found hardly an one who made such a point of examining what was said in defense of all opinions, however new or however old, in the conviction that even if they were errors there might be a substratum of truth underneath them, and that in any case the discovery of what it was that made them plausible, would be a benefit to truth.  184

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As a young boy, Mill had an incredibly harsh and regimented life, as he was tutored by his father in history, philosophy, politics, and languages.  He started at age three, and was reading and writing for hours upon hours to get through extensive reading lists his father had devised in order to prepare him to be a scholar and philosopher.  He went on to become a well-known philosopher, writing most notably about liberty, women’s rights, and utilitarianism.

In middle age Mills endured a long and deep depression.  This has been described as outsiders as a nervous breakdown—the result of his lack of childhood, and the pressures put upon him by his father, his peers, and himself.

Mills doesn’t describe it in that way—neither hinting at long-term personality change or attributing his condition to his childhood.  He describes his low period as the result of imagining that if the political and philosophical ends he strove for were achieved, he’d have nothing to do.  He was afraid of putting himself out of a job, essentially.

The other major focus of his life, outside of his education and his writing, is his relationship with his wife.  They had a friendship for many years while she was married to her first husband, and eventually they married after his death.  She also passed away relatively young, the largest tragedy of Mill’s life.  Her influence on his progressive politics and writings is a primary focus of his descriptions.  She was, in his eyes, extremely ethical and intelligent.  She was often the uncredited writer of many of his pieces after their marriage.

Through his marriage, Mill acquired a daughter, who was also involved in the progressive politics and philosophy of her mother and adoptive father.  After her mother’s death, she became Mill’s closest confidant, inspiration, editor, and uncredited contributor.

Because Mill lived so long ago (1806 – 1873), his writing style is a bit difficult.  Much of the book discusses historical and political figures of the day, their ideas and conflicts, which can be horribly dry and irrelevant to our day.  But other sections of the book are engaging and relevant, so it’s a bit uneven.

Ideas per Page:1 3/10 (low)

Recommend to Others: No

Reread Personally:    No


58 It is, no doubt, a very laudable effort, in modern teaching, to render as much as possible of what the you are required to learn, easy and interesting to them.  But when this principle is pushed to the length of no requiring them to learn anything but what has been made easy and interesting, one of the chief objects of education is sacrificed.

58-59 I do not then, believe that fear, as an element in education, can be dispensed with; but I am sure that it ought not to be the main element; and when it predominates so much as to preclude love and confidence on the part of the child to those who should be the unreservedly trusted advisers of after year, and perhaps to seal up the fountains of frank and spontaneous communicativeness in the child’s nature, it is an evil for which a large abatement be made from the benefits, moral and intellectual, which may flow from any other part of the education.

81 I learnt how to obtain the best I could, when I could not obtain everything; instead of being indignant or dispirited because I could not have entirely my own way, to be pleased and encouraged when I could have the smallest part of it; and when even that could not be, to bear with complete equanimity the being overruled altogether.  I have found, through life, these acquisitions to be of the greatest possible importance for personal happiness, and they are also a very necessary condition for enabling any one, either as theorist or as practical man, to effect the greatest amount of good compatible with his opportunities.

117 Those only are happy (I thought) who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness; on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit, followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end.  Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness by the way.  The enjoyments of life (such was now my theory) are sufficient to make it a pleasant thing, when they are taken en passant, without being made a principal object.

169-170  It is in this way that all my books have been composed.  They were always written at least twice over; a first draft of the entire work was completed to the very end of the subject, then the whole begun again de novo; but incorporating, in the second writing, all sentences and part of sentences of the old draft, which appeared as suitable to my purpose as anything which I could write in lieu of them.

171-172  The notion that truths external to the mind may be known by intuition or consciousness, independently of observation and experience, is, I am persuaded, in these times, the great intellectual support of false doctrines and bad institutions.  By the aid of this theory, every inveterate belief and every intense feeling of which the origin is not remembered, is enabled to dispense with the obligation of justifying itself by reason, and is erected into its own all-sufficient voucher and justification.

180 When the philosophic minds of the world can no longer believe its religion, or can only believe it with modifications amounting to an essential change of its character, a transitional period commences, of weak convictions, paralysed intellects, and a growing laxity of principle, which cannot terminate until a renovation has been effected in the basis of their belief, leading to the evolution of some faith, whether religious or merely human, which they can really believe: and when things are in this state, all thinking or writing which does not tend to promote such a renovation, is of very little value beyond the moment.

209 In the pamphlet Thoughts on Parliamentary Reform I had said, rather bluntly, that the working classes, though differing from those of some other countries in being ashamed of lying, are yet generally liars. This passage some opponent got printed in a placard, which was handed to me at a meeting, chiefly composed of the working classes, and I was asked whether I had written and published it.  I at once answered ‘I did.’ Scarcely were these two words out of my mouth, when vehement applause resounded through the whole meetings.  It was evident that the working people were so accustomed to expect equivocation and evasion from those who sought their suffrages, that when they found, instead of that, a direct avowal of what was likely to be disagreeable to them, instead of being offended they concluded at once that this was a person whom they could trust.

1 A measure of the number of new or distinct ideas introduced per page. 10/10 would be conceptually dense, like a textbook. 1/10 would be almost completely fluff.





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