Saturday, February 6, 2010

Biography of John Stuart Mill

Last fall, there was an evening lecture at the University of Richmond, hosted by the School of Leadership Studies. The speaker was Richard Reeves, a British writer, columnist and speaker, and author of the biography, John Stuart Mill: Victorian Firebrand. (If you're interested in purchasing the book, I've added the book to my carousel, at left.)

I knew of Mill as a 19th century economist, thinker and author of On Liberty. But beyond these superficial facts, I knew precious little. Thinking this would be an opportunity to expand my knowledge; I went and was not disappointed. While I could talk about the lecture, I want to focus on the book. After all, the lecture moved me to purchase the book and it is the book that has provided the most insight.

Mill's father, James Mill, was an associate and friend of Jeremy Bentham who promoted the idea of utilitarianism. While many may think of this as a cold and calculating philosophy, it is frequently misunderstood. Likewise, because of his early inculcation into the philosophy, Mill is also frequently misunderstood.

The writing is engaging, and the author has done a good job of breaking most of the younger Mill's life into short chronological bites, dealing with them thematically and yet tying them together into a larger picture.

While I found the chapter dealing with Mill's economics somewhat unsatisfying; the chapter that focused on the writing of On Liberty was particularly rewarding. Likewise the chapter on Mill's brief Parliamentary career also provided a view of the philosopher that I knew little (or had forgotten) about.

If you are a fan of biography, this is an excellent choice. There are many passages that make you stop, think, and reflect; not just on Mill, but on his view and what he has brought to us.

I welcome any comments.

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