John Stuart Mill; His Life and Works

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[2] Part of a lecture on "Political Institutions," delivered at the Positivist School, May 11.



It is always hazardous to forecast the estimation in which any man will be held by posterity. In one sense truly we have no right to anticipate the judgment of the future, sufficient for us to form opinions satisfactory within the limits of our own generation. Sometimes, by evil chance, a great name is covered with undeserved reproach; and it is reserved for a distant future to do it justice. But such a work as Mr. Carlyle did for Cromwell we may confidently anticipate will never be required for the name of John Stuart Mill. He is already enrolled among the first of contemporary thinkers, and from that list his name will never be erased. The nature of Mr. Mill's work is such as to make it easy to predict the character of his future reputation. His is the kind of philosophy that is destined to become the commonplace of the future. We may anticipate that many of his most remarkable views will become obsolete in the best sense: they will become worked up into practice, and embodied in institutions. Indeed, the place that he will hold will probably be closely resembling that of the great father of English philosophy,—John Locke. There is indeed, amid distinguishing differences, a remarkable similarity between the two men, and the character of their influence on the world. What Locke was to the liberal movements of the seventeenth century, Mr. Mill has more than been to the liberal movement of the nineteenth century. The intellectual powers of the two men had much in common, and they were exercised upon precisely similar subjects. The "Essay on the Human Understanding" covered doubtless a field more purely psychological than the "Logic;" but we must remember that the "Analysis of the Mind" by the elder Mill had recently carried the inductive study of mind to an advanced point. If, however, we regard less the topics on which these two illustrious men wrote, than the special service rendered by each of them to intellectual progress, we may not unfittingly compare the work of Locke—the descent from metaphysics to psychology—to the noble purpose of redeeming logic from the superstition of the Aristotelians, and exalting it to something higher than a mere verbal exercise for school-boys. The attack that Locke opened with such tremendous effect on the a priori school of philosophy was never more ably supported than by the "Logic" and controversial writings of Mr. Mill.

The remarkable fact in regard to both these great thinkers—these conquerors in the realms of abstract speculation—is their relation to politics. Locke was the political philosopher of the Revolution of 1688; Mr. Mill has been the political philosopher of the democracy of the nineteenth century. The vast space that lies between their treatises represents a difference, not in the men, but in the times. Locke found opposed to the common weal an odious theory of arbitrary and absolute power. It is interesting to remember what were the giants necessary to be slain in those days. The titles of his first chapters on "Government" significantly attest the rudimentary condition of political philosophy in Locke's day. Adam was generally considered to have had a divine power of government, which was transmitted to a favored few of his descendants. Accordingly Locke disposes of Adam's title to sovereignty to whatever origin it may have been ascribed,—to "creation," "donation," "the subjection of Eve," or "fatherhood." There is something almost ludicrous in discussing fundamental questions of government with reference to such scriptural topics; and it is a striking evidence of the change that has passed over England since the Revolution, that, whereas Locke's argument looks like a commentary on the Bible, even the bishops now do not in Parliament quote the Bible on the question of marriage with a deceased wife's sister. Nevertheless Locke clearly propounded the great principle, which, in spite of many errors and much selfishness, has been the fruitful heritage of the Whig party. "Political power, then, I take to be a right of making laws with penalties of death, and consequently all less penalties, for the regulating and preserving of property, and of employing the force of the community in the execution of such laws, and in the defence of the commonwealth from foreign injury, and all this only for the public good." Locke also enounced the maxim, that the state of nature is one of equality. Mr. Mill's special views on the land question are not without parallel in Locke; for that acute thinker distinctively laid down that "labor" was the true ground even of property in land. Still it must be confessed that Locke's political philosophy is much cruder than Mr. Mill's. His "Essay on Government" is as the rough work of a boy of genius, the "Representative Government" a finished work of art of the experienced master. And this difference corresponds with the rate of political progress. The English constitution, as we now understand it, was unknown at the Revolution: it had to be slowly created. Now the great task of the future is to raise the mass of the people to a higher standard of political intelligence and material comfort. To that great end no man has contributed so much as Mr. Mill.

Perhaps the one writing for which above all others Mr. Mill's disciples will love his memory is his essay "On Liberty." In this undertaking Mr. Mill followed the noble precedent of Locke, with greater largeness of view and perfection of work. Locke's four letters "Concerning Toleration" constitute a splendid manifesto of the Liberals of the seventeenth century. The principle, that the ends of political society are life, health, liberty, and immunity from harm, and not the salvation of souls, has taken nearly two centuries to root itself in English law, but has long been recognized by all but the shallowest bigots. And yet Locke spoke of "atheism being a crime, which, for its madness as well as guilt, ought to shut a man out of all sober and civil society." Here again, what a stride does the Liberty make? It is, once more, the difference of the times, rather than of the men. The same noble and prescient insight into the springs of national greatness and social progress characterizes the work of both men, but in what different measures? Again, we must say, the disciple is greater than the master. Closely bearing on this topic is the relation of the two men to Christianity. Locke not only wrote to show the "Reasonableness of Christianity," but paraphrased several of the books of the New Testament. Mr. Mill has never written one sentence to give the least encouragement to Christianity. But, although a contrast appears to exist, there is really none. Locke was what may be called a Bible Christian. He rejected all theological systems, and constructed his religious belief in the truly Protestant way,—with the Bible and his inner consciousness. His creed was the Bible as conformed to reason; but he never doubted which, in the event of a conflict, ought to give way. To him the destructive criticism of biblical scholars and the discoveries of geology had given no disquietude; and he died with the happy conviction, that, without abandoning his religious teaching, he could remain faithful to reason. Mr. Mill inherited a vast controversy, and he had to make a choice like Locke, he remained faithful only to reason.

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