John Stuart Mill; His Life and Works Twelve Sketches by Herbert Spencer, Henry Fawcett, Frederic Harrison, and Other Distinguished Authors online

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that both by example and by precept he steadily discountenanced it.
His anxiety to affiliate his own speculations to those of his
predecessors is a marked feature in all his philosophical works, and
illustrates at once the modesty and comprehensiveness of his mind.

It is quite true that Mill, as an economist, was largely indebted to
Ricardo; and he has so fully and frequently acknowledged the debt,
that there is some danger of rating the obligation too highly. As he
himself used to put it, Ricardo supplied the backbone of the science;
but it is not less certain that the limbs, the joints, the muscular
developments, - all that renders political economy a complete and
organized body of knowledge, - have been the work of Mill. In Ricardo's
great work, the fundamental doctrines of production, distribution, and
exchange have been laid down, but for the most part in mere outline;
so much so, that superficial students are in general wholly unable to
connect his statement of principles with the facts, as we find them,
of industrial life. Hence we have innumerable "refutations of
Ricardo," - almost invariably refutations of the writers' own
misconceptions. In Mill's exposition, the connection between
principles and facts becomes clear and intelligible. The conditions
and modes of action are exhibited by which human wants and
desires - the motive powers of industry - come to issue in the actual
phenomena of wealth, and political economy becomes a system of
doctrines susceptible of direct application to human affairs. As an
example, I may refer to Mill's development of Ricardo's doctrine of
foreign trade. In Ricardo's pages, the fundamental principles of that
department of exchange are indeed laid down with a master's hand; but
for the majority of readers they have little relation to the actual
commerce of the world. Turn to Mill, and all becomes clear. Principles
of the most abstract kind are translated into concrete language, and
brought to explain familiar facts; and this result is achieved, not
simply or chiefly by virtue of mere lucidity of exposition, but
through the discovery and exhibition of modifying conditions and links
in the chain of causes overlooked by Ricardo. It was in his "Essays on
Unsettled Questions in Political Economy" that his views upon this
subject were first given to the world, - a work of which M. Cherbuliez
of Geneva speaks as "un travail le plus important et le plus original
dont la science economique se soit enrichie depuis une vingtaine

On some points, however, and these points of supreme importance, the
contributions of Mill to economic science are very much more than
developments - even though we understand that term in its largest
sense - of any previous writer. No one can have studied political
economy in the works of its earlier cultivators without being struck
with the dreariness of the outlook which, in the main, it discloses
for the human race. It seems to have been Ricardo's deliberate
opinion, that a substantial improvement in the condition of the mass
of mankind was impossible. He considered it as the normal state of
things that wages should be at the _minimum_ requisite to support the
laborer in physical health and strength, and to enable him to bring up
a family large enough to supply the wants of the labor-market. A
temporary improvement indeed, as the consequence of expanding commerce
and growing capital, he saw that there might be; but he held that the
force of the principle of population was always powerful enough so to
augment the supply of labor as to bring wages ever again down to the
_minimum_ point. So completely had this belief become a fixed idea in
Ricardo's mind, that he confidently drew from it the consequence, that
in no case could taxation fall on the laborer, since - living, as a
normal state of things, on the lowest possible stipend adequate to
maintain him and his family - he would inevitably, he argued, transfer
the burden to his employer; and a tax nominally on wages would in the
result become invariably a tax upon profits. On this point Mill's
doctrine leads to conclusions directly opposed to Ricardo's, and to
those of most preceding economists. And it will illustrate his
position as a thinker, in relation to them, if we note how this result
was obtained. Mill neither denied the premises nor disputed the logic
of Ricardo's argument: he accepted both; and in particular he
recognized fully the force of the principle of population; but he took
account of a further premise which Ricardo had overlooked, and which,
duly weighed, led to a reversal of Ricardo's conclusion. The _minimum_
of wages, even such as it exists in the case of the worst-paid
laborer, is not the very least sum that human nature can subsist upon:
it is something more than this; in the case of all above the
worst-paid class it is decidedly more. The _minimum_ is, in truth, not
a physical but a moral _minimum_, and as such, is capable of being
altered with the changes in the moral character of those whom it
affects. In a word, each class has a certain standard of comfort below
which it will not consent to live, or at least to multiply, - a
standard, however, not fixed, but liable to modification with the
changing circumstances of society, and which, in the case of a
progressive community, is, in point of fact, constantly rising, as
moral and intellectual influences are brought more and more
effectually to bear on the masses of the people. This was the new
premise brought by Mill to the elucidation of the wages question; and
it sufficed to change the entire aspect of human life regarded from
the point of view of political economy. The practical deductions made
from it were set forth in the celebrated chapter on "The Future of
the Industrial Classes," - a chapter which it is no exaggeration to say
places a gulf between Mill and all who preceded him, and opens an
entirely new vista to economic speculation.

The doctrine of the science with which Mill's name has been most
prominently associated within the last few years is that which relates
to the economic nature of land, and the consequences to which this
should lead in practical legislation. It is very commonly believed,
that on this point Mill has started aside from the beaten highway of
economic thought, and propounded views wholly at variance with those
generally entertained by orthodox economists. No economist need be
told that this is an entire mistake. In truth, there is no portion of
the economic field in which Mill's originality is less conspicuous
than in that which deals with the land. His assertion of the peculiar
nature of landed property, and again his doctrine as to the "unearned
increment" of value arising from land with the growth of society, are
simply direct deductions from Ricardo's theory of rent, and cannot be
consistently denied by any one who accepts that theory. All that Mill
has done here has been to point the application of principles all but
universally accepted to the practical affairs of life. This is not the
place to consider how far the plan proposed by him for this purpose is
susceptible of practical realization; but it may at least be
confidently stated, that the scientific basis on which his proposal
rests is no strange novelty invented by him, but simply a principle as
fundamental and widely recognized as any within the range of the
science of which it forms a part.

I have just remarked that Mill's originality is less conspicuous in
relation to the economic theory of land than in other problems of
political economy, but the reader must not understand me from this to
say, that he has not very largely contributed to the elucidation of
this topic. He has indeed done so, though not, as is commonly
supposed, by setting aside principles established by his predecessors,
but, as his manner was, while accepting those principles, by
introducing a new premise into the argument. The new premise
introduced in this case was the influence of custom as modifying the
action of competition. The existence of an active competition, on the
one hand between farmers seeking farms, on the other between farming
and other modes of industry as offering inducements to the investment
of capital, is a constant assumption in the reasoning by which Ricardo
arrived at his theory of rent. Granting this assumption, it followed
that farmers as a rule would pay neither higher nor lower rents than
would leave them in possession of the average profits on their capital
current in the country. Mill fully acknowledged the force of this
reasoning, and accepted the conclusion as true wherever the conditions
assumed were realized; but he proceeded to point out, that, in point
of fact, the conditions are not realized over the greater portion of
the world, and, as a consequence, that the rent actually paid by the
cultivators to the owners of the soil by no means, as a general rule,
corresponds with that portion of the produce which Ricardo considered
as properly "rent." The real regulator of actual rent over the greater
part of the habitable globe was, he showed, not competition, but
custom; and he further pointed out that there are countries in which
the actual rent paid by the cultivators is governed neither by the
causes set forth by Ricardo, nor yet by custom, but by a third cause
different from either, - the absolute will of the owners of the soil,
controlled only by the physical exigencies of the cultivator, or by
the fear of his vengeance if disturbed in his holding. The recognition
of this state of things threw an entirely new light over the whole
problem of land-tenure, and plainly furnished grounds for legislative
interference in the contracts between landlords and tenants. Its
application to Ireland was obvious; and Mill himself, as the world
knows, did not hesitate to urge the application with all the energy
and enthusiasm which he invariably threw into every cause that he

In the above remarks, I have attempted to indicate briefly some few of
the salient features in Mill's contributions to the science of
political economy. There is still one more which ought not to be
omitted from even the most meagre summary. Mill was not the first to
treat political economy as a science; but he was the first, if not to
perceive, at least to enforce the lesson, that, just because it is a
science, its conclusions carried with them no obligatory force with
reference to human conduct. As a science, it tells us that certain
modes of action lead to certain results; but it remains for each man
to judge of the value of the results thus brought about, and to decide
whether or not it is worth while to adopt the means necessary for
their attainment. In the writings of the economists who preceded Mill,
it is very generally assumed, that to prove that a certain course of
conduct tends to the most rapid increase of wealth suffices to entail
upon all who accept the argument the obligation of adopting the course
which leads to this result. Mill absolutely repudiated this inference,
and, while accepting the theoretic conclusion, held himself perfectly
free to adopt in practice whatever course he preferred. It was not for
political economy or for any science to say what are the ends most
worthy of being pursued by human beings; the task of science is
complete when it shows us the means by which the ends may be attained;
but it is for each individual man to decide how far the end is
desirable at the cost which its attainment involves. In a word, the
sciences should be our servants, and not our masters. This was a
lesson which Mill was the first to enforce, and by enforcing which he
may be said to have emancipated economists from the thraldom of their
own teaching. It is in no slight degree through the constant
recognition of its truth, that he has been enabled to divest of
repulsiveness even the most abstract speculations, and to impart a
glow of human interest to all that he has touched.




Some time ago, when there was no reason to suppose that we should so
soon have to mourn the loss of the great thinker and of the kind
friend who has just passed away, I had occasion to remark upon the
influence which Mr. Mill had exercised at the universities. I will
quote my words as they stand, because it is difficult to write with
impartiality about one whose recent death we are deploring; and Mr.
Mill would, I am sure, have been the first to say, that it is
certainly not honoring the memory of one who is dead to lavish upon
him praise which would not be bestowed upon him if he were living. I
will therefore repeat my words exactly as they were written two years
since: 'Any one who has resided during the last twenty years at either
of our universities must have noticed that Mr. Mill is the author who
has most powerfully influenced nearly all the young men of the
greatest promise.' In thus referring to the powerful influence
exercised by Mr. Mill's works, I do not wish it to be supposed that
this influence is to be measured by the extent to which his books form
a part of the university _curriculum_. His "Logic" has no doubt
become a standard examination-book at Oxford. At Cambridge the
mathematical and classical triposes still retain their former
_prestige_. The moral science tripos, though increasing in importance,
still attracts a comparatively small number of students, and there is
probably no other examination for which it is necessary to read Mr.
Mill's "Logic" and "Political Economy." This fact affords the most
satisfactory evidence that the influence he has exerted is
spontaneous, and is therefore likely to be lasting in its effects. If
students had been driven to read his books by the necessity which
examinations impose, it is quite possible, that, after the
examination, the books might never be looked at again. A resident,
however, at the university can scarcely fail to be struck with the
fact, that many who perfectly well know that they will never in any
examination be asked to answer a question in logic or political
economy are among the most diligent students of Mr. Mill's books. When
I was an undergraduate, I well remember that most of my friends who
were likely to take high mathematical honors were already so
ultimately acquainted with Mr. Mill's writings, and were so much
imbued with their spirit, that they might have been regarded as his
disciples. Many looked up to him as their teacher; many have since
felt that he then instilled into them principles, which, to a great
extent, have guided their conduct in after life. Any one who is
intimately acquainted with Mr. Mill's writings will readily understand
how it is that they possess such peculiar attractiveness for the class
of readers to whom I am now referring. There is nothing more
characteristic in his writings than generosity and courage. He always
states his opponent's case with the most judicial impartiality. He
never shrinks from the expression of opinion because he thinks it
unpopular; and there is nothing so abhorrent to him as that bigotry
which prevents a man from appreciating what is just and true in the
views of those who differ from him. This toleration, which is so
predominant a feature of his writings, is probably one of the rarest
of all qualities in a controversialist. Those who do not possess it
always produce an impression that they are unfair; and this
impression, once produced, exercises a repelling influence upon the
young. Another cause of the attractiveness of Mr. Mill's writings is
the precision with which his views are expressed, and the systematic
form which is given to his opinions. Confidence is reposed in him as a
guide, because it is found that there is some definite goal to which
he is leading his readers: he does not conduct them they know not
whither, as a traveller who has lost his way in a mist, or a navigator
who is steering his ship without a compass. The influence exercised by
Mr. Mill does not chiefly depend upon the originality of his writings.
He did not make any great discovery which will form an epoch in the
history of human thought; he did not create a new science, or become
the founder of a new system of philosophy. There is perhaps not so
much originality in his "Political Economy" as in Ricardo's; but there
are thousands who never thought of reading Ricardo who were so much
attracted by Mr. Mill's book, that its influence might be traced
throughout the rest of their lives. No doubt one reason of his
attractiveness as a writer, in addition to other circumstances to
which allusion has already been made, is the unusual power he
possessed in applying philosophical principles to the facts of
ordinary life. To those who believe that the influence Mr. Mill has
exercised at the universities has been in the highest degree
beneficial, - to those who think that his books not only afford the
most admirable intellectual training, but also are calculated to
produce a most healthy moral influence, - it may be some consolation,
now that we are deploring his death, to know, that, although he has
passed away, he may still continue to be a teacher and a guide. I
believe he never visited the English universities: it was consequently
entirely through his books that he was known. Not one of those who
were his greatest admirers at Cambridge, when I was an undergraduate,
ever saw him till many years after they had left the University. I
remember that we often used to say, that there was nothing we should
esteem so great a privilege as to spend an hour in Mr. Mill's society.
There is probably no bond of attachment stronger than that which
unites a pupil to one who has attracted him to new intellectual
pursuits, and has awakened in him new interests in life. Some four or
five years after taking my degree, I met Mr. Mill for the first time;
and from that hour an intimate friendship commenced, which I shall
always regard as a peculiarly high privilege to have enjoyed. Intimacy
with Mr. Mill convinced me, that, if he had happened to live at either
of the universities, his personal influence would have been no less
striking than his intellectual influence. Nothing, perhaps, was so
remarkable in his character as his tenderness to the feelings of
others, and the deference with which he listened to those in every
respect inferior to himself. There never was a man who was more
entirely free from that intellectual conceit which breeds disdain.
Nothing is so discouraging and heart-breaking to young people as the
sneer of an intellectual cynic. A sarcasm about an act of youthful
mental enthusiasm not only often casts a fatal chill over the
character, but is resented as an injury never to be forgiven. The most
humble youth would have found in Mr. Mill the warmest and most kindly

It may be said, if Mr. Mill has not become the founder of a new
philosophical school at the universities where must we seek the result
of his influence? I cannot give any thing like a complete reply to
this question now; but any one who has observed the marked change
which has come over the mode of thought in the universities in the
last few years will be able to form some idea of the kind of influence
which has been exercised by Mr. Mill. Speaking generally, he has
obtained a very wide acceptance of the utilitarian doctrines: they
were presented by Bentham in a form so harsh and unattractive as to
produce an almost repelling effect. Mr. Mill, on the contrary, showed
that the utilitarian philosophy might inspire the most active
benevolence and the most generous enthusiasm. This acceptance of
utilitarianism has produced a very striking effect in modifying the
political opinions prevalent in the universities. For many years what
has been known as the liberalism of young Oxford and Cambridge is in
many respects fundamentally different from what is known as liberalism
outside the universities. The liberalism of the universities, as well
as that of the Manchester school, are both popularly described as
advanced but between the two there is in many essentials the widest
possible divergence. What is known as Philosophical Radicalism will
long bear the impression of Mr. Mill's teaching.

It should be particularly remembered, that, avowing himself a liberal,
he never forgot that it is the essence of true liberalism to be
tolerant of opinions from which one differs, and to appreciate the
advantages of branches of learning to which one has not devoted
special attention. It is somewhat rare to find that those who profess
themselves undoubted liberals are prepared to accept a consistent
application of their principles. There is almost sure to be some
region of inquiry which they regard as so dangerous that they regret
that any one should enter upon it. Sometimes it is said that freedom
of thought, though admirable in politics, is mischievous in theology:
some, advancing what they believe to be one step further, express a
general approbation of freedom of thought, but stigmatize
free-thinkers. Again, it may be not infrequently observed that
devotion to some particular study makes men illiberal to other
branches of knowledge. Metaphysicians and physiologists who have never
taken the trouble to master mathematical principles dogmatically
denounce the influence of mathematics. Eminent classics and
mathematicians have too frequently sneered at each other's studies. No
one was ever more free from this kind of bigotry than Mr. Mill, and it
probably constitutes one of the main causes of his influence. Some
years ago I happened to be conversing at Cambridge with three men who
were respectively of great eminence in mathematics, classics, and
physiology. We were discussing the inaugural address which Mr. Mill
had just delivered as rector of the St. Andrew's University. The
mathematician said, that he had never seen the advantages to be
derived from the study of mathematics so justly and so forcibly
described; the same remark was made by the classic about classics, and
by the physiologist about natural science. No more fitting homage can
probably be offered to the memory of one to whom so many of us are
bound by the strongest ties of gratitude and affection, than if,
profiting by his example, we endeavor to remember, that above all
things he was just to his opponents, that he appreciated opinions from
which he differed, and that one of his highest claims to our
admiration was his general sympathy with all branches of knowledge.




Every one must be familiar with the often expressed opinion, that, as
a practical politician, Mr. Mill's career was essentially a failure.
It has been said a thousand times that the principal result of his
brief representation of Westminster was to furnish an additional
proof, if one were wanted, that a philosopher is totally incapable of
exercising any useful influence in the direction of practical
politics. It is proposed briefly to examine this opinion, though it
may, indeed, with truth be urged that the present time is not
calculated to make the examination an impartial one. The inquiry
involves an almost constant reference, either expressed or implied, to
Mr. Mill's personal character and influence, and it is hardly possible
for those who are mourning him as a friend to speak of these
dispassionately. It is perhaps hardly necessary at such a time as this
to ask the indulgence of the reader if this unworthy tribute to the
memory of a great man is colored by personal reverence and gratitude.

When, it is said that Mr. Mill failed as a practical politician,
there are two questions to be asked: "Who says he has failed?" And
"What is it said that he failed in?" Now, it seems that the persons
who are loudest in the assertion of his failure are precisely those to
whom the reforms advocated by Mr. Mill in his writings are
distasteful. They are those who pronounce all schemes of electoral
reform embodying the principle of proportional representation to be
the result of a conspiracy of fools and rogues; they are those who
sneer at the "fanciful rights of women;" they are those who think our
present land tenure eminently calculated to make the rich contented,
and keep the poor in their proper places; they are those who believe
that republicans and atheists ought to be treated like vermin, and
exterminated accordingly; they are those who think that all must be
well with England if her imports and exports are increasing, and that
we are justified in repudiating our foreign engagements, if to
maintain them would have an injurious effect upon trade. The assertion

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Online LibraryUnknownJohn Stuart Mill; His Life and Works Twelve Sketches by Herbert Spencer, Henry Fawcett, Frederic Harrison, and Other Distinguished Authors → online text (page 5 of 6)