John Stuart Mill
John Stuart Mill was born on 20 May, 1806 in London. His father was the influential radical thinker James Mill. In his Autobiography, Mill gives one of the most famous accounts of a childhood, certainly of a philosopher’s childhood. Interpretations have differed radically but everyone, including Mill, agrees that he had an extraordinary childhood, and that it shaped his later life as a thinker. Essentially, Mill tells us how his father educated him at home from an extremely early age until he went off to work in his father’s office at the age of 18. John Stuart Mill did not go to school or university. Instead his father established for him a unique experiment in education. At age three, Mill was learning ancient Greek and arithmetic Soon he was being taken by his father on walks across the fields and reciting the evidence of his day’s reading.
At the age of eight, Mill began Latin, and this part of his life story is a long list of books in different languages. Several of these childhood texts are directly relevant to On Liberty, particularly ancient works of political theory by Plato, Aristotle and Cicero. From the age of twelve, Mill was taught logic, on which, in adult life, he became a leading authority.
Mill also draws our attention to missing elements in his education, notably the absence of religion, for which he remains grateful. On the other hand, he does look back on a more damaging absence, the lack of affection. For some readers, notably Mill’s friend Carlyle, this is the account of a nightmare childhood. For others, such as the contemporary philosopher Jonathan Riley, the verdict is more mixed, as it seems to have been for Mill himself. Many of his father’s political ideas continue to find expression within On Liberty, but in other ways, as Isaiah Berlin observes, the book can be seen as a reaction against such an upbringing— given its emphasis upon the well-being of the individual and upon the need for people to find their own way of living and thinking.