Nineteenth Century Philosophy

John Stuart Mill

Did John Stuart Mill have much chance to indulge in the pleasure principle as he grew up?

The pleasure principle was certainly not applied to Mill’s young life in the same sense as Jeremy Bentham’s (1748–1832) formulation, although it possibly was in Mill’s more nuanced version of utilitarianism, which distinguished between higher and lower pleasures. Mill’s father, James, with help from his friend Bentham, educated the young Mill at home. Young John knew Greek at three, Latin at five, logic by 12, and economics by 16. He was also deeply schooled in a social mission to increase the good for the greatest number through progressive political programs. Mill had a nervous breakdown at 20. Biographers believe that his highly structured and rigorous childhood education was the cause of an emotional imbalance. The humanities had been neglected in his education, and his social interactions with peers were limited by the demands of his studies.

Mill then began a course of study in literature to develop his more humanistic sensibilities. He read romantic poetry and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and he began to rethink Bentham’s simple hedonic calculus. The result was Mill’s famous distinction between higher and lower pleasures and a scathing assessment of Bentham’s character as oblivious and uncultured: “Bentham,” an essay first published in the London and Westminster Review in 1838, and revised in 1859 for his own Dissertations and Discussion, Volume 1.


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