- John Stuart Mill: A Secular Life by Timothy Larsen
Timothy Larsen’s John Stuart Mill: A Secular Life is a slightly odd but fascinating account of Mill’s life. The oddity is that this short biography takes its place in a series of “spiritual lives” but professes to be about Mill’s secular life (44). One might wonder whether Mill led a spiritual life after all, or whether some sorts of secular life can be spiritual. (The answer that emerges is that both seem to be true.) Larsen wisely does not spend his energies on trying to finesse definitional issues. Instead he focuses throughout on the religious influences on Mill and on Mill’s relations with conventionally religious contemporaries. For anyone disposed to take at face value Mill’s claim that his agnosticism was such that the religion of his English contemporaries meant no more to him than the beliefs of the ancient Greeks, the results are eye-opening.
The book is organized chronologically, beginning with a short excursus on James Mill’s curious unwillingness to admit that he had as a young man trained for the ministry in his native Scotland and his subsequent antipathy to organized religion. On Larsen’s reading, it is not surprising that the teenaged John Stuart was a bitter critic of both the Christian religion and the established church. Matters changed dramatically when Mill suffered a loss of faith, that is to say, his faith in Benthamism. As converts will, he initially swung violently to the opposite extreme, to the extent that he misled Thomas Carlyle into thinking that Mill was “a new mystic,” misled the Saint-Simonian missionaries into thinking he was ripe for conversion to their faith, and misled Auguste Comte into thinking he had gained an English disciple (and perhaps a source of funds) (63).
In terms of spirituality in the usual sense, it is equally significant that Mill became friendly with the Fox family, a family of well-known Quakers, particularly with Barclay Fox and his sister Carolyn Fox, the diarist, who recorded their impressions of Mill. These impressions are couched in decidedly religious terms, and Mill seemed to adopt their vocabulary with no unease. The most important friendship of Mill’s life before he met Harriet Taylor was with a young clergyman who moved in the same circles and was a [End Page 684] friend of Carlyle. This was John Sterling, an Anglican with unorthodox views, whose early death from consumption deprived Mill of a male soulmate. Larsen is right to emphasize that Mill, supposedly agnostic as he was, seems to have suffered no discomfort in the company of persons with conventionally religious attachments.
Skeptical readers might wonder whether Taylor made Mill more or less agnostic, given her overwhelming influence on Mill’s opinions. Larsen’s treatment of their relationship is agreeably sensible and low key. His answer to the question that exercises so many writers is that it is likely that their relationship was, as they themselves said, spiritual and celibate. Given Taylor’s fixed belief that women found sexual intercourse disagreeable, it is hard to believe anything else; but the issue of Mill’s spirituality comes back in a somewhat sideways sense. He treated Taylor as an object of something very like religious devotion. One of Mill’s quirks was his habit of addressing her in the third person, and his belief in her intellectual and emotional infallibility was complete. Oddly, given her impact on just about all his opinions, there is little evidence of her having influenced his religious opinions in the ordinary sense of the term. Or, rather, the impact she had was not a matter of her religious views, but had to do with the effect her premature death from consumption had on Mill’s subsequent thinking about religion and immortality.
Among the things that may come as a surprise to readers whose interest in Mill is largely confined to his philosophy, politics, and economics is the account of his eventual stepdaughter Helen Taylor’s...