Mill's Autobiography is one of the most well-known texts in the history of education. Its famous crisis experience is often cited as illustrating the defects of excessive intellectual training, but whether this is a proper conclusion is debatable. Arguably Mill senior's mode of education succeeded admirably, as shown in the later achievements of his son, but the lack of parental tenderness and patience produced isolation and depression.
Some background: The Autobiography underplays some aspects of the Mills' family life. Jeremy Bentham was a more active force in Mill family affairs than is here recorded. Mill avoids mention of his youthful dissemination of birth control information. He also underplays family quarrels, perhaps graciously, for Mill broke with other members of his family over his partnership with Harriet Taylor Mill (cmp. George Eliot's rupture with her brother Isaac over her liaison with Lewes).
In some ways this work may be seen as John Stuart Mill's biography of James Mill, as much a characterization of his father as of himself, and written despite the pain of "loyal devotion" to a man from whom he had separated. There is a detached pathos in his portrayal of a man who was sternly virtuous without having attained happiness. To a unique degree John Stuart Mill's past was one of split loyalties (among other things, between father and wife, and the values each represented). It shows unusual coherence of character, in my view, for Mill to have sorted out the good from the bad so carefully in order to have retained the former.
1. What are Mill's stated reasons for writing his autobiography? How do these differ from those of Trollope or other Victorian autobiographers you have read?
[Opposite emphasis from Trollope: Trollope, "I became exceptional although I was neglected. . . "; Mill, "I'm unexeptional because I benefited from a worthy upbringing"--although we learn what pain the ties associated with that upbringing also caused him.]
2. To what extent is his autobiography intended as a memoir of other persons than himself? Is he intending to criticize or pay tribute, or both?
3. An apologia is a conventional beginning for an autobiography, especially an intellectual one. Do the contrasts between his apologia and those of, say, Martineau, Trollope or Newman reflect more basic differences between the motives of these autobiographies?
4. Can you characterize features of Mill's style? How does it differ from that of Carlyle, Ruskin or other Victorian prose writers?
5. What were some of the noticeable intellectual features of James Mill's education of his son? (e. g. trained to form own judgments and to think sequentially; mind focused on useful rather than ornamental subjects--logic, political economy, history and government; neglect of social relations; neglect of practical affairs and training in mechanical skills; some instruction in poetry and aesthetic subjects, elocution; careful inculcation of rational modesty, public spiritness)
6. How did this education combine the intellectual and the useful (utilitarian)?
7. Can you comment on ways in which this educational model might have been influenced by James Mill's Scottish background, including Enlightenment rationalism and the "common sense" school of philosophy and the emphasis on rhetoric as a preparation for public life?
8. What kind of person do you think this education was designed to form? What future career might James Mill have intended for his son? (as a logician, economist, writer, speaker and reformer in governmental affairs--exactly what J. S. Mill became)
9. Did Mill's education succeed in attaining the ends it sought?
10. What were some of the emotionally painful consequences of his father's methods of instruction, according to Mill? (e. g. instilling of fear and doubt rather than self-esteem)
11. According to Mill, what were some of his father's deficiencies as a teacher? (e. g. severely critical; denied praise; at times unwilling to teach by example; demanded the impossible; unable to recognize differences between his son and himself, as in the son's difficulty with practical skills; lack of tenderness) Are the limitations a necessary consequence of James Mill's ideas and ideals?
12. Does Mill consider the instillation of fear necessary for education?
13. What were the effects of J. S. Mill's teaching of his younger brothers and sisters? Does he approve of the monitorial method? Why do you think he found this morally repellent, rather than satisfying? How do his experienes resemble those of Trollope?
14. Assuming a kinder tutelage, to what degree do you think James Mill's methods or aims might be considered an ideal model?
15. What seem to have been interests of Mill as a very young boy? What were some of his spontaneous activities and pursuits? (e. g. read ancient history, interested in tales of heroic resistance and nobility, as was his father; studied the process of framing just laws; wrote historical surveys; composed original tunes and poetry after the manner of Pope)
16. Were these pursuits in violation of or encouraged by the educational system his father constructed for him?
What attitudes towards public debate the the press are revealed in the nature of Mill's early publications? (high faith in value of debate in the press, need for radical propaganda in the days before the stamp tax)
17. What are some contrasts in the ways Mill describes his father and the descriptions of their fathers by Martineau and Trollope?
18. Why do you think Mill spends so much of chapter 2, "Moral Influences in Early Youth. My father's Character and Opinions," in describing his father's ethical views? Does he directly consider their "moral influence"?
19. Does he essentially come to agree with most of these views? Is he able to defend his own views while eloquently describing those of his father? (It would have been inappropriate for Mill to defend his own moral rectitude as an agnostic, but he is able to make a case study in presenting the biography of his father.)
20. What is his reaction to his father's originality and consistency in opposing deism? (25, 26-29) What are his beliefs about the morality of irreligious ethical persons? Was this an unusual view for its period?
21. Apart from James Mill's religious and moral convictions, what evaluation does Mill give of his father's basic moral character? How sympathetic do you feel is his portrayal of his father's response to pain and pleasure? To the cult of sensibility? (31)
22. With which of his father's admonitions does the later Mill take exception? What seems the importance of the charge of secrecy? (Mill junior considers it his moral duty to state his opinions openly.)
23. What seems to have been Mill's final response to his father? (35) In some ways this is arguably the saddest sentence of the book, as Mill describes his ambivalent and self-abnegating attachment. Do you think Mill is here able to rise above deep estrangement to be fair? If he is no longer bitter, how does he deal with the sense of loss?
24. Mill's wife excised passages from the original draft which described his father's dislike and contempt for his wife, his anger at having to provide for a large family, and the bad effects of his condescension on the children's attitude toward their mother.
What comment on the inequalities in his original family may have been made by John Stuart Mill's early advocacy of birth control, his lifelong feminism, and his choice of a life companion without regard to the strictures of convention?
25. In general, what types of passages did Mill and Harriet Taylor Mill excise from the final version? (33) Would the retention of the excised passages have created a greater understanding of James Mill? What do they reveal about J. S. Mill's character? (e. g., his ability to analyze causes and effects in the realm of emotion; his real pain and concern at the effects of his family life on his own character; his regret at the effects of his father's behavior on his own temperament--i. e., his feeling of passivity; his sense of being dominated by his past and education; his worry over the predetermination of events and actions--a remarkable parallel with Harriet Martineau).
26. What are some ways in which the emotions of his early training and family affect his later life? (e. g., chose a marriage partner very different from Mrs. James Mill; always regretted a distance from other human beings)
27. What is the effect on Mill of travel and residence in France?
28. What seems to be the basis of Mill's evaluation of the English character as stony and undemonstrative? What contrasting advantages does his trip to France provide him? (absence of self-pity lends credibility 37; many things unjudged)
29. Can you see parallels between Mill's views of Victorian society and those of other Victorian thinkers such as Thomas Carlyle or Florence Nightingale?
30. In chapter 3, "Last Stage of Education and First of Self-Education," what effect does he describe as occuring when in adolescence he read a history of the French Revolution? With which revolutionary party does he identify, and is this significant? (40)
31. What doctrines are associated with Bethamism or "utilitarianism" [the latter a term coined by Mill]? How was Mill moved by reading Bentham's Treatise on Legislation? What effect did Bentham's ideas have on Mill, and what effect did he believe these had on his future opinions and work? (41-42) (e. g. advocacy of full employment at high wages to the laboring population through a voluntary restriction of their numbers; belief in democratic representative government and freedom of discussion; belief in the value of literacy) Which segments of the British population of the time would have agreed with him?
32. What does Mill believe was the psychological benefit Bethamism bestowed on him? Desire for the "greatest good of the greatest number" (provided a purpose for his life, an ethical mission)
33. What do you make of the fact that he describes this change in terms of a conversion? (42) Can you discern parallels with other Victorian conversion narratives, such as those by Darwin, Martineau, or Nightingale?
34. What new studies does his reading in Bentham suggest? Was psychology then an established science? What type of study would the application of theories of government to English law, "the application of reason to law," be considered today?
35. What are his arguments against the utility of deism? (44) Why do you think he felt compelled to insert these?
36. What was the subject and manner of Mill's first argumentative essay, and why was he dissatisfied with this? (45) Was this a topic his father would have chosen?
37. Can you compare Mill's mode of describing his friends and associates with that of other memoirists you have read, such as Trollope or Martineau? (46-49) Is he concerned with the analysis of character? What does he have to say about Grote and Charles Austin? (47, Austin a perfectionist melancholic, 49, loved to impress points, worked at effect; caused harm by making exaggerated statements about the nature of Benthamite principles)
38. How may Mill's appointment to the offce of the Examiner of the East India Company have affected his subsequent intellectual life? Did his mode of occupation suit his temperament? (51-52) Can you compare him with Trollope or other Victorian autobiographers in this respect? How do they differ in their response to office politics?
39. Why in Mill's view is bureaucratic officework suitable for a would-be writer? What do Mill's claims seem to indicate about the nature of the office in which he worked?
40. Can you compare his attitudes toward professional advancement and travel with those of Trollope or other Victorians you have read? How do his attitudes toward his younger self differ from those of Trollope?
41. In assessing his political agreements and disagreements with his father's variety of utilitarianism, what subjects does Mill emphasize? (agrees in his advocacy of Hartleyianism, that is, the opposition to a belief in innate ideas; advocates Malthusianism, 64; agrees in supporting the extention of the suffrage and free discusssion; disagrees on women's suffrage, as did his friends, 63; applauds his father's belief in greater freedom in sexual relations before marriage, which could have referred to more open courtships, cmp. Florence Nightingale, in order to lessen the likelihood of incompatible unions)
42. How do Mill's preferences in recreation reveal his character?
43. What does he believe have been the advantages of his public work?
44. Is Mill detached in viewing his former self? Too detached? (59-60, 66)
45. In chapter V, what does Mill describe as precipitating factors for his mental crisis of 1825-26? Do you think he gives a full explanation of his difficulty? Is his a good description of the depression of an intelligent, idealistic person? (84, identification of the mixture of unselfishness and egotism in human aspiration; evocation of grieving detachment and alienation from the processes of life)
46. Can his "crisis" be described as anxiety about vocation? (81, feels alienated from his own ideals, 84 needs to will to do what he does, 84 a lack of personal aims)?
47. Can you think of similar crises experienced by Mill's contemporaries? (Carlyle, Darwin, Nightingale, Martineau, in fiction, Lucy Snowe in Villette) May there have been aspects of Victorian middle-class expectations which exacerbated their problems, or do you think these anxieties are endemic?
48. At the period of his depression, did Mill suffer from a lack of love or attachment? (cmp. Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre and Villette, which center on the need for love). What resource does he believe would have prevented or lessened his problem? (87-88, lack of a confidante) Are his reactions consistent with the findings of recent psychologists?
49. What types of problems obsessed him during the period of his crisis, and what do these reveal about his character? Why was he tormented by the exhaustibility of musical combinations? (94, feels he doesn't matter in the scheme of things; can't affect fate)
Is he similar to any others of his period in experiencing a sense of determinism and fatedness? How does he make peace with the tension between determinism and free will?
50. What event precipitates his faith in recovery, and why? What is the significance of his identification with the story of a son who cares for others after the death of his father? (sense of overdetermination by father, cmp. his remarks in chapter 2) Does he himself later form a family unit without his father?
51. Why do you think feeling and analysis have been disassociated for Mill?
52. Does his malady return, and under what conditions? Why is his a continuing crisis? (contrast Trollope, Nightingale) Is this aspect of his life correlated to his own success?
53. Why do you think John Stirling becomes his closest friend?
54. After his crisis, how did his politics come to differ from that of his father? To what new influences was he now susceptible? How was this shift influential in affecting his other attitudes, say, towards history? his attitude toward the 18th century? toward his father's logic? toward the ideal of social co-operation?
55. Can you explain some of the motives for his deep attachment to Harriet Taylor? What effect does he believe his relationship with her has had on his life? How does he describe her? Do you find his descriptions convincing?
56. What were unusual aspects of their lives together? What activities did they share?
57. Which books did they write together, and what does he claim was the contribution of each? What factors may have prevented them from putting her name on these books? How might this have affected their reception?
58. Why do you think he sees himself as an ardent factionalist? Which prominent public causes did he espouse? (led opposition in Eyre case; extension of suffrage; women's suffrage)
59. After his wife's death, to what does Mill devote himself? What was his relationship to his stepdaughter Helen?
60. What are features of personality which bind together the Autobiography? Do you accept his analysis of his own character?
61. Is the Autobiography well-structured? Which aspects of his life seem to be omitted? (e. g., like many autobiographies, his is not much concerned with the process of aging) Do you think he should have confined himself to a history of early influences?
62. Are there any parallels between J. S. Mill's and Wordsworth's views on education?
page numbers are from Riverside edition edited by Jack Stillinger