J.S. Mill and Representative Democracy in the Athenian Spirit

My honors thesis seeks to explain John Stuart Mill’s understanding of representative government, the origin of his ideas with specific reference to the influence of Athens, and the influence that Mill’s ideas have had on political theorists that have followed him.  I will use his Considerations of Representative Government, where Mill not only claims that representative government is the ideal form of government, but also explains what specific institutions must exist in order for this type of government to function properly. Two of these institutions, inspired by the democracy in Athens, are “Separation of Powers” and “Skillful Drafting of a Code of Justice.”[1] Crucially intertwined, these institutions provide that there be a distinction between controlling government, the job of elected representatives, and actually doing the business of government, the job of an independent and skilled bureaucracy. This is a particularly interesting angle from which to approach Mill because it illuminates the tension between Athens radical direct democracy and Mill’s suggestion for a representative government with an insulated bureaucracy that will essentially run the state. In this way, Mill’s idea is far from the popularly controlled institution seen by the Athenians.  While my thesis will be primarily focused around the two institutions proscribed by Mill and their origins in the radical democracy of Athens, I will also take into consideration other institutions presented by Mill as well as other Millian ideas from On Liberty and other writings as far as they influence Mill’s defense of representative democracy.

J.S. Mill

J.S. Mill

[1] Riley, Jonathan. “Mill’s Neo-Athenian Model of Liberal Democracy.” Chap. 9, In J.S. Mill’s Political Thought: A Bicentennial Reassessment, edited by Urbinati, Nadia and Alex Zakaras, 221. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007, 233-238.

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