June Update – Mill and his Philosophical Background

Throughout the month of June, I’ve worked hard to make progress on my thesis. Since the beginning of the month, I have read two of Mill’s primary works, Considerations on Representative Government and Utilitarianism. These, especially Considerations, will serve as the most important sources in my thesis because they lay out Mill’s view on government in his own words. In addition to highlighting and making notes in the text itself, I have also been maintaining a list of notes on my computer that I update as I read. These notes, I hope, will serve me in the future, so that I do not have to skim through the entire text to find a specific point or quote in the book. Also, I have been maintaining notes on further readings that I would like to look into, especially when Mill references another author or a specific Greek text. Because his Greek influence is a major component of my thesis, I hope that my note taking will pay off so that I do not miss an important reference that is made.

Reading through these primary sources have been interesting, not only because I get to see Mill’s view on lots of important issues like voting and welfare, but I also get to see the foundation of his ideas. In Utilitarianism, while it was not specifically related to government, I did get to see Mill’s moral basis for his views; he shows how important, and morally required, fostering the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest amount of people (the basis of Utilitarian philosophy) is to society. Because this understanding of morality plays such a large role in Mill’s views on government, I am happy that I get to read through the philosophical foundation of Mill’s beliefs.

In addition to the two primary sources that I have read, I have also begun reading a companion to Mill which provides some background information on him and his ideas, with specific reference to his influences. This is extremely important to me as it allows me to find information on where Mill got his ideas from and provides me with greater resources to learn more about Mill. Additionally, I have nearly finished the most important secondary source in the literature following Mill and his views on government. This book, entitled Mill on Democracy by Nadia Urbinati, gives a comprehensive view on Mill, his influences, historical context, and a critical look at his understanding of representative government, and will prove to be a major influence on my thesis. It has been very interesting to see the context that Mill was writing in, especially considering how much he differed from other writers of his time, and the criticism that was levied on him as a result.

These secondary sources have also taught me how nuanced political theory can be; for example, most would consider both Benjamin Constant and J.S. Mill liberal thinkers and therefore very similar, however, their views on government and their aims in writing were very different due to the context they were writing in. Lots of people see political writings as merely theoretical treaties that serve no purpose other than to further academia or encourage further thought. While this may be true to a certain extent, learning more about the history behind thinkers like Mill has shown me that political theorists were writing to truly persuade others and discount the thoughts of their adversaries. Everything Mill wrote was for a specific reason, and it was tailored to convince a specific audience; it was not just what Mill was thinking at the time. I love that I have the opportunity to learn more about this and eventually write a thesis that will use all the knowledge that I am comprising currently.


  1. dkwolfe says:

    I’m happy to see another person interested in this topic. Starting at a very young age (I think 3), Mill began learning Greek. This meant that even at a young age, Mill was reading the great works of the Ancient Greeks meaning that Aristotle (both his “Politics” and “Nicomachean Ethics”) was a very large influence on Mill. However, my research has shown that Mill was more influenced by Socrates, through Plato’s dialectics. In fact, Mill actually spent time translating Plato’s works into English. Although this might seem to conflict with Plato’s seemingly anti-democratic sentiments (especially in his “Republic”), there is evidence to suggest that Plato the Socratic (where he was speaking more as Socrates than as himself) influenced Mill most substantially.

    Your second question is also very interesting. Although Mill’s utilitarianism was at the base of almost all of his thinking on politics and government, his moral philosophy seems to be less important to (and at times in tension with) his theories on government and liberty. Fundamentally, Mill believes that Representative Government is the best form of government. So in this sense, democracy is an end (or good) in itself, but not in the same way as utilitarians see happiness as a good in itself. Mill’s views on government are interesting because they aren’t as strict as his views on moral philosophy; he leaves room open for justified aristocracy and despotism in certain circumstances. This makes his views, not only interesting, but also open to interpretation.

    Thank you for the questions. I hope this helped to answer them, and if you have any other questions, I would love to discuss them with you further. Good luck on your thesis!

  2. tdbriggs says:

    Hi! Your thesis sounds very interesting. It’s somewhat similar to mine, as it seems to grapple with works that sit at the crossroads of political theory and philosophy. The type of questions that fall in this area are always fascinating, and it’s great to see other people interested in them.

    I’m not too familiar with the specific ways in which Ancient Greek philosophy influenced Mill’s thought, but I would assume that he drew a lot from Aristotle’s “Politics,” and perhaps his “Nicomachean Ethics” as well. I’m curious which works you find influenced him most!

    Lastly, given that Mill’s utilitarianism is so essential to his understanding of the goal of politics and government in general, I was wondering whether or not Mill wrote at all on whether democracy was an end in itself, or rather, a good in itself.