Liberty Matters

James Mill on Liberty and Governance: A Reply to Professor Ball


The more I read and learn about James Mill the more I see his shadow lengthen across the life and thought of his eldest son. They were both, first and foremost, philosophic-minded reformers who had an almost unlimited faith in the capacity of education to transform society. They shared many of the same philosophic principles and plans of reform that made them both intellectually and politically “radical.” Unlike other (nonphilosophic) reformers of the time, James and John Stuart Mill were not ultimately content with piecemeal adjustments and the general amelioration of social conditions. Both aimed at something far higher than “a chicken in every pot” for their fellow countrymen. This something was not merely the removal of long-standing abuses, but what John Mill called the “regeneration of mankind.” James Mill was neither systematic nor fully consistent in his account of how this transformative process is to occur: does it start with educational reform or institutional reform? Does it issue from the top or the bottom? In any event, both Mills assign a vital role not only to education per se, but also to an educational elite that will form a kind of aristocracy of merit whose defining feature is moral and intellectual excellence.
In his first response, Professor Ball draws attention to this elitist feature in James Mill’s thought – the notion of a “natural aristocracy” of virtue and talent. In his followup, he points to the remarkable essay “The Church, and its Reform,” in which Mill proposes to transform the Established Church (in the words of Leslie Stephen) “into a popular London University.” I agree with Professor Ball’s suggestion that Mill’s proposal embodies something like a “civil religion,” but I would not attribute its appearance in Mill’s system to default (“if you can’t beat’em, join ’em”), that is, to a failure to disestablish the Church of England. Even less does it strike me as a reversion to any vestigial religiosity. In light of his grandiose plans for the reformation of society (and his hostility to revealed religion), Mill’s proposal looks more like a shrewd (if preposterous) effort to “capture” the Church on behalf of what John Mill called “the religion of humanity.” In practice this would amount to de facto disestablishment and endow the new dispensation with official status. 
The idea of a “clerisy,” or a body of “wise men,” exercising moral influence (and perhaps political authority) was nothing new in Western thought, and it is no coincidence that Plato (the father of this idea) was James Mill’s favorite philosopher. While Mill rejected the authoritarian aspects of Plato’s politics (which he blames on the absence of the idea of representation in ancient Greece), he frequently invoked the Platonic idea of arête – moral and intellectual excellence. In his essay “The Ballot,” Mill goes so far as to call the radical reformers “Aristocrats” and quotes Plato in support of “attaining the highest excellence of nature" through the leisure provided by wealth. It is “best,” Mill concludes, “that government should be entrusted in the hands of the Αϱıотоı "(“the best” or “aristocracy” ).
Utilitarianism may be (as Professor Ball notes) “the moral and political philosophy of the Common Man,” but when poured into the mold of Philosophic Radicalism it diverged in notable ways from the original doctrine. While “utilitarianism” and “philosophic radicalism” are often used interchangeably, a close comparison of the moral and political teachings Bentham and the Mills will reveal significant differences with serious implications for democratic theory and practice.