Liberty Matters

The Mills and Comte’s Religion of Humanity


I am grateful to Quentin Taylor for his engaged and engaging reply to my two postings about two James Mill myths. Our differences are differences of degree, I believe, and not of kind. He is certainly correct in claiming to see James Mill’s “shadow lengthen across the life and thought of his eldest son.”  This indeed has been a red thread running through my work on the Mills père et fils. Much of the younger Mill’s work was a critique – sometimes overt, more often covert – of his father’s views.[97]
Professor Taylor rightly calls attention to the Mills’ emphasis on education. Much more than his son, James Mill was a relentlessly didactic writer whose aim was to educate his reader. Men (yes, men) of the “Middle Rank” – Bentham, George Grote, David Ricardo, J.S. Mill and of course himself – were to be responsible for the moral and political education of their less fortunate fellow citizens. That was the aim of almost everything the elder Mill ever wrote. And it is certainly true that “The Church, and its Reform” falls into that category. Not for nothing is the head of a new (kind of) established state church called the Minister of Instruction. Unlike Professor Taylor, I see nothing in Mill’s essay that suggests he hoped to “capture” the Church of England; this was to be, I believe, an entirely new institution.
Nor do I agree that Mill’s model church was to resemble the Comtean “Religion of Humanity” about which the younger Mill wrote when he was still on good terms with Auguste Comte (who invented the idea and coined the phrase). Professor Taylor leaves the impression that J.S. Mill found the idea of a religion of humanity attractive and praiseworthy. And so he did, early on; but Professor Taylor omits to mention that the younger Mill turned sharply against Comte and his ersatz religion.
J.S. Mill held that in Comte’s Religion of Humanity “the intellect should be wholly subordinated to the feelings...." [98] The single-minded subordination of the critical intellect to the selfless social feelings is the foundation on which “the Grand Pontiff of Humanity... organizes an elaborate system for the total suppression of all independent thought.” [99] Comte’s religion was the capstone of “the completest system of spiritual and temporal despotism, which ever yet emanated from a human brain.” [100] Comte’s system “stands as a monumental warning to thinkers on society and politics, of what happens when once men lose sight, in their speculations, of the value of Liberty and of Individuality.”[[101]
To which I can only reply, Amen.
[97.] See, inter alia, Terence Ball, “Competing Theories of Character Formation: James vs. John Stuart Mill,” in John Stuart Mill: Thought and Influence eds. Paul Kelly and Georgios Variouxis (London: Routledge, 2010), pp. 35-56.
[98.] J.S. Mill, Auguste Comte and Positivism (1865; Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1961), p. 169. See also "Auguste Comte and Positivism" (1865) in The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume X – Essays on Ethics, Religion, and Society, ed. John M. Robson, Introduction by F.E.L. Priestley (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1985).) </titles/241#lf0223-10_head_052>.
[99.] Ibid.
[100.] J.S. Mill, Autobiography, ed. Jack Stillinger (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971), p. 127.
[101.] Ibid., pp. 127-28.