John Stuart Mill and Thomas Carlyle: An Unlikely Bond

John Stuart Mill and Thomas Carlyle might seem to be unlikely friends. Mill was a politician, philosopher and economist and Carlyle an essayist and novelist. Mill was a radical, a liberal and a utilitarian and Carlyle  was anti-democratic, anti-economics and a supporter of slavery.
What drew them together was their admiration of German culture and romanticism.
Romantic poetry had helped Mill recover from an emotional breakdown at a young age and Carlyle was deeply influenced by Goethe. In Mill and Carlyle’s correspondence they routinely discussed their favorite plays and poets. 

John Stuart Mill was in contact with Thomas Carlyle from roughly 1831 when Carlyle later sent Mill a manuscript of his novel Sartor Resartus. Mill was not initially impressed, however, when two years later it appeared in the Fraser’s Magazine, he “read with it enthusiastic admiration and the keenest delight” according to Mill’s Autobiography. Mill recognized their differences, yet was one of Carlyle’s most “fervent admirers”.

In 1834, Carlyle and his wife Jane moved to London. Carlyle was in a bad financial position but this did not stop him from embarking on an ambitious project, The French Revolution. In this task he was aided by Mill who loaned him many of his books. Mill was also interested in the history of France and had written on the topic. Their mutual love for history is often discussed in their letters. After a year of working on the project Carlyle had made great progress and gave his manuscript to Mill. What happened afterwards was catastrophic, Mill’s maid thought the paper was scrap, kept for the purpose of lighting fires and burnt it! Mill was distressed about it and paid Carlyle some money as compensation for the trouble he had caused.  The book finally came out in 1837 and Mill was one of the first to praise it. 

In Mill and Carlyle’s letters one can see a very close bond between the two. They talked regularly about books and articles they wrote or read and the affairs of the day. Mill normally closed his letters with “Most truly yours” or “yours ever faithfully” and inquired by Mrs. Carlyle health, Carlyle was equally kind. In these letters we can learn a lot about their character. Mill said in a letter to his friend on the 9th of March 1833 after the latter’s complaints about the lack of emotions in his writings:

You wonder at “the boundless capacity Man has of loving”—boundless indeed it is in some natures, immeasurable and inexhaustible: but I also wonder, judging from myself, at the limitedness and even narrowness of that capacity in others. [...] mine is a trustful nature, and I have an unshakeable faith in others though not in myself. So my case must be left to Nature, I fear: there is no mind-physician who can prescribe for me, not even you, who could help whosoever is helpable: I can do nothing for myself, and others can do nothing for me; all the advice which can be given, (and that is not easily taken) is, not to beat against the bars of my iron cage; it is hard to have no aspiration and no reverence but for an Ideal towards which striving is of no use: is there not something very pitiful in idle Hoping? but to be without Hope was worse?
Mill was clearly a shy, introverted person and did not express his feelings as easily as other people. Carlyle, on the other hand, uses powerful expressions that indicate a much more passionate and vibrant person. In this letter from 1833 he says:

Should I tell you all I have to say, whole reams of paper would not hold it: how then shall a miserable scrap of a single sheet! The Pen too so ill represents the thousand-voiced Thought; which I could not even speak with the smallest completeness; for it is true what Goethe teaches, and every day I feel it truer: “The first word we utter we begin to err.” Ach Gott! But I will keep all that silent (the depth and greatness of Silence also should be known to me); and abide mainly by matters of business; the articulation of which, even in a sheet, is easy. Your patience I know is great, and I apply again without apology.

Harriet Taylor (1807 - 1858) met Mill at a dinner organized by her and her husband John Taylor in 1830 which was attended by a number of interesting people including Harriet Martineau. After that meeting, Mill and Taylor started corresponding and travelled together on numerous occasions, something scandalous for the time. She became a widow in 1849 and married John in 1851, however their married life was cut short by Harriet’s death 7 years later. Their relationship suffered huge social criticism both directly and indirectly in the form of being gossiped about by friends and family. Their love was not the traditional husband and wife relationship that was typical of the time. They respected one another, worked together and Mill dedicated some of his books, like On Liberty, to her. 

After Mill’s marriage to Taylor, Mill and Carlyle become estranged. Their letters are shorter and less passionate , eventually stopping at around 1869, four years before Mill’s death in 1873. 

The reason for this was Carlyle’s gossiping. Sandra Peart, editor of the book Hayek on Mill, notes “Carlyle never seems to have quite understood that it had been his unrestrained talk about Mill and Mrs. Taylor which had caused their estrangement”. He did not say the nicest of things about his friend’s wife and Mrs. Carlyle described Taylor with the following vitriolic statement  “a peculiarly affected and empty body”. 

In the end, Mill died in 1878. Carlyle for a long time thought of contacting Mill and discussing what it was that broke their relationship and eventually becoming friends again. However, life is full of surprises and he was too late to do so. It is very interesting how these two people, an economist and a writer, a liberal and an authoritarian were able to be for a long time very close friends without politics getting in the way. It is a great example that politics should define love and friendship between people. 

Want to
Their correspondence is available in the Online Library of Liberty and the Carlyle Letters Online website

Hayek on Mill’s chapter “Friends and Gossip” published by the University of Chicago Press contains more information about Carlyle’s reaction to Mill’s marriage with Harriet Taylor