On Liberty


John Stuart Mill

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On Liberty Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on John Stuart Mill's On Liberty. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of John Stuart Mill

John Stuart Mill was the oldest of James and Harriet Mill’s nine children. James Mill was passionate about the ethical theory of utilitarianism and raised John to be the next leader of the movement. To that end, James took firm control of John’s education—Mill was secluded from other children his age (other than his siblings) and began learning classical languages when he was three years old before moving onto useful subjects such as arithmetic, science, philosophy, and politics. Mill’s childhood was so unusual that as an adult he had a minor breakdown and began questioning whether any of his education was useful because it didn’t prepare him for a successful social life. Fortunately, John found happiness in reading poetry and was able to overcome his depression. Mill began his professional life as an administrator for the British East India Company from 1823 until 1858. When he was in his 20s, John met Harriet Taylor and quickly fell in love with her. Although she was already married, John and Harriet maintained a healthy platonic relationship until her husband’s death in 1849 and their marriage in 1851. Harriet played a significant role in helping John write his essays and speeches—he even credits her as something of a co-author in the beginning of On Liberty. Unfortunately, Harriet died while they were travelling in France in 1858. Heartbroken, Mill bought a house in France near where Harriet was buried and split his time between there and England. Mill served as a Member of Parliament for Westminster from 1865 to 1868 and continued writing about and sharing his ideas of liberty, utilitarianism, and women’s rights until his death in Avignon, France in 1873.
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Historical Context of On Liberty

Mill was born in the early years of the 19th century, shortly after the French and American Revolutions. In both of these historical periods, the masses revolted against tyrannical powers that limited their individual liberties and rights. Mill himself echoes many of the sentiments expressed by the Enlightenment political philosophers whose works helped inspire these revolutions, including Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Locke. In Mill’s own lifetime, the American Civil War fueled debates about slavery, equality, and the power one individual should be able to exert over another. Mill himself believed that one should be allowed safely pursue one’s definition of happiness as long as it doesn’t infringe upon the liberty or well-being of any other individual, which indicates his anti-slavery beliefs. During Mill’s lifetime, the East India Company and British Imperialism began dominating the globe through colonization and trade, introducing Mill and other English men and women to different cultures and beliefs that were presented as inferior and barbaric. Despite Mill’s anti-slavery views, his experience with these other cultures led him to develop the belief that “savages” (people who don’t belong to “civilized” cultures) actually do need to be controlled until they develop the intelligence and ability to adequately govern themselves by Western standards. Additionally, Mill witnessed the rise of women’s suffrage in both Europe and America, although the movement didn’t become widely popular until much later in his life.

Other Books Related to On Liberty

Mill was an adamant utilitarian, which is reflected in how he advocates for individual liberty as a means of being more useful in On Liberty. Mill’s other book Utilitarianism provides a more in-depth view of Mill’s philosophy and its major tenets. In On Liberty, Mill dwells on what the relationship between the individual and the government should be, namely that the government should play only a limited role in an individual’s life. Jean-Jacques Rousseau shares similar sentiments in his Enlightenment era political essay The Social Contract. For a contrary view—that rulers should play a strong role in the day-to-day lives of citizens—Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan advocates for an extremely powerful sovereign to strongly enforce the law in the state. Mill believes that society can be as tyrannical as the government, primarily by condemning those who don’t adhere to custom and popular opinion. In The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels argue that a state’s economic system can also be tyrannical by keeping the working classes in a position of inferiority and crippling poverty. For a more modern take on the ideal relationship between a state’s government and its people, Robert Nozick’s 1974 book Anarchy, State, and Utopia, supports the idea of minimal government interference in individual lives except to punish crimes that hurt other people.
Key Facts about On Liberty
  • Full Title: On Liberty
  • When Written: 1854-1859
  • Where Written: England and France
  • When Published: 1859
  • Literary Period: Victorian
  • Genre: Political Essay
  • Antagonist: Social and Political Tyranny
  • Point of View: First Person

Extra Credit for On Liberty

Ladies’ Man. Thanks in part to his relationship with Harriet Taylor, Mill passionately supported women’s rights in essays and speeches, which was unusual for a man in the Victorian Era. In fact, he became the first member of Parliament to introduce a major petition for women’s suffrage in June 1866. This led to the first debate over whether to give women the right to vote, but Parliament did not pass the bill.

Brainiac. Mill’s childhood education was undoubtedly odd, but it produced some amazing results. Mill began learning Greek when he was just three years old and was fluent in both Greek and Latin by 10 years old. His father even put him in charge of teaching both languages to his younger siblings.