This year we’ve been so besieged by Donald Trump’s shriveled nature that we sometimes forget what full and courageous human life looks like. And so today I’d like to hold up John Stuart Mill, the second in our Heroes of Democracy series. Mill demonstrated that democratic citizenship is a way of life, a moral stance and a humanistic adventure.
Those who know anything about Mill know about his upbringing. His father separated him from other children and from loving relationships and tried to turn him into a perfect thinking machine. Mill learned Greek at age 3. Between 8 and 12, he read Herodotus, Homer, Xenophon, Plato, Virgil and Ovid (in Latin) while studying physics, chemistry, astronomy and mathematics.
He had the inevitable intellectual and emotional collapse at age 20. He finally pulled himself out when he discovered Wordsworth’s poetry and came to cherish emotion, beauty, warmth and art. One day he found himself weeping over the death of a character in a novel. He was delighted.
“From this moment my burden grew lighter,” he recalled. “I was no longer hopeless: I was not a stock or a stone. I had still, it seemed, some of the material out of which all worth of character, and all capacity for happiness are made.” He staged a lifelong gentle revolt against his father’s shallow intellectual utilitarianism.