John Stuart Mill’s Letter to Bentham


My dear Sir,

Mr. Walker is a very intimate friend of mine, who lives at No. 31 in Berkeley Square. I have engaged him, as he is soon coming here, first to go to your house, and get for me the 3.d and volumes of Hooke’s Roman history. But I am recapitulating the and 2.d volumes, having finished them all except a few pages of the 2.d. I will be glad if you will let him have the 3.d and volumes.

I am yours sincerely

John Stuart Mill.

Newington Green,
Tuesday 1812.

A rather ordinary letter until one considers the date. Mill you see was born in 1806, thus making him six at the time of writing. The editors of Mill’s letters note that his essay on Hooke’s Roman history has survived and includes a footnote correcting Hooke’s Greek.


April Fools' Day?

The letter and website appears legitimate.

Obviously ghost written by his father.

Clearly, I'm sure none of the eminent historians of record bothered to compare handwriting or other letters from the same period. They're usually thicker than run-of-the-mill internet commenters.

Not in early April.

Wow. With April Fools' gags like this History departments must be a hoot.

Dictated by his father, then.

Rimbaud really appears to believe he can do history based on personal incredulity.

The teachers I had at that age would have told him that he'd never amount to anything with handwriting like that.

My childhood letters will someday be famous,

Just as are my comments today.

I'm not sure why everyone is so skeptical. Mill was a notable child prodigy -- he knew Greek by age three. Moreover, the letter isn't particularly sophisticated, really. The phrases that strike us as so adult-sounding were merely the polite boilerplate of the time.

Instead of being surprised by this letter, let us be saddened by how far our culture has degenerated, so that even adults are no longer capable of writing a simple letter and few of us bother to learn the classics.

Greek kids know Greek by 2!

>Greek kids know Greek by 2!
Yeah, but not koiné.

Well, but the educated base is very different in size. Hence one can't comment on degeneration of culture.

When Mill was writing this letter, English literacy rate was less than 50%??
Today it is close to 100%. That's not cultural degeneration.

I have to think Mill, if pressed, would prefer the abolition of slavery and female suffrage to the academic use of dead languages.

Wealthy 19th century parents.

Assuming that this isn't an April Fool's joke and assuming that JSM wasn't a freak from the upper tail of intelligence, it shows that children can learn at an advanced rate. Ironically, while public education made education available to the masses, it probably slows down educational development by teaching to the median student or, for shame, to the worst student. We desperately need to privatize education.

Note that he is borrowing books. Well-educated children of that era typically learned from hired tutors and used books in their daddy's library. They exchanged books with other wealthy daddies, and of course you could only gain this treasured favor by having a strong element of trust in the relationship. University and church libraries were exclusive clubs. The "liberal arts" were knowledge for its own sake rather than as a profession; a pursuit available only to those whose lifestyles were secured by an accumulation of wealth.

assuming that JSM wasn’t a freak from the upper tail of intelligence

Why would we assume that? It seems very likely that he was quite the child prodigy.

"assuming that JSM wasn’t a freak from the upper tail of intelligence"

Clearly not familiar with Mill's biography and childhood (or later) accomplishments :)

Or the nervous breakdown at 20 which he blamed on his education.

This being Marginal Revolution, I have to ask: if Mill was such a genius, how come he didn't come didn't discover the marginal revolution? He was born in 1806 and died in 1873. Jevons was born in 1835, so he had a 29 year head start.

And why didn't he discover the theory of general relativity? And the market for lemons?

Mill did discover that there could be a general glut of commodities and goods caused by an excess demand for money or other money-like safe financial assets. He seems to have figured this out around the time that Say was thinking about it.

I remember reading somewhere that he had the highest-ever IQ , though of course it could only be estimated.

Apropos: it is the first letter in the first Collected Works volume of Early Letters, and the handwriting (there's a photograph on the facing page) isn't wonderful; his father was badly off, composing the History of British India and working for Bentham, so Bentham was no doubt called on quite often. As to Mill's failure to launch the marginalist revolution, the early essays on Some Unsettled Questions in Political Economy are impressive enough to be going on with - he did solve the puzzle of the distribution of the gains from international trade, for instance. But he doubted that economic theory could fruitfully be mathematized, which was a real error; otherwise, he'd have been Marshall, and who knows who Marshall might have been.The IQ figure I've always seen is 192, which is terrifying, but at best an educated guess.

They got JSM, we get Ezra Klein.

I'm not sure who the 'They' and 'we' are in that deal, but the 'we' didn't get a fair shake.

Still considerably less than Marilyn Vos Savant at 389 or whatever it is.

IQ figures beyond a few standard deviations to the right are not meaningful. We can get the same degree of precision by just saying "he was really incredibly terrifyingly bright" and leaving it that.

"If I had been by nature extremely quick of apprehension, or had possessed a very accurate and retentive memory, or were of a remarkably active and energetic character, the trial would not be conclusive; but in all these natural gifts I am rather below than above par; what I could do, could assuredly be done by any boy or girl of average capacity and healthy physical constitution: and if I have accomplished anything, I owe it, among other fortunate circumstances, to the fact that through the early training bestowed on me by my father, I started, I may fairly say, with an advantage of a quarter of a century over my contemporaries." (The Autobiography of John Stuart Mill)

That is a pretty good quote, although I think it is important to realize that it does not express an accurate truth. If you don't mind my amateurish footnote to the quote, I would say this - Unfortunately for Englishmen, their insular academic elites long ago adopted a sub-style of speaking where one "trusts" the listener so much that one is not lying when one says something so obviously untrue that no individual who has a "right" to respond in kind could misunderstand you. This is at its worst in the high-M sort-of-high-V types (our modern Millses) who make their money in economics, in political science, and in academic philosophy, and who reject their intellectual "enemies" as spouting nothing but "nonsense", or, to show they really mean it ,"absolute" or "sheer" "nonsense". Read in this light, what Mill was saying when he appeared to be saying he was sub-par was that , "among people as smart as me, I am not that smart, although I am healthy and have a non-negligible memory, and due to my magnificent past I deserve your attention". He must have realized that it would be a lie to sincerely say that he was, by nature, below "par" in those areas where he clearly claimed to be below "par". Whether he thought he was being funny (in the obscure vein of humor, at which almost nobody laughs, known as false humility) or useful (to those who did not have his advantages) or just a human being expressing his admirable bonhomie by rejoicing in lying for the sheer joy of lying in an English non-turpitudinous in-group way, I don't know. On the other hand, Mill was an angel of light compared to some of the wanna-be-Victorian-grandee "bloggers" (obviously not including Tyler C., although he frequently links to this type of blogger) who waste their days in demonstrating for the thousandth time their moral and intellectual superiority to the strawmen (neoconservatives!scotch-irish!creationists!copperheads!beta males with aging wives!verbal people who couldn't possibly understand evolution!anti-Keynesians!stooges, not of the three kind!people less cool than Hitchens was! ) whom they "oppose".

any boy or girl of average capacity

Interesting he mentions any boy or girl
Unusually liberal for that era.

I wonder if there is merit in imparting education in classics to the general public.
By classics I don't necessarily mean the books from the classical period. Even English / American works from 17th century onwards will do.
I recently read the American historian Carlton Hayes' history of Modern Europe (about 80 years old and probably counts as a "classic").
Definitely better value for one's time than reading any of Niall Ferguson's numerous works on Western civilization!

JSM did have an opinion of women's capabilities that was unusually high for the time. Another mark of genius, IMO.

I didn't need to be that smart at age 6 because I will live much longer.

Comments for this post are closed