The Early Education of John Stuart Mill

by Edwin Watts Chubb

At an age when most children are playing with a Noah's Ark or a doll, John Stuart Mill was initiated into the mysteries of the Greek language. "I have no remembrance of the time when I began to learn Greek," writes Mill, "I have been told that it was when I was three years old." Latin was not begun until his eighth year. By that time he had read in Greek,—Æsop, the Anabasis, the whole of Herodotus, the Cyropædia, the Memorabilia, parts of Diogenes Laertius, and of Lucian, Isocrates; also six dialogues of Plato. An equipment like this suggests the satiric lines of Hudibras:

Besides, 'tis known he could speak Greek
As naturally as pigs squeak.

In considering the difficulties that this child—shall we say babe?—had to overcome one must remember that the aids to learning Greek were not then what they are now. In 1820 the Greek lexicon was a ponderous thing, almost as big and heavy as the infant student himself. Worse than this, the definitions were not in English, but in Greek and Latin, and as the boy had not yet learned Latin he had to ask his father for the meaning of every new word. The immense task placed thus upon the child makes one feel indignant and wish that some organization for the prevention of cruelty to infants had interfered with the ambition of the learned father. But we must admire the patience of the father, however we may question his good sense. "What he himself was willing to undergo for the sake of my instruction," says the son in describing his father's teaching, "may be judged from the fact, that I went through the whole process of preparing my Greek lessons in the same room and at the same table at which he was writing.... I was forced to have recourse to him for the meaning of every word which I did not know. This incessant interruption, he, one of the most impatient of men, submitted to, and wrote under that interruption several volumes of his History and all else that he had to write during those years."

But this does not tell the whole story. Fearing that the Greek might be too heavy and concentrated a food for the tender intellect of his child, the considerate father added a diet of English history and biography. The boy carefully studied and made notes upon Robertson, Hume, Gibbon, Watson, Hooke, Langhorne's Plutarch, Burnet's History of His Own Time, Millar's Historical View of the English Government, Mosheim's Ecclesiastical History. In biography and travel he read the life of Knox, the histories of the Quakers, Beaver's Africa, Collin's New South Wales, Anson's Voyages, and Hawkesworth's Voyages Round the World. "Of children's books, any more than of playthings, I had scarcely any, except an occasional gift from a relation or acquaintance.... It was no part, however, of my father's system to exclude books of amusement, though he allowed them very sparingly. Of such books he possessed at that time next to none, but he borrowed several for me; those which I remember are the Arabian Nights, Cazotte's Arabian Tales, Don Quixote, Miss Edgeworth's Popular Tales, and a book of some reputation in its day, Brooke's Fool of Quality."

All this, it is to be remembered, was done by a boy who was not beyond his eighth year. In his eighth year he began Latin, not only as a learner but as a teacher. It was his duty to teach the younger children of the family what he had learned. This practice he does not recommend. "The teaching, I am sure, is very inefficient as teaching, and I well know that the relation between teacher and taught is not a good moral discipline to either." By the time this prodigy of intellect and industry reached the age of fourteen he had studied the following formidable list: Virgil, Horace, Phaedrus, Livy, Sallust, the Metamorphoses, Terence, Cicero, Homer, Thucydides, the Hellenica, Demosthenes, Æschines, Lysias, Theocritus, Anacreon, Aristotle's Rhetoric; Euclid, Algebra, the higher mathematics, Joyce's Scientific Dialogues, and various treatises on Chemistry; and in addition to all this he had read parts of other Greek and Latin authors, and much of English poetry and history.

A boy with so heavy a burden of learning is very prone to an equal amount of self-conceit. But the father tried to overcome this danger by holding up a very high standard of comparison,—"not what other people did, but what a man could and ought to do." He succeeded so well that the boy was not aware that his attainments were extraordinary. "I neither estimated myself highly nor lowly; I did not estimate myself at all. If I thought anything about myself, it was that I was rather backward in my studies, since I always found myself so, in comparison of what my father expected of me." To this assertion Mr. Mill very candidly adds: "I assert this with confidence, though it was not the impression of various persons who saw me in my childhood. They, as I have since found, thought me greatly and disagreeably self-conceited; probably because I was disputatious, and did not scruple to give direct contradictions to things which I heard said."

A boy who is kept at his studies as assiduously as was young Mill has little time for play or association with other boys. This lack of contact with companions is a grave defect in the education of Mill. "I constantly remained long," writes Mill, "and in a less degree have always remained, inexpert in anything requiring manual dexterity; my mind, as well as my hands, did its work very lamely when it was applied, or ought to have been applied, to the practical details which, as they are the chief interest of life to the majority of men, are also the things in which whatever mental capacity they have, chiefly shows itself."

On the whole we feel that the childhood of Mill could hardly have been a happy one. The joy of physical achievement, the free-hearted abandonment of the young barbarian at his play, the power to do as well as to know—these are the birthright of every child. But while we may pity him for his lack of these joys, we dare not forget that to have lived the life or done the work of John Stuart Mill is no small thing. And perhaps this life could not have been lived had his education been other than it was.