The nine-to-five philosopher

John Stuart Mill and India

April 7, 1995

John Stuart Mill was nothing if not a reading man. From at least the age of three when his father took his education in hand there appears never to have been a period in Mill's life when he was without a book list and, as he tells us in his Autobiography, his earliest recollections of green fields and wild flowers are mingled with remembrances of the account he gave his father in their daily walks of the books he had read the day before. He was an inveterate note-taker, even as a child, and the memoir of his life is one long commentary on how he changed his mind as a result of the great books he read.

Mill's main source of paid employment, however, was in the government headquarters in London of the East India Company. His father, James, had secured his family finances with company employment in 1819, soon after the publication of his History of British India, and he served at India House until he died. John Stuart began work in the same office in 1823, and by the time he retired in 1858 could claim to have had a hand in the drafting of over 1,700 official documents relating to government in India. The positions both men held brought them financial security and political influence. Lynn Zastoupil's fascinating study argues that Mill's practical experiences at India House, and the intellectual stimulus he derived from dealing with the problems of India, contributed as much to the development of his philosophy as did his voracious reading of the great books of his time.

In the published story of his life, Mill never acknowledged that his work at India House contributed in any way to his intellectual development. But at the great crisis in his life, when he discovered Coleridge, Herder and the romantic poets, and when he came to perceive most clearly the limitations of the utilitarianism of his father, Zastoupil shows us that he was dealing with problems of government and administration which, on the evidence of Mill's own Indian writings, helped to clarify his mind and to encourage him in his intellectual revolt against his father. In the years that followed, the need to justify policies about education and about the role of the Indian states in a country under British paramountcy provided Mill with further opportunities to test his political beliefs. Moreover, arguments put to Mill by old India hands such as Thomas Munro, Mountstuart Elphinstone, Charles Metcalfe and John Malcolm not only moderated theory with practical considerations but introduced into Mill's thinking Whig concepts from the 18th century, giving them a new lease of life. In this way, Zastoupil argues, Mill's particular knowledge of India and his daily work at India House contributed significantly to the development of his political philosophy.

The argument is not overstated and Zastoupil shrinks from having us believe that India itself was of overriding importance in the development of Mill's thought. Those framing policy in London dealt primarily in a world of abstract ideas. Their actual knowledge of the subcontinent was very poor and they were mainly concerned to fit the inconvenient facts of Indian political life into some sort of legitimate constitutional and moral order. Mill may not have enjoyed going to the office very much (he almost refused to accept a silver ink-stand from the directors on his retirement) but, as Zastoupil's study and a whole volume of Mill's Collected Works testify, the office grind constantly challenged him to refine his political theories and an understanding of his changing philosophy is not fully comprehensible without taking it into account.

Gordon Johnson is president, Wolfson College, Cambridge.

John Stuart Mill and India

Author - Lynn Zastoupil
ISBN - 0 8047 2256 0
Publisher - Stanford University Press
Price - £30.00
Pages - 280pp

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