John Stuart Mill’s Autobiography is a Victorian classic. As much as Dickens and Tennyson, Mill represents something archetypal about the Victorian experience. But unlike many other nineteenth century writers, Mill is just as relevant now as he was then. His prose is elegant but elongated, his style is balanced not simplistic, and his register is high rather than accessible: in some ways, he’s very Victorian and not very modern. When some find the lights of beauty, others feel the entanglement of prolixity. But Mill’s concerns are our concerns. Most of all, he is interested in self-development, in what we would call becoming your best self.
To Mill, this is the paramount interest of philosophy and the primary aim of life. Human flourishing is the purpose of politics and the justification for liberty. Far from being a stuffy, unfeeling, hyper-rational utilitarian, Mill is a philosopher whose ideas are grounded insuperably in the spiritual, emotional, and intellectual development of every individual.
This is not just a philosophical ideal: Mill lived like this. Having been homeschooled by his father—reading Greek at 3, Latin at 8, logic, philosophy, and algebra from 12, with an intensive course in economics, and a massive ingestion of history throughout—Mill became one of the most nimble reasoners and expert logicians of his age; for the rest of his life, Mill sought knowledge, from the discoveries of physiology to the recapitulations of ancient history, Mill was always a deep reader and wide explorer of the mind. He taught his sisters, taking one of them so far in maths he told a friend she could have been best in her year at Cambridge had she been allowed to attend. He played the piano, and recited poetry. He studied botany and collected a large herbarium alongside his admirable library. He became the leading expert on French affairs and ideas in his generation. None of this was his main employment.
But, Mill was not always like this. Aged twenty, he had a breakdown, which he called a mental crisis. From his description, it sounds like depression, which cloaked him many times throughout his life.