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Monday, October 19, 2009

John Stuart Mill. Victorian Firebrand. Richard Reeves. Atlantic Books (2007)


This is a superb biography of an extraordinary man. The title of the book is brilliantly chosen, John Stuart Mill was truly a firebrand and the importance of his work is still incendiary today. John Stuart Mill is a very unusual man, an English public intellectual whose writing was aimed directly at shaping and influencing public policy. As a rule intellectuals are not welcome in open public policy debates in England or Ireland, we have a preference for technocrats, professional administrators and professional politicians. Intellectuals are seen as essentially not engaged with the dirty work of public policy and their contributions are given less weight because of that. Mill escaped this tendency to be sidelined partly because of the times he was active in, partly because he was a professional administrator and later a professional politician, chiefly because he strove embody his ideas in his own life.
Mill was a fabulously prolific writer, he wrote on economics, politics, women's rights and a host of other topics. His writing is dense and lucid, he moves argument in a considered logical manner that remains easy to read and invigorating to encounter. Mill is not a strikingly original thinker, he is a profound one, he takes ideas and subjects them to rigorous scrutiny and develops insights from thus scrutiny. He also lived life to the greatest extent that he could and the details of his life are as interesting as his work.
John Stuart Mill's essay "On Liberty" is required reading anywhere and anytime elites confuse their interests for the public good, that is everywhere and all the time. This biography bring a great, passionate and movingly human man to life and reminds us that we are privileged to be standing on his shoulders.

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