A (not so) secular saint


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John Stuart Mill: A Secular Life by Timothy Larsen (Oxford University Press 256 Pages)

To both his progressivist heirs and his conservative critics, John Stuart Mill is a secular saint, a priest of the triumphant modern moral order. Whether he is being celebrated or vilified, the 19th-century philosopher is portrayed as a paragon of rational enlightenment who, paradoxically, inspires ardent devotion to the sacred autonomy of the individual.

The real story of this Victorian character turns out to be more complicated, and Timothy Larsen’s brief new biography challenges such caricatures without devolving into polemics. One of the early volumes in Oxford University Press’s Spiritual Lives series, this compact “secular life” neatly realizes the goal of the series: to explore the religious lives of figures not known for their religiosity, unearthing the secret spiritualities of those we tend to value for their so-called “secular” accomplishments.

In Mill’s case, this turns out to be a counterpoint not only to his specific posthumous portrayal, but also a wider argument about the alleged incompatibility of liberalism and religion. Mill’s legacy was effectively “edited” by his philosophical and political disciples, excising any hint of religious life. One would never know from the canon in our philosophy departments, for example, that Mill wrote an appreciative essay on “Theism.” Nor would many realize that his closest friend at the end of his life was the Protestant pastor in Avignon who buried him with prayer. Nor would these heirs know what to do with the inscription on the tomb of his beloved Harriet Taylor that pines for “the hoped-for heaven.”

The selective inheritance of Mill crammed him into a particular cultural mythology — one that proclaims political liberalism as the devotion we adopt when we’ve outgrown the backward pieties of religion. And this is a story told both by liberals and conservatives, who both seem to have a stake in a supposed antithesis between Christianity and liberalism. (Just scan the section on Mill in Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed.)

But if Larsen deconstructs this dichotomy, he also undercuts Mill’s self-portrayal, proving his Autobiography to be an unreliable narrative. On both fronts, Larsen paints a secular saint who is decidedly less secular than we might have guessed.

Larsen’s volume is less of a standalone biography and more like a focused supplement. He tends to assume the reader is already familiar with Mill’s life, work, and subsequent influence, and then offers a reconsideration of the whole with a specific question in mind: was Mill as “secular” as we imagined or as a-religious as he portrayed himself? Larsen then pores over the entirety of Mill’s corpus, along with the archive — a trove of intimate correspondence, 19th-century journalism and reviews, Mill’s personal library — driven by this unique question, unasked by prior biographers who have waded through the same materials. Imagine Larsen the historian comes to Mill’s life equipped with one of those “secret code highlighters” we used to find in cereal boxes — the sort that would let us see words and pictures on the back of the box invisible to the naked eye. Larsen thus brings a religious eye (and ear) to the historical record, and the Mill that emerges is one we might not recognize.

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