Risk, Reward, and John Stuart Mill

John Stuart Mill was one the earliest and most influential supporters of women’s rights. His essay, The Subjection of Women, one of the most important feminist works of the nineteenth century. He was the first member of British Parliament to ask that women be given the right to vote. He also believed in freedom of speech, refused to attend Oxford or Cambridge because of their alliance with religion, and was a huge supporter of civil rights for every person.

The reason I bring him up is that he was buried in Avignon, where I currently am until I head back to Paris on Saturday. I was asked to seek out his resting place for a research project while I was here. I had heard of Mill and respected his opinions and work but did not know much more about him. I was very surprised at what lay atop his grave. While there was a small inscription on the side informing you that this was indeed where John Stuart Mill was buried, the top was solely dedicated to honoring his partner in life, Harriet.

The following adorns the top of the grave of John Stuart Mill

The following adorns the top of the grave of John Stuart Mill

to the beloved memory
of
Harriet Mill
the dearly loved and deeply regretted
wife of John Stuart Mill
her great and loving heart
her noble soul
her clear powerful original and
comprehensive intellect
made her the guide and support
the instructor in wisdom
and the example in goodness
as she was the soul earthly delight
of those who had the happiness to belong to her
as earnest for all public good
as she was generous and devoted
to all who surrounded her
her influence has been felt
in many of the greatest
improvements of the age
and will be in those still to come
were there even a few hearts and intellects
like hers
this earth would already become
the hoped for heaven
she died
to the irreparable loss of those who survive her
at Avignon Nov 3 1858

Harriet Taylor Mill

Harriet Taylor Mill

Mill and his wife knew each other for less than thirty years and were controversially linked while Harriet was married to another man. They were socially outcast solely for being in love with each other. If this had happened in modern times, Harriet and her first husband would have divorced and she and Mill would have been free from judgment by (hopefully) most. The chance they took was immense, and so, it seems, was the reward they were given. We are very risk-averse as a culture now, preferring to be cautious so we can avoid the pain that comes from taking a risk and dealing with the fallout if it does not pan out.

I’m generalizing too much…

I’ve been hurt in the past. I prefer to be cautious instead of risking feeling deep and meaningful things for another person. I would rather avoid the pain that comes from taking a chance and failing. If this pattern remains, I will continue to be good, but never great.

John Stuart Mill died May 7, 1873 and fifteen years later he adorned his grave not with his great and many accomplishments, but with a dedication to the person who meant more to him than any other. Many of us probably don’t remember John Stuart Mill even though his works were extremely important in advancing nineteenth century thought. He is remembered for being one of the early feminists, advancing Utilitarian thought, and probably by a small town in Australia a couple hundred kilometers outside Melbourne named for him. Mill, however, decided that the one thing he wanted to be remembered for more than anything of his greatest accomplishments was his love for another. I know in order to feel that strongly for someone, I’ll eventually have to take that large of a risk again.

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4 thoughts on “Risk, Reward, and John Stuart Mill

  1. jsw12

    So many writers seem to have massive egos, so it’s good to see that Mill (assuming he gave directions for the inscription before he died) gave credit, and a degree of immortality, to someone else.

    I’ve been to Avignon but didn’t realise there was a J S Mill link. I recall reading some of ‘On Liberty’, in which he says that people should be free to do what they like as long as they don’t harm others. A number of our meddling politicians should read this too.

    Reply
    1. nicholasjalden Post author

      “Those only are happy (I thought) who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness.” That’s a quote from his autobiography that I always enjoyed. I think it nicely sums up his lack of ego.

      Reply

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