Wednesday, July 09, 2008


In today's issue of the New York Sun, Adam Kirsch reviews John Stuart Mill: Victorian Firebrand, by Richard Reeves:

"If history, as Edward Gibbon said, is 'little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind,' it makes sense that the greatest criminals tend to receive the most attention from historians. Napoleon, a tyrant who was responsible for millions of deaths, is the most biographized figure in modern history, and it seems that new biographies of Stalin and Hitler crowd the bookstores every year. It is pleasant to be reminded, then, that good men can also make history from time to time — that humanity is not too fascinated by its destroyers to pay tribute to its benefactors.

"'John Stuart Mill: Victorian Firebrand' (Overlook, 616 pages, $40), an accessible and admiring new biography by Richard Reeves, is such a tribute. Mr. Reeves — a British journalist, not the American biographer of presidents Kennedy, Nixon, and Reagan — works hard in this book to humanize Mill, to rescue him from his deadening fame as 'a bone-dry, formal, humourless Victorian.'"

Kirsch concludes his extensive review by boiling down Mill's complex political views into this insightful gem:

"Mill's specific political views do not map neatly onto today's categories of left and right... What united all these opinions, as Mr. Reeves skillfully shows, was a constant dedication to liberty as he understood it: 'the consciousness of working out [our] own destiny under [our] own moral responsibility.'"

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