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The 19th-century British philosopher and economist John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) was born 200 years ago today, and although he has been dead for more than 130 years, he still undeniably lives. His thoughts fashion our laws, enliven our scholarly debates and shape our political opinions. Best of all, his genius still inspires and provokes us.

Mill was in many ways an unusual figure. He received an interesting and gruelling education at the hands of his father, James Mill, at the time a leading intellectual and member of a group of thinkers called the Philosophical Radicals. Mill began to learn Greek at the age of 3, after which he read many Greek prose authors and several of Plato's dialogues. He began learning Latin at 8, and at the same time began instructing his younger siblings. After this, he was taught geometry and algebra and the differential calculus. At 12, he started learning advanced logic and, at 13, economics.

Despite experiencing a period of "irremediable wretchedness" when he was 20, Mill went on to write on a vast array of topics, including logic, economics, politics and ethics. He wrote weighty treatises bearing such forbidding titles as A System of Logic, Principles of Political Economy and Considerations on Representative Government. During his lifetime, these earned him fame and influence. He is known now mainly for his work in ethics and political philosophy, including the much heralded On Liberty, Utilitarianism and The Subjection of Women. The extent and size of his output is astonishing, and he produced most of it while he held down a full-time job in the British East India Company, which was then in charge of administering colonial India.

The chief source of information about Mill's life is his Autobiography (1873, available in Penguin Classics). One of the pivotal moments in Mill's life arrived after he read some of the works of philosopher and social reformer Jeremy Bentham. He described the moment that he read Bentham as "an epoch in my life; one of the turning points in my mental history." When he finished reading Bentham, he declared that he "now had opinions; a creed, a doctrine, a philosophy; in one among the best senses of the word, a religion."

Mill took from Bentham what has come to be called Classical Utilitarianism. It is the view that our actions, rules, policies and social institutions should be designed to maximize well-being or happiness. Indeed, Mill devoted his entire life to advancing the ideals of liberty and self-development because of their intimate link to human happiness.

Mill was, however, more than simply a purveyor of deep thoughts. He put his ideas to work in the real world long before it became fashionable to apply philosophy to the here and now. In Mill's hands, moral philosophy and the moral philosopher were instruments for change and reform, instruments to improve human well-being or, as he put it in his famous essay On Liberty, to advance the satisfaction of "the permanent interests of man as a progressive being."

Relying on his theoretical views, Mill advocated reform of the relationships between men and women, he championed liberty of thought and action, and he tried to combine the merits of socialism with those of free-market capitalism, among other things. He was arrested at 17 for distributing literature on birth control, and spent three years in his retirement as a Liberal MP for Westminster, a seat he won without campaigning and lost by refusing to deal with any of the concerns of his constituents once elected.

Apart from his father and Bentham, the largest influence on Mill's life and thought was his relationship with Harriet Taylor. The two met when they were both in their early twenties, but Taylor was married, so they had to settle for friendship. In 1851, when Taylor's husband died, Mill and Taylor were married. Her influence on Mill has been disputed, and it remains true that Mill's own assessment of Taylor's influence is at least exaggerated. However, recent scholarship has begun to reconsider the role Taylor played in the development of Mill's ideas.

In John Stuart Mill: A Biography (Cambridge University Press, 2004), Nicholas Capaldi argues that although Taylor did not provide Mill with new views, she helped him to refine and articulate them, especially on the question of the value of autonomy and its centrality to human flourishing. In addition, Capaldi rather nicely demonstrates that Mill was no parrot. He was far from content simply to repeat the views of his father and his intellectual ancestors. Instead, Mill attempted to refine his views with the help of friends and foes alike, especially the views emanating from continental Europe at the time. In part on this basis, he articulated one of the most defensible forms of liberalism.

A number of books have taken the ideas that Mill defended in On Liberty as their point of departure. Perhaps none is more sensible and fruitful than University of Toronto philosophy professor Wayne Sumner's The Hateful and the Obscene (University of Toronto Press, 2004). In that book, Sumner seeks to evaluate the legal regulation of hate speech and pornography in this country with reference to Mill's view that it is only when an individual's actions are harmful to others that it is legitimate to consider interfering with him, and that such interference is fully justified if and only if it is less harmful than allowing freedom to reign.

The book shows clearly how Mill's framework remains of use to us today. Through a careful and systematic analysis of current law, Sumner argues that since most pornography and hate speech are not clearly and demonstrably harmful in themselves, these activities thus remain outside the purview of what public policy and the law may legitimately regulate.

Mill's ideas are everywhere. Appeal to them was made frequently in the debate over the permissibility of publishing cartoons offensive to Islam and to the jailing in Austria of Holocaust denier David Irving. In Canada, the Supreme Court referred (or perhaps deferred) to them in making its decision about the appropriate legal regulation of so-called swingers' clubs. Recent discussions of happiness and the difficulty inherent in its pursuit cannot avoid appealing to his authority. Mill could not have wished for a better birthday gift.

Anthony Skelton teaches philosophy at the University of Western Ontario. He celebrated Mill's birthday last month at the International Society for Utilitarian Studies in London, England.