Thursday, March 6, 2014

John Stuart Mill's Astonishing Reading From Age Three To Eight

I believe in being circumspect about the use of superlatives.  For example, I rarely use the word “astonishing.”  But this morning’s reading astonished me.  Sydney Harris in one of his essays which I finished reading the past week or so suggested there were very few really good autobiographies.  He mentioned two, one was by John Stuart Mill.  On Harris's recommendation, I located a used copy available online and ordered it.  It arrived yesterday, so I started reading it last night and again when I was up at an early hour. Mill says he wrote the story of his life primarily because the education he received at the hand of his father shows what can be done with children when done properly and he thought his example could benefit the world.

I was astonished at several things, such as the fact that he began learning the Greek language when he was three years of age!  (Incidentally, Mill was an exact contemporary of Joseph Smith, being born in London in May of 1806.)  He began the study of Latin at age 8! But what really astonished me was his recital of all that he read as a young boy.  I was so astonished that I read it to my wife at our morning breakfast, and then decided to share it with you.  Today’s blog will reproduce only what he said about his reading from age 3 to 8. Tomorrow I will give you his reading from age 8 to 12.

Ponder two things as you read: First, was Mill able to do all of this because of his extraordinary intellect, or did he have an extraordinary intellect because of all that he did in those early years?  Second, consider what a wonderful gift his father gave to the world by the effort he put forth to educate his son.  I confess, when I consider this compared to my own paltry efforts to assist with my children’s education I am ashamed at the low standard I set for myself and for them.

“I have no remembrance of the time when I began to learn Greek.  I have been told that it was when I was three years old.   ... I faintly remember going through Aesop’s Fables, the first Greek book which I read. The Anabasis [of Xenophon], which I remember better, was the second. I learnt no Latin until my eighth year.  At that time I had read, under my father’s tuition, a number of Greek prose authors, among whom I remember the whole of Herodotus, and of Xenophon’s Cyropaedia and Memorials of Socrates; some of the lives of the philosophers by Diogenes Laertius; part of Lucian, and Isocrates ad Demonicum and ad Nicolem.  I also read, in 1813 [at age 7!], the first six dialogues (in the common arrangement) of Plato, from the Euthyphron to the Theaetetus inclusive: which last dialogue, I venture to think, would have been better omitted, as it was totally impossible I should understand it.  But my father, in all his teaching, demanded of me not only the utmost that Icould do, but much that I could by no possibility have done.  What he was himself willing to undergo for the sake of my instruction, may be judged from the fact, that I went through the whole process of preparing my Greek lessons in the same room and at the same table at which he was writing: and as in those days Greek and English Lexicons were not, and I could make no more use of a Greek and Latin Lexicon than could be made without having yet begun to learn Latin, I was forced to have recourse to him for the meaning of every word which I did not know.  This incessant interruption he, one of the most impatient of men, submitted to, and wrote under that interruption several volumes of his History and all else that he had to write during those years.
...  But the lessons [in arithmetic] were only a part of the daily instruction I received.  Much of it consisted in the books I read by myself, and my father’s discourses to me, chiefly during our walks.  From 1810 to the end of 1813 we were living in Newington Green, then an almost rustic neighbourhood.  My father’s health required considerable and constant exercise, and he walked habitually before breakfast, generally in the green lanes towards Hornsey.   In these walks I always accompanied him, and with my earliest recollections of green fields and wild flowers, is mingled that of the account I gave him daily of what I had read the day before.  To the best of my remembrance, this was a voluntary rather than a prescribed exercise.   I made notes on slips of paper while reading, and from these, in the morning walks, I told the story to him; for the books were chiefly histories, of which I read in this manner a great number: Robertson’s histories, Hume, Gibbon; but my greatest delight, then and for long afterwards, was Watson’s Philip the Second and Third.  The heroic defense of the Knights of Malta against the Turks, and of the revolted provinces of the Netherlands against Spain, excited in me an intense and lasting interest.  Next to Watson, my favorite historical reading was Hooke’s History of Rome.   Of Greece I had seen at that time no regular history, except school abridgments and the last two or three volumes of a translation of Rollin’s Ancient History, beginning with Philip of Macedon.  But I read with great delight Langhorne’s translation of Plutarch.  In English history, beyond the time at which Hume leaves off, I remember reading Burnet’s History of his Own Time, though I cared little for anything in it except the wars and battles; and the historical part of the Annual Register, from the beginning to about 1788, where the volumes my father borrowed for me from Mr. Bentham left off.  I felt a lively interest in Frederic of Prussia during his difficulties, and in Paoli, the Corsican patriot; but when I came to the American war, I took my part, like a child as I was (until set right by my father) on the wrong side, because it was called the English side.  In these frequent talks about the book I read, he used, as opportunity offered, to give me explanations and ideas respecting civilizations, government, morality, mental cultivation, which he required me afterwards to restate to him in my own words.  He also made me read, and give him account of, many books which would not have interested me sufficiently to induce me to read them of myself: among others, Millar’s Historical View of the English Government, a book of great merit for its time, and which he highly valued; Mosheim’s Ecclesiastical History, McCrie’s Life of John Knox, and even Sewell’s and rutty’s Histories of the Quakers.  He was fond of putting into my hands books which exhibited men of energy and resource in unusual circumstances, struggling against difficulties and overcoming them: of such works I remember Beaver’s African Memoranda, and Collins’s account of the first settlement of New South wales.  Two books which I never wearied of reading were Anson’s Voyage, so delightful to most young persons, and a Collection (Hawkesworth’s, I believe) of Voyages round the World, in four volumes, beginning with Drake and ending with Cook and Bougainville.  Of children’s books, any more than of playthings, I had scarcely any, except an occasional gift from the relation or acquaintance: among those I had, Robinson Crusoe was preeminent, and continued to delight me through all my boyhood.  It was no part however of my father’s system to exclude books of amusement, though he allowed them very sparingly.  Of such books he possessed at that time next to none, but he borrowed several for me; those which I remember are, the Arabian Nights, Cazotte’s Arabian Tales, Don Quixote, Miss Edgeworth’s “Popular Tales,” and a book of some reputation in its day, Brooke’s Fool of Quality.”
John Stuart Mill, Autobiography, edited by Jack Stillinger, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1969), pp. 5-8.

Lets think together again, soon. [Tomorrow’s blog–Mill’s Reading from age 8 to 12.]

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