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Timothy Larsen

Utilitarians in Love

The offense of unrepentant chastity.

The Utilitarian philosopher John Stuart Mill was a 24-year-old bachelor when he met Harriet Taylor in 1830. She was a 23-year-old wife, the mother of two small children. Their attraction to one another was immediate, and the relationship developed into a grand passion. Eventually her husband, John Taylor, demanded that Harriet break off all contact with Mill, but she flatly refused. Instead, she went to Paris, where Mill had arranged to join her. Away from London society, they had their Define the Relationship talk. Even then the situation was still retrievable, but in France they made the fatal decision: their relationship would be a chaste one.

As men of the cloth are wont to do, Harriet's pastor, the Reverend W. J. Fox , felt it was his duty to rebuke her for setting a bad moral example: she and Mill, the minister of South Place Chapel pontificated, ought to have the common decency to let love win and forthrightly set up house together. Mill had to write to this popular London preacher and guiltily explain that although they would defy his pastoral counsel he still hoped that Fox would not despair of his soul: "I know you disapprove & cannot enter with the present relation between her & me & him, but a time perhaps is coming when I shall need your kindness more than ever."

Mill's friend, the budding sage Thomas Carlyle, was all ready to settle down into some good-natured gossiping, but when the sordid reality dawned on him, he was truly scandalized. In letter after letter he confided in hushed tones the horrid truth: "I do believe the whole thing is strictly Platonic still!" Carlyle eventually decided that Mill was slowly killing himself through this unnatural commitment to celibacy: "His eyes go twinkling and jerking with wild lights and twitches; his head is bald, his face brown and dry." (This is a description of Mill when he was barely 30 years old!)

John Taylor lived for another 16 years, and during all that time Harriet's relationship with Mill never became a ...

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