What Books Did Wunderkind Philosopher J.S. Mill Read Between Ages 3 and 7?: Plato’s Apology (in Ancient Greek), Cervantes’ Don Quixote & Much More

I left much of my read­ing of C.S. Lewis behind, but one quote of his will stay with me for life: “It is a good rule,” he advised, “after read­ing a new book, nev­er to allow your­self anoth­er new one till you have read an old one in between.” I believe his advice is invalu­able for main­tain­ing a bal­anced per­spec­tive and achiev­ing a healthy crit­i­cal dis­tance from the tumult of the present.

Read­ing works of ancient writ­ers shows us how alike the mores and the crises of the ancients were to ours, and how vast­ly dif­fer­ent. Those sim­i­lar­i­ties and dif­fer­ences can help us eval­u­ate cer­tain cur­rent ortho­dox­ies with greater wis­dom. And that’s not to men­tion count­less his­to­ri­ans, nov­el­ists, poets, play­wrights, crit­ics, and philoso­phers from the past few hun­dred years, or sev­er­al decades, who have much to teach us about where our mod­ern ideas came from and how much they’ve devi­at­ed from their prece­dents.

For exam­ple, 19th cen­tu­ry lib­er­al polit­i­cal philoso­pher John Stu­art Mill is now wide­ly admired by con­ser­v­a­tive and lib­er­tar­i­an writ­ers and aca­d­e­mics as a pro­po­nent of indi­vid­ual eco­nom­ic lib­er­ty, the free mar­ket, and a flat tax. And they are not wrong, he was all of that, in his ear­ly thought. (Mill lat­er sup­port­ed sev­er­al social­ist caus­es.) Many of his oth­er polit­i­cal views might be denounced by quite a few as the excess­es of cam­pus activist left­ism. Adam Gop­nik sum­ma­rizes the Vic­to­ri­an philosopher’s gen­er­ous slate of posi­tions:

Mill believed in com­plete equal­i­ty between the sex­es, not just women’s col­leges and, some­day, female suf­frage but absolute par­i­ty; he believed in equal process for all, the end of slav­ery, votes for the work­ing class­es, and the right to birth con­trol (he was arrest­ed at sev­en­teen for help­ing poor peo­ple obtain con­tra­cep­tion), and in the com­mon intel­li­gence of all the races of mankind. He led the fight for due process for detainees accused of ter­ror­ism; argued for teach­ing Ara­bic, in order not to alien­ate poten­tial native rad­i­cals.…

Can peo­ple to Mill’s left on eco­nom­ics learn some­thing from him? Sure. Can peo­ple to his right on near­ly every­thing else learn a thing or two? It’s worth a shot. Mill cham­pi­oned engag­ing those with whom we dis­agree (he great­ly admired Thomas Car­lyle; the two could­n’t have been more dif­fer­ent in many respects). He also argued vig­or­ous­ly for “’lib­er­ty of the press’ as one of the secu­ri­ties against cor­rupt or tyran­ni­cal gov­ern­ment.” Before nod­ding your head in agree­ment—read Mill’s argu­ments. He might not agree with you.

And what did John Stu­art Mill read? In Chap­ter One of his auto­bi­og­ra­phy, Mill gives a detailed account of his clas­si­cal edu­ca­tion from ages 3–7, dur­ing which time he read “the whole of Herodotus,” “the first six dia­logues of Pla­to,” “part of Lucian,” all in their orig­i­nal Greek, of course, as any young gen­tle­man of the time would. Mil­l’s father, Scot­tish philoso­pher James Mill, inten­tion­al­ly set out to cre­ate a genius with this advanced course of study.

Lapham’s Quar­ter­ly excerpt­ed the pas­sage, and turned the many books Mill men­tions into a list called “Ear­ly Edu­ca­tion.” You can find all of the titles below, includ­ing the ancients men­tioned and over two dozen “mod­ern” works (that is, since the time of the Renais­sance) Mill read as a child in Eng­lish, includ­ing Cer­vantes’ mam­moth Don Quixote. Most of us will have to make do with trans­la­tions of the Greek texts, but take heart, even Mill “learnt no Latin until my eighth year.” The list shows not only Mill’s daunt­ing pre­coc­i­ty, but also how essen­tial clas­si­cal texts were to well-edu­cat­ed Euro­peans of any age.

It also high­lights what kinds of texts were val­ued by Mil­l’s soci­ety, or at least by his father. All of the authors but one are men, all of them are Euro­peans, most of the works are his­to­ries and biogra­phies. Giv­en Mill’s broad views, his own rec­om­mend­ed read­ing list might look dif­fer­ent. Nonethe­less, Mil­l’s account of his extra­or­di­nary ear­ly years gives us a fas­ci­nat­ing look at the rel­a­tive breadth of a lib­er­al edu­ca­tion in 19th cen­tu­ry Britain. What ancient authors did you read as a young stu­dent? Or do you read now, between books, essays, arti­cles, or Twit­ter­storms du jour?


In Greek

Aesop–The Fables

Xenophon–The Anaba­sis, Memo­ri­als of Socrates, The Cry­opadeia 

Herodotus–The His­to­ries

Dio­genes Laer­tius–some of The Lives of Philoso­phers

Lucian–various works

Isocrates–parts of To Demon­i­cus and To Nic­o­cles 

Pla­to--Euthy­phro, Apol­o­gy, Crito, Phae­do, Craty­lus, Theaete­tus


In Eng­lish

William Robert­son–The His­to­ry of Amer­i­ca, The His­to­ry of the Reign of the Emper­or Charles V, The His­to­ry of Scot­land Dur­ing the Reigns of Queen Mary and King James VI

David Hume–The His­to­ry of Eng­land

Edward Gib­bon–The His­to­ry of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

Robert Watson–The His­to­ry of the Reign of Philip II, King of Spain

Robert Wat­son and William Thomp­son–The His­to­ry of the Reign of Philip III, King of Spain

Nathaniel Hooke–The Roman His­to­ry, from the Build­ing of Rome to the Ruin of the Com­mon­wealth 

Charles Rollin–The Ancient His­to­ry of the Egyp­tians, Carthagini­ans, Assyr­i­ans, Baby­lo­ni­ans, Medes and Per­sians, Mace­do­nians and Gre­cians

Plutarch–Par­al­lel Lives

Gilbert Bur­net--Bish­op Bur­net’s His­to­ry of His Own Time

The Annu­al Reg­is­ter of World Events, A Review of the Year (1758–1788)

John Mil­lar–An His­tor­i­cal View of the Eng­lish Gov­ern­ment

Johann Lorenz von Mosheim–An Eccle­si­as­ti­cal His­to­ry

Thomas McCrie–The Life of John Knox

William Sewell–The His­to­ry of the Rise, Increase, and Progress of the Chris­t­ian Peo­ple Called Quak­ers 

Thomas Wight and John Rut­ty–A His­to­ry of the Rise and Progress of Peo­ple Called Quak­ers in Ire­land

Philip Beaver–African Mem­o­ran­da

David Collins–An Account of the Eng­lish Colony in New South Wales

George Anson–A Voy­age Round the World

Daniel Defoe–Robin­son Cru­soe

The Ara­bi­an Nights and Ara­bi­an Tales

Miguel de Cer­vantes–Don Quixote

Maria Edge­worth–Pop­u­lar Tales

Hen­ry Brooke–The Fool of Qual­i­ty; or the His­to­ry of Hen­ry, Earl of More­land

via Lapham’s Quar­ter­ly

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Noam Chom­sky Defines What It Means to Be a Tru­ly Edu­cat­ed Per­son

Harold Bloom Cre­ates a Mas­sive List of Works in The “West­ern Canon”: Read Many of the Books Free Online

Intro­duc­tion to Polit­i­cal Phi­los­o­phy: A Free Yale Course

Leo Strauss: 15 Polit­i­cal Phi­los­o­phy Cours­es Online

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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