The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIV. The Victorian Age, Part Two.
§ 11. Political Economy
Mill’s Political Economy has been variously regarded as an improved Adam Smith and as a popularised Ricardo. Perhaps the latter description is nearer the mark. Its essential doctrines differ little, if at all, from those of Ricardo; the theory of the “wages fund,” for example, is formulated quite in the spirit of Ricardo, though this theory was afterwards relinquished or modified by Mill in consequence of the criticisms of William Thomas Thornton. But the work has a breadth of treatment which sometimes reminds one of Adam Smith: the hypothetical nature of economic theory was not overlooked, and the “applications to social philosophy” were kept in view. In spite of his adherence to the maxim of laissez faire, Mill recognised the possibility of modifying the system of distribution, and, with regard to that system, he displayed a leaning to the socialist ideal, which grew stronger as his life advanced. His methodical and thorough treatment of economics made his work a text-book for more than a generation, and largely determined the scope of most of the treatises of his own and the succeeding period, even of those written by independent thinkers.
Mill died at Avignon in 1873. After his death, were published his Autobiography (1873) and Three Essays on Religion: Nature, The Utility of Religion and Theism (1874). These essays were written between 1850 and 1870 and include the author’s latest thoughts on ultimate questions. He had been educated in the belief that speculation on ultimate questions is futile; in his works he had always maintained the attitude afterwards called agnosticism, for which he was willing to adopt Comte’s term positivism; he accepted, also, in general, Comte’s doctrine on this point, though always dissociating himself from the latter’s political and social theories. But, even while, in his book Auguste Comte and Positivism (1865), accepting the view that the essential nature and ultimate causes of things are inscrutable, he holds that this “positive mode of thought is not necessarily a denial of the supernatural,” but only throws it back beyond the limits of science. His posthumous essays show a further development. In that on nature (the earliest of the series), he dwells upon the imperfections of the cosmic order as showing that it cannot have been the creation of a being of infinite goodness and power; in the last essay of the volume, he approaches a tentative and limited form of theism—the doctrine of a finite God.