John Millar

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John Millar (June 22, 1715 – May 30, 1801) was a philosopher and historian who played an important part in the Scottish Enlightenment of the 18th century.

John Millar was born in the parish of Shotts, in Lanarkshire, Scotland, where his father, James Millar, was the minister. His mother was a daughter of Archibald Hamilton of Westburn, Lanarkshire. Millar was taught to read by his uncle, John Millar of Milhaugh, in the neighbouring parish of Blantyre, where he spent almost all his early years. In 1742 he was sent to the grammar school of Hamilton.

From 1746 until some time in the 1750s, he studied at the University of Glasgow where he was influenced by the teachings of Adam Smith on Logic and Moral Philosophy, and met William Cullen, then professor of chemistry at Glasgow, who was his mother's cousin. After leaving the University, he was employed as a tutor by Henry Home, Lord Kames, during which time he met David Hume, before becoming an advocate in 1760. In 1761 he was appointed Regius Professor of Civil Law at the University of Glasgow, a position he held until 1800.

On becoming Professor, he was also elected to membership of the Literary Society of Glasgow, founded in 1752, where he became one of the leading orators, especially maintaining Hume's theories in opposition to Thomas Reid, who was Professor of Moral Philosophy at Glasgow from 1763 to 1796. According to his obituary in the Edinburgh Review, "The distinguishing feature of Mr Millar’s intellect was the great clearness and accuracy of his apprehension, and the singular sagacity with which he seized upon the true statement of a question, and disentangled the point in dispute from the mass of sophisticated argument in which it was frequently involved. His great delight was to simplify an intricate question, and to reduce a perplexed and elaborate system of argument to a few plain problems of common sense. According to one of his pupils, Lord Jeffrey [1] "His manner of lecturing was familiar and animated, approaching more nearly to gaiety than enthusiasm; and the facts which he had to state, or the elementary positions which he had to lay down, were given in the simple, clear, and unembarrassed diction, in which a well-bred man would tell a story or deliver an opinion in society. His illustrations were always familiar, and often amusing. No individual ever did more to break down the old and unfortunate distinction between the wisdom of the academician and the man of the world"

During Millar's tenure, the University established its reputation as a leading law school. Millar expanded the curriculum, encouraged discussion and debate, and the number of law students rose rapidly. His reputation was further enhanced by the publication of two major works. In his Origin of the Distinction of Ranks in Society (1778), Millar proposed that all social relations, even relations between the genders, are determined by the economic system. This view later became known as economic determinism. His Historical View of the English Government (1787) was one of the most important contemporary history of England, and a milestone in the development of historiography. Millar comparatively drew upon the works of other historians, and emphasized the social and economic bases of political developments and institutions, which differentiated his work from those of many of his precursors.

Millar supported American independence and opposed the slave trade and the war with Revolutionary France.

John Millar had four sons and seven daughters. His eldest son, John, went to the bar, and married the daughter of William Cullen. Another son, James, became Professor of Mathematics at the University in 1796.


  1. A Winter with Robert Burns: Being Annals of His Patrons and Associates in Edinburgh during the year 1786-7 by John Marshall, William Stewart Watson, Robert L.D. Cooper Published 1846 Original from Harvard University