Friday, November 19, 2010

Critics on “On Liberty”

‘The grand, leading principle, towards which every argument in these pages directly converges, is the absolute and essential import­ance of human development in its richest variety.’

In taking, for his most famous Essay, this motto from Wilhelm von Humboldt, Mill is defining the sense in which he proposes to discuss ‘Liberty’. The argument follows on from where we have just left off: he is going to discuss in more detail, but also with more philosophical breadth, ‘the nature and limits of the power which can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual’. Once again we find Mill wrestling with paradoxes, and defending his prin­ciples against their own consequences. Indeed, this Essay is the palmary instance of that posture in him, for the menace here is the very liberal-democratic state which he and his party had toiled to create. Mill was discovering (without so formulating it) the truth of the ‘dialectical’ principle, that a historical ‘moment’ tends to generate its own negation; out of the very liberty for which he had striven had proceeded a new sort of tyranny. The old laissez-faire liberty had pro­duced an order in which only the privileged few were really free; the rest of mankind were free only to sell their labour or starve. To remedy this, the principle of ‘equality’ had been invoked, and the franchise had been in wider (not yet ‘widest’) commonalty spread. To remedy the yet remaining evils of free competition Mill had been prepared, as we saw, to admit a considerable measure of State Socialism. But all this meant more and more legislation, more and more inter­ference with the individual; could it be that liberty and equality were incompatible? In working for equality, were we sacrificing something still more valuable? What Mill would have thought of our present-day ‘democracy’ one trembles to imagine; it is sufficiently remarkable to find him, already in 1859, aware of the impending tyranny of ‘col­lective mediocrity’. ‘The tendency of all the changes taking place in the world’, he says, ‘is to strengthen society, and diminish the power of the individual.’ And this tendency profoundly disturbed him, for the most deeply seated of his unconscious beliefs (on the conscious level he sometimes denied it) was that the ‘natural’ was better than the contrived, and that the individual was a ‘natural’ unit, while society was ‘artificial’. I believe that there was a conflict between Mill’s unspoken and his explicit assumptions on the ‘natural’, for if ‘Nature’ were all that he says of her in his posthumous Essay of that title (see below, pp. 177 ff.), he would have no right to defend the individual as part of the natural order. This latent respect for Nature, this predisposition to ‘let be’, was part of Mill’s eighteenth century inheritance. The Essay On Liberty, although written in the heart of the Victorian age, still has about it the ring of mental fight, the heroic tone of 1789. One might have supposed that in 1859 no new Areopagitica was called for, but Mill was far from seeing the matter in that light. To him, mid-Victorian England seemed ‘not a place of mental freedom’, and, as we have seen, he feared that other freedoms were about to perish. On Liberty, then, is a veritable Areopagitica, and its strenuous tone ex­plicable, because Mill felt himself to be attacking two kinds of tyranny in succession : in the first part, that of intellectual torpor and intolerance; in the second, the monstrous off-spring of the democratic Frankenstein.
The sap runs freely and strongly throughout the first section, which deals with liberty of thought and discussion.
‘Discussion’ was indeed the breath of life to Mill, who as a youth had formed a debating circle which met twice a week from 8.30 a.m. until 10. He craved for the free play of mind upon all subjects, but found that in England it was con­sidered ill-bred to discuss serious topics in society; France was much more congenial in this respect. His secluded up-bringing, and his father’s ascendant influence, had im­planted deep within him the feeling that English thought, like English society, universities and religion, was still in the grip of sinister conservatism; he could therefore see himself as an eighteenth century ‘philosophe’ attacking the infamous old Goliath. For Mill, the ‘great’ moments in history were those when ideas and assumptions were being thoroughly overhauled, when discussion most mightily raged, and ‘the yoke of authority was broken’: he specifies the Reformation, the late eighteenth century in France, and the ‘Goethian and Fichtean period’ in Germany, as epochs when Europe was mentally awake. One gathers that he would have been prepared to add to these the early centuries of Christianity, when the faith was still fighting for existence, and when its adherents were consequently aware of what they were fighting for. But these impulses are now well-nigh spent; there is in England now ‘a tacit convention that principles are not to be disputed’, and there has descended upon us the ‘deep slumber of a decided opinion’.
‘A state of things in which a large portion of the most active and inquiring intellects find it advisable to keep the general principles and grounds of their convictions within their own breasts, and attempt, in what they address to the public, to fit as much as they can of their own conclusions to premises which they have internally renounced, cannot send forth the open, fearless characters, and logical, consistent intellects who once adorned the thinking world.’’
In face of the continued pressure of an older civilization, with its social inequalities and privileges, its traditional religion and morality, Mill and the middle-class radicals could still feel themselves to be in the vanguard of human advance, and still feel that their interests were those of the masses of mankind (though the masses had a way of not quite seeing this).
I will briefly rehearse the argument. If we try to suppress opinions: (i) The opinion to be suppressed may be true. Were not Socrates and Christ put to death as heretics, blas­phemers and corrupters of morality? Did not Marcus Aurelius, a better ‘Christian’ than nearly all so-called Chris­tian rulers, persecute Christianity? It is a fallacy to suppose that ‘Truth’ as such has any special survival-value; ‘history teems with instances of truth put down by persecution’.
Even though the alleged heresy be indeed an error, and the orthodox opinion true, yet if the orthodox never hear their views questioned, they themselves will not understand on what grounds they hold them. ‘He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that’ ; absence of dis­cussion weakens belief. Creeds are operative when they are being affirmed against opposition, and mere formal husks when they have long been accepted. The doctrines of the Sermon on the Mount are considered sacred, but they now produce little effect ‘beyond what is caused by mere listening to words so amiable and bland’; the real allegiance of the modern Christian is paid to worldly interests: he believes his doctrines ‘just up to the point at which it is usual to act upon them’.
The conflicting doctrines may share the truth between them, and in this case it may be that the minority-opinion contains just that part of it which is ignored by the majority. One-sidedness is an inherent defect of the human mind itself, and revolutions and improvements in opinion are not simple replacements of error by truth, but rather the rise of one part of truth and the obscuration of another—the new frag­ment being simply ‘more adapted to the needs of the time, than that which it displaces’. We have noticed how Mill saw in the contrasted world-views of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries a type of this one-sidedness, and with this in mind he here says that the ‘paradoxes of Rousseau’ burst, ‘like a bombshell’, in the midst of eighteenth century opinion, ‘forcing its elements to recombine in a better form and with additional ingredients’. In the great practical con­cerns of life, above all in politics, ‘truth’ is a ‘reconciling and combining of opposites’, and if one of two opinions has a better claim to be countenanced it is that which at the moment happens to be in a minority. An interesting part of this discussion, for our present purpose, occurs where Mill considers Christian ethics, which are reputed to contain no half-truth, but the whole truth, in matters of conduct. Here he clearly feels that he is vindicating a minority view against an all-but unanimous prejudice. After distinguishing be­tween Gospel Christianity, which never purported to teach a complete ethical system, and ecclesiastical Christianity, which did, he declares
‘that it is, in many important points, incomplete and one-sided, and that unless ideas and feelings, not sanctioned by it, had con­tributed to the formation of European life and character, human affairs would have been in a worse condition than they now are.’
What ‘ideas and feelings’ ? Magnanimity, he replies : high-mindedness, sense of personal dignity, sense of honour, energetic pursuit of good, sense of duty to mankind without thought of heavenly reward, sense of duty to the State; in a word, the pagan virtues, and their modern counterparts as represented in the ideals of chivalry and the ‘gentleman’. These and such-like secular standards must be combined with those of Christianity to produce the moral regeneration of mankind. One may suppose that this is the kind of senti­ment which James Mill had advised his son not to express, but which, now that the latter is actually burning his boats, he glories in avowing.
Nothing in Mill is more profound or of more lasting value than this first section. Yet if his grave ghost should revisit this troubled world of a hundred years later, we should have to pose it with another problem about minority opinion: what, we should ask, if the whole raison-d’ être of a given minority should be its determination to force its views at all cost upon the majority, and its readiness to imprison and murder all who will not submit? Shall that minority be tolerated, lest its suppression may mean the loss of some neglected fragment of truth ? Perhaps even Mill would have hesitated here; he might, however, have said: suppress the party by all means, but enquire what hideous maladjustment has made its appearance possible, and remedy that.
The argument of the second section (which I have partly anticipated, and will therefore treat more summarily) is: given intellectual liberty, men must also be free to plan their own lives as they think fit; liberty in living must go with liberty in thinking—provided always that the individual does not make himself a nuisance to other people. It is here that Mill examines, on the principles already explained, the limits of the power of the State over the individual, the ruling assumption being the characteristic one, that ‘leaving people to themselves is always better, ceteris paribus, than controlling them’. In order to draw his boundary line Mill makes a dis­tinction between self-regarding and public actions; indivi­duals must be unhampered in all that affects themselves only, but the State may intervene to prevent anti-social behaviour. The distinction is hard to maintain, though Mill’s ‘salutary jealousy of social interference’ will find a response in those today who dislike State regimentation and dread its continual and mounting encroachments. Mill would have occupied stronger ground here if he had been a Christian; he could then have given precise meaning to what was evidently his thought, that for the soul’s health there must be spiritual sanctuaries, as well as Nature-Preserves, where the govern-mental writ does not run. Mill, as I have suggested, is here faced with some highly unwelcome results of the very move­ment for which he had always stood; democracy, or the rule of the average mediocre man, has now triumphed, and from this very ‘liberty’ is proceeding a new bondage : ‘society has now fairly got the better of individuality’. ‘The general tendency of things throughout the world is to render mediocrity the ascendant power among mankind.’ Genius, and originality of thought or conduct, ‘can only breathe freely in an atmos­phere of freedom’, and this freedom is vanishing from our modern mass-civilization. ‘The only power deserving the name is that of masses, and of governments which make themselves the organ of the tendencies and instincts of masses’—that is (in England), of the middle-class or ‘collec­tive mediocrity’. Mill is driven, like Carlyle, to fly for rescue to ‘the highly-gifted and instructed One or Few’ to guide the ‘Sovereign Many’—though he explicitly discounten­ances ‘the sort of “hero-worship” which applauds the strong man of genius for forcibly seizing on the government of the world and making it do his bidding in spite of itself’. No, there must be no Fuhrers; the wise and the noble must only ‘point out the way’. Unfortunately, ‘energetic characters on any large scale are becoming merely traditional’, and we are daily approaching an almost Chinese uniformity. Mill would not have found the ‘energetic characters’ of a hundred years later at all to his taste, and he would have been amazed to find that their aim was precisely to produce such unifor­mities, and to produce them by methods of ‘interference’ which would have reduced him to suicide. I will conclude by quoting his memorable warning against the evils of stand­ardization :
‘The circumstances which surround different classes and indivi­duals, and shape their characters, are daily becoming more assimi­lated. Formerly, different ranks, different neighbourhoods, different trades and professions, lived in what might be called different worlds; at present to a great degree in the same. Comparatively speaking, they now read the same things, listen to the same things, see the same things, go to the same places, have their hopes and fears directed to the same objects, have the same rights and liberties, and the same means of asserting them. Great as are the differences of position which remain, they are nothing to those which have ceased. And the assimilation is still proceeding. All the political changes of the age promote it, since they all tend to raise the low and to lower the high. Every extension of education promotes it, because education brings people under common influences, and gives them access to the general stock of facts and sentiments. Im­provement in the means of communication promotes it, by bringing the inhabitants of distant places into personal contact, and keeping up a rapid flow of changes of residence between one place and another. The increase of commerce and manufactures promotes it, by diffusing more widely the advantages of easy circumstances, and by opening all objects of ambition, even the highest, to general competition, whereby the desire of rising becomes no longer the character of a particular class, but of all classes. A more powerful agency than even all these, in bringing about a general similarity among mankind, is the complete establishment, in this and other free countries, of the ascendancy of public opinion in the State....
‘The combination of all these causes forms so great a mass of influences hostile to Individuality, that it is not easy to see how it can stand its ground. It will do so with increasing difficulty, unless the intelligent part of the public can be made to feel its value. If the claims of Individuality are ever to be asserted, the time is now, while much is wanting to complete the enforced assimilation.’
The ‘time is now’ 1949, not 1859, and the assimilation has gone incalculably further—too far for remedy, Mill would perhaps have thought. However, if anything is ‘still wanting to complete it’ (as we must hope), his words are many times more urgent than ever.
David Daiches
John Stuart Mill (1806–73) had an altogether different sort of mind-lucid, humance, analytic-and his writings, while they possess no distinctive literary qualities, no rhetorical élan or imaginative power, are of importance as illustrating Victorian reforming thought at its most reasonable and most disinterested. Educated from infance by his father, the utilitarian reformer James Mill, to be a learned and astute propagandist and explicator of those views on human welfare and on politics which he and Jeremy Bentham and developed together–views which represented an ingenious but curiously mechanical application of contemporary psychological notions to construct a theory of happiness and apolitical system based on the “greatest happiness” principle–he suddenly discovered, early in his twenty-first year, the barrenness of a purely analytic approach to the most profound human problems. In his posthumously published Autobiography (1873) he records the depressing and paralyzing effect of this discovery. “All those to whom I looked up, were of opinion that the pleasure of sympathy with human beings, and the feelings which made the good of others, and especially of mankind on a large scale, the object of existence, were the greatest and surest source of happiness. Of the truth of this I was convinced, but to know that a feeling would make me happy if I had it, did not give me the feeling. My education, I thought, had failed to create these feelings in sufficient strength to resist the dissolving influence of analysis, while the whole course of my intellectual cultivation had made precocious and premature analysis the inveterate habit of my mind.” It was the poetry of Wordsworth that was largely responsible for rescuing Mill from the dark night of the soul into which his sense of the barrenness of his intellectual activities had plunged him. The result was enlarged sympathies and the awareness of the inadequacy of any system which postulated the calculated pursuit of an arithmetically defined happiness as the proper end of individual or political activity. “If I am asked, what system of political philosophy I substituted for that which, as a philosophy, I had abandoned, I answer, no system: only a conviction that the truey system was something much more complex and many-sided than I had previously had any idea of, and that its office was to supply, not a set of model institutions, but principles from which the institutions suitable to any given circumstances might be deduced. The influences of European … thought, and especially those of the reaction of the nineteenth century against the eighteenth, were now streaming in upon me. They came from various quarters: from the writings of Coleridge, … ; from what I had read of Goethe; from Carlyle’s early reviews in the Edinburgh and foreign Review, though for a long time I saw nothing in these (as my father saw nothing in them to the last) but insane rhapsody … I looked forward … to a future which shall unite the best qualities of the critical with the best qualities of the organic periods; unchecked liberty of thought, unbounded freedom of individual action in all modes not hurtful to others; but also, convictions as to what is right and wrong, useful and pernicious, deeply engrave on the feelings by early education and general unanimity of sentiment, and so firmly grounded in reason and in the true exigencies of life, that they shall not, like all former and present creeds, religious, ethical, and political, require to be thrown off and replaced by others.
This deepening of Mills’ thought never led him to transcendentalism or mysticism, but enabled him to reconsider political and philosophical problems in such a way as to give the utilitarian approach by far its most persnasive and deeply thought out expression. His writings on political and philosophical subjects–On Liberty, 1869; Thoughts on Parliamentary Reform, 1859; Representative Government, 1861; Utilitarianism, 1863; The Subjection of Women, 1869; Three Essays on Religion, 1874–show an awareness of the complexity and variety of human experience and the differences in quality as well as quantity between different kinds of human happiness that are far removed from the confident and narrow logic of Benthamism. Though an inveterate individualist and a profound believer in freedom of speech and in the right and even the value of personal eccentricity, he recognized the limits of laissez faire and the necessity for a careful balance between freedom of individual action on the one hand and protective and beneficent governmental action on the other. If he was still more optimistic about the nature of man than the survivors of the age of concentration camps and gas chambers can allow themselves to be, he nevertheless formulated many of the principles which still underlie the thinking of humane and moderate reformers who believe that men can plan their progress to a better world without reliance on supernatural sanctions. He believed passionately in the quality of the sexes, and he believed with equal passion in education as the only proper foundation for an expanding democracy. His mind was essentially secular, and he was agnostic without being hostile to religion, in whose historical and psychological aspects he was much interested. Though in his later years friendly with Carlyle and influenced by him, he remained in cast of mind and basic ideas fundamentally antithetical to him, while to Carlyle, Mill remained “a logic-chopping engine.” In general it can be said that Mill represented nineteenth-century secular wisdom in the form in which it was most easily assimilated by the twentieth century.

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