In an age which prides itself on its liberation from all absolutes, which has succeeded in making the very word ‘absolute’ sound archaic, there is one concept that has very nearly the status of an absolute. That is the idea of liberty. However much the idea may be violated in practice, however much it may be distorted in conception, the idea itself continues to exercise that ultimate authority which once belonged to the idea of God, nature, justice, reason, or the ideal polity.Even those regimes which consistently and flagrantly violate the most elementary precepts of liberty feel obliged to pay lip-service to the idea by claiming for themselves another kind of liberty: ‘positive’ liberty, a ‘higher’ freedom than ‘mere’ freedom. And those regimes which are most solicitous of liberty, whose institutions are designed to provide a considerable measure of liberty, are under constant reproach for falling short of the fullest measure of liberty. Indeed it is the most liberal countries that are most vulnerable to the charge of illiberality. There is hardly a matter of public concern that does not, sooner or later, raise the issue of liberty; not casually, peripherally, as one of a number of considerations to be taken into account, but as the basic and decisive consideration. The use and abuse of drugs, crime and punishment, pornography and obscenity, industrial and economic controls, racial and sexual equality, national security and defence, ecology, technology, bureaucracy, education, religion, the family, sex – all come up against the ultimate test: the liberty of the individual. Nor are the most venerable institutions immune to this challenge. It was once only revolutionaries and social rebels who denounced the ‘bourgeois’ family as authoritarian, ridiculed ‘middle-class’ notions of sexual normality and morality, declared all social conventions to be incompatible with individuality, and condemned all authorities – the state, the law, the Church, parents and elders – as agents of coercion. Today these opinions are the common coin of most liberals. Inevitably the elevation of the idea of liberty has led to the debasement of the idea of authority. As particular authorities have become suspect, so also has the very idea of authority. Deprived of legitimacy, of any presumption of right, authority is reduced to nothing more than the exercise of power or force.
What we are left with then, is what John Stuart Mill, more than anyone else, bequeathed to us: the idea of the free and sovereign individual. Intellectual bequests, to be sure, are notoriously complicated and devious. The court of public opinion through which such bequests are probated, is far more erratic than the courts of law. If it is difficult to establish the paternity of an idea, it is still more difficult to assign responsibility for that idea once it is launched upon the world. Yet there must be some responsibility for ideas as there is for wayward children – a moral if not a legal responsibility. The filiation of ideas was once aptly described by Lord Acton: ‘Ideas have a radiation and development, an ancestry and posterity of their own, in which men play the part of god-fathers and godmothers more than that of legitimate parents.’ At the very least it is this role of godfather that can be ascribed to Mill. And godfathers, it may be remembered, in Mill’s time as in
’s, had a more intimate relationship to their godchildren than is common today. Acton
In one sense, of course, liberty had a long and honourable lineage before Mill. Acton himself traced it back to antiquity, indeed found it more prevalent in some periods of antiquity than in some periods of modernity. But in the sense in which it is widely held today, not as one of several principles making for a good life and a sound polity but as the pre-eminent and ultimate principle, it is peculiarly modern. And even within modernity, it is of relatively recent vintage.
’s Areopagitica is often cited as the Magna Carta of free thought. But Milton intended that freedom to apply only to the toleration of ‘neighbouring differences, or rather indifferences’; he explicitly excluded such differences as might subvert religious or civil authority – ‘popery and open superstition’, or any opinion ‘impious or evil absolutely either against faith or manners’. Similarly, Locke seems, at first sight, to posit a liberty strikingly similar to Mill’s; the ‘perfect freedom’ of all men to ‘order their actions and dispose of their possessions and persons as they think fit,’ on condition only of their obeying the law of nature that ‘no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions’. But that liberty existed, for Locke, only in a state of nature. And it was precisely because that state of nature was inadequate that men entered civil society and consented to limit not only their liberty of action but also of opinion: ‘No opinions contrary to human society, or to those moral rules which are necessary to the preservation of civil society, are to be tolerated by the magistrate.’ The denial of the existence of God, for example, could not be tolerated, because ‘promises, covenants, and oaths, which are the bonds of human society, can have no hold upon the atheist’. Milton
And so it was with Mill’s more immediate predecessors and contemporaries: Adam Smith, the Founding Fathers, Paine and Godwin, Emerson and Thoreau, Proudhon and Stirner. Each celebrated liberty in one fashion or another, to one degree or another. But it remained for Mill to convert the idea of liberty into a philosophically respectable doctrine, to put it in its most comprehensive, extensive, and systematic form, the form in which it is generally known and accepted today.
Mill brought to the doctrine of liberty not only a single-mindedness of purpose that immediately attracted attention but also an intellectual authority that commanded instant respect. In 1859 when On Liberty appeared, he was fifty-three, the author of numerous essays which had earned him the reputation of a formidable social critic, and of two major works which had established him as the foremost philosopher and economist in
. His contemporaries have eloquently testified to the intellectual power he wielded, especially during the 1850s and ‘60s. His System of Logic was the standard text in Oxford, and his Principles of Political Economy, although not required reading, was the gospel of all those who had any intellectual pretensions. The Conservative statesman and philosopher, Lord Balfour, who was neither a disciple of Mill nor much given to exaggeration, said in recalling his own student days at Cambridge: ‘Mill possessed an authority in the English Universities... comparable to that wielded forty years earlier by Hegel in Germany and in the Middle Ages by Aristotle.’ Leslie Stephen, a tutor at England and an admirer of Mill (although not an uncritical one), described Mill’s authority in similar terms: ‘In our little circle the summary answer to all hesitating proselytes was, “read Mill”. In those argumentations of which I have spoken, hour after hour was given to discussing points raised by Mill as keenly as medieval commentators used to discuss the doctrines of Aristotle.’ Cambridge
Mill’s credentials, therefore, were impeccable. And not only was he in his own right, by virtue of his own writings, the intellectual par excellence. He also held that title by hereditary right, so to speak, having been born and bred in the very centre of the intellectual establishment. In the history of thought, the son has so far outdistanced the father that it is difficult to keep in mind the importance of James Mill and the community of which he was a part. In his own time, James Mill was a figure of considerable intellectual stature, diminished only by the even more commanding figure of his avowed master, Jeremy Bentham, the father of English utilitarianism. Bentham, himself a bachelor, took a great interest in the education of his chief disciple’s eldest son, especially since he was at this time engaged in drawing up an ideal course of education for a youth of the ‘middling and higher ranks of life’. Although it was the father who supervised his son’s daily education (the boy never attended any school or university), there is no doubt that both Bentham and James Mill looked upon the young boy as their heir-designate and that they intended to make of him the complete utilitarian – which is to say, the perfectly rational man.
This experiment in education has been dramatically re-counted in John Mill’s Autobiography. In reading that account it is easy to be distracted by the sheer precocity of the young Mill: the fact that he read Greek by the age of three, had assimilated a considerable body of classical and historical literature before he was eight, and had mastered philosophy, political economy, mathematics, and the like by the ripe age of twelve. If one discounts Mill’s modest disclaimer that what he did could have been done by ‘any boy or girl of average capacity and healthy physical constitution’, one must credit his own estimate of the immense saving in time represented by this intensive course of study; it gave him, he reckoned, a quarter-of-a-century advantage over most of his contemporaries. But more important, it gave him a sustained training in reasoning and analysis. When he was eleven, for example, in addition to his other studies, he had the task of reading aloud each day a portion of the manuscript of the History of India his father was then preparing for publication, the reading being accompanied by an analysis of the society and institutions of India compared with those of England, and by a critique of England as it was, compared with how it ought to be. Two years later his daily assignment was a written abstract of his father’s discourses on the subject of political economy; these reports were discussed and rewritten until they satisfied his father, who then used them in preparing his Elements of Political Economy. (The work, published in 1821, included paragraph-résumés pre-pared by the youngster.) It was this kind of training, a training in the use of mind, that was the truly remarkable feature of Mill’s education.
Whatever intellectual vicissitudes Mill was later to experience, this part of his education remained with him. But it became, at critical moments of his life, a terrible burden. No less famous than the account of his education was the account, also in the Autobiography, of the ‘crisis’ he went through at the age of twenty, when the whole of his education was, in effect, called into question. The young man was then well on his way to assuming the position for which he had been groomed: he was engaged in the formidable work of preparing the five-volume edition of Bentham’s Rationale of Judicial Evidence (formidable, because Bentham’s peculiar habits of composition made this more a task of organizing and writing than of mere editing); he was a regular contributor to the Benthamite journal, the Westminster Review; he had founded and was actively involved in a debating club which he had named the Utilitarian Society (this was the first time ‘utilitarian’ was used in this sectarian sense) – all this in addition to his full-time job at the East India Office where he worked directly under his father. It was at this point, when his career seemed to be proceeding along the lines that had been laid out for it, that it underwent a sudden reversal. The nervous breakdown he then suffered was ‘mental’ in both senses of that word, intellectual and emotional.
He later recognized this crisis as a crisis of faith, rather like, he thought, the familiar experience of the Methodist smitten by a ‘conviction of sin’. In his case, the crisis took the form of a fateful question:
‘Suppose that all your objects in life were realized; that all the changes in institutions and opinions which you are looking forward to, could be completely effected at this very instant: would this be a great joy and happiness to you?’ And an irrepressible self-consciousness distinctly answered, ‘No!’ At this my heart sank within me: the whole foundation on which my life was constructed fell down. All my happiness was to have been found in the continual pursuit of this end. The end had ceased to charm, and how could there ever again be any interest in the means? I seemed to have nothing left to live for.
That irrepressible ‘No!’ testified at first only to the failure of utilitarianism to provide a satisfactory basis for his own life, the life of the dedicated reformer. But implicit in it was the recognition of a larger inadequacy. The difficulty was not only his inability to find his personal happiness in the ‘greatest happiness of the greatest number’, as the utilitarian formula had it; it was also in the utilitarian idea of happiness itself – the idea that happiness could be expressed by a calculus of pleasure and pain, a calculus that could only be arrived at rationally, analytically. What depressed him even more than the loss of his sense of vocation was the absence in him of any natural and spontaneous feeling, any poetic and artistic sensibility. He was convinced that the exclusive cultivation of the ‘habit of analysis’ had destroyed in him all capacity for emotion.
For six months he continued in a near-suicidal state of depression, apathetically going about his ordinary activities, confessing his thoughts to no one because he felt no one in his circle would understand them. Suddenly, as he recalled it in his Autobiography, a ray of light broke through:
I was reading, accidentally, Marmontel’s Mémoires, and came to the passage which relates his father’s death, the distressed position of the family, and the sudden inspiration by which he, then a mere boy, felt and made them feel that he would be everything to them – would supply the place of all that they had lost. A vivid conception of the scene and its feelings came over me, and I was moved to tears. From this moment my burthen grew lighter. The oppression of the thought that all feeling was dead within me, was gone. I was no longer hopeless : I was not a stock or a stone.
A generation raised on Freud will have no difficulty in interpreting this episode, and may only wonder at Mill’s innocence in so blandly recounting it. Eight years later, during his father’s final, prolonged illness, Mill suffered another breakdown, clearly as much ‘mental’ as physical, which he neglected to mention in his Autobiography. The early fictional fantasy of his father’s death was obviously easier to confront than the later reality. But if Mill was unaware of this dimension of the first crisis, he was sufficiently aware of its implications at another level. He was conscious of being liberated from a philosophy that had very nearly killed him, that had rendered him as lifeless as ‘a stock or a stone’. In his tears, he found visible evidence of feeling, emotion, passion, life itself.
In our own awareness of the psychological depths of this crisis, we may be inclined to pay too little heed to its intellectual substance. Yet it was of the greatest intellectual moment. For it signified a new mode of thought that was to have the largest and most enduring consequences, not only for On Liberty but for all of Mill’s writings. Mill himself was acutely sensible of this, although he somewhat understated it in his Autobiography. Recounting this stage of his ‘mental progress’, he described it as a compromise between the new and the old. In embracing a philosophy of ‘anti-self-consciousness’, he said he had not discarded whatever remained valid in utilitarianism. He continued to believe that happiness was ‘the test of all rules of conduct, and the end of life’. But he now thought it could be attained only if it were not made the direct and conscious end of life, but regarded rather as a by-product of other ends — the happiness of others, the improvement of mankind, art, beauty, the contemplation of nature, any activity pursued for its own sake. The ‘internal culture of the individual’, which utilitarianism had so fatally ignored, was one of the ‘prime necessities of human well-being’, of happiness itself. Mill hastened to add that he did not at this time renounce ‘intellectual culture’, the role of analysis either in the life of the individual or for the reform of society. He only meant to supplement that intellectual culture by an internal culture, to make the ‘cultivation of the feelings’ as primary as the cultivation of reason. In the private realm this meant giving a far greater emphasis to poetry, art, music, nature, whatever would stimulate the individual’s sensibilities and passions. In the public realm it meant giving far less importance to the ‘ordering of outward circumstances’. Social relations, he realized, were much more complicated than the Benthamites had assumed; politics was not a science, there was no one set of model institutions, and there was a large and important area of life which did not and should not come within the purview of the legislator or reformer.
Mill was to go through several other ‘periods’, as he de-scribed them, in the course of his personal and intellectual history. But this initial crisis of faith remained the decisive experience of his life and was reflected, in one way or another, in each of his major works. In his Autobiography he remarked upon the fact that he was inspired to rethink his early — that is, his father’s — views on logic, and ultimately to write his own System of Logic, as a result of the recognition forced upon him at this time that his father’s philosophic method was fundamentally erroneous in matters of politics and morals. One might well say the same of On Liberty, large parts of which read as if they had been written under the direct inspiration or the most vivid memory of this crisis. Indeed the original sketch of On Liberty was written at the same time that he was working on his autobiographical account of the crisis, and he rewrote On Liberty during the same years that he rewrote the Autobiography.
Whether Mill was aware of it or not, the echoes of that early experience reverberate through the pages of On
. In this sense, On Liberty stands as a decisive rebuttal of his father. For it is here, more than in any other work, that he tried to provide an alternative view of man and society which would take proper account of both the ‘intellectual culture’ – reason and truth – and the ‘internal culture’ – the individual’s feelings, passions, impulses, natural inclinations, personal idiosyncrasies. It is here that he tried to allow for the largest ‘cultivation of the feelings’ and where he was most wary of attempts to regulate and order ‘outward circumstances’. If Mill also fell victim in this work, as some critics have claimed, to one of the fallacies of his father’s method, if he tried to reduce an extremely complicated set of phenomena to an excessively simple formula, this too may testify to the ambivalence which that early crisis of faith imposed upon the whole of his later life. Liberty
There are not many major intellectual figures whose personal lives impinged so directly and decisively upon their intellectual lives. After his father, it was his wife who played a crucial part in what Mill called his ‘mental progress’. One might almost say that his wife took the place of his father.
In the aftermath of his crisis, Mill had discovered, in the poetry of Wordsworth and Goethe, and in the philosophy of Coleridge, Saint Simon and Comte, a fusion of thought and feeling, an appreciation of the ‘many-sidedness’ of human nature and society, that went far to fill the vacuum created by utilitarianism. But in one respect, as he confessed to one of his new friends, he was in a worse position than he had been before. He had lost the sense of community provided by the utilitarians, the assurance of a common purpose shared with others of like mind. Such personal ties as he now had were partial and limited, and he was left with a great sense of loneliness. He felt deprived, he said, of the kind of sympathy that could only come with ‘perfect friendship’.
This confession was made in 1829. A year later he met that perfect friend – his ‘incomparable friend’, as he spoke of her in his Autobiography – in the person of Harriet Taylor. It was as if he had willed her into existence.
On the surface it was an unlikely friendship. Harriet Taylor was married, the wife of a prosperous merchant and the mother of two young children. (A third child was born soon after-wards.) Temperamentally and intellectually she was very different from Mill. It was perhaps these differences that attracted him. She represented everything that utilitarianism was not, everything that he still found wanting in his own character. Her few early writings reveal a romantic, intuitive mind, impassioned in opinion, impatient in sustained argument. She wrote poetry, fancied herself something of a bohemian, ex-pressed ‘advanced’ views on the subjects of love, marriage, divorce, and the status of women, and, in one brief, unpublished essay, anticipated the main theme and even some of the details of On
Mill was twenty-four and Mrs Taylor twenty-three when they met. In spite of the flat assertion in his Autobiography that ‘it was years after my introduction to Mrs Taylor before my acquaintance with her became at all intimate or confidential’, it is evident from their correspondence that their acquaintance became intimate and confidential almost immediately. As early as 1831 a ‘reconciliation’ had to be effected between Mill and Mr Taylor. And a love letter written by Mill to her the following year contained every convention of that genre including its being written in French. The gossip about their affair (if it can be called that) finally reached his ailing father who taxed his son with being in love with another man’s wife, to which the son is reported to have replied that ‘he had no other feelings towards her, than he would have towards an equally able man’. Mrs Taylor herself assured a German friend that she was Mill’s ‘Seelenfreundin’. And she advised Mill, when he was writing his Autobiography, to describe their relationship as one of ‘strong affection, intimacy of friendship, and no impropriety’. Although the historian has no reason to doubt these assurances, some of their friends and relatives apparently did, or at the very least questioned the propriety of a Seelenfreundschaft that so brazenly flouted convention.
For almost twenty years they maintained this relationship while she continued to be married to Mr Taylor. Mill dined at her
home, he weekended with her in the country (generally in the absence of her husband), and they took ex-tended trips abroad together, sometimes accompanied by one of her children. (During the whole of this period Mill lived with his family in London , where he continued to work for the East India Company.) Although they professed to see nothing improper about all this, they were obviously under great strain. Her husband’s tacit acquiescence was punctuated by occasional feeble protests, as when he objected to Mill’s dedication of the Principles of Political Economy to her. (The dedication finally appeared only in a limited number of gift copies.) There was the inevitable gossip among friends and relatives, and an exaggerated sense of that gossip on the part of its victims. Mrs Taylor felt ill-used by everyone, including Mill when he was insufficiently sensitive to what she took to be slights and offences. By the mid-forties, the situation had deteriorated to the point where Mill broke off relations with most of his old friends and was on very cool terms with his own family. Although Mr Taylor died in 1849, it was almost two years before they were married, evidently to allow for a proper period of mourning. And when they were finally married, Mill was so concerned about a minute irregularity in the marriage contract (he had first signed it ‘J. S. Mill’, and then, told to write out his full name, had squeezed in the ‘John Stuart’), that he seriously proposed going through another, ceremony lest there be any doubt, ‘either to our own or to any other minds’, about the legality of their marriage – a sad commentary on the long years of their ‘perfect friend-ship’. London
If his marriage ‘eased some of the difficulties of his life, it exacerbated others. His relations with his family became even more embittered when he fancied that his mother and sisters were tardy in paying their respects to his wife. (In fact, they had been so intimidated by him earlier when he discouraged their speaking of her that they were fearful of making any overtures after the marriage.) And when his brother presumed to mention the marriage without having been officially notified of it, Mill accused him of insolence. Nor did he and his wife forget the slights, or fancied slights, of old friends. Moving to Blackheath, a suburb of
, they retreated into even greater isolation. During the seven years of their marriage, they dined out seldom (if ever) and entertained at home fewer than half a dozen guests, most of them visitors from abroad. The only friends Mill saw were those who dropped in on him at his office or who attended the meetings of the Political Economy Club. Their ill health increased their sense of isolation. Convinced they had only a short time to live, they resented more than ever any intrusions from without. When they travelled abroad, separately or together (separately be-cause he could not always leave his job to accompany her, or because she was too sick to accompany him), it was usually for reasons of convalescence. But whether abroad or at home, they were almost entirely withdrawn from the literary, social, and political circles they might have been expected to frequent. London
Speaking of this period of his life in the Autobiography, Mill explained why a person of a ‘really high class of intellect’ would choose to have so few relations with ‘society’ as to be ‘almost considered as retiring from it altogether’. Society, he said, was ‘insipid’; it discouraged serious discussion; it was useful only to social climbers, while those already at the top could no more than comply with the customs and demands of their station; but worst of all, it was debasing to the intellectual, whose feelings, opinions, and principles could only be lowered by contact with it. That he was describing his own situation is evident from his concluding remarks: ‘All these circumstances united, made the number very small of those whose society, and still more whose intimacy, I now voluntarily sought’.
If this suspicion of ‘society’ accounts for the peculiar nature of Mill’s life during the period of his marriage, it also illuminates important aspects of On Liberty– which was written during this same period. The animus against society expressed in this book, the exaltation of the individual, the overweening distrust of conformity, convention, and social pressures of all kinds, correspond to the existential reality of his own life. This is not to say that the argument of the book can be explained in terms of his personal situation; only that his personal situation may have made him more receptive to that argument, may have inclined him to a more impassioned and extreme statement of it.
, indeed, had its origin in a project that grew out of their special sense of themselves as two beleaguered souls who were alone capable of resisting the pressures of mediocrity and of aspiring to the highest reaches of thought. It was in August 1853, during their first separation since their marriage (his wife had gone to the country to recover from a particularly bad bout of tuberculosis), that Mill alluded to a plan they had evidently discussed before: a volume of essays on subjects of crucial importance which would contain ‘the best we have got to say’. ‘I do not see what living depositary there is likely to be of our thoughts, or who in this weak generation that is growing up will even be capable of thoroughly mastering and assimilating your ideas, much less of reoriginating them – so we must write them and print them, and then they can wait till there are again thinkers.’ Some months later, after they had both suffered serious attacks, he spoke with even greater urgency of the need to get together their ‘best thoughts’ for the edification of posterity: ‘Two years, well employed, would enable us I think to get the most of it into a fit state for printing – if not in the best form for popular effect, yet in the state of concentrated thought – a sort of mental pemmican, which thinkers, when there are any after us, may nourish themselves with and then dilute for other people.’ Liberty
This image of a ‘mental pemmican’ is truly extraordinary. Like the American Indian pounding together a mixture of meats, nuts and fruits to make the cakes that were his basic staple, so Mill and his wife set about to prepare the concentrated essence of their wisdom, which intellectuals (‘when there are any after us’) could partake of directly, and ordinary people in diluted form. The image is all the more startling because it was unlike Mill, who was generally, indeed excessively, modest about his abilities. But he was never modest about his wife. And it was her health that worried him, the fear of her death that made him so anxious. If she should, by ill-chance, pre-decease him, he assured her he would continue their work as best he could. But that best was not good enough. ‘For even if the wreck I should be could work on with undiminished faculties, my faculties at the best are not adequate to the highest subjects.’ All he could promise to do was to complete the work as she might have written it, ‘for my only rule of life then would be what I thought you would wish as it now is what you tell me you wish.’ ‘I am not fit,’ he emphasized, ‘to write on anything but the outskirts of the great questions of feeling and life without you to prompt me as well as to keep me right.’
’ was one of eleven subjects tentatively proposed for the volume that was to be their bequest to posterity, their ‘mental pemmican’. It is interesting that it was not high on their original list; nor was it the first to be actually written. But it was probably the only essay of this period that was written, at least in its original version, entirely while they were together. That early draft (which, unfortunately, has not been preserved) was completed some time in 1854. In December of that year Mill went abroad for an extended period of convalescence (combined with a most arduous tour of sightseeing), and it was then that the subject of liberty first assumed a larger importance in his own mind. Liberty
In his Autobiography Mill somewhat dramatized the circumstances in which it first occurred to him to expand the essay into a separate book. The idea, he wrote, came to him while he was ‘mounting the steps of the Capitol’— perhaps an unconscious echo of another classic which had been conceived in that historic site: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which Gibbon had decided upon as he sat ‘musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the barefooted friars were singing vespers in the Temple of Jupiter’. In fact, a letter by Mill to his wife at the time suggested that he had thought of a volume on liberty while he was en route to Rome (the letter itself was written before he had yet visited the Capitol), and that the idea may even have been considered by both of them earlier, probably during the writing of the original essay.
On my way here cogitating thereon [on his writing] I came back to an idea we have talked about and thought that the best thing to write and publish at present would be a volume on
. So many things might be brought into it and nothing seems to me more needed – it is a growing need too, for opinion tends to encroach more on liberty, and almost all the projects of social reformers in these days are really liberticide – Comte, particularly so. I wish I had brought with me here the paper on Liberty that I wrote for our volume of Essays – perhaps my dearest will kindly read it through and tell me whether it will do as the foundation of one part of the volume in question – if she thinks so I will try to write and publish it in 1856 if my health permits as I hope it will. Liberty
After he received the approval of his wife, he became more enthusiastic about the potentialities of the subject and invested it with a greater sense of urgency, not only because of its intrinsic importance but also because of his growing intimations of mortality.
We have got a power of which we must try to make a good use during the few years of life we have left. The more I think of the plan of a volume on
, the more likely it seems to me that it will be read and make a sensation. The title itself with any known name to it would sell an edition. We must cram into it as much as possible of what we wish not to leave unsaid. Liberty
Mill returned from that trip (their last prolonged separation) in June 1855. During the following year and a half he worked on On Liberty, as well as on his Autobiography. In December 1856 he reported to his publisher that he expected to finish it in time for publication the following May. After that he spoke of it occasionally to correspondents, sometimes as if it were completed, at other times as if it were nearly so, first promising it for publication in the winter of 1857–8, then postponing it without explanation. In October 1858 Mill finally retired from the East India Office after thirty-five years of service. He and his wife left for the south of
on the 12th. Within a week Mrs Mill was taken ill, and on 3 November 185 8 she died at France . Mill’s first task after the funeral was to purchase a cottage overlooking the graveyard at Avignon where she was buried and to install in it the furniture from the hotel room in which she had died; it was there that he and his stepdaughter retired for several months every year for the remainder of his life. Within a week of his return to Avignon he informed his publisher that On Liberty was ready for publication. It finally appeared in February 1859. England
The genesis and history of On Liberty have an important bearing upon an understanding of the book itself. It is quite evident that on his own Mill would have published it long before, as he would also have published the other essays written or edited during the period of his marriage. That nothing of consequence was published during those seven and a half years, and that within months of his wife’s death Mill did start to release one after another of those writings, testifies to the influence of his wife in this matter as in so many others. It was as if she were reluctant to part with the pemmican that was their life’s work, just as she was loath to share their lives with friends or ‘society’ at large. (It is noteworthy that after her death Mill quickly renewed old friendships, took an active part in public affairs, and even accepted an invitation to stand for Parliament, an offer he had turned down shortly after his marriage.)
That they both looked upon the pemmican in general, and On Liberty in particular, as their ‘joint production’ is evident from their correspondence as well as from Mill’s repeated statements to that effect in his Autobiography and in the dedication to On
. One may be tempted to discount the latter, with its fulsome tributes to his wife as ‘the inspirer, and in part the author, of all that is best in my writings’, its assertion that this book, like all his recent works, ‘belongs as much to her as to me’, and its obeisance before her superior wisdom: ‘Were I but capable of interpreting to the world one half the great thoughts and noble feelings which are buried in her grave, I should be the medium of a greater benefit to it, than is ever likely to arise from anything that I can write, unprompted and unassisted by her all but unrivalled wisdom.’ Such sentiments, it might be thought, are the conventional pieties of dedications, especially those composed by a recently bereaved and frankly adoring husband. But Mill made the same claims too often, during her lifetime and long afterwards, to permit us to dismiss them so lightly. Moreover he spelled them out in detail, analysed the precise nature of her contributions to their joint works, and specified the particular quality of mind that was ‘emphatically hers’ and that was especially characteristic of On Liberty. The Autobiography deserves to be quoted at length because only thus can one appreciate the full extent of his claims on her behalf. Liberty
The Liberty was more directly and literally our joint production than anything else which bears my name, for there was not a sentence of it that was not several times gone through by us together, turned over in many ways, and carefully weeded of any faults, either in thought or expression, that we detected in it. It is in consequence of this that, although it never underwent her final revision, it far surpasses, as a mere specimen of composition, anything which has proceeded from me either before or since. With regard to the thoughts, it is difficult to identify any particular part or element as being more hers than all the rest. The whole mode of thinking of which the book was the expression, was emphatically hers. But I also was so thoroughly imbued with it, that the same thoughts naturally occurred to us both. That I was thus penetrated with it, however, I owe in a great degree to her…
The Liberty is likely to survive longer than anything else that I have written (with the possible exception of the Logic), because the conjunction of her mind with mine has rendered it a kind of philosophic text-book of a single truth, which the changes progressively taking place in modern society tend to bring out into even stronger relief: the importance, to man and society, of a large variety in types of character, and of giving full freedom to human nature to expand itself in innumerable and conflicting directions…
After my Irreparable loss, one of my earliest cares was to print and publish the treatise, so much of which was the work of her whom I had lost, and consecrate it to her memory. I have made no alteration or addition to it, nor shall I ever. Though it wants the last touch of her hand, no substitute for that touch shall ever be attempted by mine.
When the Autobiography appeared after Mill’s death, many of his friends were distressed by what they took to be the excessiveness of his praise — effusions which they thought unworthy of him, reflecting upon his good judgment and common sense. And most biographers and commentators since have ignored these passages, on the tacit assumption that Mill could not have meant them seriously, or that he had been so blinded by love that they are best passed over in embarrassed silence. But this is to confuse two distinct questions: the question of the quality of Mrs Mill’s mind (in other passages of the Autobiography and on other occasions Mill was even more extravagant, attributing to her a genius of the highest philosophical as well as practical order); and the question of the nature and extent of her influence on his writings. The first question is the more easily answered. It is safe to say that no one could have had all the virtues, and each to an incomparable degree, which he attributed to her. Moreover what evidence we have seems to belie some of these virtues (extreme modesty and selflessness, for example), and fails to bear out others (an intellect unparalleled in her time). But the second question, the problem of her influence, is more difficult. Here, with whatever reservations and qualifications, we may be more inclined to attend to Mill’s words — if only because it helps us explain the particular quality of On Liberty as well as important discrepancies between On Liberty and other of his writings.
In other passages of the Autobiography. Mill elucidated the particular ‘mode of thinking’ that was ‘emphatically hers’: her ‘boldness of speculation’, her ability to pierce to the ‘very heart and marrow’ of every problem, her instinct for ‘always seizing the essential idea or principle’. When he said that ‘the conjunction of her mind with mine has rendered it a kind of philosophic textbook of a single truth’, he meant that his contribution was to make of it a philosophic text-book, hers to provide the single truth.
That ‘single truth’ had been expressed by Harriet Mill (then Harriet Taylor) long before, in a short, unpublished essay written early in their acquaintance. She had then vigorously attacked ‘society’ for fostering a ‘spirit of conformity’ that was fatal to ‘individual character’. Although there is no evidence that the essay was actually consulted by Mill at the time he wrote On Liberty (the manuscript was, however, available to him and was found among his effects after his death), the similarities are too striking to pass unnoticed. It is not only the main theme of her essay that is so suggestive: the varieties of conformity — religious, political, moral, and social — which are imposed by the ‘opinion of Society’, the collective ‘mass’, the ‘indolently minded man’, and which are implacably hostile to ‘any manifestation of mental independence’. Even more revealing are some of the peripheral aspects of her paper. Anyone familiar with On Liberty must be struck by her argument for eccentricity: ‘If by principle is intended the only useful meaning of the word, accordance of the individual’s conduct with the individual’s self-formed opinion ... then eccentricity should be prima facie evidence for the existence of principle’; or by her defence of any strong conviction however erroneous it might be: ‘The capability of even serious error, proves the capacity for proportionate good. For if anything may be called a principle of nature this seems to be one, that force of any kind has an intuitive tendency towards good’.
The ‘single truth’ Mill referred to in his Autobiography appeared in On Liberty as ‘one very simple principle’.
The object of this Essay is to assert one very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control, whether the means used be physical force in the form of legal penalties, or the moral coercion of public opinion. That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil in case he do otherwise. To justify that, the conduct from which it is desired to deter him must be calculated to produce evil to someone else. The only part of the conduct of anyone, for which he is amen-able to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.
If, as Mill said in the Autobiography, every sentence in the book was gone over by his wife and himself, not once but several times, to make certain that it said precisely what they wanted it to convey, this paragraph, which so forthrightly calls attention to itself as containing the essence of the book, is surely deserving of the closest study. It also requires careful reading because it is by now so familiar to us that its meaning can only be recaptured by a deliberate effort. Whether because this passage has been so often anthologized, or because its terms and concepts have become, by a process of cultural osmosis, so much a part of our thinking, we tend to be inured to it, to take it for granted as an unproblematic statement of an eminently reasonable position. Yet it was in Mill’s day, and remains so today in spite of its general acceptance, a bold assertion of a very radical doctrine. Some of its boldness is reflected in its language, the repeated use of such words as: one, sole, only, own, absolute, and absolutely. And the final sentence could well stand as the epigraph of modernity: ‘Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.’
The rest of the book was by way of elaboration, specification, and illustration of this ‘one very simple principle’. In one sphere after another – thought, discussion, and action – Mill sought to establish the necessity and sufficiency of the principle of liberty: that the liberty of the individual should be absolute except in the one case where that liberty did harm to another. On no other ground except harm could any other individual, group of individuals, or society at large presume to interfere with the individual. And interference was defined in the largest possible sense, as including not only physical and legal sanctions but also social pressures, the ‘moral coercion of public opinion’. Such sanctions and pressures were illegitimate whether they were directed for or against any religious, intellectual, scientific or moral belief, or any mode of action, conduct, behaviour, or way of life – always with the one exception about harm.
This one qualification involved Mill in difficulties which have troubled commentators and critics, in his time and since. Sometimes Mill used words such as ‘concern’, ‘affect’, and ‘regard’ to express the qualification – as if actions which concerned, affected, or regarded another properly came within the province of society and therefore could be prohibited or discouraged by society, whereas actions which concerned, affected, or regarded only the person performing those actions were entirely within the province of the individual. This neutral set of words – concern, affect and regard – obviously of much larger extension, gave a far greater latitude to society, than the negatively charged words Mill used on other occasions — harm, hurt, injury, mischief, evil. A closer examination of the context, however, and a consideration of his examples and illustrations, suggests that when Mill said concern, affect, or regard, he meant concern, affect, or regard another adversely, harmfully. In this negative sense, the effect was to limit and minimize the occasions when society could legitimately interfere with the liberty of the individual.
Another common problem in the interpretation of On Liberty may also have been much exaggerated. It is often assumed that On Liberty must be judged as an exercise in the philosophy of utilitarianism, and that its success or failure depends upon its application of utilitarian criteria and the adequacy of those criteria. Thus one critic may object that Mill failed to demonstrate that liberty would necessarily contribute either to the greatest happiness of the individual or to the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Another may object that Mill did just that, and in doing so made of liberty a means rather than an end, thereby demeaning liberty itself. Another may point out the contradictions between the utilitarian and non-utilitarian parts of his argument. And still another may commend him for putting the case for liberty on the only sound, consistent, rational — that is, utilitarian — grounds, thus avoiding such dubious metaphysical principles as natural or absolute rights.
Much of this controversy is beside the point. Whatever Mill’s intentions elsewhere — in his book on Utilitarianism, for example — it was not his intention here, in On Liberty, to rest his case on utilitarian principles. He occasionally, very occasionally, used the word ‘utility’, more often ‘interests’; but he also used such non-utilitarian words as ‘rights’ and ‘development’. In any event, his primary concern was to establish liberty, not utility, as the sole principle governing the relations of the individual and society. If any distinction between means and ends can be made, one might say that he sometimes spoke as though liberty were the means and individuality — not happiness — the end. To be sure, he assumed that ‘well-being’ was a by-product, perhaps even an essential ingredient, of individuality; but as he interpreted it, well-being was significantly different from happiness, still more from any calculus of pleasure and pain. Had he intended happiness to be the end, he could never have precluded society, as he did in that crucial passage in the introduction, from compelling an individual to do something, or preventing him from doing it, ‘because it will make him happier’. In the utilitarian scheme it was precisely the function of the legislator to do that which would make individuals, singly and collectively, happier — which is why Bentham himself had utter contempt for the idea of liberty. Mill, by contrast, insisted that happiness was no more cause for interference with liberty than wisdom or virtue or mere conformity to the conventions of society.
It is also sometimes argued — and this raises a more serious issue that goes to the heart of On Liberty — that although Mill professed to make liberty, and its corollary, individuality, the supreme principle governing social relations, he was less interested in that principle itself than in the purposes it could serve, that liberty was the means for the achievement of other ends: truth, or morality, or a fully developed person, or a progressive society. Isolated sentences of On Liberty can certainly be read in this sense. And certainly it was Mill’s hope, and it constituted a large part of his argument, that liberty and individuality would encourage and ultimately contribute to the promotion of these other ends. But Mill’s essential argument — the burden of his book and the message that communicated itself to his contemporaries as well as to later generations — was the need to establish liberty and individuality so firmly and absolutely in and for themselves, to make them so completely the determinants of social policy, the test of all social action, that they would not be subject to other more proximate purposes. In each area he examined, Mill went out of his way to establish them as the necessary and sufficient ends even if it should appear that they conflicted with other ends.
Mill’s case for freedom of discussion, for example, while much concerned with the question of truth, goes so far in making liberty pre-eminent that ultimately truth itself is defined in terms of liberty. Short of denying truth itself — that is, short of a relativism or nihilism that denies the very idea of truth – he could not have done more to assert the absolute supremacy of liberty in matters concerning truth. Mill himself was not a relativist or nihilist; he accepted the idea of objective truth and he believed men to be capable of attaining truths. But this makes his argument even more extraordinary. For at one point after another he made liberty the necessary and sufficient condition for all inquiry. He did this not only in the obvious case where the received opinion might be wholly or partially untrue, so that the liberty of dissenting opinion was required as a corrective to falsity; but also in those cases where the received opinion was wholly true and the dissenting opinion wholly false. Here error itself, even the dissemination of error, became a virtue. Without the competition and collision of opinion, he argued, truth degenerated into ‘dead dogma’. He was so impressed by the need for competing opinions, for a vigorous adversary situation, that he was willing to encourage the artificial contrivance of opinion, of erroneous opinion, when such opinion did not naturally exist: ‘So essential is this discipline to a real understanding of moral and human subjects, that if opponents of all important truths do not exist, it is indispensable to imagine them, and supply them with the strongest arguments which the most skilful devil’s advocate can conjure up.’
In one sense it can be said that it was for the sake, if not of truth itself, then for the vitality of truth that Mill was urging the largest possible freedom of opinion, including erroneous opinion. But while this was perhaps his intent, the immediate and direct effect of his doctrine was to make liberty rather than truth paramount. It was liberty, not truth, that society was charged with promoting; indeed society was explicitly prohibited from promoting truth itself. And it was liberty, not truth, that was the true mark of individuality; the dissenter from truth, if that truth happened to be a conventional one, was expressing his individuality as surely, perhaps more surely, than the proponent of that truth.
Mill’s argument for liberty of action — the greatest possible expression of individuality – exactly paralleled his argument for liberty of discussion. In both cases, liberty rather than some other end was the final principle, the test and arbiter of individual and social behaviour. Just as he assumed that truth would emerge from liberty, so he assumed that all kinds of goods – the fullest development of the individual, virtue, vigour, even genius – would emerge from the cultivation of individuality. But it was individuality itself and the conditions making for individuality – variety, diversity, choice – that were the operative conditions of his doctrine. And just as earlier he defended liberty of discussion even when it meant liberty for error, so here he defended ‘eccentricity’, ‘peculiarity’, ‘spontaneity’, ‘originality’, ‘variety’, ‘diversity’, ‘impulse’, ‘passion’, ‘experiments of living’, and whatever else made for individuality, regardless of the nature or value of any particular eccentricity, peculiarity, impulse, experiment, or expression of individuality. By the same token, the antitheses to these qualities – conformity, obedience, restraint, discipline, custom, tradition, public opinion, and social pressure – were suspect in themselves, regardless of what it was that was being con-formed to, obeyed, restrained, etc. The hope for the future, Mill concluded, and clearly the purpose of his own book, was to convince the ‘intelligent part of the public’ of the value of individuality per se – ‘to see that it is good there should be differences, even though not for the better, even though, as it may appear to them, some should be for the worse’.
There is much else in On Liberty, especially in the chapter on ‘Applications’, that has provided endless matter for speculation, interpretation, criticism, and commendation.
For over a century, philosophers, social critics, historians, and biographers have argued, often at inordinate length, about the meaning and validity of his doctrine. Yet the controversy has not advanced much beyond the point it reached in Mill’s own time. On Liberty did attain, as Mill hoped it would, the status of an instant classic. This meant that it was accepted respectfully, seriously, as one of the most important tracts of the time, some thought of all time. It did not, however, mean that it was received uncritically. On the contrary, it was subjected to the searching inquiry that was the proper due of so worthy a book.
If most of the problems discussed today in connection with On Liberty were anticipated by Mill’s contemporaries, one point that was much controverted then is rarely alluded to today. Yet it is at the heart of Mill’s doctrine. This is his description of the state of public opinion in his own time and his predictions about the probable course of its development. The reason he had been provoked to write On Liberty, he had said, the reason a new doctrine of liberty had become so urgent, was the new form of tyranny that was confronting mankind. The old, familiar tyranny of despotic government, in which rulers imposed their will upon the ruled, had ceased to be a threat in civilized society boasting representative or popular government, where the interest and will of rulers was becoming more and more identified with the interest and will of the ruled. But it was precisely the rise of popular government that he saw as the pre-condition of a new and more formidable despotism. For the ‘tyranny of the majority’ was now exerting itself not so much in politics as in the entire area of social life. ‘Society is itself the tyrant’, and more oppressive than any tyrant of old because ‘it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself’. It imposes a new ‘despotism of custom’; it dictates its will by means of public opinion; it presumes to tell men what to think and read, how to dress and behave; it sets itself up as the judge of right and wrong, propriety and impropriety; it discourages spontaneity and originality, personal impulses and desires, strong character and unconventional ideas; it is fatal, in short, to individuality. And all of this, Mill predicted, was bound to get worse as the public more and more felt its power and acted upon it. Only the most rigorous doctrine of liberty and the largest assertion of the sovereignty of the individual could prevent England from becoming ‘another China’, the terrible ‘warning ex-ample’ of a civilization which from the best of motives, the desire to impose a single model of virtue and wisdom upon everyone, had succeeded in bringing all progress to a halt.
It was this view of a ‘social tyranny’ leading to a fatal decline of individuality that most reviewers challenged. Some questioned the fact of a decline of individuality. Others granted the fact but denied that the tyranny of society was responsible for the decline. Even H. T. Buckle, author of the recently published History of Civilization in
(1857), qualified his lavish praise of Mill by entering one small demur. He could not agree that individuality had diminished nor that it was likely to do so in the future. In this respect as in most others, he was confident England was advancing inexorably along the road of reason and progress. But he recognized that other serious thinkers shared Mill’s fears, and that in any event it was salutary to be reminded of a potential evil which might otherwise be ignored. England
James Fitzjames Stephen, who is famous for his later book-length attack on Mill, was at first attracted to the thesis of On
. Reviewing the book in two successive editions of the Saturday Review, he devoted the first part to what amounted to a eulogy of Mill for recalling Englishmen to the principle of liberty which they had thought ‘established beyond the reach of controversy’. This principle, he agreed with Mill, was being undermined by a powerful, irresistible tyranny which was contributing to ‘the gradual destruction of all the peculiarities of individuals, and the general adoption of a sort of commonplace ideal of character, to which everyone is forced to conform, by a vast variety of petty sanctions applying with a leaden invariable persistency to all the common actions of life’. The second part of the review, however, as if to gainsay the first, suggested that this ‘melancholy’ view of affairs (several reviewers used the word melancholy in describing the tone or message of On Liberty ) was only part of the truth. Individuality was, to be sure, as important as Mill said it was, and intolerance was as abhorrent. But the conformity that society exacted was for the most part of a limited and not very onerous kind. In the most important areas of life, freedom was more available and individuality more widespread than ever before. A person might be obliged to wear a coat of a particular cut, to shave, and to observe certain conventions about what could or could not be said in mixed company. But this was a small ‘quit-rent’ for the privilege of reading what he pleased, thinking what he liked, educating his children in a manner of his choosing, and adopting any or no religious creed. In important matters such as these, ‘there probably never was a time when men who have any sort of originality or independence of character had it in their power to hold the world at arm’s length so cheaply’. A fortnight later the Review revoked even this small concession about the lack of individuality in the trivial matters of life. It then pointed out that beards were being flaunted, ‘unprotected females’ were stalking across Europe, tobacco was breaking through the ‘decorum of heavy respectability’, and in dozens of other ways eccentricity was becoming so commonplace it was ‘ceasing to be eccentric’. Liberty
Other reviewers found different cause for disagreement. The National Review, for example (in an essay possibly written by Walter Bagehot), conceded that public opinion had become more ‘homogeneous’, reflecting fewer conflicting modes of thought and fewer divergent social types. But so far from interpreting this ‘moral monotony’ as a threat to liberty, it saw it rather as the necessary and commendable result of the growth of social and political liberty. What were disappearing were not individual varieties of character but sharply demarcated social types, the highly distinctive types associated with class, region, and sect. But it was precisely because individual freedom had increased that these social types had lost their intensity. Nothing had been more ‘exigeant and irritating in its despotism’ than the sectarianism and provincialism of local groups. The decline of the various forms of local despot-ism, each with its own stringent code of opinion and custom, had indeed led to a greater similarity of thought and behaviour, but this derived from a far larger social base than the old codes and was less oppressive in its effect upon the individual. The National Review also warned against Mill’s remedy for the loss of individuality; the complete withdrawal of society and public opinion from the affairs of individuals would only aggravate the evil, since an excessive laxity of the social bond was as detrimental to true individuality as an excessive rigour of that bond.
One reviewer objected that a doctrine like Calvinism, which Mill took to be repressive of individuality, actually stimulated individuality by fostering the development of a strong and energetic character. Another quoted against Mill his own essay on Coleridge, which had emphasized the importance of national as well as individual character, and which had made the social bond a necessary ingredient of individual well-being. The same critic insisted that there was no want of freedom of thought for those capable of using it, that any serious thinker could get a hearing for any idea on any subject however unconventional: ‘A generation which has produced and which has listened attentively to Mr Carlyle, Mr Froude and Mr Buckle cannot be charged with shrinking blindly from independence of thought.’ Another reviewer cited the popularity of Mill himself as evidence of both the exercise of independent thought and respect for it. Indeed he found the tone of Mill’s book curiously out of keeping with its source: ‘It might almost indeed have come from the prison-cell of some persecuted thinker bent on making one last protest against the growing tyranny of the public mind, though conscious that his appeal will be in vain – instead of from the pen of a writer who has perhaps exercised more influence over the formation of the philosophical and social principles of cultivated Englishmen than any other man of his generation.’
It was in the same spirit that Macaulay wrote about On Liberty in his journal:
What is meant by the complaint that there is no individuality now? Genius takes its own course, as it always did. Bolder invention was never known in science than in our time. The steam-ship, the steam-carriage, the electric telegraph, the gaslights, the new military engines, are instances. Geology is quite a new true science. Phrenology is quite a new false one. Whatever may be thought of the theology, the metaphysics, the political theories of our time, boldness and novelty are not what they want. Comtism, Saint-Simonianism, Fourierism, are absurd enough, but surely they are not indications of a servile respect for usage and authority. Then the clairvoyance, the spirit-rapping, the table-turning, and all those other dotages and knaveries, indicate rather a restless impatience of the beaten paths than a stupid determination to plod on in those paths. Our lighter literature, as far as 1 know it, is spasmodic and eccentric. Every writer seems to aim at doing something odd – at defying all rules and canons of criticism. The metre must be queer; the diction queer. So great is the taste of oddity that men who have no recommendation but oddity hold a high place in vulgar estimation. I therefore do not at all like to see a man of Mill’s excellent abilities recommending eccentricity as a thing almost good in itself – as tending to prevent us from sinking into that Chinese, that Byzantine, state which 1 should agree with him in considering a great calamity. He is really crying ‘Fire!’ in Noah’s flood.
As subsequent editions of On
were published – six in Mill’s lifetime, all unchanged, as he had promised in tribute to his wife, by so much as a word – so the commentaries continued to appear, culminating in the full-length critique by James Fitzjames Stephen in 1872, several months before Mill’s death. Only one part, but the larger part, of Liberty Liberty, Equality, Fraternity was specifically concerned with On ; the rest dealt more with Mill’s Utilitarianism and his essay on the Subjection of Women. Liberty
It was on utilitarian grounds, or what he took to be such, that Stephen based his criticisms. Since the motives governing human behaviour were pain and pleasure, fear and hope, society had to utilize all its resources to direct those motives towards socially desirable ends. It had not only a right but a duty to invoke whatever social and religious sanctions were available to it: legal punishment and the fear of damnation, social approbation and the hope for salvation. Mill’s doctrine, a form of moral laissez-fairism in which each individual was encouraged to do as he liked so long as he did not injure another, failed to distinguish between good and bad, let alone to give effect to that distinction. It was also a denial of the whole of history, in which the progress of civilization depended upon the expedient use of moral, religious, and legal coercion. As wisdom and virtue required the active support of society, so, Stephen reasoned, did truth. Had Mill been content to argue that in that time and place the discussion of most controversial questions should be completely free and without legal restraint, Stephen would have had no objection. But in trying to establish freedom of discussion as the pre-requisite of truth, Mill was doing more than asserting the desirability of a particular social policy; he was making a meta-physical statement about the nature of truth, assuming truth to be necessarily inconsistent with authority and necessarily the product of free discussion, an assumption which Stephen found to be highly dubious. Equally dubious was the supposition that free discussion was a means of vitalizing truth; as often as not, such discussion had a debilitating and ennervating effect. Nor was Mill warranted in making the liberty of action essential to the development of individuality, nor in attributing any merit to individuality itself. ‘Though goodness is various,’ Stephen observed, ‘variety is not in itself good.’ He quoted an example his brother, Leslie Stephen, had used in a recent article on Mill: ‘A nation in which everybody was sober would be a happier, better, and more progressive, though a less diversified, nation than one in which half the members were sober and the other half habitual drunkards.’ Mill, Stephen concluded, had elevated liberty and individuality to the status of absolute ends instead of judging them pragmatically, expedientially, in terms of their utility under particular conditions.
was no more good in and of itself than was fire; like fire it was ‘both good and bad according to time, place, and circumstance’. Liberty
From the perspective of On Liberty, Stephen’s book seems to be propounding something like a counter-doctrine to liberty — an invitation, perhaps, to the very ‘social tyranny’ Mill had feared. In fact, it was only in theory and on principle that Stephen allowed to society a large latitude regarding moral, religious, and social sanctions. In practice, he was not counselling that society avail itself of this latitude; on the contrary, he believed that
at that time had no great need for such sanctions. What disturbed him about Mill’s doctrine was the possibility that its adoption would leave society impotent in those situations where there was a genuine need for social action. Implicit too was the possibility that the withdrawal of social sanctions against any particular belief or act would be interpreted as a sanctioning of that belief or act, a licence to do that which society could not prohibit. England
Stephen’s book provoked another round of controversy, his Hobbesian view of human nature and society alienating many who might have been responsive to a different kind of critique. Mill himself, who had always found Stephen arrogant and ‘brutal’, thought the book would prove more damaging to Stephen than to himself. He ‘does not know what he is arguing against,’ Mill said, ‘and is more likely to repel than to attract people.’ Whatever the justice of Mill’s comment, or of Stephen’s criticisms of Mill, it was On Liberty that continued to be read and reprinted while Liberty, Equality, Fraternity soon lapsed into obscurity, enjoying a sub rosa reputation among a few scholars and thinkers.
A century after the publication of On Liberty, the controversy between Mill and Stephen surfaced again when H. L. A. Hart, then Professor of Jurisprudence at
, remarked upon the striking similarity between Stephen’s arguments and those recently advanced by Lord Devlin in an essay on The Enforcement of Morals. The occasion for Devlin’s essay was the Report of the Wolfenden Commission recommending the legalization of homosexuality between consenting adults. Against the Commission’s claim that private morality and immorality were ‘not the law’s business’, Devlin argued that ‘the suppression of vice is as much the law’s business as the suppression of subversive activities; it is no more possible to define a sphere of private morality than it is to define one of private subversive activity’. Hart, in turn, defending the Wolfenden Commission against Devlin, pointed out that its principles were essentially those of Mill and Devlin’s those of Stephen. (When these parallels were brought to his attention, Devlin tried to find a copy of the book that had so curiously anticipated his own position. It was only after some time and with great difficulty that he located a tattered copy in the Holborn Public Library; the book was in such bad condition that it was held together with an elastic band.) Oxford
It is unfortunate that other more eminent Victorians did not write extended critiques of On Liberty, for Stephen’s brand of utilitarianism was not the only basis from which On Liberty could be criticized. Carlyle, for example, would have judged it from a very different perspective. In a letter to his brother, he gave his typically candid and caustic opinion of the book: ‘In my life I never read a serious, ingenious, clear, logical Essay with more perfect and profound dissent from the basis it rests upon, and most of the conclusions it arrives at. Very strange to me indeed; a curious monition to me what a world we are in! As if it were a sin to control, or coerce into better methods, human swine in any way ... Ach Gott in Himmel!’
If John Henry Newman has left no such memorable comment on On Liberty, it was not because he was indifferent to it, but because it was a minor skirmish in a much larger war he was waging. His quarrel with liberalism in the Apologia Pro Vita Sua, published in 1864, directed itself against an attitude of mind that long antedated Mill, that went back at least to the earliest Christian heresies. His attack in the appendix to the second edition of the Apologia was directed primarily against religious liberalism, but it applied a fortiori to secular liberal-ism. Most of the propositions of the liberal heresy, as Newman enumerated them, could have been taken almost verbatim from On
No one can believe what he does not understand.
No theological doctrine is anything more than an opinion which happens to be held by bodies of men.
It is dishonest in a man to make an act of faith in what he has not had brought home to him by actual proof.
It is immoral in a man to believe more than he can spontaneously receive as being congenial to his moral and mental nature.
There is a right of Private Judgment: that is, there is no existing authority on earth competent to interfere with the liberty of individuals in reasoning and judging for themselves about the Bible and its contents, as they severally please.
There are rights of conscience such, that everyone may lawfully advance a claim to profess and teach what is false and wrong in matters, religious, social, and moral, provided that to his private conscience it seems absolutely true and right.
There is no such thing as a national or state conscience.
The civil power has no positive duty, in a normal state of things, to maintain religious truth.
Matthew Arnold was another eminent Victorian whose work contained an implicit rather than overt critique of On
. Oddly enough, his first reading of the book had left him rather favourably disposed to it. ‘It is worth reading attentively,’ he told his sister, ‘being one of the few books that inculcate tolerance in an unalarming and inoffensive way.’ On another occasion he distinguished Mill from the crasser utilitarians who were ‘doomed to sterility’; unlike them, Millhad some perception of truths that transcended utility. It was this that made him a ‘writer of distinguished mark and influence’, although not quite a ‘great writer’. In Culture and Anarchy, published a decade after On Liberty, Liberty took a less benign view of Mill. Although he mentioned Mill only once and On Liberty not at all, his book was a powerful indictment of the doctrine Mill had advanced. The title of the second chapter of Culture and Anarchy, ‘Doing as One Likes’, clearly echoed one of the principles of On Liberty: ‘liberty of tastes and pursuits, of framing the plan of our life to suit our own character, of doing as we like, subject to such consequences as may follow.’ To Arnold the principle that every Englishman has the ‘right to do what he likes’ meant in practice the ‘right to march where he likes, enter where he likes, hoot as he likes, threaten as he likes, smash as he likes’. Nor was Arnold better disposed to the idea that everyone has the right to say what he likes, for this involved the same provocation to anarchy and the same subversion of culture: ‘The aspirations of culture are not satisfied, unless what men say, when they may say what they like, is worth saying, – has good in it, and more good than bad.’ Arnold
Individuality as a good in itself was as antipathetical to
as liberty conceived as a good in itself. This notion of individuality violated his sense of tradition and authority, his respect for establishments (religious and political), his conception of the positive role of the state and of the integral relationship of the individual to both society and the state. But above all it was his idea of culture that militated against Mill’s idea of liberty. Mill would have agreed with Arnold that culture involved ‘criticism’, the ‘free play of mind’, a disinterested ‘curiosity’. But where Mill would have made of these neutral concepts capable of leading men in any direction, towards any end, Arnold infused them from the outset with substance and purpose. For Arnold the play of mind was free, curiosity was disinterested, criticism was serious, when and only when they were at the service of ‘right reason’, ‘excellence’, ‘sweetness and light’, ‘total perfection’. In effect, virtue and wisdom, rather than liberty and individuality, were the proper ends of man. If anarchy was so fearful, it was not because it subverted this or that institution but because it subverted the culture that alone distinguished man from the animal and material world. Arnold
One must, then, look not only to reviews and critiques for the contemporary response to On Liberty, but also to alternative systems of thought: the Weltanschauung of a Carlyle, the theology of a Newman, the philosophy of an
. When all these are taken into account – the unwritten, so to speak, as well as the written reviews – one can only conclude that the reaction to On Liberty was anything but uniformly favourable, that there were large reservations both about the argument and the basic principle of On Liberty. Arnold
Yet in spite of this critical response, On Liberty had an enormous influence upon contemporary thought. John Morley, who had been a student at Oxford at the time, later asserted: ‘I do not know whether then or at any other time so short a book ever instantly produced so wide and so important an effect on contemporary thought as did Mill’s On Liberty in that day of intellectual and social fermentation.’ Thomas Hardy recalled that students in the mid-sixties knew On Liberty ‘almost by heart’. And Frederic Harrison, who was himself a Comtean and therefore not much of a liberal, attributed to it a considerable practical as well as intellectual influence:
It is certain that the little book produced a profound impression on contemporary thought, and had an extraordinary success with the public. It has been read by hundreds of thousands, and, to some of the most vigorous and most conscientious spirits amongst us, it became a sort of gospel …It was the code of many thoughtful writers and several influential politicians. It undoubtedly contributed to the practical programmes of Liberals and Radicals for the generation that saw its birth; and the statute book bears many traces of its influence over the sphere and duties of government.
Charles Kingsley, for example, is often quoted as having said, and not retrospectively but at the time, that he chanced upon On Liberty in a bookstore, was so caught up in it that he read it then and there, and that it made him ‘a clearer-headed and braver-minded man on the spot’. But it never made him so clear-headed and brave-minded as to convert him to the kind of liberalism Mill was advocating. Although Kingsley was at this time less militant a socialist than he had been, he never completely abandoned his faith in socialism or embraced the individualism of On
. (Moreover his decline of socialist zeal had set in long before his reading of On Liberty .) His later comment on Mill is in curious contrast to his earlier remark about clear-headedness and brave-mindedness. ‘When I look at his cold, clear-cut face,’ he said, after visiting Mill in 1869, ‘I think there is a whole hell beneath him, of which he knows nothing, and so there may be a whole heaven above him.’ Liberty
John Morley, who was one of Mill’s most devoted disciples, tried to account for the ambivalent response to On Liberty — the sense that it was enormously important and influential, and at the same time the admission that it had logical and practical flaws — by suggesting that its moral appeal was so powerful as to make its flaws seem inconsequential. One might add that its moral appeal was all the more powerful precisely because of its flaws: its over-simplicity, its reductivism, its attempt to subsume a large and complicated set of problems under ‘one very simple principle’. There is a boldness about simplicity, even over-simplicity, that is morally attractive, as if to defy reality, to deny complexity, is an assertion of moral superiority, of the power of mind over matter, of will over all the mundane and ignoble circumstances governing our lives.
In the century since Mill’s death, the social reality has become infinitely more complicated, and to that extent Mill’s principle of liberty would seem to be less applicable than ever before. Yet even as liberals have acquiesced in an unprecedented extension of social and government control, they feel more than ever committed to the principle of liberty per se. This principle has led to an almost schizophrenic situation, in which liberals find themselves supporting legislation and government intervention to promote economic security, or material welfare, or racial equality, or whatever else they deem to be of pressing social concern, while at the same time denying to society and government any authority over individuals in matters affecting their moral and spiritual welfare — pornography and obscenity, sexual practices and social customs, manners and morals. Pressed to justify this apparent discrepancy, liberals invoke something akin to Mill’s distinction between self-regarding and other-regarding actions. In the first instance, they argue, social intervention is required be-cause the individual is not in control of his situation and there-fore may be injured by the actions of another: a car manufacturer who has not provided seat belts, an employer who offers less than a prescribed wage, a school district zoned in such a way as to segregate the races. In the second instance, it is said, social intervention is not warranted because the individual is and should be entirely in control of himself, free to indulge in whatever activities he desires, to engage in any ‘experiment of living’.
That present-day liberalism has gone much further than Mill in enlarging the sphere of the other-regarding is obvious enough. Mill, after all, was a laissez-fairist, and while he admitted exceptions to that doctrine (most notably to provide for compulsory education and to prohibit the marriage of those without the means of supporting a family), he admitted them as exceptions rather than the rule. It is less obvious, but none the less true, that we have also gone beyond Mill in respect to the self-regarding sphere. Mill did try to maintain, although not always successfully, a distinction we are more and more losing sight of, the distinction between the private and the public; by his account, a private act of immorality would fall within the private domain whereas the same act committed in public would constitute an ‘offence against decency’. He also maintained the distinction — again one we are in danger of losing — between morality and immorality. If he insisted upon the legality of private immoral acts, he did not deny the fact of their immorality. He did not argue, as many liberals do today, that there is no objective distinction between, for example, pornography and non-pornography, that such judgements are entirely subjective, entirely in the eyes of the beholder or a fiat of social convention. Mill himself was no moral relativist. His only purpose was to ensure that society be neutral in respect to private acts of immorality.
Yet in making so strong a case for social neutrality, Mill contributed to an atmosphere of moral relativism in which people call in question not only the legitimacy of social interference but also the legitimacy of moral judgement. And this, in turn, has led, and increasingly in recent years, to a denial of the distinction between private and public. If it is not possible to call private acts immoral, by what right, it is asked, can these acts be regarded as ‘offences against decency’ when they are committed in public?
There is a logic of ideas which does not necessarily conform to the logic of the philosopher. Society carries out ideas in ways their originator may not have foreseen nor intended. This is the meaning of
’s admonition that men are more often the godparents of ideas than their legitimate parents. But even as godparents they have a large responsibility for their progeny. And it is in this sense that we are today living out the logic of much of On Acton — with all the contradictions, inconsistencies, and difficulties Mill’s contemporaries found when they read the book over a century ago. If today most of us seem to be less aware of those difficulties, it is because the essential doctrine of On Liberty, the primacy of the idea of liberty, has become so much a part of our intellectual heritage that we are no longer aware of its assumptions, we no longer regard it as problematic. Liberty
Lord Asquith once described Mill — the Mill of the Logic and Political Economy — as the ‘Purveyor-general of Thought for the early Victorians’. On
is not now, as the Logic and Political Economy were then, required reading for all university students or the subject of earnest disputation among thoughtful men. But it has become, perhaps by a process of cultural assimilation, the gospel of our own time even more than of Mill’s day. Like all gospels, it is frequently violated in practice and even sometimes defied in principle. But liberty remains, for good and bad, the only moral principle that commands general assent in the western world. In this sense Mill has become the ‘Purveyor-general of Thought’ for generations which have long since discarded much of their Victorian heritage. Liberty