On Liberty

On Liberty (1859) by John Stuart Mill

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It’s perhaps not surprising that a youngster, brought up by a domineering father, should devote his entire adult life to the cause of political freedom and personal liberty. The father in question was James Mill, the son of a humble Scottish shoe maker, who trained as a preacher but met with little success. He then became a tutor to privileged children, a job which gave him little satisfaction. Failing to make a career in Scotland, he travelled to London where he soon found himself surrounded by a circle of highly influential friends. Within a short while he was able to earn a comfortable living as a writer. He married, and soon after his wife gave birth to a son John Stuart Mill. From the moment the child was born, his father was determined to turn him into an intellectual genius who would carry on his work after his death. To achieve this end he insisted on educating the boy himself, with the help of his intellectual friends. These included such luminaries as Jeremy Bentham, the social reformer; David Ricardo, the father of classical economics; Auguste Comte, the sociologist, and Bertrand Russell, the philosopher who also became John Stuart’s godfather. When he was three, the lad was subjected to lessons in Greek. By the age of eight he had read many of the Greek classics in the original language. When he was twelve he was taking frequent walks with David Ricardo to debate the economic theories of the day; and at fourteen he started a regular correspondence with Comte, in which the two came together as man to man to discuss sociological issues and positivist theories.

John Stuart Mill was a man, before he had a chance to be a boy. His life lacked love and emotional warmth. He was, in the words of one biographer, ‘a mere reasoning machine.’  When he was twenty his domineering father died and he had a nervous breakdown. This was caused, not only by the shock of his bereavement and sudden release from parental control, but also from the realisation of the enormous burden he carried. From now onwards he had to live up to his father’s expectations and also fulfil his own determination ‘to be a reformer of the world.’ He escaped the pit of despair by reading Wordsworth’s poetry, experiencing joy and giving himself the luxury of seeing the world through his senses and imagination rather than purely through his brain.   Like his father he took a day job with the East India Company, and spent his spare time reading, writing and debating with his intellectual friends.

On Liberty was his third major book.  Written with the aid of his blue-stocking wife Harriet Taylor, he knew at once that it was a significant work which was ‘likely to survive longer than anything else I have written.’  In the words of one critic it was ‘an enormously influential work.’ It provoked an immediate storm when it was published because in argued that individuals should have moral and economic freedom from the state. This was a revolutionary doctrine, particularly since it was voiced so soon after the end of the French revolution. The book remains in print, and although there is no record of the number of copies it has sold, it has gone on to influence some relatively modern trend-setters like William James, Karl Popper and John Maynard Keynes. Today it remains the basis of liberal political thought, and a copy is always handed to  newly elected presidents of the Liberal Democrats, as a symbol of their office and a reminder of the principles upheld by the party which Mill helped to found.

Mill insisted that government becomes a ‘dangerous weapon’ unless power remains in the hands of individuals. For this reason he was not only against the undemocratic rule of regencies, aristocracies and totalitarian governments, but also against what he describes as ‘the tyranny of the majority’, whereby society exercises control by the introduction of customs, religious edicts and rules of etiquette. Following the teaching of Bentham, he espoused the ‘harm principle’, which gives people the freedom to do anything they like providing it doesn’t cause harm to others. He also accepted Bentham’s idea that mankind should strive to achieve the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people, but gave the principle a qualitative bias. For Bentham, gaining pleasure from playing a child’s game like ‘pushpin’ was every bit as commendable as getting enjoyment from poetry. But not so for Mill, who was an elitist and thought that some joys are decidedly superior to others. ‘Better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied,’ was one of his favourite sayings. In the book he argues strongly in favour of originality, diversity, eccentricity and change. ‘All the good things which exist are the fruits of originality….He who lets the world choose his plan of life for him, has no need of any other faculty than the ape-like one of imitation…. The despotism of custom is everywhere the standing hindrance to human advancement.’

The book contains one or two strange inconsistencies, as when Mill calls for university students to be given extra voting power on the grounds that they were better judges of what was good for society; and poor people forbidden from having children

because they hadn’t the means to raise them properly. But there were no moral inconsistencies when he became an MP and fought for a wide range of human liberties, including an end to capital punishment, civil liberties for prostitutes, votes for women and the emancipation of slaves in the American colonies. Here was a man who through his life’s work, and the continuing influence of this one book, has had a profound impact on world affairs. Maybe he found it easier to impress the world that satisfy the demands of his father, although his last words on his death bed seem to suggest that he was satisfied with what he had achieved. ‘You know that I have done my work.’

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