J. S. Mill: ‘On Liberty’

John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty is one of the few indisputably classic texts in political thought history. Its interpretation has, like that of most works which posterity promotes to classic status, been the subject of sustained debate and often fierce controversy since its first publication in 1859, but whatever the nature of the disagreements.

Has never seemed less than the single most eloquent, most significant, and most influential statement of the irreducible value of human individuality. Other works of political theory, such as John Locke’s Two Treatises on Government (published in 1689), may be regarded as the foundation statement of the liberal principle that government must rest on the consent of the governed; others still, such as Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (1776), may be credited with the most systematic exposition of the general economic benefit of leaving individuals alone to pursue their self-interest. But insofar as liberalism in the modern world could be said to acknowledge one text as
setting out its essential moral basis, several generations of readers have concurred in according that primacy to On Liberty.

On Liberty
On Liberty image source by amazon

The mill is, in fact, the author of several other works that have been admitted to the modern canon of the history of political thought, and those, it is The Subjection of Women (1869), which commands most attention today. Mary Wollstonecraft’s passionate Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) or Friedrich Engels’ more sociological (and
very doubtfully feminist) The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1884) have both retained a select band of admirers. Still, no other work was written before the mid-twentieth century. It has been recognized as offering such a powerful and persuasive indictment of the systematic injustice in women’s social, economic, and political positions. As in On Liberty, the values of human dignity, freedom, and self-development provide the foundation for Mill’s attack on existing social arrangements, and it is these values which underlie his sympathetic but ultimately skeptical analysis of what has become the
great rival political theory to liberalism in the modern world, namely socialism. Mill’s Chapters on Socialism constitute the first part of a projected book on the subject, which was left unfinished at his death. Partly for that reason, it has remained one of the less celebrated of Mill’s works, but it addresses from a different angle several of the issues raised by the other two books reprinted in this volume. Thus, the three take a particularly accessible and compact introduction to Mill’s remains distinctive and attractive as a political thinker.


Any summary of Mill’s life must begin by acknowledging that, unlike any other major political theorist (with the arguable exceptions of St Augustine and Rousseau), he wrote an autobiography which has become one of the minor classics of the genre, above all on account of its dispassionate yet oddly moving account of the remarkable experiment in education to which the young Mill was subject. He was born in 1806 at Pentonville, then on the outskirts of London. His father, James Mill, was a close political associate of the Utilitarian philosopher and radical reformer Jeremy Bentham. Among their shared beliefs was the conviction that far more could be achieved by rigorous education than was conventionally recognized. So James Mill undertook his eldest son’s education entirely at home. (Thus, the future author whose works have figured on syllabuses in several subjects at college and universities worldwide never formally  attended an educational establishment of any kind.) He began to learn Greek at the age of three, was introduced to logic at twelve, and was set to summarize articles in his early teens’ political economy. In one sense, the educational experiment was a great success, turning
the young Mill into an extremely efficient ‘reasoning machine’ (as he later described himself at this stage of his development). While still in his teens, the younger Mill began writing newspaper and periodical articles forcefully expounding his father’s somewhat doctrinaire political radicalism.

Notoriously, the emotional development which had been suppressed during this intellectual force-feeding exacted its revenge. In 1826 Mill had what was in effect a nervous breakdown, and for almost two years, was sunk in a deep depression. According to his own later account, most contributed to his recovery by reading Romantic poetry, particularly Wordsworth. But this experience of his inherited creed’s human insufficiency was the beginning of a lifelong attempt to combine value elements from various philosophical, cultural, and political positions. In the 1830s, he drew particularly on the ideas of Carlyle and Coleridge in Britain and on the social theories of the Saint-Simians and Comte in France, striving always to integrate their insights about human experience or
historical development into a framework which remained tied to the empiricism and Utilitarianism into which he had been educated. In 18405, he produced the two great works of synthesis on which his reputation in his lifetime as a philosopher and political economist primarily rested, A System a Legit in 1843 and The Principles of
Political Economy in I848

In 1823, at the age of seventeen, Mill had followed his father into the service of the East India Company, the semi-private body which effectively administered the vast areas of British-controlled India before the Mutiny in 1857. He rose within the company’s bureaucracy to the point where, at his retirement on the assumption of direct rule by the British government in 1858, he had, like his father and the novelist Thomas Love Peacock before him, exercised a degree of responsibility for policy comparable to that of a Secretary of State. Throughout these years, Mill had continued to write a great deal of journalism, often strongly criticizing the government of the day (as, for example, over its disastrous failure to cope with the day (as, for example, over its disastrous failure to cope with the consequences of the Irish famine in 1845—6), as well as continuing to publish essays and reviews on a wide range of historical, philosophical, economic, and political subjects. By 1865 his public standing was such that he was elected as Liberal MP for the Westminster constituency largely on the strength of his reputation as a writer (most extraordinarily, he had refused to canvas or made any pledges before the poll). Although he attracted considerable attention in his new role, he did not particularly distinguish himself in Parliament. He seems to have felt as much relief as dismay at losing his seat in the election of 1868. His most notable act as an MP had been his
unsuccessful attempt to modify the Reform Bill of 1867 to grant votes to women on the same basis as men.

This issue of female suffrage is a reminder that his private life was in some ways to leave an even deeper mark than his public life on his thought and work. In 1830 he met and shortly thereafter fell in love with Harriet Taylor, the wife of John Taylor, a wealthy businessman. They enjoyed an intimate and extremely intense, but apparently
entirely chaste, relationship until her husband died in 1849, two years after they married. Harriet herself died in 1858, leaving a deeply grieving Mill with the company of his step-daughter, Helen Taylor, who acted as his amanuensis and who, after Mill’s own death fifteen years later, arranged the posthumous publication of some of his work, particularly the Autobiography. The extraordinarily fulsome tribute to his wife’s talents which this work contains (essentially a much fuller version of the dedication prefixed to On Liberty (see p. 4) has ever since prompted speculation about the part Harriet may have played in determining the direction of Mill’s views and even possibly in composing sections of works published under his name. The discussion has become complex, and the limited surviving evidence has been generously supplemented by speculation. Still, the modern scholarly consensus is that Mill undoubtedly exaggerated his wife’s role. There is considerable evidence that he formed his most basic commitments on the central topics of liberty and women’s position either before or independently of her influence. However, she probably played a somewhat more significant part in encouraging his sympathy for certain social forms. But beyond this, there is no solid evidence that she wrote, or even substantially contributed to, any
of the works normally attributed to Mill. In 1873, he died the fifteen years following his wife’s death, having seen the publication of nearly all of his most significant and enduring political works,  including the three reprinted here.

On Liberty

Some acquaintance with the circumstances of On Liberty’s composition may help illuminate both the purpose and the style of this much-misunderstood book. The theme was one which Mill and his wife had included in a list of topics for future writing as early as 1854, and it was while traveling in Europe in the winter of 1854—5 that Mill first concentrated upon the idea of making it the subject of a separate volume. ‘Nothing seems to be more needed, he wrote to Harriet in
January 1855; ‘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. The bulk of the book was almost
certainly drafted in 1856—7, and Mill reported in his autobiography that he and Harriet thereafter returned to it several times, revising and polishing: ‘None of my writings have been either so carefully composed, or so sedulously corrected as this.’ Its final version was to be undertaken after Mill retired from the India Office late in 1858, but his wife’s sudden death at the end of that year prompted Mill to publish it as it stood. Mill often revised his other works very extensively for later editions. Still, the text of On Liberty he considered ‘consecrated’ to Harriet’s memory: ‘I have made no alteration or addition to it, nor shall I ever.

The volume which thus occupies such a special place in Mill’s oeuvre he described as ‘a philosophic text-book of a single truth’ and the nature of that ‘truth’ was stated in the first chapter in a passage which has since become justly famous: ‘The Object of this Essay is to assert one straightforward principle . . (below, p. 13). These few sentences constitute an excellent example of the high rhetorical register which the best Victorian prose could command. Still, the cooler, not to say unsympathetic, analysis of later generations has raised numerous objections or difficulties of interpretation. Taken in isolation, the passage may suggest an absolute and inflexible position, especially if it is seen as providing a universally applicable definition
of the role of the State. Still, in the opening pages of the first chapter, Mill had already offered several signposts that can guide us away from such a misreading if attended to. He indicates that he is only concerned with modern, ‘advanced’ societies, particularly democracies in this book. Above all (a point is amply borne out by his correspondence) mid-nineteenth-century Britain. The book was chiefly intended to protest against Victorian society’s coercive moralism, particularly in those matters where the mean-spirited tendencies bolstered that attitude in English Protestantism. Moreover, it was a protest not merely, or even primarily, against the commitment; Mill might seem to be reiterating the well-known Victorian insistence on the virtues of ‘character’ and ‘self-reliance.’ His preference for active and independent individuals, mentioned above, suggests that he did indeed share some of the values clustered around these terms. But the chapter far more insistently emphasizes his sense of distance from that ‘pinched and hidebound type of human character’ inculcated by the dominant ideals of the time, especially those derived from Protestant Christianity. He denounced, with a vehemence that many readers found offensive, the Augustinian
or Calvinist conception of the self in which the highest value is ascribed to self-control and self-restraint, and in which the natural impulses are largely seen as disruptive forces, sources of temptation, seductive voices from the lower self which lead us into sin. Read More

1 thought on “J. S. Mill: ‘On Liberty’”

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