On Liberty, by John Stuart Mill

I read this before when I was at school (along with Marx’s The German Ideology), and am impressed now by how much it must have impressed me then; for Mill’s utopian vision as here set out seems very similar to my own as not yet set out in some forthcoming SF masterpiece – a vision that is far from the usual c20th paranoid dystopias (your The Trials and 1984ses).

Mill also strikes me as a much misunderstood writer – and always has. I remember at university having to explain to a friend (he happened to be a mad Ayn Rand reading libertarian) that in fact his idea of JS Mill was pretty much the diametric opposite to Mill’s actual philosophy. This isn’t so surprising, since he seems all too often mistaken for his father, or his father’s friend, Jeremy Bentham. But Mill rebelled against his upbringing and against utilitarianism; and there’s no more anti-utilitarian work than On Liberty. If utiliarianism is about how societies construct laws to govern their members and get them to conform; On Liberty is a paean to individuality, eccentricity and non-conformity.

I could write much about it, but shall confine myself to a few ideas that came to mind while reading it:

1. On Liberty is a work of philosophy comprehensible to pretty much anyone who picks it up and reads it. At the most, it requires that you’ve lived in human civilisation and at times reflected on it. You need no background in philosophy; there are no terms in it which you’re unlikely to understand; everything is clearly explained. Though it’s not the fashion any more, this is in fact what a lot of philosophy used to be like; and it’s the only form of philosophy I find myself inclined to read.

2. I’m impressed by how similar Mill often sounds to Nietzsche – at times, idea for idea; and yet somehow it was the later writer who was so original as to inform modernity, whereas Mill is cast to one side.

Ok, Mill doesn’t state anywhere that we should form some sort of master-race and the majority of mankind might easily be exterminated (although there’s at least a suggestion of the master-race, the supermen who transvalue values); nor does he come across as bitter and contemptuous, like some boy who’s had every advantage and success in life but still believes the world is against him. But there’s certainly a violent hatred of the Christian religion (whose restraints on liberty are often the book’s target) – or of organised religion in general; of customary ways of behaviour, that genealogy of morals handed down by our ancestors. (Like Nietzsche, he looks back to pre-Christian morality). But there’s something also very much of the 1960s about a lot of On Liberty: the whole vision of the paramountancy of the individual discovering and fulfilling themselves; of the encouraging of experiments in alternative ways of living. Like a lot of Victorian writing, it is very anti-Victorian.

3. What’s always struck me as most interesting about On Liberty, is its fascination for the way in which public opinion causes people to conform. You can happily construct, say, a society in which people have a freedom of belief in a legal sense; but in reality anyone who believes, or conducts his life, differently to the mass of society is still likely to become outcast. As an individual living in the c21st, I find myself far more obsessed with society’s more or less ineluctable power to make us conform than I am concerned with, say, the supposed surveillance society in which we live, or the empty uncertainty I’m meant to feel about life in the absence of any meaning. But that’s probably just me.


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