JOHN STUART MILL ON LIBERTY,
THIS is one of those remarkable works whose appearance forms \ an event in literature, as its perusal constitutes an epoch in the reader's mind. Objections, and cogent ones, may be raised to certain portions of it. There are ideas, or rather sentiments, in this essay On Liberty that are by no means new—though the
author will carry off the palm of originality. Doubts may be well entertained as to the soundness of some of his conclusions, and perhaps as to one if not both of his main principles in their entire extent. Discarding the idea of an innate moral sense or an abstract law of morality, and acknowledging no other test of right and wrong than utility, the author is compelled to rely solely upon logic for the settlement of very complex questions ; so that it is probable the instinctive sense of mankind occasionally will jump to a sounder conclusion, than the logician reaches after an elaborate course of reasoning. Still the book is very valuable.
The subject is of living importance ; and its nature for the moat part such, that its errors if errors they be are practically unim- portant ; because no result can follow till. mankind are brought to adopt the conduct recommended, by a long course of discussion. The thoughts, almost simple as they seem, owe this simplicity to distinctness of conception and pellucid clearness of expression ; for they are often alike comprehensive, profound, and abstruse in the sense of remoteness from- common Ideas. Unpopular truths are developed ; received opinions are shaken ; while the applica- tion of generalized propositions to the current affairs of life, re- • On Liberty. By John Stuart Mill. Published by Parker and Son. moves that abstract air which so often accompanies philosophical discussions.
The author, however, may make ap his mind to be challenged, and that not only on philosophical grounds. The respect with which James Stuart Mill is regarded for extensive acquirements,
cultivated intellect, and great powers, will not save him from at- tack for his analysis of Christian morality, and his conclusion as to its one-sided nature ; the praises which he bestows upon scep- tical philosophers ; his exposure of some popular fallacies ; and probably his opinion as to tendencies of mechanical improve- - ments and democratic advance, to induce a universal mediocrity.
Although Liberty is the title of the book, the liberty treated of is limited in its nature. The subject of discussion is really how far that aggregate of wills which makes itself felt in government, laws, and society is entitled to interfere with the will of an indi- vidual. The question is considered under two heads, first, the expression of opinion ; and secondly, conduct or action. As re- gards the first, Mr. Mill concludes, after various arguments and historical instances, as Socrates, Christ, that society has no right to prevent a man from promulgating any opinions that he pleases, no matter how counter, as we understand him, to what is held to
be religion or morality. The only check he acknowledges is the right of society to protect itself from actual injury. This ac- knowledgment, however, shakes the broad conclusion, as it car- ries us from the region of abstraction and logic, into that of living perceptions, where there is no other ultimate test but the decision of authorized persons, or the conclusion formed by numbers : for all new opinions, at least opinions likely to be persecuted, threaten some portion of society with injury. According to our author, a man has a perfect right to publish the opinion that forestallers starve the poor ; but he "may justly incur punish- ment when [such an opinion is] delivered orally to an excited mob, assembled before the house of a corn-dealer, or when banded about among the same mob in the form of a placard " ; and so on when doctrines are advanced in a way to lead to action. On the second subject Mr. Mill comes to a similar conclusion, modified by a somewhat similar principle. He holds that every man has an unchallengeable right to do whatever he pleases, however mischievous the result may be to himself, provided he does no harm to others. The modification of this broad principle has much less of certainty and clearness than in the first instance. In fact it seems difficult to assume many eases where a man can do much harm to himself, without doing some harm to others. One of the author's exemplifications is indeed logically clear enough. A man he says ought not to bepunished for getting drunk ; but he may be if a soldier or a policeman on duty. As a general rule, however, people rarely practice injurious vices altogether by themselves, or
without " harm " to others. A man certainly can sit allthe evening sotting by himself; but very few men do. There is mostly com-
pany with its inciting action and reaction. In two other examples adduced by Mr. Mill, namely fornication and gambling, the " harm " done both to society and the particular individuals is very great. If looking beyond the single occasion, as Mr. Mill so often rightly does, we take in the entire consequences of gambling and fornication, the actions appear as harmful as well can be. Yet he not only holds that society cannot interfere with them (except by individual advice, (to.); but he doubts whether the keepers of gaming-houses, &o., ought to be brought within the law. The real truth is that abstract logic mostly breaks down as soon as we come to apply it to the mixed condition of human af- fairs in living operation. The permitted existence of a class of procurers and gaming-house keepers is certainly more harmful than an occasional attack upon the house of an obnoxious indi- -vidual by a mob. But it is more easy to deal with one kind of offence than the other. There is a similar narrowness as regards divorce ; which he would permit ad libitum : he does not over- look, but he does not sufficiently allow for the interests of children, relations, and the further consequences to social well- being. ." It may be fairly asked how can this work deserve high praise ? if you think that the basis of the whole (as it rests on utility,) is
narrow—that the two main propositions of the treatise are open to some question; and that several of the particular arguments are ill-founded or altogether in error. The answer is, that the merit of Liberty does not so much consist in its broad propositions or in its particular rules, as in its arguments and illustrations. Many of the arguments in support of the leading conclusions maintained by the author, discuss truths of great importance, practically connected with the main questions, if not logically con- clusive of them. The illustrations of the arguments often involve very striking pictures of the clAracteristics of the age, or expo- sitions of the evils with which the world at large is threatened. It is nearly twenty-five years since Mr. Mill first, we think, came distinctly before the public as the author of an article on civilization in the opening number of the London _Review. With- out denying the advantages of a high civilization, the author main- tained that its tendencies were to soften and enervate the cha- racter; people were more humane—or at least shrank from doing cruel things, but they were feebler. The same idea is still promi- nent in the author's mind, and forms a leading reason in support of the utility of his theories. Here is one of his arguments from the chapter on the importance of strongly marked individuality, embracing a sketch of current opinion.
"There is one characteristic of the present direction of public opinion, peculiarly calculated to make it intolerant of any marked demonstration of individuality. The general average of mankind are not only moderate in intellect, but also moderate in inclination... they have no tastes or
wishes strong enough to incline them to do anything unusual and the consequently do not understand those who have, and class all such with the wild and intemperate whom they are accustomed to look down upon. Now, in addition to this fact which is general, we have only to sup- pose that a strong movement has set in towards the improvement of morals, and it is evident what we have to expect. In these days such a movement has set in ; much has actually been effected in the way of increased regular- ity of conduct, and discouragement of excesses; and there is a philanthropic spirit abroad, for the exercise of which there is no more inviting field than th.e moral and prudential improvement of our fellow-creatures. These ten- dencies of the tinies cause the public to be more disposed than at most former periods to prescribe general rules of conduct, and endeavour to make every one conform to the approved standard. And that standard, express or tacit, is to desire nothing strongly. Its ideal of character is to be without any marked character ; to maim by compression, like a Chinese lady's foot, every part of human nature which stands out prominently, and tends to make the person markedly dissimilar in outline to commonplace humanity.
" As is usually the case with ideals which exclude one-half of what is de- sirable, the present standard of approbation produces only an inferior imita- tion of the other half. Instead of great energies guided by vigorous reason, and strong feelings strongly controlled by a conscientious will, its result is weak feelings and weak energies, which therefore can be kept in outward conformity to rule without any strength either of will or of reason. Already energetic characters on any large scale are becoming merely traditional. There is now scarcely any outlet for energy in this country except business. The energy expended in that may still be regarded as considerable. What little is left from that employment, is expended on some hobby ; which may a useful, even a philanthropic hobby, but is always some one thing, and generally a thing of small dimensions. The greatness of England is now all collective : individually small, we only appear capable of anything great by our habit of combining ; and with this our moral and religious philanthro- pists are perfectly contented. But it was men of another stamp than this that made England what it has been ; and men of another stamp will be needed to prevent its decline."
The importance of individual liberty to say or do what it pleases, subject to the limitations already mentioned, is considered as a means of opposing the "tyrant custom," which has now in the author's estimation risen to a power that threatens evil to Europe, as it has long been fatal elsewhere.
"The greater part of the world has, properly speaking, no history, be- cause the despotism of custom is complete. This is the case over the whole East. Custom is there, in all things, the final appeal ; justice and right mean conformity to custom; the argument of custom no one, unless some tyrant intoxicated with power, thinks of resisting. And we see the result. Those nations must once have had originality ; they did not start out of the ground populous, lettered, and versed in many-of the arts of life ; they made themselves all this, and were then the greatest and most powerful nations in the world. What are they now ? The subjects or dependents of tribes whose forefathers wandered in the forests when theirs had magnificent pa- laces and gorgeous temples, but over whom custom exercised only a divided rule with liberty and progress. A people, it appears, may be progressive for a certain length of time, and then stop; when does it stop ? When it ceases to possess individuality. If a similar change should befall the nations of Europe, it will not be in exactly the same shape : the despotism of custom with which these nations are threatened is not precisely stationariness. It proscribes singularity, but it does not preclude change, provided all change together. We have discarded the fixed costumes of our forefathers; every one must still dress like other people, but the fashion may change once or twice a year. We thus take care that when there is change it shall be for change's sake, and not from any idea of beauty or convenience ; for the same idea of beauty or convenience would not strike all the world at the same moment, and be simultaneously thrown aside by all at another mo- ment. But we are progressive as well as changeable : we continually make new inventions in mechanical things, and keep them until they are again superseded by better; we are eager for improvement in politics, in educa- tion, even in morals, though in this last our idea of improvement chiefly consists in persuading or forcing other people to be as good as ourselves. It is not progress that we object to ; on the contrary, we flatter ourselves that we are the most progressive people who ever lived.. It is individuality that we war against : we should think we had done wonders if we had made our- selves all alike; forgetting that the unlikeness of one person to another is generally the first thing which draws the attention of either to the imper- fection of his own type, and the superiority of another, or the possibility, by combining the advantages of both, of producing something better than either. We have a warning example in China—a nation of much talent, and, in some respects, even wisdom, owing to the rare good fortune of hav- ing been provided at an early periokyrith a particularly good set of customs, the work, in some measure, of men to whom even the most enlightened European must accord, under certain limitations, the title of sages and phi- losophers. They are remarkable, too, in the excellence of their apparatus for impressing, as far as possible, the best wisdom they possess upon every mind m the community, and securing that those who have appropriated most of it shall occupy the posts of honour and power. Surely the people who did this have discovered the secret of human progressiveness, and must have kept themselves steadily at the head of the movement of the world. On the contrary, they have become stationary—have remained so for thou- sands of years ; and if they are ever to be farther improved, it must be by foreigners. They have succeeded beyond all hope in what English philan- thropists are so industriously working at—in making a people all alike, all governing their thoughts and conduct by the same maxims and rules ; and these are the fruits. The modern regime of public opinion is, in an unor- ganized form, what the Chinese educational and political systems are in an organized; and unless individuality shall be able successfully to assert it- self against this yoke, Europe, notwithstanding its noble antecedents and its professed Christianity, will tend to become another China." These are but samples of the digested knowledge, profound views, and applied wisdom to be found in this little volume, and that taken from one division and one class of argument only. This dedication, which tells much in few words, heralds the treatise.
"To the beloved and deplored memory of her who was the inspirer, and in part the author, of all that is best in my writings—the friend and wife whose exalted sense of truth and right was my strongest incitement, and whose approbation was my chief reward—I dedicate this volume. Like all that I have written for many years, it belongs as much to her as tome; but the work as it stands has had, in a very insufficient degree, the inestimable advantage of her revision., some of the most important portions having been reserved for a more careful reexamination, which they are now never des- tined to receive. 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 every likely to arise from anything that I can write, unprompted and unassisted by her all but un- rivalled wisdom."