Assorted Wisdom from John Stuart Mill

John Stuart Mill's 1869 essay On Liberty deserves its fame. Last month I blogged about the essay in the context of Sarah Palin and elitism. Today I post the best excerpts from the essay. I've put them below the fold because I know many of you will not read them; they're long and dense. But those who slowly take in the sentences will be richly rewarded, I promise.

If you want an introduction to Mill you might find Adam Gopnik's review of a new biography helpful. (This sentence is a gem by the way: "The tribal nationalist is stupid because he fails to recognize that, given a slight change of location and accident of birth, he would have embraced the position of his adversary.)

Enjoy the excerpts below!

“The object of this Essay is to assert one very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individuals 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 civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.” (11)

“A person may cause evil to others not only by his actions but by his inaction.” (13)

“If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.” (18)

“We can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavoring to stifle is a false opinion…All silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility.” (19)

“Very few facts are able to tell their own story, without comments to bring out their meaning.”

“The only way in which a human being can make some approach to knowing the whole of a subject, is by hearing what can be said about it by persons of every variety of opinion, and studying all modes in which it can be looked at by every character of mind. No wise man ever acquired his wisdom in any mode but this; nor is it in the nature of human intellect to become wise in any other manner.” (22)

"The impressiveness of an error is measured by the wisdom and virtue of him who falls into it.”

“…Flatters himself that he is wiser and better man than Marcus Aurelius – more deeply versed in the wisdom of his time, more elevated in his intellect above it – more earnest in his search for truth, or more single-minded in his devotion to it when found…”

“The dictum that truth always triumphs over persecution is one of those pleasant falsehoods which men repeat after one another till they pass into commonplaces, but which all experience refutes.”

“The real advantage which truth has, consists in this, that when an opinion is true, it may be extinguished once, twice, or many times, but in the course of ages there will generally be found persons to rediscover it, until some one of its reappearances falls on a time when from favorable circumstances it escapes persecution until it has made such head as to withstand all subsequent attempts to suppress it.”

“Who can compute what the world loses in the multitude of promising intellects combined with timid characters, who dare not follow out any bold, vigorous, independent train of thought, lest it should land in something which would admit of being considered irreligious or immoral? …No one can be a great thinker who does not recognize, that as a thinker it is his first duty to follow his intellect to whatever conclusions it may lead.” (35)

“However unwillingly a person who has a strong opinion may admit the possibility that his opinion may be false, he ought to be moved by the consideration that however true it may be, if it is not fully, frequently, and fearlessly discussed, it will be held as a dead dogma, not a living truth.” (36)

“The Catholic Church…makes a broad separation between those who can be permitted to receive its doctrines on conviction, and those who must accept them on trust….This discipline recognizes a knowledge of the enemy’s case as beneficial to the teachers, but finds means, consistent with this, of denying it to the rest of the world: thus giving to the elite more mental culture…than it allows to the mass.”

“All languages and literatures are full of general observations on life, both as to what it is, and how to conduct oneself in it; observations which everybody knows, which everybody repeats, or hears with acquiescence, which are received as truisms, yet of which most people first truly learn the meaning, when experience, generally of a painful kind, has made it a reality to them. How often, when smarting under some unforeseen misfortune or disappointment, does a person call to mind some proverb or common saying, familiar to him all his life, the meaning of which, if he had ever before felt it as he does now, would have saved him from the calamity. There are indeed reasons for this, other than the absence of discussion: there are many truths of which the full meaning cannot be realized, until personal experience has brought it home. But much more of the meaning even of these would have been understood, and what was understood would have been far more deeply impressed on the mind, if the man had been accustomed to hear it argued pro and con by people who did understand it. The fatal tendency of mankind to leave off thinking about thing when it is no longer doubtful, is the cause of half their errors. A contemporary author has well spoken of 'the deep slumber of a decided opinion.' "

(continues) Is the absence of unanimity an indispensable condition of true knowledge? Is it necessary that some part of mankind should persist in error, to enable any to realize the truth? Does a belief cease to be real and vital as soon as it is generally received – and is a proposition never thoroughly understood and felt unless some doubt of it remains? As soon as mankind have unanimously accepted a truth, does the truth perish within them? The highest aim and best result of improved intelligence, it has hitherto been thought, is to unite mankind more and more in the acknowledgment of all important truths: and does the intelligence only last as long as it has not achieved its object? Do the fruits of conquest perish by the very completeness of the victory?”

“Christian morality (so called) has all the characters of a reaction; it is, in great part, a protest against Paganism. Its ideal is negative rather than positive; passive rather than active; Innocence rather than Nobleness; Abstinence from Evil, rather than energetic Pursuit of Good: in its precepts (as has been well said) “thou shalt not” predominates unduly over “thou shalt.” In its horror of sensuality, it made an idol of asceticism, which has been gradually compromised away into one of legality. It holds out the hope of heaven and the threat of hell, as the appointed and appropriate motives to a virtuous life: in this falling far below the best of the ancients, and doing what lies in it to give human morality an essentially selfish character, by disconnecting each man’s feelings of duty from the interests of his fellow creatures, except so far as a self-interested inducement is offered to him for consulting them. It is essentially a doctrine of passive obedience; it inculcates submission to all authorities found established; who indeed are not to be actively obeyed when they command what religion forbids, but who are not to be resisted, far less rebelled against, for any amount of wrong to ourselves.

(continues) And while, in the morality of the best Pagan nations, duty to the State holds even a disproportionate place, infringing on the just liberty of the individual; in purely Christian ethics, that grand department of duty is scarcely notice d or acknowledged. It is in the Koran, not the New Testament, that we read the maxim – “A ruler who appoints any man to an office, when there is in his dominions another man better qualified for it, sins against God and against the State.” What little recognition the idea of obligation to the public obtains in modern morality, is derived from Greek and Roman sources, not from Christian; as, even in the morality of private life, whatever exists of magnanimity, high-mindedness, personal dignity, even the sense of honor, is derived from the purely human, not the religious part of our education, and never could have grown out of a standard of ethics in which the only worth, professedly recognized, is that of obedience.” (51)

Recap of four reasons for freedom of expression:

“First if any opinion is compelled to silence, that opinion may…be true. To deny this is to assume our own infallibility. Second even if something is partially true it needs adverse opinion to help bring it out."

“He who lets the world, or his own portion of it, choose his plan of life for him, has no need of any other faculty than the ape-like one of imitation.”  (60)

“Human nature is not a machine to be built after a model, and set to do exactly the work prescribed for it, but a tree, which requires to grow and develop itself on all sides, according to the tendency of the inward forces which make it a living thing.” (61)

“Energy may be turned to bad uses; but more good may always be made of an energetic nature than of an indolent and impassive one.” (62)

“But society has now fairly got the better of individuality; an the danger which threatens human nature is not the excess, but the deficiency, of personal impulses and preferences.” (63)

"Things are vastly changed, since the passions: of those who were strong by station or by personal endowment were in a state of habitual rebellion against laws and ordinances, and required to be rigorously chained up to enable the persons within their reach to enjoy any particle of security. In our times, from the highest class of society down to the lowest, every one lives as under the eye of a hostile and dreaded censorship. Not only in what concerns others, but in what concerns only themselves, the individual, or the family, do not ask themselves — what do I prefer? or, what would suit my character and disposition? or, what would allow the best and highest in me to have fair play, and enable it to grow and thrive? They ask themselves, what is suitable to my position? what is usually done by persons of my station and pecuniary circumstances? or (worse still) what is usually done by persons of a station and circumstances superior to mine? I do not mean that they choose what is customary, in preference to what suits their own inclination. It does not occur to them to have any inclination, except for what is customary. Thus the mind itself is bowed to the yoke: even in what people do for pleasure, conformity is the first thing thought of; they like in crowds; they exercise choice only among things commonly done: peculiarity of taste, eccentricity of conduct, are shunned equally with crimes: until by dint of not following their own nature, they have no nature to follow : their human capacities are withered and starved : they become incapable of any strong wishes or native pleasures, and are generally without either opinions or feelings of
home growth, or properly their own. Now is this, or is it not, the desirable condition of human nature?" (63)

“I insist thus emphatically on the importance of genius and the necessity of allowing it to unfold itself freely both in thought and in practice…” (67)

"No government by a democracy or a numerous aristocracy, either in its political acts or in the opinions, qualities, and tone of mind which it fosters, ever did or could rise above mediocrity, except in so far as the
sovereign Many have let themselves be guided (which in their best times they always have done) by the counsels and influence of a more highly gifted and instructed One or Few. The initiation of all wise or noble things, comes and must come from individuals; generally at first from some one individual. The honor and glory of the average man is that he is capable of following that initiative ; that he can respond internally to wise and noble things, and be led to them with his eyes open. I am not countenancing the sort of " hero-worship" which applauds the strong man of genius for forcibly seizing on the government of the
world and making it do his bidding in spite of itself. All he can claim is, freedom to point out the way. The power of compelling others into it, is not only inconsistent with the freedom and development of all the rest, but corrupting to the strong man himself. It does seem, however, that when the opinions of masses of merely average men are everywhere become or becoming the dominant power, the counterpoise and corrective to that tendency would be, the more and more pronounced individuality of those who stand on the higher eminences of thought. It is in these circumstances most especially, that exceptional individuals, instead of being deterred, should be encouraged in acting differently from the mass. In other times there was no advantage in their doing so, unless they acted not only differently, but better. In this age the mere example of non-conformity, the mere refusal to bend the knee to custom, is itself a service. Precisely because the tyranny of opinion is such as to make eccentricity a reproach, it is desirable, in order to break through that tyranny, that people should be eccentric. Eccentricity has always abounded when and where strength of character has abounded; and the amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigor, and moral courage which it contained. That so few now dare to be eccentric, marks the chief danger of the time." (69)

5 comments on “Assorted Wisdom from John Stuart Mill
  • Imagine a world in which everybody was as smart as Mill. He seemed to have an ability to think, and express his thoughts, on a level beyond the ability of a majority of people who have ever lived. When reading this, one realizes the potential of the human brain, though likely some of that potential was there the moment he was born, and could not be duplicated simply by experience.

  • @“Christian morality (so called) has all the characters of a reaction; it is, in great part, a protest against Paganism.”

    John Stuart Mill nailed what’s wrong with most of the modern iterations of ‘so-called’ Christianity.

    And the greatest irony in the spread of that modern spiritual disease, fundamentalist “Christianity’, is that the Jewish radical, Jesus Christ, would surely be horrified by how his teachings have been so distorted by fist-shaking preachers and vapid theologians.

    Certainly he would recoil in horror at what’s been done in his name by the cross-brandishing fanatics of history, and their legacy of violence and intolerance.

    Blame it on the psychopathology of that anti-humanist, ‘Saint’ Paul of Tarsus.

    Anyone who cares to gain insight into how the Greco-Roman philosophical ideals of truth and beauty, expressed in the idea of the golden mean, were subverted by the rise of a debased religion in the Roman Empire, should read Gore Vidal’s book Julian, a great work of art.

    No saint himself, Julian the ‘Apostate’ was the last of the Pagan Roman emperors and a Neo-Platonist. He failed ultimately in his attempt to restore the worship of the old Roman pantheon, just as he failed to rebuild the Second Jewish Temple in Jerusalem.

    Vidal, however, succeeds in showing us how Julian’s failure was our, and all of Western civilization’s, loss.

  • I love Mill. I finally got to apply my copy of On Liberty in a paper for my Islam in the Modern World course this semester. I did an analysis of the origins of free speech is majority-Muslim nations and in Western, secular nations…

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