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John Stuart Mill and the Minimum Consensus

The Question Posed by Locke

For John Locke, the foundation of the social contract was not a problem because it was identical with the moral law. The breach of one was tantamount to the breach of the other, neither more nor less. All that the language of contract compact did was make the situation explicit. Revolution was thus not an fact that dissolved the government; rather, it was a response to the situation in which the government had already dissolved itself by breaking the bond of trust on which it had been based. The breach is not simply of a contract or agreement but of the moral law on which all agreements are premised.

Hence it is that Locke anathematizes the betrayal of this trust of mutual respect for rights as the most serious offense possible. It is immaterial who does it for, “whoever, either ruler or subject, by force goes about to invade the rights of either prince or people, and lays the foundation for overturning the constitution and frame of any just government, is guilty of the greatest crime, think, a man is capable of, being to answer for all those mischiefs of blood, rapine, and desolation, which the breaking to pieces of governments bring on a country” (Second Treatise, 230).

The “compact” is merely shorthand for the maintenance of the moral commitments on which community is based. But how much consensus is needed? Can order be maintained with much less consensus than Locke presupposed? Evidently, the answer is yes, because order has been maintained even though we have expanded the toleration of diversity beyond the limits suggested by Locke. He had, for example, excluded atheists, Catholics, the intolerant, and advocates of civil disorder (A Letter Concerning Toleration, 50-52).

We are daily confronted with new demands to expand the boundaries of the permissible and the protected, however unpopular or unsavory the activities of some of the claimants may be to majoritarian sensibilities. We are pressed more urgently with the question of the limits, if any, to the consensus needed to hold the public order together. Locke identified the presence of a consensus that made a liberal political order possible. The form assumed by contemporary liberal politics is defined by the question not of the existence of a consensus but of its limits. What is essential to the consensus of a liberal democracy?

John Stuart Mill’s Answer to Locke’s Question

The man who confronted this question and whose response has shaped the self-understanding of the liberal constitution up to the present is John Stuart Mill. It is no accident that Mill is the last great liberal thinker because we continue to live in the context formed by his thought.

The debates in which we are engaged are framed in Millian terms; he is the starting point for the disputes and the remedies with which we continue to grapple. Not only is he the point at which the liberal tradition acquires the self-consciousness of a name, but he is also the one who gives it a definitive formulation that has been only revised, not overturned, in the succeeding century.24

Mill’s “principle of liberty” continues to be the touchstone of truth in liberal debates, a principle of such self-evidence that it can stand as the measure by which all other proposals are to be judged. For all of the objections leveled against it, Mill’s principle still stands as one of the few points of public agreement in a contentious world. That is why Mill may be regarded as the father of contemporary liberal politics.

The Great Danger of an Unrestrained Majority

The context Mill confronted is essentially the same as our own. In contrast to the earlier generations of liberal thinkers, the locus of problems has shifted from the struggle to secure popular self-government from reluctant monarchs to the difficulties and dangers generated by mass democratic politics itself. The risks to liberty, Mill announces in the opening of On Liberty, come not from the tyranny of political rulers but from “a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression” (7).

There is little danger of government abusing the rights of the majority because under a republican system the means are readily available of conveying popular displeasure and, if need be, throwing the culpable out of office at the next periodic election. But the safeguard of popular control contributes little to the security of minorities and individuals. If they are the target of political oppression, then it will, more likely than not, be with the approval of popular opinion whose instrument is the political power. What then is there to restrain the abuse of popular power?

That is the question Mill came to focus on with increasing sharpness over the course of his writings, which reach a culmination with On Liberty (although it is a mistake to isolate that text from the long series of preparatory reflections and his other writings). He saw that with the decline in indepen­dence of the political class, an aristocracy, and with the disappearance of all the qualifications and barriers that had restricted the access of ordinary individuals to political power the task of the day had become the formation of the now all-powerful force of public opinion.

An enthusiastic supporter of the expansion of the franchise and an advocate of its universal extension to include women, Mill was nevertheless deeply concerned that the experiment in popular government turn out right. His reading of Tocqueville and others had sharpened his own awareness of the dangers of the democratic process.25 Like Hobbes and Locke before him, he set to work to accommodate “the struggle between liberty and authority” in a way that would be evocative of a publicly authoritative order in this new context.

The measure of his success is that Mill’s formulation still holds the field as the criterion of order that contains the ring of truth. His principle of liberty, “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,” defines the line that characterizes the consensus under­pinning liberal democracy up to the present. The intuitive rightness of his distinction is reflected in the unquestioned acceptance as a general approach to the resolution of social and political conflicts.

We acknowledge as proper the idea 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 sufficient warrant” (On Liberty, 14). The presumption is that human beings must be allowed to lead their own lives and be free to make their own mistakes, so long as no direct harm results to others. It is a principle well established in liberal history and in its philosophic and Christian predecessors, but Mill formulates it with a sharpness that has come to define the contemporary era.26

Mill’s philosophy makes clear the way in which people of widely different opinions and viewpoints might live together without sliding into an attitude of mutual suspicion and mistrust. Where differences have been accepted as legitimate, the pressure to enforce conformity has been eliminated and with it the tendency to interpret all actions and expressions as stratagems in a campaign of compulsion.

The Consensus of the Limits of Compulsion

Mill’s principle avoids the suspicion of ulterior motives behind the intentions of others by affirming the public consensus concerning the limits of compulsion. In this way an atmosphere of trust is created that goes a good distance toward lowering the antagonistic tensions between people who disagree and making possible the conditions for coop­eration on projects of mutual necessity and benefit. The key to the stability of the consensus is the recognition of the appropriateness of the criterion for the exercise of authority the maxim defines.

For Mill the principle of liberty is essential to his project of staking out an area of freedom for the particular minority that plays the critical role in the progress of society. He recognized the stultifying effect of the pressures for social conformity as the great danger in an era where mass tastes and opinions dominate. Social pressure could be more tyrannical because it was more universal than any older forms of oppression, leaving “fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself” (9).

The effect could be deadly, Mill foresaw, for everything unconventional and original, including all of the new ideas that could even­tually advance the wisdom of the human race. The principle of liberty would preserve a realm of independence into which official interference could not penetrate, even though it would be impossible to insulate individuals from the more pervasive effects of opinion. Yet, the principle would have the effect of promoting the recognition of the value of independence itself.

In a more positive sense, the principle of liberty is the means by which the number of such independent, self-responsible individuals can be en­larged. Mill, like Tocqueville, understood the importance of the formation of character within the democratic era and devoted a considerable part of his reflections to the task. His System of Logic included the chapter “Of Ethology, or the Science of the Formation of Character,” confronting one of the most crucial intellectual questions of his day. Not surprisingly, Mill never felt bound to follow his own suggestions of environmental determinism for such a science but continued to reflect more concretely on the process by which moral maturity is produced.

In economics he advocated cooperative associations of workers, not primarily for their economic benefits but because they were the indispensable means by which the workers acquired the virtues of democratic self-government (Principles of Political Economy, chap. 7). In politics Mill favored local initiatives and private responsibility, because, even if the task was more efficiently performed by government, “the business of life is a large part of the practical education of a people” (312). In ethics only the “person whose desires and impulses are his own—are the expression of his own nature, as it has been developed and modified by his own culture—is said to have character” (The Logic of the Moral Sciences, 73). Liberty is essential to the development of our human capacity for self-government.

The misconception is often picked up from a casual reading of On Liberty that Mill was primarily concerned with defining an area of untrammeled personal freedom, much in the manner of our own superficial enthusiasts for private rights. One of the long-standing criticisms of the essay is that its notion of liberty is compatible with a despotic regime, that it neither requires nor promotes a consideration of our obligations toward the common good.27 But that is to overlook the viewpoint from which the whole book is written.

Mill alludes to the viewpoint in the final chapter, insisting that “the absorption of all the principal ability of the country into the governing body is fatal, sooner or later, to the mental activity and progressiveness of the body itself” (125). The well-being of the state depends not on maintaining a population of contented consumers of private liberty but on promoting a vigorous spirit of independence that is to be attained only by allowing men to take charge of their own affairs.

Perpetual Tutelage Under Government

The worst form of government is that in which there is a democratic constitution without the practice of democratic institutions pervading it. Then, John Stuart Mill warns, the rhetoric of self-government will be quickly overtaken by the impulse to secure the means of domination, as everyone realizes that it is only access to political power that can secure them against the domination of others and ensure the realization of their interests.

In a passage that sounds eerily similar to a description of our own politics of interest-group competition for influence, he explains how in proportion as all real initiative and direction resides in the government, and individuals habitually feel and act as under its perpetual tutelage, popular institutions develop in them not the desire of freedom, but an unmeasured appetite for place and power: diverting the intelligence and activity of the country from its principal business, to a wretched competition for the selfish prides and petty vanities of office (Principles of Political Economy, 314). This situation can be avoided only by extending the reality of self-government to encourage all levels of society “to manage as many as possible of their joint concerns by voluntary co-operation” (313).

The Rights of Women and the Rights of All

Some of Mill’s most evocative writing on this theme comes in his essay “The Subjection of Women,” which brought many of his ideas to passionate clarity. The justification for extending the franchise to women and amending the property and divorce laws to secure their independence ultimately turns on the realization that this is the indispensable way to human happiness.

Mill asks us to consider that “the ennobling influence of free government — the nerve and spring which it gives to all the faculties, the larger and higher objects which it presents to the intellect and feeling, the more unselfish public spirit, and calmer and broader view of duty, that it engenders, and the generally loftier platform on which it elevates the individual as a moral, spiritual, and social being — is every particle as true of women as of men” (On Liberty and Other Essays, 577). The alternative, he reminds us, to the self-esteem and satisfaction of determining our own lives is the perverse com­pulsion to seek a substitute for our own lack of independence in attempting to control others. Love of liberty and love of power are the opposing poles of the political spectrum.

That is the substance of Mill’s argument in the essay “The Subjection of Women.” The unjustified authority that men exercised over women, especially in marriage, was detrimental to the men as much as to the women. While Mill was undoubtedly guilty of rhetorical excess in the weight of significance, for good and for evil, that he placed on the relationship between the sexes, there can be no doubt that he understood it as a microcosm of the basic political choice of direction within liberal democracy. We cannot expect the equality that men encounter in public society or the virtues of mutual respect to take much hold on them if in returning to their domestic settings they are free to behave as absolute tyrants toward their wives and children.

Nor can we expect that women will develop the qualities of forthrightness and responsibility if they are alternately pampered or brutalized as the private possessions of their husbands. Like society as a whole the family too must be defined by the conditions of justice and equality that make it the most effective school for the virtues of freedom (On Liberty and Other Essays, 518). “The desire of power over others can only cease to be a depraving agency among mankind, when each of them individually is able to do without it; which can only be where respect for liberty in the personal concerns of each is an established principle” (578).

A Community of Persons

The principle of liberty is thus proposed not as a means to establishing a zone of indifference around largely self-absorbed human beings. Rather, it is envisaged by Mill as a means toward the emergence of genuine community because it is based on the mutual recognition of one another as persons — that is, as beings whose humanity can only be fostered by being freely chosen. Through the practice of such mutual respect the virtues that sustain it would themselves be imprinted.

By exploring the modes of voluntary cooperation between individuals who are free not to cooperate, the spirit of community takes hold more deeply in them than any external exercise of power could make possible. They become individuals more worthy of respect because the exercise of their liberty has made more evident the value of its recognition, and each in turn becomes more capable of acknowledging the same qualities and virtues in others. A mutually reinforcing circle of freedom is the vision of order that Mill puts before us.

Mill as the Last Great Liberal Thinker

The nobility of Mill’s vision is the source of its long historical influence. He is clearly within the line of thinkers, going back to Hobbes and Locke, whose successful construction of the liberal tradition arises from their capacity to evoke exactly that sense of the indubitable rightness of their order. Mill, like many of the great nineteenth-century liberals, tapped into that rich vein.28 It is evident in his assertion that human happiness consists in the liberty to exercise our faculties to the fullest, that there is nothing more oppressive than the feeling of having wasted one’s life because of the inability to make use of the energies and gifts we possess.

In a passage that seems to come from the heart, at the conclusion of his reflections on the position of women, Mill makes a passionate plea to men not to add to the evils that by nature occur to human beings. The core of his resonance with the liberal democratic spirit is captured in his assertion that “every restraint on the freedom of conduct of any of their human fellow creatures (otherwise than by making them responsible for any evil actually caused by it), dries up pro tanto the principal fountain of human happiness, and leaves the species less rich, to an inappreciable degree, in all that makes life valuable to the individual human being” (581-82).

Yet, despite Mill’s estimable ability to evoke the vision of liberty that underpins the liberal consensus, he is also the point at which the disinte­gration of the consensus also becomes visible. More than Locke, Mill has been accused of incoherence, of indeterminacy, and of sheer eclecticism, and there is more than a grain of validity to the complaints. His reflections cover an impressive range of subjects, from economics to logical method to moral and political theory, and exemplify a variety of approaches from utilitarianism to Aristotelianism to positivism, which make it difficult to reconcile their diversity into anything resembling philosophical coherence.

Indeed, Mill is the last great liberal thinker largely because he is the last to attempt to hold all of these areas of reality together within an overall approach. His inability to formulate their underlying coherence accounts in good measure for the paucity of subsequent attempts to render their unity transparent. After Mill liberal philosophy assumes the shape we have already observed, which, with the possible exception of Rawls, is content to work away on the articulation of portions of the whole that can no longer be comprehensively formulated.

Mill Cannot Adequately Explain His Convictions

At the same time, we should not exaggerate the incoherence of Mill or of the subsequent tradition. Mill’s philosophy does have the coherence of a single inspirational center, as indicated by the preeminence of his principle of liberty. The centrality of this emphasis casts a light over the different areas and problems to which he turns and gives a very strong sense of the constancy of approach in all his philosophy.

The problem, therefore, is not of a lack of unity but that its unity cannot be articulated by Mill. He is the first of that characteristic pattern of contemporary liberal thinkers that are distinguished by their inability to satisfactorily account for the source of their convictions. Mill exemplifies what Charles Taylor has identified as the strange contradiction in which such thinkers “are constitutionally incapable of coming clean about the deeper sources of their own thinking.” They are motivated by the strongest moral ideals of freedom, virtue, and altruism, but their very ideals seem to drive them to deny the ideals’ existence (Sources of the Self, 88).

With Mill we see this problem in its earliest manifestation, as he is not so much silent about his sources as unable to reconcile them and unavoidably communicates the impression that none of them really function as such a source. Mill’s Autobiography recounts in touching detail his youthful quest for the authenticating source of his moral impulse. Having grown up with his father’s agnosticism he could not be said to have rejected Christianity, for he had never embraced it. The absence of a religious background explains much of the enthusiasm of Mill in his early years. When he first read Jeremy Bentham’s work, it had the impact of a religious conversion on him. “I now had opinions; a creed, a doctrine, a philosophy; in one among the best senses of the word, a religion; the inculcation and diffusion of which could be made the principal outward purpose of my life” (68).

Mill eagerly embraced the calling of social reformer and unstintingly expended his energies on a variety of causes intended to promote the happiness of the greatest number. He had unbounded confidence in the power of utilitarian philosophy and in its political expression through the institutions of representative government and the complete liberty of thought and discussion.

Beyond Utilitarianism But Short on Transcendence

But the poverty of utilitarianism was brought strikingly home to him in the course of his autobiography. After devoting years to the cause Mill one day permitted himself to ask the fatal question: “Suppose that all your objects in life were realized; that all the changes in institutions and opinions which you are looking forward to, could be completely effected at this very instant: would this be a great joy and happiness to you?” The answer that unavoidably welled up within him was a stark “No!” after which, Mill recounts, “the whole foundation on which my life was constructed fell down . . . . I seemed to have nothing left to live for” (112).

He had discovered what Hobbes had understood as the defining characteristic of life, that it is essentially a movement whose fulfillment cannot be attained. Hobbes was able to frame his insight with the recognition of eternal felicity as life’s final goal, but for Mill there was only the prospect of immanent satisfactions within this world. Once the highest goal had been attained, life would cease to possess any meaning. There would literally be nothing for which to live. Happiness, he came to realize, cannot be the object of our actions in life.

Mill did not have the clarity that the language of a transcendent end provided to Hobbes and Locke, but he did grope toward its secular equivalent. He could not get away from the acknowledgment that somehow happiness, our own and others’, was the goal, but he no longer felt it was to be attained by directly aiming for it. “The enjoyments of life (such was now my theory) are sufficient to make it a pleasant thing, when they are taken en passant, without being made a principal object. Once make them so, and they are immediately felt to be insufficient” (117-18). With that admission, of course, went any sense that happiness is the goal.

Happiness continues to be the general goal, but it is itself defined in terms of other things, which demonstrate that mere subjective satisfaction is not the ultimate. What is important is the right kind of happiness. “I fully admit that this is true: that the cultivation of an ideal nobleness of will and conduct should be to individual human beings an end, to which the specific pursuit either of their own happiness or of that of others (except so far as included in that idea) should, in any case of conflict, give way” (The Logic of the Moral Sciences, 143).

Mill’s own account of utilitarianism spells its death knell. It founders on the rock on which all such attempts, as far back as Plato’s Gorgias, to define the good in terms of pleasure have shattered. That is, it recognizes the impossibility of denying the difference between good and bad pleasures. “It is quite compatible with the principle of utility to recognize the fact that some kinds of pleasure are more desirable and more valuable than others” (On Liberty and Other Essays, 138).

Mill goes on to recommend that we take into account the “quality” as well as the “quantity” of pleasure and, in proposing that we pursue the former over the latter, subverts the notion that pleasure itself is the goal. It is not, as Socrates had compelled his interlocutors to concede, pleasure as such that is the goal but only that which is good (Gorgias 497). Yet Mill is not prepared to acknowledge the logic of his own recognition and continues to assert that the greatest pleasure or happiness of the greatest number must remain the axiological justification for all our actions. It is a curiously revealing piece of writing in which a thinker’s own performance directly refutes his conclusions.

John Stuart Mill’s essay “Utilitarianism” is among the most illuminating examples of the liberal tension we have earlier remarked upon that is characterized by an utter inability to acknowledge the profound moral sources of the convictions publicly espoused. He insists that even though virtue and heroic self-sacrifice may be the highest ideals, their value is measured by their contribution to the happiness of the greatest number. The utilitarian is not opposed to the sacrifice of individual happiness for the good of others but insists only that the sacrifice is not in itself good and is of no value if it is wasted (148). The telos must remain that of service toward the common good, not the empty pride of becoming virtuous. It is the reality of virtue that counts, not its trappings.

But at this point the principle of utility ceases to play any regulative role in the determination of action, for it has become indistinguishable from the realization of justice as the highest form of utility. Instead of utility being the measure of justice the traditional measure has been restored, so that justice becomes the criterion of what constitutes social utility. Mill concludes his reflections in this way by warning against the short-circuiting of justice on the way to maximizing collective utility. There is no higher utility, he argues, than fidelity to the indefeasible demands of justice.

Justice Before Expediency

Even when extreme circumstances compel us to deflect justice’s requirements (as in stealing food to save a life), we do not justify our actions on the ground of expediency but maintain that the situation was not one in which the requirements of justice applied. “By this useful accommodation of language, the character of indefeasibility attributed to justice is kept up, and we are saved from the necessity of maintaining that there can be laudable injustice.”

Mill still proceeds to maintain that justice is “simply the natural feeling of resentment, moralized by being made co-extensive with the demands of the social good” (201), but it is all too evident that expediency is no longer its measure. It is rather that justice is the measure of expediency, for Mill is unwilling to countenance even the implication that there could be such a thing as “laudable injustice.”

The value of Mill as a thinker is that he brings the inner tensions of the liberal tradition to the light of self-consciousness. His account of justice as being concerned with “certain social utilities which are vastly more im­portant, and therefore more absolute and imperative, than any others are as a class” does not sit well with his recognition that it is “guarded by a sentiment not only different in degree, but also in kind . . . from the milder feeling which attaches to the mere idea of promoting human pleasure or convenience” (201).

The difference we are tempted to suggest is that justice will not bend to the expedient, even of the most remote and general kind. Mill himself illustrates this in his refusal to embrace the positivist utilitarianism of August Comte, which he recognized as “the completest system of spiritual and temporal despotism which ever yet emanated from a human brain” (Autobiography, 163). We are back at the fundamental principle from which his thought springs, that “there is a circle around every individual human being, which no government, be it that of one, of a few, or of the many, ought to be permitted to overstep” (Principles of Political Economy, 30). The idea of the “sacred” liberty of human beings may be justified by utilitarian argument, but it does not depend on it.

The Liberty to Use and Interpret Experience

The weakness of the utilitarian arguments in On Liberty are well known. Mill himself even seems to acknowledge them when he concedes that liberty of discussion will lead to a situation in which the “narrowing of the bounds of diversity of opinion” will remove one of the utilitarian justifications for permitting disagreement to nourish (On Liberty, 50). If disagreement is no longer needed for allowing the truth of competing ideas to be tested in the competition and to be apprehended more accurately through the contest, then there will be less of a necessity for requiring untrammeled liberty of debate.

The paper covering of the utilitarian justification falls away, and we recognize what its substantive inspiration had been all along, that “it is the privilege and proper condition of a human being, arrived at the maturity of his faculties, to use and interpret experience in his own way” (64). The idea of self-realization is essential to the “distinctive endowment of a human being” (65). We realize that even the utilitarian perspective is one that has been heightened and enlarged by Mill.

Bentham’s famous phrase, “everybody to count for one, nobody for more than one,” was originally intended to refer to the equality of each individual’s pleasures within the utilitarian calculus. But Mill, whether deliberately or inadvertently, gives it the much nobler interpretation of “the equal claim of everybody to happiness in the estimation of the moralist and legislator” (On Liberty and Other Essays, 199).29

The explanation of the shift is unimportant because it appropriately captures the transformation of utilitarianism effected by Mill. He may continue to subscribe to the Benthamite account of the source of utility in the collective impulse of self-interest, but Mill had gone far beyond Bentham in his understanding of the real foundation on which individuals could be counted upon to subordinate their individual welfare to that of all.

Service toward others arises from the convergence of influences that “tend to increase in each individual a feeling of unity with all the rest; which feeling, if perfect, would make him never think of, or desire any beneficial condition for himself, in the benefits of which they are not included” (166). It is this mystical unity with all humanity — parallel, he acknowledges, to the religion of humanity of Comte whose politics he abhorred — that constitutes “the ultimate sanction of the greatest happiness morality” (167).

No Connection Between Selflessness and Liberty

The difficulty is that universal altruism has no place within the secular order constructed by Mill. He may indeed be correct that the readiness to respect and preserve the dignity of all human beings can ultimately be sustained only through a kenotic outpouring of self toward all. But there is no readily apparent connection between this selfless humanitarianism and the assertion of the liberty of self-determination that is the centerpiece of his philosophy.

They may indeed converge for a few exceptional individuals, such as Mill himself, for whom self-realization is defined in terms of service to humanity. But there is no necessary connection, and for the vast majority the promise of moral progress may simply never materialize. Most people may be content to settle down with their personal freedom and devote themselves to the narcissistic gratifications of a consumer society. Even for the idealists the problem is that Mill cannot explain the relationship between self-actualization and universal love. It stands as a bare postulate.

The virtue of Mill is that he at least brings the problem into focus, although he is unable to go very far toward resolving it. He makes us aware that the liberal order of mutual respect, which he understands as moving toward the inclusion of economic as well as political independence, requires an existential order that is not simply a given within the ordinary range of human experience. Yet he has no means of accounting for its formation except to acknowledge that it would play the same role that religion had in an earlier era and to recognize that it is the inspirational impulse enkindled within himself by contact with the reforming fervor of his father, Bentham, Harriet Taylor, and other kindred spirits.

Because the tension is so close to the surface, Mill provides perhaps the clearest illustration of the incompatibility between the nobility of convictions and the paucity of their sources. He exemplifies the liberal inability to articulate its own depths. What makes him a major figure is that he still retained a profound awareness of the tension that in the legion of epigones is still present but below the range of their conscious reflection.

Progress Fails as Hope for the Future

The incommensurability between principles and experience becomes trans­parent in the Millian resort to progress as the covering that will eventually close the gap. Even in his day it was a covering that was becoming threadbare, as Nietzsche’s diagnosis was quick to expose. There are enough passages in Mill’s work where the romantic rejection of progress, at least as it is charac­terized by its principal engines of economic and industrial growth, is sounded with profound weariness.

Mill longed for solitude, a world with fewer people who could concentrate on their own inner development in communion with nature, and proclaimed all the virtues of a stationary economic state. He saw only too clearly the hollowness of the pursuit of unlimited material growth and recognized the abyss of dehumanization brought about by advancing mechanical progress. Mill was a zealot for population control throughout his career from beginning to end.

For all the talk of progress in his writings he does not come across as a believer in its inexorably beneficial effects.30 He is, rather, a believer in a very specific kind of moral progress, which he experienced in his own life, the ultimate source of which remained something of a mystery in his writings and reflections.

The Liberal Persuasion Survives

The casual reader might well conclude that Nietzsche was correct and that the liberal philosophy presented by Mill was an elaborate house of cards. Without any substantial structure or foundation it was doomed to fall before the first crisis could shake it. This, as we have seen, was not the case, for liberal persuasion has weathered the storms that were expected to overwhelm it.

Nor would it be fair to take Mill’s inarticulateness as an indication of a lack of depth behind his convictions. Both Mill and the liberal tradition, for all their faults, embody a spiritual openness whose roots go deeper than their own explanations would incline one to suspect. Perhaps the most convincing indication of the inner vitality of that tradition stretching from Locke to Mill and beyond has been the continuing concern with its own inner resources.

Ever fearful that its own rhetoric of individual liberty may be all there is to it, the liberal tradition has been preoccupied with the spiritual foundations of its convictions. Mill, for all his confidence bordering on priggishness, exemplifies this liberal uncertainty. A valid way of reading his work is to see it as one long quest for contact with the inspirational realities that he knew an earlier age had found in religion. The best evidence for their presence within Mill and the liberal tradition is to be found in the enduring knowledge of what is absent or only incompletely present within it.



24. For some reflections on the complex and problematic relationship between Mill and liberalism, see Gertrude Himmelfarb, On Liberty and Liberalism: The Case of John Stuart Mill, and Maurice Cowling, Mill and Liberalism.

25. Mill’s relationship to Tocqueville is surely deserving of more scholarly ex­ploration than it has received. See the two introductions that Mill attached to the English edition of Democracy in America. Mill reveals himself to be a careful reader of Tocqueville, fully understanding his concerns and capable of appending his own correctives to them. Mill pointed out that it is the ascendancy of a large middle class, not simply the passion for equality, that is the cause of “the growing insignificance of individuals in comparison with the mass.”

It is not because the individuals composing the mass are all equal, but because the mass itself has grown to so immense a size, that individuals are powerless in the face of it; and because the mass having, by mechanical improvements, become capable of acting simultaneously, can compel not merely any individual, but any number of individuals, to bend before it. The House of Lords is the richest and most powerful collection of persons in Europe, yet they not only could not prevent, but were themselves compelled to pass, the Reform Bill. (introduction to vol. 2, xlv)

26. “J.S. Mill’s suggestion that governments devote themselves to optimizing the balance between leaving people’s private lives alone and preventing suffering seems to me pretty much the last word” (Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, 63).

27. An anonymous reviewer wrote in 1859:

“Mr. Mill’s essay regards ‘liberty’ from first to last in its negative rather than its positive significance. But in that sense in which the very word “liberty” is apt to excite the deepest enthusiasm of which human nature is capable, it means a great deal more than the mere absence of restraints on the individual; it implies that fresh and unconstrained play of national character, that fullness of social life and vivacity of public energy, which it is one of the worst results of such constraint to subdue or extinguish.”

“But any sympathy with a full social life or fresh popular impulses is exactly the element in which Mr. Mill’s book is most deficient. The only liberty he would deny the nation is the liberty to be a nation. He distrusts social and political freedom. There is a depressed and melancholy air about his essay in treating of social and political organisms. He thinks strongly that individuals should be let alone, but virtually on condition that they shall not coalesce into a society and have a social or political life that may react strongly on the principles of individual action. . . . An aggregate of individually free minds, if they are to be held asunder from natural social combinations by the stiff framework of such a doctrine as Mr. Mill’s, would not make in any true or deep sense a free society or a free nation.” (Mill, On Liberty, 133)

28. See the interesting study by Alan Kahan, Aristocratic Liberalism: The Social and Political Thought of Jacob Burckhardt, John Stuart Mill, and Alexis de Tocqueville.

29. John Gray in a helpful note clarifies the nature of Mill’s misinterpretation of Bentham along these more noble lines (On Liberty and Other Essays, 588 n. 201).

30. The following is surely a heartfelt expression of sentiment:

“It is not good for man to be kept perforce at all times in the presence of his species. A world from which solitude is extirpated, is a very poor ideal. Solitude, in the sense of being often alone, is essential to any depth of meditation or of character; and solitude in the presence of natural beauty and grandeur, is the cradle of thoughts and aspirations which are not only good for the individual, but which society could ill do without.”

“Nor is there much satisfaction in contemplating the world with nothing left to the spontaneous activity of nature; with every rood of land brought into cultivation, which is capable of growing food for human beings; every flowery waste or natural pasture ploughed up, all quadrupeds or birds which are not domesticated for man’s use exterminated as his rivals for food, every hedgerow or superfluous tree rooted out, and scarcely a place left where a wild shrub or flower could grow without being eradicated as a weed in the name of improved agriculture.”

“If the earth must lose that great portion of its pleasantness which it owes to things that the unlimited increase of wealth and population would extirpate from it, for the mere purpose of enabling it to support a larger, but not a better or a happier population, I sincerely hope, for the sake of posterity, that they will be content to be stationary, long before necessity compels them to it.” (Mills, Principles of Political Economy, 116)


This excerpt is from The Growth of the Liberal Soul (University of Missouri Press, 1997). It is the third of three parts with part one and part two” available; also see “Utopian Forgetfulness of the Depth: part one and part two.”

David Walsh

David Walsh is the Chair Board Member of VoegelinView, President of the Eric Voegelin Society, and Professor of Political Science at Catholic University of America. He is the author of a three-volume study of modernity: After Ideology: Recovering the Spiritual Foundations of Freedom (Harper/Collins, 1990), The Growth of the Liberal Soul (Missouri, 1997), and The Modern Philosophical Revolution: The Luminosity of Existence (Cambridge, 2008). His latest book is Politics of the Person and as the Politics of Being (Notre Dame, 2015).

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