You’re a good man, John Stuart Mill

Mill is one of the fathers of modern Europe, but he doesn’t get much love or attention these days. So it’s nice to hear that a new biography of him is coming out, heralded by this excellent review.

My favorite bit:

There is a non-stupid conservative reproach to Mill. It is that his great success at changing minds has made a world in which there is not much of a role for people like him. Mill and Harriet, to a degree that they could hardly recognize, flourished within a whole set of social assumptions and shared beliefs. Respect for the mind, space for argument, the dispersal of that respect throughout the population, even the existence of a rentier class who could spend their time with ideas—all of these things were possible only in a society that was far more hierarchical and élitist than the society they dreamed of and helped to bring about.

I’m actually not sure this is “non-stupid”. I think I see what Gopnik is getting at, but… respect for the mind and space for argument are only possible in a society with Victorian levels of hierarchy and elitism? Really?

But anyway, that leads to this:

You can also fault Mill for not grasping something that a crazy reactionary like his friend Carlyle recognized: the depths of violence and rage and hatred beneath the thin shell of civilization. Mill is like a man who has spent his life on one of those moving walkways you find in airports. He takes the forward movement so much for granted that he never makes it his subject. “Most of the great positive evils of the world are in themselves removable, and will, if human affairs continue to improve, be in the end reduced within narrow limits,” he wrote, a little too assuredly. Mill’s work [has]… too little room for the irrational drives that he recognized in his own life but could not entirely blend into his philosophy. It is rich in arguments for freedom, but poor in insights into why so few people want freedom when they can have it. Though no one is more free from the taint of twentieth-century totalitarianism—among Mill’s London contemporaries, it was Carlyle whom Hitler adored, and Marx whom Stalin fetishized—Mill displayed no prescience about it, either. Enshrined popular reason was his goal; permanent popular rage beyond his ken.

Oh yeah. Mill suffered from the British middle-class notion that people will naturally prefer pleasure to pain, freedom to submission, peace to war, and reason to ecstasies of mass hatred or rage. Kingsley Amis summed this up a century later by saying simply that “nice things are nicer than nasty ones” — a sentiment that seems at once utterly reasonable and painfully parochial.

Anyway. Despite this rather huge omission, Mill is still a vastly important figure — and his legacy is very much with us today. So consider this an open thread for polite, reasonable discussion of a forward-thinking and liberal nature.

This entry was posted in A Fistful Of Euros, History and tagged , by Douglas Muir. Bookmark the permalink.

About Douglas Muir

American with an Irish passport. Does development work for a big international donor. Has been living in Eastern Europe for the last six years -- first Serbia, then Romania, and now Armenia. Calls himself a Burkean conservative, which would be a liberal in Germany but an unhappy ex-Republican turned Democrat in the US. Husband of Claudia. Parent of Alan, David, Jacob and Leah. Likes birds. Writes Halfway Down The Danube. Writes Halfway Down The Danube.

1 thought on “You’re a good man, John Stuart Mill

  1. John Stuart Mill has never received much attention in this country.

    As for the main reason why, that would be Mill’s traditional Anglo-Saxon habit of describing “liberty” and “freedom” negatively – as in, “freedom _from_ something” instead of “freedom _for_ something”.

    Mill makes an exception in the third chapter of “On Liberty”, where he agrees with Wilhelm von Humboldt; he even directly quotes Humboldt’s definition of individual freedom as a state where a human being is able to develop his inner strength and capabilities harmoniously and rationally.

    On this occasion, Mill defines freedom positively, making a brief excursion to the German tradition. In the fourth chapter, he returns back to the British rhetoric and continues how freedom is essentially defined as a lack of external coercion or social pressure, thus returning back to the negative definition of liberty.

    Aside a few Swedish-speaking liberals, Mill found hardly any disciples in the country that I live in. The modern-day Finland was founded and has survived on the principles of Hegel and Snellman, where “state” and “society” are not viewed as obstacles or restraints to liberty, but instead as moral, dynamic concepts allowing individual the freedom to assume a critical, reflexive and creative stance towards the norms of society.


    J. J.

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