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ministration has been growing from generation to generation more mild and judicious; and where the popular content with both forms and measures has been and continues in the main so great that the incompleteness in social freedom fails to be even recognized by all except a handful of the foremost men; where, even when that incompleteness is set forth — as in the essay before us — in the clearest terms, with soundest argument, and richest illustration, it finds no general acceptance even among the cultivated classes of society, — we sce that the inertia is a hundred-fold more difficult to overcome, from the indefinite and theoretical character of the improvement which is to be effected. So that, to any book like this of Mr. Mill, the answer comes from the vast majority of wellto-do people throughout England and America who take the trouble to read it, — Let well enough alone; we are free enough; your struggles for more liberty will only end in license.
In his introductory chapter, Mr. Mill traces very clearly the changes of character which the struggle between liberty and authority has undergone in the course of human history. First, the natural antagonism between a mass of subjects on one side, and a monarch or an aristocracy on the other, in virtue of which the people constantly endeavored to limit the power of the rulers, and thus secure at least the recognition, and to some small extent the realization, of their idea of liberty. Next, the effort to remove this antagonism by making the rulers spring directly from the people, and be in a measure responsible to them. When a community had once embraced this idea, they abandoned the object of limiting the authority of their rulers, believing that, if community of interest were once established between governors and governed, there was no further need of precautions against tyranny. But when in due time the principles of elective government became embodied in the Constitution of the American Republic, it became suddenly apparent that the possession of power developed its own temptations, irrespective of the antecedents of its possessors, and created a new antagonism in place of the old, which it was equally desirable to limit by checks. Now was first conceived the “ tyranny of the majority," of which so many dangers have since been predicted, – that disposition by which a portion of a community, preponderating either by numbers or interest, pushes forward its own measures and seeks the fulfilment of its own ends, regardless of the interests, wishes, and feelings of the remaining portion. Mr. Mill shows that the perception of this grievance, though essentially just, was clouded by some misunderstanding.
“ Like other tyrannies, the tyranny of the majority was at first, and is still, vulgarly held in dread, chiefly as operating through the acts of the public authorities. But reflecting persons soon perceived that, when society is itself the tyrant, — society collectively, over the separate individuals who compose it, — its means of tyrannizing are not restricted to the acts which it may do by the hands of its political functionaries. Society can and does execute its own mandates, and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practises a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself. Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrates is not enough; there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling, against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them, — to fetter the development, and if possible prevent the formation, of any individuality not in harmony with its wants, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own. There is a limit to the legitimate interference of collective opinion with individual independence; and to find that limit, and to maintain it against encroachment, is as indispensable to a good condition of human affairs, as protection against political despotism.” — p. 13.
To determine this limit as nearly as may be done theoretically, is the work which Mr. Mill lays out for himself in his essay. His proposition is in substance this, — that the liberty of a people is not complete until the subject or citizen is as free as his government; that the possession of power confers no privileges or rights; and that all restraint upon any individual member of a community, except such as is necessary to prevent him from doing harm to others, is illegitimate and tyrannical. Hence we must have
“ liberty of conscience, in the most comprehensive sense; liberty of thought and feeling, — absolute freedom of opinion and sentiment on all subjects, practical or speculative, scientific, moral, or theological; the liberty of expressing and publishing opinions ; ..... liberty of tastes and pursuits; of framing the plan of our life to suit our own character; of doing as we like, subject to such consequences as may follow, without impediment from our fellow-creatures, so long as what we do does not harm them, even though they should think our conduct foolish, perverse, or wrong; ..... liberty within the same limits, of combination ; liberty to unite for any purpose not involving harm to others. .....
“No society in which these liberties are not on the whole respected is free, whatever may be its form of government; and none is completely free in which they do not exist absolute and unqualified. The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it. Each is the proper guardian of his own health, whether bodily, or mental and spiritual. Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest." - p. 27.
The position is a comprehensive one certainly, but it need not excite the alarm of the most conservative or the most cautious reader; especially since, so far from being purely theoretical or visionary, — so far from rushing into the mistake of confounding liberty with lawlessness, — Mr. Mill expressly recognizes " utility as the ultimate appeal in all ethical questions,” and reserves without hesitation for society the right of compulsion or restraint in all cases which can fairly be said to affect the public welfare. If his principle is broad, so also is his reservation.
“If any one does an act hurtful to others, there is a prima facie case for punishing him, by law, or, where legal penalties are not safely applicable, by general disapprobation. There are also many positive acts for the benefit of others which he may rightfully be compelled to perform, such as to give evidence in a court of justice, to bear his fair share in the common defence, or in any other joint work necessary to the interest of the society of which he enjoys the protection, and to perform certain acts of individual beneficence, such as saving a fellowcreature's life, or interposing to protect the defenceless against ill-usage, -- things which, whenever it is obviously a man's duty to do, he may rightfully be made responsible to society for not doing. In all things which regard the external relations of the individual, he is de jure amenable to those whose interests are concerned, and, if need be, to society as their protector.”
Nothing seems clearer than the theoretical justice of the position assumed. And by most men who are not incapable of following the simple reasoning on which it depends, its truth as a theory will doubtless be admitted, with a complacent observation that many things are true in theory which would be very dangerous if carried into practice. This is the common defence of those whose indolence or timidity disinclines them to all change. It is more than improbable that there was ever any real conflict between a true theory and the practice logically resulting from it. If a theory is true, and involves a principle of right and justice, its development in practice cannot be made to produce evil and injustice, except by the incapacity or indisposition of the men who are carrying it out to meet and fulfil all the conditions which are involved in that development. It is doubtless true that this incapacity and indisposition must always exist to a certain extent when the principle covers a large ground, and affects the relations and interests of large bodies of men. Speculative knowledge must generally be in advance of the executive ability which is needed to make it operative, and the connection between the philosopher and the man of action is rarely very close or sympathetic. A single thinker in his closet may discern a truth, and carry it out in his thought to distant and unexpected results. But the realization of those results depends, first, on the general recognition of their desirableness; and, next, on the continuous labor of hundreds and thousands of working men, who start perhaps without clear perception of the end they are to reach or the means by which they are to achieve it, and whose hands are tied by the inevitable opposition of those classes who, priding themselves first of all on being conservative, serve no other purpose in the world than consciously or unconsciously to block the wheels of every generous enterprise. Often, too, it happens that the discoverer himself, though possessing a general perception of the truth which he promulgates, has not studied its application with
sufficient diligence or sufficient keenness of insight to be able to follow it out into all its natural consequences; in which case he has no right to complain if his theory is rejected as visionary and incapable of being reduced to beneficial practice. In the present instance, the enunciation of even so broad a principle of personal liberty as that of which we have quoted the statement would probably meet with little dissent, so long as that statement was confined to general terms. There is no ground for misunderstanding here. The happiness and welfare of the community, and of every individual in it, make the object to be secured. The fullest and most absolute freedom of thought, speech, and action which is compatible with this object, should be unhesitatingly granted to each. If Mr. Mill stopped with this general statement of his position, we should expect to find conservatives and radicals agreeing with him, in most amiable fellowship so far; and then branching into wide and bitter divergence on the question, how much of this absolute freedom is compatible with the welfare of society. Mr. Mill does not leave his readers at the threshold of so difficult a question, but sets himself to its investigation with much closeness and vigor of reasoning.
The main body of the book is divided into three chapters, – on “ The Liberty of Thought and Discussion," on “Individuality as one of the Elements of Well-being,” and on “ The Limits to the Authority of Society over the Individual.” Of these the writer regards the first as in some sense introductory to the main argument, expecting little resistance to its propositions, but wishing to examine the grounds on which they are based.
The illustrations which Mr. Mill selects, from the innumerable instances in history, of the fearful mistakes which have arisen from the assumption of infallibility, and from the honest attempts of rulers, political and religious, to root out what they were sure was error, and to protect what they were sure was truth, are singularly felicitous, and are given with a loftiness of thought and language which, while it approaches more nearly to eloquence than is often the case in these writings, is better than eloquence, and impresses us with a higher respect for the writer. We give the last of these illustrations in Mr. Mill's own words.