Skip to main content

Two Mills and Liberty

ISSUE:  Winter 1975
On Liberty and Liberalism: The Case of John Stuart Mill. By Gertrude Himmelfarb. Alfred A. Knopf. $8.95.

ON Liberty and Liberalism: The Case of John Stuart Mill” tells the astonishing story of John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty,” which is a story about the book (one of the most famous texts of liberalism), the Mill who wrote it, and Harriet Taylor Mill, the woman under whose influence it was written. It is not an altogether new story, because Gertrude Himmelfarb has traced its outlines before, but it is no less astonishing for that. Here she begins with a painstaking analysis, chapter by chapter, of the book’s arguments, comparing them with what Mill had to say on the same subjects in his other works; she continues with an account of what she refers to as the “extraordinary disparity between the Mill of On Liberty and the “other” Mill”; and she concludes with a consideration of the practical implications of the teaching of “On Liberty” for the modern liberal world.

“On Liberty” presents the case for an almost unlimited freedom of the individual: an absolute freedom of opinion, an almost absolute freedom of expression, and a freedom of action qualified only by the rule that one not act so as to harm others. Its principle (its “one very simple principle,” as Mill himself put it) 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.” The Millian state of “On Liberty” would not wither away altogether, not to the point where the governing of men would be replaced by the administration of things, but it would be a state shorn of its traditional functions: it would not govern— e. g. , it would not prescribe the ends of human life and the education or moral training appropriate to these ends—-but it would be left with the task of controlling to the extent necessary to prevent its citizens from harming each other. Beyond that it would let them alone. Mill feared majority tyranny, and the solution proposed in “On Liberty” is to deprive the state of the powers that a majority, or anyone else, might misuse. As Professor Himmelfarb shows, he had been alerted to this problem by his early association with the utilitarianism espoused by his father and Jeremy Bentham. Under utilitarianism, the claims of the majority would be irresistible, and the greatest good of the greatest number, as that good is understood by that number, may prove disastrous to the smaller number, or the minority, and especially the minority Mill was most anxious to protect, the minority of the talented few, the men of science, or the “persons of genius.” It was on their behalf that he made his case for freedom. The implicit assumption of “On Liberty” is that what is good for science is good for society. The “other” Mill knew that this was not necessarily true.

The “other” Mill, the Mill of the essay on Coleridge, for example, knew that society is constituted by an attachment to an opinion that he goes so far as to call “sacred,” a body of “fundamental principles” above debate, or beyond dispute. He knew that “when the questioning of these fundamental principles is . . .the habitual condition of the body politic; and when all the violent animosities are called forth, which spring naturally from such a situation, the state is virtually in a position of civil war; and can never long remain free from it in act and fact.” It is worth recalling that Socrates, beginning with a similar concern for science or philosophy, was led to propose the rule by philosophers and the most severe censorship of morals and manners. The “other” Mill did not adopt so extreme a solution—however different he was from the Mill of “On Liberty,” he was still a liberal; but he did propose an established church, of sorts, a “clerisy,” which was to comprise the learned of all denominations and to be supported and maintained by the state, to the end of promoting the natural culture. Whatever might be said of this solution, this Mill did not allow his doctrine to blind him to the existence of the problem for which it was designed. The Mill of “On Liberty,” on the other hand, with an insouciance bordering on the naïve, simply assumed that “all the nations with whom we need here concern ourselves” had long since reached the stage of civilization—and would never decline from that stage of civilization—where they were capable of being improved by “free discussion” and had no need of the governance a “clerisy” was supposed to provide. He acknowledged that in the past, when the race was in its “nonage,” societies were fortunate to be governed by an Akbar or a Charlemagne; what he could not foresee was that in the not-distant future they would turn to a Hitler or Mussolini or Franco or Salazar or de Gaulle.

Mill was precocious, and he began to publish at an early age; but what is involved here is not a difference between an early and late or mature Mill. The “other” Mill both pre-dates and postdates the Mill of “On Liberty.” It is, instead, a difference—dare we say it now?—between Mill on his own and Mill under influence of, and almost in bondage to, Harriet Taylor, who was finally to become Harriet Taylor Mill. She was a foolish woman—Professor Himmelfarb speaks more moderately of her “romantic imagination” and of her “absolutistic and simplistic” mode of thinking—but Mill regarded her as an intellectual giant, Shelley’s superior in both spirit and intellect, unlike Coleridge and the German philosophers a being without fault, the “consummate artist” and “great orator,” whose discernment and sagacity placed her among the most eminent “rulers of mankind.” His own strength, he insisted, lay in a subordinate area, in the area where angels dared but did not deign to tread. Read in conjunction with the samples of her thought and work provided by Professor Himmelfarb, this praise of his wife not only appears exaggerated but strains “both credulity and tolerance.” But, then, it was a relationship that puzzled even Freud.

Perhaps none of this would have mattered if it were merely the case of a man sometimes consumed by an erotic passion for an erotic woman and driven by his passion to express himself and to act excessively. But theirs was not an erotic relationship, and he said these things not in love letters but in prefaces to his work and in his “Autobiography,” as a way of acknowledging his intellectual indebtedness to her. And what is worse, with respect to “On Liberty” he was in her debt, and that is the trouble. He said it was a “joint product,” but Professor Himmelfarb shows that its “whole mode of thinking” was emphatically his wife’s, bearing a much closer resemblance to her work than to anything else he wrote with the exception of the essays on women, and this exception proves the point she wants to make, for the essays on women were also written under Mrs. Taylor’s tutelage.

Although it was published in 1859, more than a century ago now, “On Liberty” is the last book of its kind, by which I mean the last in the line of great theoretical statements dealing with and defending the foundation of liberalism. Since it was written, political theory has been dominated by a different ethos. Indeed, liberalism was being attacked even as Mill wrote, from the Left by Marx and from the Right by Nietzsche, and it has been our fate to witness and contend with the consequences of these attacks when they emerged from the written page, so to speak, and took to the streets as organized political movements dedicated to the destruction of the liberal state. Between them, the Communists and the Fascists managed to crush liberalism in a large part of Western Europe—Weimar Germany, Italy, republican Spain, and Third Republic France—and only a fool would argue that the military victory of the Western Allies in World War II has made the world, or even the Western world, safe for liberalism. That victory was achieved only with the conspicuous assistance of one of liberalism’s enemies, which has not grown weaker as a result, and against conspicuous opposition even within liberal countries, an opposition that, however subdued for a while, has now begun to manifest itself openly again. Our experience confirms what was taught by the “other” Mill, as well as by Montesquieu, Rousseau, Tocqueville, Jefferson, Madison, and some other liberal theorists: liberalism needs more than liberty. Among other things, it needs a people firmly convinced of the strength of liberal principles. Without arguing the point here, this means that the battle of the streets will turn in part on the battle of the books, that liberalism must be able to defeat its enemies on the written page if it is to have a chance of defeating them elsewhere. It is painfully clear that the Mill of “On Liberty” is not equal to the task that history has imposed on him. Fortunately, Mill was not the only liberal theorist or the Mill of “On Liberty” the only Mill. As Professor Himmelfarb demonstrates in this admirable book, there was the “other” Mill, the Mill of “The Principles of Political Economy,” “Representative Government,” and the famous essay on Coleridge, among other works, and the friends of liberalism would do better to turn to him for the assistance they now so evidently need instead of to the more celebrated “On Libertv.”


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading