Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Monday, November 26, 2007

John Stuart Mill – On Liberty

Chapter 2 “Of the Liberty of Thought and Discussion”

Reading the second chapter of Mill’s ideas on liberty is certainly thought-provoking and worth discussing in greater depth. What would King Solomon have made of Mill? In the book of Ecclesiastes we read Solomon’s view of the world: “Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body. Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.” Mill’s concept of the duty of man is quite different. Mill’s world is one where everyone speaks his own piece of mind and no one is under compulsion – not even from God, and certainly not from society. In Mill’s world we find that “If all mankind, minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were 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.” This is a lofty goal. Is it attainable? Is it even desirable? That all depends on your own world view.

John Stuart Mill and King Solomon were two of the smartest guys that ever lived. Yet their conclusions about the really important things in life are dramatically different. How can this be? How can such intelligent men be so far apart? For one thing they seem to be writing for different purposes. In the book of Ecclesiastes King Solomon is writing for individual improvement. His advice is highly personal. So the way he tells his story is also highly personal. Solomon candidly admits that he’s tried just about everything and knows from experience what he’s talking about. He speaks from personal experience when he says that there’s no end to thinking. It just wears us out. In the long run the best way to live is to trust in God and be satisfied with your place in the world. Solomon writes from the heart, to the heart.

Mill, on the other hand, is writing to persuade the reader’s mind. His writing is highly impersonal and seeks the improvement of society as a whole. For Mill the most important thing is not to put your trust in God but to question everything and to evaluate all your beliefs and opinions. Mill says that “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.” The conclusions of some intellects may lead them away from traditional concepts of God, at least the way that God is generally understood by the society we live in. Mill says, in effect, so be it.

King Solomon warns that too much thinking isn’t good for us. We should learn to conform our ways to God’s ways. We can only get there by living right, not by thinking about it. God’s ways are much higher than the human mind can comprehend. We have to trust that God knows more than we do. But Mill believes that thinking for ourselves is the only way we can truly improve either ourselves or society. We should never stop seeking to improve our minds. We should not accept on blind faith what traditional religion teaches. The best society is one which allows everyone to improve their own minds in their own unique ways. This will lead some people to an entirely different philosophy of life than the one preached by Solomon.

Given these two outlooks it’s really no surprise that these two great writers should end up so far apart. They started far apart. They’re classic representations of two views of life that are still with us today and express themselves in our own political and social beliefs. Mill says that “it is almost a commonplace, that a party of order or stability, and a party of progress or reform, are both necessary elements of a healthy state of political life…” What matters most to King Solomon is order and stability. What matters most to Mill is progress and reform. What matters most to Americans is…well, order and progress, stability and reform. At the same time. Now.
-- RDP


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