Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Wednesday, December 05, 2007

John Stuart Mill - On Liberty

Chapter 3 “Of Individuality, As One of the Elements of Well-Being”

There are only a few questions in life that really matter. One of those questions is this: which is more important (1) my duty to be myself and seek happiness on my own terms versus (2) my duty to my family and community regardless of my own personal happiness? John Stuart Mill believes the answers should include the most liberty for as many as possible. What role does tradition play in achieving this liberty? More broadly put, what role do customs play in forming local communities and keeping them all together in unified democratic countries?

Mill’s answer to the question about tradition and personal development actually has two sides. On one hand he acknowledges the importance of the individual to learn from the experiences of people who lived before us. He says that “Nobody denies that people should be so taught and trained in youth, as to know and benefit by the ascertained results of human experience.” But Mill isn’t terribly interested in the lessons to be learned from traditions and local customs. He’s much more inclined to give free rein to the unique characteristics which shape the individual personality. Mill believes that tradition tends to hamper personal development. He’s the champion of free choice wherever possible and doesn’t think that customs provide enough freedom to choose. Mill says that “He who does anything because it is the custom, makes no choice…He who lets the world, or his own portion of it, choose his plan of life for him, has no need of any other faculty than the ape-like one of imitation…”

Let’s consider this statement for a moment. If someone follows a custom blindly just because it is a custom then it’s probably true that person has not made a deliberate choice in the matter. However, some people may deliberately want to adopt the customs of their own little portion of the world. Why? To adopt certain prescribed manners of living instead of randomly choosing a lifestyle like a new set of clothes. One person may find certain customs to be not only useful but valuable in shaping his own life in the old ways his grandfather and father had used to shape theirs. Another may view tradition as a sort of charming personalized extension of the life lived by her mother and her grandmother before her. These folks and others like them may think it’s important to pass this way of life on to their own children, much like handing down the family china or other keepsakes to the next generation. Would Mill claim these are mere “ape-like” imitations? I don’t think so.

What Mill probably has in mind are thoughtless and perhaps harmful customs which are adopted by upcoming generations without either much thought or care. This kind of tradition may indeed be harmful. But what if much thought and care are used? Mill doesn’t see where the power of tradition can make a diverse mob recognizable as a distinct community of people with common beliefs and purpose. He wonders what makes England great and assumes that it has been the eccentric geniuses (people like him) who have given England its powerful character.

Why does Mill come to this conclusion? His default reflex is to follow progressive ideas. Mill’s great fear is that tradition will lead to stagnation. But what Mill views as stagnation other folks may view as simple peace and quiet. They don’t want to be geniuses, they just want to be left alone to raise their children and their vegetables and get along with their ordinary lives. It may not be satisfying to Mill but its good enough for them. And maybe it’s not the geniuses but ordinary folk who really make nations great after all. England may occasionally need men like Mill but it also needs countless average gentlefolk living their daily lives in a distinctively English way. That, done on a large scale, is what can make England a truly great country.

-- RDP


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