Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Friday, March 22, 2013

MILL: On Liberty (III. Of Individuality…)

In section II of his essay Mill dealt with freedom of thought and discussion. Now he moves on to consider a different question: how should we live? This is one of those “permanent interests of man” that Mill mentioned in his Introduction. This is also one of the questions that the ancient Greek philosophers Plato (The Republic) and Aristotle (Ethics and Politics) spent much time on. Mill’s own opinion is that just as …human beings should be free to form opinions, and to express their opinions without reserve; …men should be free to act upon their opinions; to carry these out in their lives, without hindrance… But then Mill adds this provision: so long as it is at their own risk and peril. He wants to make a clear distinction between what we think or talk about and the things we actually do. Mill has also established that the freedom of discussion must include hearing both sides of the issue. Taking Mill’s advice we can proceed to examine the question: how should we live? Mill’s own opinion boils down to the simple formula that in things which do not primarily concern others, individuality should assert itself. This sounds reasonable. No one wants to live like a robot. In some ways our individuality is the most important thing we own. So what can be the other side of the argument? Should we prefer conformity instead? That seems dull. The other side of the argument is not so much that we shouldn’t have individual personalities. The other side of the argument concerns the basic NATURE of our personalities. Where do they come from? Mill believes personality comes from within each individual, hence his preference for “individuality.” Following this line of thought, he believes there should be different experiments of living… Only then will our true selves emerge. Mill summarizes by saying: Where, not the person's own character, but the traditions of customs of other people are the rule of conduct, there is wanting one of the principal ingredients of human happiness, and quite the chief ingredient of individual and social progress. To follow the traditions of customs of other people is not developing our own personalities. We’re just following the crowd blindly. Putting it in simple terms Mill concludes that he who does anything because it is the custom, makes no choice. The critic’s response to Mill’s philosophy might go something like this. Mr. Mill, you say that he who does anything because it is the custom, makes no choice. Well that’s just nonsense. Of course he makes a choice. He makes a choice to follow the custom. He may just be lazy and take the easy way out. Then we would both agree.  But on the other hand he may have a well-devised strategy to live in the ways that his parents and his ancestors lived. He doesn’t think this is just blindly following the crowd. He believes the traditions and customs of his fathers have the advantage and the wisdom of experience behind them. Long ago they tried different experiments of living and they rejected the ones that didn’t work. We should learn from their mistakes and not repeat them. People who adopt new and untried ways are starting from scratch. They’re adopting a crap-shoot lifestyle. It may work out; but it may not. Many creative people (even philosophers) have gone down in flames experimenting with different lifestyles. And it’s a mistake, Mr. Mill, to think that we come into this world with personalities just waiting to blossom. On the contrary, our personalities are given shape and substance by the traditions and customs of the homes and communities we live in. We find not only wisdom, but happiness and contentment in the treasuries of our common heritage. For that reason we don’t share your notion of individuality. We believe the individual, by himself, is poor soil for growth. It needs the fertility of custom and tradition.

A critic may also have this closing question: what would Mill think about his own book being included in the Great Books of western tradition?


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