Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Saturday, March 16, 2013

MILL: On Liberty (On the Liberty of Thought and Discussion)

In the second part of his essay On Liberty John Stuart Mill talks about a topic dear to the hearts of all Great Books discussion groups: On the Liberty of Thought and Discussion.  Mill tells us plainly where he stands and wants to explain why it’s a good idea to have free and open discussions on everything.  He says 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.  Every man should have his say.  No subject is to be left un-discussed, and no stone left unturned, in mankind’s ongoing quest for knowledge.  This is clearly the way Mill thinks things ought to be.  The question for the Great Books reader is: what do other Great Books authors have to say about this kind of freedom?  This should be a no-brainer.  For most modern readers it  doesn’t even seem to be a serious question.  So it may come as something of a shock to learn that St. Augustine once said: Rome has spoken, the question is closed.  Augustine was Roman Catholic but the principle is the same for other orthodox believers too.  A similar Protestant notion might be “the Bible has spoken…” or a Jewish notion that “Yahweh has spoken…” The main point is: the question is closed.  There will be no further discussion on this question.  Now we have a problem.  There have been few people in history who were better educated or as intellectually gifted as J.S. Mill and St. Augustine.  But their opinions on this matter could hardly be farther apart.  How can this be?  We might look to Freud for a modern answer why Mill and Augustine are so different.  Freud believed that repressed desires lurk in our minds, beneath our consciousness, and we’re really unaware of what motivates us to do the things we do.  He believes pleasure and pain are what ultimately drive us.  In Civilization and Its Discontents Freud says very different paths may be taken in that direction and we may give priority either to the positive aspect (gaining pleasure) or to its negative aspect (avoiding pain).  Under this theory we might conclude that Mill may have subconsciously been using philosophy as a substitute for pleasure-seeking.  Therefore his personal philosophy would reflect an effort to free him from his own social and sexual timidity.  He would naturally want an intellectual outlet that would not be restrictive.  So (goes this theory) Mill was merely using Freud’s “positive aspect” to gain secret sexual pleasure from philosophy.  Augustine, on the other hand, may have been subconsciously using philosophy (or theology) as a check on his passions.  He had been rather wild in his younger days and therefore needed a philosophy which would restrain his unrestrained lusts.  Under Freud’s theory this was Augustine’s “negative aspect” or attempt to deny sexual pleasures that he was actually secretly longing for.  Well.  All that may be one way to read Mill and Augustine.  But there may be a better reading.  Maybe Mill and Augustine just had different goals.  Mill believes Augustine is living under a dead dogma, not a living truth; while Augustine believes Mill is using dead reason, not a living faith.  In his work The City of God Augustine wrote that there are two different realms in this world: the city of God and the city of man.  Augustine wrote that there are two cities, according to the language of the scriptures.  The one consists of those who wish to live after the flesh, the other of those who wish to live after the spirit.  In this view Mill inhabits the city of man.  The ultimate goal of a citizen of the city of man is to have a good life in this world.  So Mill puts his emphasis on the search for truth in this world.  Anything which inhibits that goal is rejected.  Therefore Augustine’s idea just retards human progress.  For Augustine, on the other hand, the ultimate goal is salvation.  A citizen of the city of God wants to make it to heaven.  Therefore Mill’s ideas just hinder our journey to heaven.  So there we have it: two men with two vastly opposing views produce two great books.  This is food for great discussions.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is a favorite pasttime for people who have never read Freud, or having read him and not liking what they hear, to assume that he is a kind of snake-oil salesman trying to pull the wool over our eyes, with all that vague chatter about the id, the ego and the super-ego, and how we all have secret repressed desires to sleep with our mother, while having erotic dreams that are embarassing or downright weird to mention in public, with possible implications for our neurotic personality to come unhinged. How in the world could anyone believe this stuff? It sounds about as reliable as reading the entrails of a dead chicken, and depending on the color or smell of its desicated liver, changing your stock portfolio to maximize your prospects for capital gain. What's harder to believe: that the staff of Moses turned into a snake and devoured the snakes of Pharoah's priest, or that we have repressed desires that are manifested as erotic dreams? You tell me. On the matter of free speech versus dogma, that question was settled long ago when our Constitution was written and the powers of government were divided in such a way that no established church could infringe on or influence the deliberations of Congress, nor could the government enforce a state religion upon the conscience of free individuals. Whether you like it or not, we have adopted Mill's prescription of free speech as the model for our democracy. If you prefer an autocracy, then you may join a church or a cult that forbids free speech, or find a country that provides all the dogma and/or propaganda you can endure.

3/20/2013 1:25 PM  

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