Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Saturday, February 13, 2016

J. S. MILL: On Liberty (Freedom and Government)

In his essay On Liberty the English philosopher John Stuart Mill presents many ideas that remain fertile ground for Great Books discussions about the nature of freedom and government.  The subject of his essay is focused on “civil, or social liberty: the nature and limits of the power which can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual.”  At one extreme is the idea of civil liberty expressed in Plato’s Crito.  In that dialog Socrates says if we think our country is on the wrong path then we should try to persuade it to change.  But he goes on to say that “if you cannot persuade your country then you must do whatever it orders… you must comply, and it is right that you should do so.”  John Stuart Mill takes up his position almost at the other extreme.  In Mill’s opinion whenever there’s a conflict between freedom and government there are very few times when “you must do whatever it orders.”  A citizen may legitimately be required “to give evidence in a court of justice; to bear his fair share in the common defense, or in any other joint work necessary to the interest of society of which he enjoys the protection…”  Beyond that Mill thinks citizens should be free to pursue their own interests, in their own way.

Of course this tension between freedom and government is not unique to Mill or to England.  Mill acknowledges this when he writes that “the struggle between liberty and authority is the most conspicuous feature in the portions of history with which we are earliest familiar, particularly in that of Greece, Rome, and England.”  Mill did not choose these three countries at random.  These three streams, along with the establishment of Israel as an independent nation in the Old Testament, form the backbone of Western thinking about political freedom.  American ideas of liberty and government have been shaped primarily by those four sources.  And in the Great Books tradition Shakespeare’s plays often reflect the same tension between personal freedom and good government.  In the Great Books Series we read about Othello, Antony and Cleopatra, Hamlet, The Tempest and King Lear.  All those plays, in one way or another, are about individual people and their relationships to the broader social and political context in which they find themselves (literally) as actors.  But Shakespeare only states the problem in dramatic terms, he never solves it.  Mill thinks it’s time to solve the problem.

His solution is the political principle 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.”  That principle is Mill’s solution to the problem.  But this solution leads to another problem.  Mill alludes to this when he writes, “The notion that the people have no need to limit their power over themselves might seem axiomatic when popular government was a thing only dreamed about…”  Now America has a government of the people, by the people, for the people.  But political theory is just daydreaming unless it can be put into practice.  How would Mill’s theory work in practice?  We need to determine if modern American government is, in fact, accurately reflecting the will of the people.  If it is, does that mean we need to expand the powers of government to protect the rights of Americans?  Or does it mean we need to limit its powers to get government out of the personal lives of Americans?  Both sides could claim they’re trying to put Mill’s theory into practice in the defense of liberty.  The question comes down to this; what is liberty?  And who gets to decide what it is?  Mills says “no two ages, and scarcely any two countries, have decided it alike; and the decision of one age or country is a wonder to another.”  So down through the ages and out across the world the Great Conversation continues.  Will Americans be remembered as being devout as the Hebrews, as creative as the Greeks, as sturdy as the Romans, as pragmatic as the English?  Time will tell.  And history will be the judge.


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