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the Complete Review
the complete review - philosophy

On Liberty

John Stuart Mill

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To purchase On Liberty

Title: On Liberty
Author: John Stuart Mill
Genre: Philosophy
Written: 1859
Length: 166 pages
Availability: On Liberty - Broadview Texts (US)
On Liberty - Penguin Classics (US)
On Liberty and Other Essays - Oxford World's Classics (US)
On Liberty and Other Writings - Modern Library Classics (US)
On Liberty - Broadview Texts (UK)
On Liberty - Penguin Classics (UK)
On Liberty and Other Essays - Oxford World's Classics (UK)
On Liberty (Canada)
De la liberté (France)
Über die Freiheit (Deutschland)
  • The Broadview Texts edition is edited by Edward Alexander
  • The Penguin Classics edition is edited by Gertrude Himmelfarb
  • The Oxford World's Classics edition is edited by John Gray
  • The Modern Library Classics edition is edited by J.B.Schneewind
  • On Liberty can also be found in its entirety online

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Our Assessment:

A : a classic - vital reading

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Athenaeum . 26/2/1859 .
Bentley's Quarterly Rev. . (2; 1860) R.W.Church
British Quarterly Rev. . (31; 1859) .
The Rambler . (59; 1859) Thomas Arnold, Jr.
Saturday Review . 19/2/1859 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "Of the style and the matter, we need only say that it is John Mill all over (.....) Mr. Mill's book is all the more likely to be useful, from the very vagueness of the rule which he is obliged to lay down." - Athenaeum

  • "(E)ven if Mr. Mill's statements are one-sided and scornful, we may listen with advantage to his warnings against the insidious weight of what is established and customary (...) and his indignant protests against the tyranny of opinion" - Richard William Church, Bentley's Quarterly Review

  • "Any book of Mr. Mill's which professes to lay down fixed principles, applicable to important questions of social and individual ethics, deserves to be as carefully studied by those who possess known landmarks and unalterable methods for the guidance of life and the discipline of the soul, as by those to whom all questions of this kind are still open." - Thomas Arnold, Jr., The Rambler

  • "The purpose of On Liberty is not to establish a proposition, be it now by reference to happiness, or in any other way; the purpose is to set an example, to present, explain, defend a certain form of life and to show its consequences in special cases " - Paul K. Feyerabend, "Two Models of Epistemic Change: Mill and Hegel" (in Philosophical Papers, Volume 2 (1981))

  • "(H)is whole book is imbued with a profound sadness, not fretful but virile, censorious, Tacitean. He has spoken up because evil has become worse. (...) (H)e is standing up for liberty not against an educated government but against society, against custom, against the deadening force of indifference, petty intolerance, against "mediocrity"." - Alexander Herzen, My Past and Thoughts: THe Memoirs of Alexander Herzen (Eng.: 1968)

  • "What marks On Liberty as a public-intellectual work rather than a philosophical treatise is its brevity, concreteness, lucidity, and simple eloquence. It is not an academic work. (...) On Liberty is not only written for nonspecialists; even today, almost a century and a half after its publication, it is accessible to the educated nonspecialist, something that can be said for few modern works of political philosophy. My own view is that the liberty (or harm) principle that is at the center of On Liberty remains the best starting point for a public philosophy." - Richard A. Posner, Public Intellectuals (2001)

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

This review is based on the Broadview edition (1999) of the text, edited by Edward Alexander. In addition to the full text of On Liberty, it includes a Chronology, a decent Introduction, as well as a number of Appendices offering preludes to, comments about, and reviews of On Liberty. Other editions may be superior in certain respects -- providing fuller introductions, more extensive notes, or more additional Mill-material -- but for purposes of a general introduction to the text we found this one to be useful.

       There seems little doubt that On Liberty is one of the seminal texts of our age. The notion of personal liberty was not a new one when Mill wrote his famous book, but it was first crystallized in its clearest form here. Mill's expression of his philosophy remains highly influential to this day.
       A fairly brief book, using vivid examples, it is a quick and relatively easy read. In its straightforward simplicity, passion, and rigour, it is a gripping, powerful apologia. Mill admittedly only provides a survey of the many issues raised by his ideas of "liberty"; there are many arguments and counter-arguments that can be (and, indeed, have been) made on the subject. Still, On Liberty has never really been superseded; considerations of the subject almost inevitably must take it into account.
       John Stuart Mill was an odd, brilliant man, one of the great thinkers of his age. Stuffed with knowledge by his father from the earliest age, he was a product of only a sliver of his times: he was not sent to school or church or, eventually, university (he could have gone to Cambridge), hardly interacting with others of his age in his youth and rarely being exposed to the dominant societal forces of the day. Pure knowledge -- though presented, no doubt, with a Benthamite-radical tinge -- was meant to shape him. And it did -- apparently very effectively.
       Mill was a proto-feminist, as his philosophy demanded. His wife, Harriet, was a figure of great importance to him, and On Liberty is dedicated to her memory (she died the year before it was published). (Her role in the writing of the book is somewhat disputed; we note with some dismay a forthcoming title from the Indiana University Press, The Voice of Harriet Taylor Mill by Jo Ellen Jacobs, described in an ad as an: "Innovative biography of the woman who wrote On Liberty.")

       On Liberty has five chapters. The first is "Introductory", wherein Mill explains what exactly is under discussion. It is:

Civil, or Social Liberty: the nature and limits of the power which can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual.
       Mill recognizes it "as the vital question of the future". Civil liberty was not a widespread thing for much of history, and Mill acknowledges that: "Despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement." However, once mankind "have attained a capacity of being guided to their own improvement by conviction or persuasion" -- which, by his time, he believed mankind certainly generally had -- then compulsion is no longer an acceptable means of rule.
       "Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign", Mill insists. It sounds convincing, and sensible, but, of course, the issue isn't quite so simple. In restating his guiding belief, Mill adds an important caveat:
The only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it.
       There's the rub, of course. And it turns out to be a very difficult balance to strike.
       Still, as Mill points out, there's a great deal to say (and worry) about liberty before one gets to that final hurdle. Liberty has difficulty in many areas -- for example, Mill notes:
Yet so natural to mankind is intolerance in whatever they really care about, that religious freedom has hardly anywhere been practically realized
       In his second chapter Mill considers the "Liberty of Thought and Discussion". Freedom of the press is already a given to him -- he can see no argument against it. He believes it essential that any and all voices can state whatever it is they believe, that no matter how crushing the majority, even a single voice should not be silenced, merely because all others do not believe it or care for it.
       Mill believes in the supermarket ideas, where the best will triumph. His argument goes like this:
Wrong opinions and practices gradually yield to fact and argument: but fact and arguments, to produce any effect on the mind, must be brought before it.
       It is a sound and sensible proposition, by and large. No facts and arguments should be prohibited, no voices offering them silenced. But it is the first part of Mill's optimistic sentence -- his belief that man and mankind can and will better itself, learning and choosing wisely -- that is dubious. Far from yielding, wrong opinions and practices have shown remarkable durability, even if the face of the strongest facts and arguments. In addition, the supermarket of ideas functions, in fact, too much like a real modern-day supermarket: packaging, a big marketing budget, and good product placement proving far more important than quality, fact, and truth. (The resilience of those most wrong of all opinions and practices, what is called religion, should be proof enough, but there are countless other examples as well.)
       Mill's passion for ideas -- for valuing them, arguing for (and against) them, and learning from them -- is appealing. Ideas must be challenged he insists -- and he revels in that. It is a sensible idea: if our beliefs can not withstand the harshest attacks (as long as these are based on fact and sense, and not mere emotion and threat) then they are of limited worth. To allow for no challenges, to insist on infallibility, is the quickest route to failure. (Well, apparently not the quickest, as several organized religions continue to prove.)
       This point is always an important one: tolerating no dissent has had catastrophic results over and over and over in history, both distant and recent. It has short term appeal -- it can work well for a couple of decades (viz. Stalin, Kim Il Sung, Mobuto) -- but over the long term the results can only be catastrophic. It is terrifying to note how even in the relatively open United States, in the wake of the terrorist attacks in the fall of 2001, almost all efforts at any even vaguely critical dialogue concerning government actions and reactions was considered offensive and unacceptable. In fact, of course, it is especially in such times of crisis that criticism must be fostered and welcomed. The "unity" that was thought to be demonstrated by not tolerating criticism is no better than mob-rule: an impressive looking force, but one that is too easily swayed by emotion rather than fact (and is, ultimately, no better than the intolerance it professes to oppose).
       Mill notes that in his times: "the claims of an opinion to be protected from public attack are rooted not so much on its truth, as on its importance to society." A superficially appealing idea -- and the one embraced by the American government and public after the fall of 2001 (showing, sadly, how little has changed since Mill's times) -- it is, as Mill correctly emphasizes, completely misguided. Truth is, ultimately, all -- history should show as much -- and, as Mill also shows, truth has a hard enough time as is.
       Mill is a thinking man, and he reminds his readers:
No one can be a great thinker who does not recognise, that as a thinker it is his first duty to follow his intellect to whatever conclusions it may lead.
       A true battle-cry -- but one which most seem far too frightened of.
       Mill's call for a diversity of opinion -- so that we may know what others think about a subject, and perhaps learn from their points of view -- is, of course, one that should be embraced. (It is a guiding principle behind the complete review, which tries to make accessible as many varied opinions as possible.) But most seem to prefer to toe the party (or mass-media) line.
       "Everything must be free to be written and published without restraint" Mill insists (in a sentence that begins explaining: "If the teachers of mankind are to be cognisant of all that they ought to know"). It sounds good -- and yet there are few who will not hesitate when certain examples are brought up. Incitements to overthrow the government ? to violence ? Blasphemy, insulting one's own or another's deities ? Child pornography ? Untruths ? Libel ?
       The Internet allows for much of Mill's freedom -- and yet even here, depending on where one is, there are many restrictions on writing and publication. As laws and technological feasibility make for greater control over content and access on the Internet, Mill's words should again be pondered carefully.
       In chapter three of the book Mill writes "Of Individuality, as One of the Elements of Well-Being", moving beyond words and opinions to actions. Mill believes that here too man should do pretty much as he wishes, though he understands actions are already more complicated things: "No one pretends that actions should be as free as opinions."
       The key, for Mill, is that in acting the individual "must not make himself a nuisance to other people". His interpretation of nuisance is, of course, a fairly specific one, and not the everyday nuisance that encountering other people entails (every sidewalk, every highway, every place of business is filled with people who seem to be nothing but a nuisance, after all). It is a difficult balance to strike -- perhaps the most difficult of the issues Mill raises.
       The most important of the issues Mill raises is then at the centre of chapter four, "Of the Limits to the Authority of Society over the Individual". He finds a reasonable basic division:
To individuality should belong the part of life in which it is chiefly the individual that is interested; to society, the part which chiefly interests society.
       But once again: where exactly does the one begin and the other end ?
       The final chapter, on "Applications", looks at some of the consequences of what has been argued here. The consequence are far-reaching, of course.
       "Trade is a social act", Mill explains, for example. There were once reasons for the government to fix prices and regulate manufacturing processes, but now fully free trade seems preferable. Mill notes some remaining problems -- what about the sale of poison, for example -- and others have arisen since (antitrust regulation in reaction to some economic issues, advertising (which remains almost entirely unregulated), etc.). Here, as elsewhere, individual rights and the rights of society can find themselves at odds.

       On Liberty is an essential introduction to a very important issue, one that is as timely now as it was when Mill wrote it. It is also an approachable book, readily comprehensible, clearly argued, well-written. Mill makes his points well, and though he does not exhaustively consider all the ramifications of his arguments, he offers a solid basis for all further discussion. And a great deal of further discussion there should be !

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On Liberty: John Stuart Mill: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) was one of the leading thinkers of his time.

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