he great interest shown in Mill's moral and political philosophy in recent years has produced some illuminating results. In moral philosophy he has been rescued from some of the crude mistakes attributed to him. In political philosophy the results have been less clear, but there is an increasing belief that the essay On Liberty is a more complex piece of work than is generally supposed. Until very recently, however, both critics and admirers of the essay have never doubted that it is a defence of individual liberty. They disagreed, about its value, but not about its liberal intentions. But even this unanimity has now been broken with the publication of Maurice Cowling's Mill and Liberalism, a fierce repudiation of Mill, who is accused of “more than a touch of something resembling moral totalitarianism”, and of intellectual “jealousy, and a carefully disguised intolerance”. In his comprehensive attack, Cowling does not spare the essay On Liberty, which is, according to him, only superficially a sustained plea for individual liberty. The individuality Mill defends is a selective one: it is the individuality of the elevated, and Mill's doctrine is really designed to detract from human freedom, and not to maximize it. The evidence Cowling accumulates to support his interpretation of Mill stretches over a very long period of Mill's life, from the early essays of 1831 on The Spirit of the Age to his Inaugural Address to the University of St. Andrews, delivered in 1867, and the posthumously published Three Essays on Religion. Cowling's account of Mill is supported to some extent by Shirley Letwin. In the section on Mill in The Pursuit of Certainty, Letwin does not go so far as Cowling in her assertion of illiberalism in Mill. She sees Mill as divided between “two incompatible ends”. Mill according to her,
marked the birth of the “liberal intellectual”, so familiar today, who with one part of him genuinely values liberty and recognizes the equal [144/145] right of all adults to decide their lives for themselves, but with another wants the government, under the direction of the superior few, to impose what he considers the good life on all his fellows. 
None the less Cowling can draw some support from Letwin for she seems to regard the illiberal side of Mill as the truer one, and it is certainly the side which she emphasizes even in the context of her discussion of the essay On Liberty.
Another interesting, though different, study of Mill is that of Gertrude Himmelfarb (Introduction). She does not doubt that the essay On Liberty is a defence of individual liberty, but she warns us not to be overwhelmed by it, for there was another Mill “who wrote in quite a different vein and was anything but the perfect liberal”. The Mill of the essay On Liberty had an intellectual life of less than two decades, starting in the 1840s and culminating in On Liberty. The other Mill is the Mill of the 1830s and the Mill who broke loose again after the death of his wife, Harriet Taylor, in 1858.
Himmelfarb has also devoted an entire book, On Liberty and Liberalism (Liberty), to a development of her thesis about the two Mills. But, as we shall see, her account of the other Mill in the book differs from, and is inconsistent with, her earlier version in some important respects.
What then is the truth of the matter? In this chapter, I shall argue that the traditional view of Mill as a liberal is fundamentally correct, though I shall distinguish three different phases in the development of his ideas on liberty. I shall maintain that both Cowling's and Himmelfarb's accounts of Mill are mistaken, Cowling's almost completely, and Himmelfarb's to a lesser extent. Although Cowling's case will be considered first, I shall discuss Himmelfarb's views at much greater length. Her more discriminating studies of Mill are likely to seem more persuasive.6
he falsity of Cowling's picture of Mill is most conspicuous in his short chapter on the essay On Liberty. He concedes that at first sight the essay seems to be more liberal and individualistic than he is prepared to allow; he concedes that Mill's notion of self-regarding actions appears to limit the area of interference with individual conduct; he concedes [145/146] further that Mill pleads for non-interference 'for the sake of the greater good of human freedom”; but he still succeeds in concluding that “On Liberty does not offer safeguards for individuality; it is designed to propagate the individuality of the elevated by protecting them against the mediocrity of opinion as a whole” (Cowling, 104). If Cowling merely means that Mill prefers one type of personality to another, he is surely right, but then Mill's advocacy of individual liberty is in no way compromised. A Christian is not illiberal if he prefers Christianity to all other religions, so long as he is prepared to allow others their freedom of worshiCowling seems to make the tacit assumption that the holding of any substantive doctrine, the support of any group in society, is ipso facto a renunciation of a belief in individual liberty. It is only on this assumption that he can profess to find any incompatibility between Mill's liberalism and his belief in the Religion of Humanity or in the “elevated individuality”. Thus in one place, when he is considering Mill's discussion of < Comte's views, Cowling argues that Mill's ethical injunctions leave no room for the belief that there could be more than one road to human happiness, for Mill is saying that “there is a doctrine, one doctrine, defining the nature of happiness and the means achieve it, and that that doctrine is binding” (33). Cowling is thus able to play down, or even completely ignore, the many passages in the essay On Liberty where Mill defends different “experiments in living” and explicitly denies that liberty is desired for the “elevated” alone. Thus Mill writes:
I have said that it is important to give the freest scope possible to uncustomary things, in order that it may in time appear which of these are fit to be converted into customs. But independence of action, and disregard of custom, are not solely deserving of encouragement for the chance they afford that better modes of action, and customs more worthy of general adoption, may be struck out; nor is it only persons of decided mental superiority who have a just claim to carry on their lives in their own way. There is no reason that all human existence should be constructed on some one or small number of patterns. If a person possesses any tolerable amount of common sense and experience, his own mode of laying out his existence is the best, not because it is the best in itself, but because it is his own mode. [On Liberty, 125; my emphasis]
Letwin makes the same mistakes when she says that “On Liberty was not a defence of the common man's right to live [146/147] as he liked; it was more nearly an attack on him” (301). There is no doubt that Mill preferred one type of personality to others. He admired the man who had “character”, who could think for himself. He criticized very strongly those who followed custom blindly and mechanically, who merely displayed “the ape-like” faculty of imitation; but he did not claim that they had no right to live as they liked. Nor did he provide what Letwin accuses him of, namely, “a justification of withholding personal liberty from any claimant unable to demonstrate that he was pursuing the 'right' ideal and was possessed of sufficient will power to pursue it steadily and energetically” (308). He believed, or at least hoped, that in conditions of freedom men would think for themselves, and order their actions according to their own conceptions of what is good or bad, under the guidance but not the dictatorship of customs and traditions, and with the experience and wisdom of others. But if, having been freed from the imposed tyranny of custom, they stiff voluntarily submitted themselves to it blindly, or failed to live up to the ideal of rationality, there is no evidence in the essay On Liberty to indicate that Mill would deny them their right to live as they wished, so long as their conduct was not harmful to others, though there is much evidence to show that he would indeed be contemptuous of them. Mill denied that we had the right to compel the Mormons “to conform to the opinions of other people” even though he strongly disapproved of their institution of polygamy, and felt that it was a “retrograde step in civilisation” (On Liberty, 148). His reason for this is that “all who are directly interested appear to be satisfied.” In promoting his own ideals of personal excellence Mill is committed to argument and persuasion, and not force and coercion. Letwin is sometimes aware of this, but she allows it to slip too easily into the language of “imposition” and intolerance.
Mill explicitly rejects the assumption that tolerance of another implies complete indifference to his behaviour. Coercion and the use of “whips and scourges, either of the literal or metaphorical sort” are ruled out, but “Considerations to aid his judgement, exhortations to strengthen his will, may be offered to him, by others: but he himself is the [147/148] final judge” (On Liberty, 133). A liberal does not cease to believe in individual liberty just because he holds certain substantive doctrines or standards of human excellence, or because he attempts to propagate them by argument and persuasion. He is to be distinguished by his belief that these doctrines and standards should not be imposed on others who should be free to choose for themselves, and Mill clearly passes the test.
Mill's acceptance of the idea of clerisy of superior minds is also misrepresented by Cowling. He is aware that Mill strongly opposed Comte's “spiritual despotism”, and he mentions the fact that for Mill the moral consensus should not be arbitrary or imposed. But at the same time he speaks of Mill's assumption that “the subject of study -- Man in Society can be successfully pursued only so far as the higher rational impulses, imposing themselves on the lower ones, help to bring this unity about” (Cowling, 66). If Cowling accepts the fact that Mill rules out the use of coercion, how can be consistently maintain that the higher impulses are to impose themselves on the lower ones? Mill's liberalism never led him to deny that some men are wiser and nobler than others. But he did not believe that the wiser and nobler men have the right to compel or coerce others. In the essay On Liberty he addresses himself explicitly to this point, and comes out clearly in favour of individual liberty. The enlightened can claim the right to point out the way but “the power of compelling others into it is not only inconsistent with the freedom and development of all the rest, but corrupting to the strong man himself” (On Liberty, 124). If this much is clear, then the notion of a clerisy in Mill's hands need not have authoritarian implications. The equality of intellects was never accepted by Mill. There was always a place in his system of thought for superior minds, but the role he envisaged for them was not a tyrannical one, at least in the essay On Liberty. Cowling however, makes it appear to be otherwise by his constant emphasis on the fact that Mill believed that ultimately there would be a universal consensus. He apparently believes that the acceptance of such a consensus somehow reduces the significance of Mill's commitment to individual freedom, for he says:
Whatever the means Mill advocates in order to achieve solidarity and [148/149] and rational participation, there can be no doubt, and there is no ambiguity about the fact, that he believes this to be a proper function of human society: and there is, beyond the libertarian character of the means, an assumption of the fundamental homogeneity of all rational judgement. [Cowling, 23-26]
If the suggestion here is that Mill only accepts freedom because it is an effective means of bringing about a rational consensus, and would reject it if there were other more effective means, then nothing can be further from the truth. Mill's fundamental objection to Comte's way of arriving at the consensus is not that it is ineffective, but that it is coercive and incolves the surrender of individual freedom. Thus in a letter to Harriet Taylor of 15 January 1855, Mill says that “opinion tends to encroach more and more on liberty, and almost all the projects of social reformers of these days are really liberticide -- Comte, particularly so” (Latter Letters, 294), and in his detailed discussion of Comte's doctrines in August Comte and Positivism, this is the criticism to which he returns again and again. If Mill regards the achievement of a consensus as of overriding importance, and freedom as to be valued only so long as it achieves this end, it would be difficult to explain why he should object so strongly to the suppression of individual liberty as a means of achieving unanimity of opinion. The consensus Cowling speaks of is acceptable to Mill only if it is obtained without suppressing individual freedom. Mill believed that individual freedom and the consensus of opinion are compatible.
Cowling seems to imply that if they are not compatible, Mill would sacrifice individual freedom. But there is no evidence to support this, and much to suggest the opposite view that Mill would in fact reject the consensus simply because it is imposed and as such undesirable.
It is difficult to see why Cowling places so much emphasis on Mill's belief in an ultimate consensus. Does he think that once the consensus is obtained freedom is no longer desirable to Mill? If so, he is quite wrong. Mill accepted the Saint-Simonian division of history into organic and critical periods. In an organic period there is some positive doctrine which is generally accepted and guides human behaviour. But in time the organic period gives way to a critical period when men [149/150] reject the old doctrine without at the same time replacing it by another. The critical period is one of scepticism and criticism. Mill believes that in such a period new opinions are likely to get a good hearing, but the critical period does not last for ever, and sooner or later a new doctrine will dominate men's minds; a new consensus is achieved. But in the Autobiography Mill states that it is in such a period, where there is a dominating doctrine, that “the teachings of the 'Liberty' will have their greatest value” (216). He valued freedom not only in the critical but also in the organic period. While he welcomed an ultimate consensus on many issues he at the same time
looked forward, through the present age of loud disputes but generally weak convictions, to a future which shall unite the best qualities of the critical with the best qualities of the organic periods; unchecked liberty of thought, unbounded freedom of individual action in all modes not hurtful to others; ... [140-41]
Freedom is not for Mill merely a means to an end which may be discarded once the end is achieved. Freedom is a permanent part of Mill's system of beliefs. It is the only desirable means to the achievement of consensus, and its continued presence after consensus is obtained is what keeps that consensus desirable.
Cowling makes one more attempt to support his accusation of illiberalism and intolerance in Mill. Referring to Mill's Inaugural Address to the University of St. Andrews, where he had spoken of the importance of “general culture,” Cowling asserts:
General Culture means ... critical reflection and mental doubt, sceptical scrutiny of existing habits, and, where habits are judged to be irrational or wrong, deciding which habits shall replace them. It means following the argument whithersoever it leads us; ... It means, in short, moral indoctrination ... 
Mill, according to Cowling, supposed indoctrination to be the chief function of a university. Cowling may wish to define critical reflection and freedom of inquiry as moral indoctrination, but why should he suppose that this has anything to do with Mill? Cowling writes:
Any set of general principles excludes some other set; any set of intellectual injunctions involves rejection of many others. Freedom of [150/151] enquiry is an intellectual injunction, which inhibits commitment to injunctions hostile to it. 
In a sense this is trivially true. If one is for freedom of inquiry, one must be against the imposition of a particular substantive doctrine in the sense that one wants it suppressed. Freedom of inquiry is a procedural injunction and is compatible with the existence of several conflicting substantive doctrines. Mill believed that the purpose of education is not to inculcate a particular doctrine which is now accepted as true, but to train men to think for themselves, and to judge for themselves what is true or what is right (Essays, 69). The belief that men should be trained to think and judge for themselves will of course be indirectly opposed to some substantive doctrines which are so irrational that they can be accepted only blindly and unthinkingly. Mill had confidence in his own substantive doctrines. Cowling, however, sometimes picks on this very confidence as a sign of illiberalism, as if Mill would not accept freedom of inquiry if he thought that this would lead to the rejection of his substantive doctrines like the Religion of Humanity. But surely Mill's arguments for freedom of discussion show that if his own doctrines do not survive freedom of inquiry, then they are false, and they, not freedom of inquiry, should be discarded.
Though Cowling may sometimes catch a fleeting glimpse of the truth about Mill, the total picture which emerges from his book is false and misleading. To get at the tiny element of truth in it, one has to be more discriminating about the different periods in Mill's life. For this one has to turn to Himmelfarb.
immelfarb does not try to show that On Liberty is not a liberal tract. She regards the essay as the culmination of the “later” Mill, as she calls him, and contrasts its doctrines with those of the other or “earlier” Mill. She believes that the “earlier” Mill has been overlooked because Mill's biographers have been overwhelmed by On Liberty, and because Mill himself rewrote his own past in his Autobiography. The [151/152] greater part of the Autobiography was written concurrently with the essay On Liberty and both works were closely supervised by Harriet Taylor. Mill's selection and editing of Dissertations and Discussions, in which again his wife shared, also distorted the picture of his intellectual development. He made significant alterations in his essay which did not appear in their original versions. Himmelfarb has edited a valuable collection of Mill's essays which, according to her, shows the “earlier” Mill. Some of these essays belong to the period 1831-1840, while the rest are drawn from the period after Harriet's death in 1858, when Mill, she claims, “reverted to the philosophical temper of the earlier period”. Himmelfarb presents some earlier essays, which were reprinted in Dissertations and Discussions, not as they appeared there but in their original versions. In various footnotes she meticulously indicates those changes made by Mill in his edition of the essays in Dissertations and Discussions 'that alter the sense or the tone of the original'.
In trying to assess the correctness of Himmelfarb's account of the “earlier” Mill, one faces the problem that the contrast between this Mill and the “later” Mill is not always well defined. Sometimes the “earlier” Mill is represented as the Mill who retreated from radicalism, and at other times he is represented as the illiberal Mill who rejected the doctrines of the essay On Liberty. These two versions of the “earlier” Mill need not coincide, for it is not at all clear that the rejection of specific doctrines held by the philosophic Radicals is necessarily a repudiation of a strong belief in individual liberty. Since my purpose is only to consider Mill's views on individual liberty, I shall discuss whether the evidence given by Himmelfarb is sufficient to support her thesis about an “earlier” Mill who was at odds with the teachings of the essay On Liberty.
I shall consider first the evidence for the claim that after Harriet Taylor's death Mill once more propounded doctrines inconsistent with those of the essay On Liberty. Here I think that Himmelfarb's case is at its weakest, for her two versions of the “earlier” Mill now come apart most clearly. The examples she gives of Mill's retreat from radicalism -- his acceptance of the ideas of plural voting and proportional [152/153] representation -- do not seem to me to deviate from anything he said in On Liberty. Indeed Himmelfarb also mentions his fears of the tyranny of the majority, and on this important point there is surely no change from the essay On Liberty. There he put forward his “one very simple principle” to protect individuals from the tyranny of the majority. Now he is proposing other safeguards against the same tyranny he feared so much, though he does not seem to accord them the same status as the “simple principle”. They were not held as absolute principles, but more as devices which facilitate the ventilation of minority views. Mill was not against giving power to the numerical majority, but he was profoundly afraid that it would get all the power. In his Autobiography he maintains:
Minorities, so long as they remain minorities, are, and ought to be, outvoted; but under arrangements which enable any assemblage of voters, amounting to a certain number, to place in the legislature representatives of its own choice, minorities cannot be suppressed. Independent opinions will force their way into the council of the nation and make themselves heard there, a thing which often cannot happen in the existing forms of representative democracy; and the legislature, instead of being weeded of individual peculiarities and entirely made up of men who simply represent the creed of great political or religious parties, will comprise a large proportion of the most eminent individual minds In the country, placed there, without reference to party, by voters who appreciate their individual eminency. [Autobiography, 220]
However objectionable his proposals about plural voting and proportional representation may have been to the Radicals, the fact is that these proposals were designed primarily to ensure that minority opinions were given the opportunity of being heard. As such they are not incompatible with anything Mill said in the essay On Liberty.
At one point, however, Himmelfarb specifically contrasts Considerations on Representative Government with On Liberty. Representative Government is “subtle and complex” and shows no yearning for a “single truth” or “one very simple principle” (Introduction, xxiii). But I am afraid that I fail to see the point of the alleged contrast. If Mill's liberty principle is “very simple” then so are some of his conclusions in Representative Government, such as the idea of plural voting. And there are probably “subtle and complex” arguments in both works. But setting [153/154] these aside, I do not understand how the “one very simple principle” of On Liberty is in any way compromised by the “subtle and complex inquiry” in Representative Government. As for Mill's concern in the latter work with limiting the power of democratic government, this is another manifestation of his fear of the tyranny of the majority, which also permeates the essay On Liberty.
In her book On Liberty and Liberalism, Himmelfarb contrasts Mill's proposals on proportional representation and plural voting, as propounded in Representative Government and Thoughts on Parliamentary Reform (1859), with his views in the essay On Liberty. Whereas in these two works his proposals give an “unequal voice” to different people, and he is convinced that “one person is not as good as another” [this quotation is from Mill's essay, Thoughts on Parliamentary Reform, which is included in Essays, 315], in On Liberty he takes the entirely different line, “that every person, every opinion, and every expression of individuality was 'as good as another'” (Himmelfarb, Liberty, 304n). But this is a distortion of Mill's defence of individual liberty. To argue against the use of coercion in preventing a person from expressing his opinion, or from developing his individuality, is not to be committed to the very different view that one opinion or one way of life is just as good as another. Mill does not go back on his view in On Liberty that the wise should only persuade, but not compel, the unwise to accept their more enlightened views and way of life. Indeed in Representative Government, Mill's criterion of a good government is its ability to promote “the virtue and intelligence of the people themselves” (Government, 193; a detailed and lucid discussion of this work is to be found in Dennis F. Thompson). It is on this basis that he explicitly rejects government by a “good despot”: “What should we then have? One man of superhuman mental activity managing the entire affairs of a mentally passive people” (Mill, Government, 203). Here, as in On Liberty, Mill is concerned to promote conditions congenial to the cultivation of “intellectually active people”. What he fears is the stunting of men's intellectual and moral capacities, and a good despotism is likely to do this more than a bad one: “Evil for evil, a good despotism, in a country at all advanced in civilization, is more noxious than a bad one; for it is far more relaxing and enervating to the thoughts, feelings, and energies of the people” (Government, 207).
As far as the period after Harriet Taylor's death in 1858 is [154/155] concerned, I do not think that Himmelfarb has shown that Mill's views differed from those of On Liberty. Indeed in Auguste Comte and Positivism, which was written in this period, there is every evidence of a continued belief in individual liberty. For example, he protests that liberty and spontaneity form no part of Comte's scheme (Mill, Comte, 123), and there is this echo of On Liberty:
Why is it necessary that all human life should point but to one object, and be cultivated into a system of means to a single end? May it not be the fact that mankind, who after all are made up of single human beings, obtain a greater sum of happiness when each pursues his own, under the rules and conditions required by the good of the rest, than when each makes the good of the rest his only object and allows himself no personal pleasures not indispensable to the preservation of his faculties. [Comte, 141-2]
Let me now turn to the other period involving the “earlier” Mill. The last essay of this period in Himmelfarb's collection is Mill's second review of Tocqueville's Democracy in America. This review was published in October 1840, and Himmelfarb says that it was “the last of its kind for many years, the end of an epoch in Mill's life”. This period of the “earlier” Mill ended, therefore, in 1840, and presumably began some time before 9 January 1831, the date of publication of the first part of The Spirit of the Age, which is the earliest of Mill's essays in her collection. There is still the Mill of the 18 20s, who was already actively publishing, and there were, according to Himmelfarb, also complications in the Mill of the 1830s. She gives a brief description of all these. Until he was twenty Mill was the good son of his father. Then in 1826 he experienced his famous mental crisis, and this led to his being influenced by the writings of Wordsworth, Comte, Carlyle, and Coleridge. Macaulay's attack on his father's Essay On Government affected him further, and by 1831 he had already deviated so far from the Radicals and Utilitarians that he could say that all his differences with them, unlike those with any philosophic Tory, were differences of principle. Mill wrote several articles in this new frame of mind but, according to Himmelfarb, his “awe and fear” of his father made him lead a sort of “double life”. He wrote articles that would satisfy “the most fanatical utilitarian and radical”. He thus tried desperately “to [155/156] appease his father while placating his conscience with occasional asides of disagreement”. His father's death in 1836 liberated Mill who, for the next five years, wrote essays “free from party spirit and partisan purpose”. The essays on Civilization, Bentham, Coleridge, on the Reorganization of the Reform Party, and the second review of Tocqueville, which are all included in Himmelfarb's collection, belong to this period. After this Mill came under the dominating influence of Harriet Taylor and did not revert to the frame of mind depicted in these essays until after her death.
This, then, is Himmelfarb's picture of Mill from the 1820s to the late 1850s. How true is it? My first difficulty is with her account of Mill's relationship with his father. I do not doubt that Mill held his father in some awe, and he tried to avoid conflicts and disagreements with him. But I find it difficult to believe that his fear of his father was so great as to lead him deliberately to publish views at odds with what he actually believed. He had, after all, stood up to his father over his friendship with Graham and Roebuck [Packe, 68]. It is true that during this period of his life Mill could not see eye to eye with the Radicals and Utilitarians. But he still had some sympathies for them. This, combined with his familiar habit of always presenting the other side of the picture, is probably a better explanation of those writings of his which were sympathetic to the Utilitarians than deliberate intellectual dishonesty designed simply to appease his father.
Himmelfarb's account of the dominating influence of Harriet Taylor on Mill is also puzzling in some respects. She does not think much of Harriet personally or intellectually, but she believes that her influence on Mill was enormous. Mill first met Harriet in 1830, and in spite of his professions to the contrary in the Autobiography, Himmelfarb is surely right to claim that “their relationship became intimate and confidential almost immediately” (Introduction, xv; Himmelfarb, 209). This being the case, why is it that in Himmelfarb's account Harriet's great influence on Mill did not show itself until almost a decade later, when the “later” Mill emerged in the 1840s? Packe, who also believes in the dominating influence of Harriet on Mill, dates this influence from 1832, with the publication of Mill's essay [156/156] On Genius in October of that year. If indeed Harriet's influence was so important, 1832 instead of the 1840s would have been a more likely date for its manifestation in Mill's writings. Perhaps Harriet's influence was suppressed by Mill's fear of his father, but that fear died with James Mill in 1836. Mill was then free to fall under Harriet's spell, but on Himmelfarb's account did not appear to have done so for another few years.
In On Liberty and Liberalism, Himmelfarb says that in the first decade of their friendship Harriet did not decisively influence Mill's thinking. But she now argues that On Liberty conflicts with nearly everything else Mill wrote except the two essays on women. Whereas the Mill of On Liberty propounded and defended the “one very simple principle” of liberty, the other Mill was aware of the complexity of social and political life, and sought to qualify the pursuit of individual liberty with other values, such as “duty, morality, discipline, the public good, tradition, community, nationality, society” (Himmelfarb, Liberty, 168). Evidence of the other Mill is now to be found not only in those periods when Harriet's great influence had not asserted itself, but also when her influence on Mill was at its height. The Mill of On Liberty is no longer the Mill of the 1840s and 1850s (up to Harriet's death in 1858) as she had earlier postulated. The sentiments of the other Mill were expressed in other writings even at the very time Mill was working on On Liberty (Himmelfarb, Liberty, 144, 206 fn 42). So the Mill of On Liberty lives only in that essay and in the essays on women. As Rees has pointed out (372, 375), in the earlier version of the “two Mills” thesis, Himmelfarb grouped together Utilitarianism, Political Economy, and On Liberty as works not belonging to the other Mill, but as works produced during the period of Harriet's greatest influence. But in her book, Utilitarianism and Political Economy are included among the works of the other Mill and set against On Liberty.
In On Liberty and Liberalism, Himmelfarb argues that Mill was preoccupied with the question of women's liberation, and it was this urgent practical issue which led him to formulate his principle of liberty: “the doctrine of liberty was required for the liberation of women” (Liberty, 181). By showing that men too, though to a lesser extent, were victims of society's [157/158] tyranny, Mill gave both men and women a common interest in promoting individual liberty against the claims of society, custom, and tradition. On Liberty was written under the close supervision of Harriet, and her influence pushed him to adopt the absolute value of liberty, an extreme position that contrasted with his customary, moderate mode of thought.
But why is it that Mill's abiding interest in the liberation of women is not reflected in all his writings of the same period when he was under Harriet's strong influence? Himmelfarb gives two reasons. First, the liberation of women is more directly and immediately related to the subject of liberty than it is to the topics Mill dealt with in his other works (Liberty, 206 fn 42). Where the cause of women was not directly involved, there was no need to argue a case for absolute freedom, and Mill was able to assume his more usual mode of thought. But this explanation runs counter to her account of the nature of Harriet's influence on Mill, Himmelfarb quotes Mill's remark that in On Liberty the “whole mode of thinking” was Harriet's, and that he too was thoroughly imbued with it (Himmelfarb, Liberty, 258). She identifies Harriet's distinctive mode of thought as “absolutistic and simplistic”. One would therefore expect to see in all of Mill's writings which are heavily influenced by her, expressions of the same distinctive mode of thought. So how was Mill able to escape to his more customary, moderate, and complex way of thinking? Himmelfarb herself is at pains to show that Harriet held strong views on many issues, and Mill, on her account, willingly, and indeed obsequiously, gave in to her on many points of disagreement. Himmelfarb also quotes from Mill's Autobiography on the influence of Harriet in the writing of The Subjection of Women. It was through her teaching that Mill became aware of the way in which “the consequences of the inferior position of women intertwine themselves with all the evils of existing society and with all the difficulties of human improvement” (Liberty, 206-7). But this shows Mill's consciousness of the connection between his plea for the equality of the sexes and many other social and political issues which interest him. If therefore it was the liberation of women which led him to adopt Harriet's mode of thought in On Liberty, then he had reason [158/159] also to stick to that mode of thought when he was dealing with other subjects impinging on the liberation of women.
Himmelfarb's second explanation of On Liberty's special position is that it was written during the period of Mill's marriage to Harriet when the cause of women dominated his thought more profoundly than at other times. But some of the works of the other Mill were also written or revised during the same period. If the cause of women was in the forefront of his thought when he wrote On Liberty, it should, by the same token, also be his dominant interest when he was writing other works at the time.
But assuming that there are indeed two Mills, and setting aside the problem of when and where each Mill expressed himself, how plausible is Himmelfarb's explanation of the driving force behind On Liberty? If, as she insists, Mill's purpose in writing On Liberty was to promote the cause of women, then why is it that the emancipation of women features only fleetingly in the essay? She speculates that Mill had hoped that by using safer examples, such as religion, he would win support for the general proposition of liberty, and after that, “all the particulars, including women, would fall into place” (Liberty, 182). However, this does not explain why, in his letter to Harriet of 15 January 1855, in which he stated the urgency of writing and publishing the essay, there was no reference to the cause of women, but only a reference to the necessity of combating illiberal tendencies.
On my way here cogitating theron I came back to an idea we have talked about and thought that the best thing to write and publish at present would be a volume on Liberty. So many things might be brought into it and nothing seems to be more needed -- it is a growing need too, for opinion tends to encroach more and more on liberty, and almost all the projects of social reformers in these days are really liberticide -- Comte, particularly so. [Collected Works, Vol. xiv, 294]
Several things are evident from this letter. First, it was Mill, and not Harriet, who first drew attention to the urgency of publishing On Liberty. Secondly, there was no single issue, like the cause of women, which led him to the belief in the importance of the essay. Himmelfarb's search for a single issue is therefore misguided. The liberation of women may have been too delicate an issue for Mill to write directly [159/160] and at length about in a published essay. But if, as Himmelfarb claims, “On Liberty was the case of women writ large” (181), then one would at least expect Mill to mention it in his private communication to his wife. So at the most the cause of women is only one of the “many things” that the essay is concerned with.
I have argued in Chapter 2 that Mill wanted to revise the whole framework within which the question of individual liberty was discussed, and to make the case for liberty on the “higher ground of principle”. It was only in the area of religion that this higher ground was acknowledged to some extent, and this is why he picked on religious examples. Mill wanted to show that a principled defence of individual liberty involved its extension from the religious to other areas as well. Himmelfarb's failure to understand the nature of Mill's case for liberty is manifest in her argument that Mill did not write On Liberty to defend “the more serious forms of social and sexual deviancy” because he had “no great liking” for them (152). But what Mill liked or disliked is irrelevant, for Mill wrote On Liberty precisely to combat the view that the limits of individual liberty should be determined by the “likings or dislikings of society, or of some powerful portion of it”.
I conclude that although Himmelfarb's emphasis on Mill's continued interest in the emancipation of women, and her story of Harriet's influence on him, are most interesting, she fails in her attempt to weave these fascinating accounts into her general thesis of the two Mills.
But what about the textual evidence drawn from the period before Mill came under Harriet's deep influence? Does it support Himmelfarb's view of the other Mill? I find the same difficulty with the two reviews of de Tocqueville, and with the essay on Reorganization of the Reform Party, as I did with some of the essays in the post-Harriet period. Again, I do not doubt that they show Mill to be an imperfect Radical; and if this is all that Himmelfarb wants to establish, then it would be impossible to disagree with her. But if her case is that anyone who is not a perfect Radical violates the letter or the spirit of On Liberty, then I fail to follow her. To plead for the gradual instead of the [160/161]immediate introduction of universal suffrage is not necessarily to violate anything of importance in the essay On Liberty. In the second review of Tocqueville, Mill in fact displays the same concern he was to show in the essay On Liberty with the provision of opportunities for the expression of individuality, and for the propagation of opinions opposed to those generally held in a society. There is also the fear that the majority may impose its wishes through coercive measures outside the framework of the law (Mill, Essays, 239).
In her book, Himmelfarb acknowledges some similarities between the themes of the essays on de Tocqueville and those of On Liberty (82). But she argues that Mill attacked the qualities of the commercial class even though these were the very qualities he celebrated in On Liberty (83-84). Thus, whereas in On Liberty Mill regarded “freedom and variety of situations” as necessary for the promotion of individuality, in the second review of Tocqueville he valued the absence of the commercial spirit among the agricultural class. Unlike the commercial class, farmers in England still had strong attachments to places and persons, and to traditional ways of life. Himmelfarb seems to think that Mill's notion of individuality implies “freedom from all ties”, and that therefore only the commercial spirit is a true expression of it. But Mill pleaded for “freedom and variety of situations” in order that different individuals might develop in different ways. No doubt some would exercise their freedom by freeing themselves from previous attachments, whereas others would want to cling to them. In the second review of Tocqueville, Mill was fearful of the complete dominance of the commercial spirit because, “whenever any variety of human nature becomes predominant in a community, it imposes upon all the rest of society its own type; forcing all either to submit to it or to imitate it” (Essays, 263). He praised the commercial spirit as “one of the greatest instruments not only of civilization in the narrowest, but of improvement and culture in the widest sense” (263). But the agricultural class was still necessary as a counterbalance to the predominance of this spirit. The predominance of any one class or spirit was undesirable because, “The unlikeness of one man to another is not only a principle of improvement, but would seem almost to be the only principle” (263).[161/162]
Mill made alterations to the original versions of the essays, on Bentham and Coleridge when editing Dissertations and Discussions, but the alterations in Bentham do not seem to bear on the issue of individual liberty. Indeed the fear that individual liberty would be suppressed by the “despotism of Public Opinion” is as strong here as in the essay On Liberty. However, in the essay on Coleridge there are some remarks to which Himmelfarb attaches significance (45-7, 76-80). The most important of these for our purposes are concentrated in a passage where Mill is discussing the second of his three essential conditions of all permanent political societies. Himmelfarb lists them among the examples of the more flagrant changes made by Mill which altered the sense and tone of the original ("Introduction," viii fn; Liberty, 47n; the changes are collated in the Collected Works, Vol. X, Appendix D, 503-8). In Dissertations and Discussions Mill's changes seem to be designed to underline his belief in freedom much more than was suggested in the original version. There are undoubtedly some important differences in the two versions, but the really crucial question is whether the original version is inconsistent with the acceptance of the principle of individual freedom. Taken in itself, the original version seems to be susceptible both of an interpretation which would make it an illiberal doctrine, and of one which makes it clearly liberal [but see Capaldi]. The belief that it is an essential condition of the stability of a society that there should be something which should be settled and not to be called in question could, if narrowly interpreted, set severe restrictions on individual freedom of opinion and action. But, on the other hand, it could also be interpreted more widely to include the principle of individual freedom itself as a factor which stabilizes a society. In the later version of the passage in question Mill in fact adopts the wider interpretation. In his biography of Mill, Bain refers precisely to this passage and Writes: “Grote never ceased to convert this remark into an expression for the standing intolerance of society towards unpopular opinions” (57). But Bain apparently gave it a different interpretation.
Even in the original version of the essay Mill says that the feeling that there should be something which is not to be called in question “may attach itself to laws; to ancient liberties, or ordinances; to the whole or some part of the [162/163] political, or even the domestic, institutions of the state”. With regard to laws which restrain the individual's inclinations to cause harm to others, like the laws against murder and assault, it is surely not illiberal to maintain that unless there is a general recognition that they are right and not to be done alway with, there can be no peace and security in a society. Apart from these, Mill's account of the essential conditions of stability in a society need not imply that there would be other specific laws and institutions which should remain unchanged. He may mean no more than that respect for law and ordered government in general should remain unchanged, and not the respect for this or that law or government. Men may seek to change particular laws and institutions by constitutional processes, but they should not disregard and refuse to obey any law they find unacceptable. In seeking to rid society of particular institutions, they should be conscious of the possible cohesive effects of some of these institutions. That something like this is what Mill really meant can be shown if one looks at the passage in question, not in isolation, but in the wider context of the essay as a whole. I have already done this in Chapter 6, and here it is only necessary to summarize some of the relevant points. The essay was written for Radicals and Liberals. He thus sought to emphasize those elements of what he called “the Germano-Coleridgian school” from which he felt they had most to learn. One of the important problems which this school of thought saw was how to achieve improvement in society while preserving the conditions of social stability. Mill's intention in putting forward the essential conditions for the stability of political societies was not to set severe restraints on freedom of discussion and individual liberty, but to warn reformers to be cautious, and to be sensitive to whatever important values may still reside in old institutions and beliefs, and not to destroy everything regarded as bad without at the same time being able to replace them with something better.
Other passages in the essay on Coleridge show that Mill was aware of the importance of individual liberty and freedom of opinion. Thus he writes:
All who are on a level with their age now readily admit that government [163/164] ought not to interdict men from publishing their opinions, pursuing their employments, or buying and selling their goods, in whatever place or manner they deem the most advantageous. Beyond suppressing force and fraud, governments can seldom, without doing more harm than good, attempt to chain up the free agency of individuals. [Essays, 163-64]
And later he speaks of “unrestricted freedom of thought” as the very foremost condition of philosophy (168).
The essay on Civilization (1836), which is also included in Himmelfarb's collection, shows Mill to be firmly committed to freedom of inquiry. He argues that the purpose of education is not to impose any particular dogma on individuals, but to teach and equip them “to seek the truth, ardently, vigorously, and disinterestedly”. Once they have been given the necessary instruments for this search, they should be left to “the unshackled use of them” (Essays, 69). A university teacher is not obliged to teach the accepted truths of a society. The test of his suitability is whether he knows all creeds, and whether in putting foward his own views he “states the arguments for all conflicting opinions fairly”.
In this spirit it is that all the great subjects are taught from the chairs in German and French Universities. The most distinguished teacher is selected, whatever be his particular views, and he consequently teaches in the spirit of free inquiry, not of dogmatic imposition. Were such the practice here, we believe that the results would greatly eclipse France and Germany, because we believe that when the restraints on free speculation and free teaching were taken off, there would be found in many individual minds among us, a vein of solid and accurate thought,... [Essays, 73]
The essay therefore gives no indication of illiberal views or tendencies.
In this essay, as Himmelfarb points out, Mill laments the fact that there are too many poorly written books. But he does not argue, as Himmelfarb seems to suggest, that freedom of discussion is the cause of the proliferation of bad books, nor does he believe that the remedy is to be found in restricting such freedom. The source of the trouble was that, “almost every person who can spell, can and will write” (Essays, 61). Mill suggests two remedies. First, there should be co-operation among individuals, and especially among the “leading intellects”, to provide better guidance to the general public [164/165] in distinguishing between good and bad books. Himmelfarb seems to think that an appeal to co-operation goes against the discussion and competition which On Liberty seeks to stimulate (Liberty, 44-45). But surely Mill intended the co-operating intellects to discuss vigorously the competing ideas in various books before they issued their verdict. Nor is there any suggestion that the general public should merely accept, and never discuss, the choices and recommendations of their guides. Indeed Mill's second remedy is a proper education, which, as we have just seen, will inculcate a desire for truth and a spirit of free inquiry.
Himmelfarb argues that, unlike On Liberty, the main idea of the early essays was a denial of any “single truth”. But the conflict here is only apparent. The “single truth” that Mill asserted in the essay On Liberty is the importance of individual freedom. One reason for his advocacy of freedom of expression is his belief that the truth on specific issues is likely to be complex, many-sided, and shared by more than one system of thought. The acceptance of the “single truth” ("Introduction," xx; , Liberty, Ch. I) of the importance of individual liberty is therefore not only compatible with the belief that on specific problems no single system of thought has the monopoly of truth, but it is also in part supported by that belief.
Himmelfarb also contrasts the “absolute” nature of Mill's defence of liberty with the moderate and complex mode of thought of the other Mill. In Chapter 2 I have tried to elucidate the sense in which Mill's liberty principle is “absolute”. But it is important to notice here that Himmelfarb robs Mill's principle of whatever plausibility it has by ignoring the limited scope of its application; this is a point well made by Ronald Dworkin, 261. The principle is to be applied to cases in which the state or society interferes with the individual's conduct simply to enforce the values of a dominant or any other group, or to prevent the individual from harming himself. Mill's principle condemns such interference, and seeks to restrict intervention to cases where there is the prevention of harm to others. But Himmelfarb converts this principle to cover “the entire range of action” (Liberty, 299), and she makes liberty into Mill's “only value” (Liberty, 272). She is thereby able to claim that the Mill of On Liberty, unlike the other Mill, did not qualify and supplement liberty with other values [165/166] like “duty, morality, discipline, the public good, tradition, community, nationality, society” (Liberty, 168). With this caricature of the liberal Mill it is not surprising that she finds evidence of the other Mill all over Mill's other works. Thus she asserts that On Liberty is a rejection of “community, fraternity and morality” (Liberty, 91). On the other hand, she points out that in Utilitarianism Mill refers to the development of morality by means of sanctions or punishment (Liberty, 106-8). But she does not show that Mill believed in using punishment for any other purpose than to prevent harm to others, and this surely is the crucial point if there is to be any contrast between the two works. Again, she picks out Mill's reference in the essay on Coleridge to the need for “restraining discipline” as further evidence of the other Mill (Liberty, 78-79). But she fails to notice Mill's remark in On Liberty: “To be held to rigid rules of justice for the sake of others, develops the feelings and capacities which have the good of others for their object” (121). The question to which On Liberty addresses itself is not whether there should be sanctions, punishment, or restraints, but where they are to be applied.
Himmelfarb also treats Mill's doctrine of individuality as if it were a plea for selfishness and self-indulgence (Liberty, 91, 107, 139, 269), when in fact Mill in On Liberty is quite explicit that individuality should be developed “within the limits imposed by the rights and interests of others” (120), and he pleads for “a great increase of disinterested exertion to promote the good of others” (132).
he only essay in Himmelfarb's collection which gives some support to her thesis about the two Mills is The Spirit of the Age. This consists of a series of articles published in the Examiner from 9 January to 29 May 1831. The essay shows a Mill whose views on individual liberty differ from those expressed in On Liberty and elsewhere, though the exact differences are of great interest and merit close attention. Packe has also drawn attention to Mill's letter to Sterling of 20 to 22 October 1831 which, according to him, shows Mill to be a “stern authoritarian” (Packe, 133). Packe, however, regards this as a brief aberration which vanished less than eighteen [166/167] months later with the publication of On Genius.
What exactly are Mill's views during this period -- 1831 and thereabouts? Even in this “sternly authoritarian” frame of mind, Mill did not deny the importance of freedom of discussion. In The Spirit of the Age he says that an increase in discussion causes the decay of prejudices, and leads to the rooting out of errors. “It is”, he adds, “by discussion, also, that true opinions are discovered and diffused”, though “this is not so certain a consequence as the weakening of error” (Essays, 7). The truth is many-sided, and men are inclined to see only one side of it. But there is no suggestion here that the solution lies in the restriction of freedom of discussion. So too, in his letter to Sterling, Mill writes:
In the Present age of transition, everything must be subordinate to freedom of inquiry: if your opinion, or mine, are right, they will in time be unanimously adopted by the instructed classes, and then it win be time to found the national creed upon the assumption of their truth. [Earlier Letters, 77]
Himmelfarb, however, quotes from a letter to Carlyle of 18 May 1833, which at first sight seems to indicate that Mill did not care much for freedom of discussion. But a careful examination of the letter does not, I think, bear this out. The relevant part reads:
... it seems to me that there has been on my part something like a want of courage in avoiding, or touching only perfunctorily, with you, points on which I thought it likely that we should differ. That was a kind of reaction from the dogmatic disputatiousness of my former narrow and mechanical state. I have not any great notion of the advantage of what the “free discussion” men call the “collision of opinions”, it being my creed that Truth is sown and germinates in the mind itself, and is not to be struck out suddenly like fire from a flint by knocking another hard body against it; so I accustomed myself to learn by inducing others to deliver their thoughts, and to teach by scattering my own, and I eschewed occasions of controversy (except occasionally with some of my old Utilitarian associates). [Earlier Letters, 153; cf. Himmelfarb, Introduction, xii; Himmelfarb, Liberty, 47-8]
Mill was not against freedom of discussion in the sense of allowing the propagation of different and hostile opinions. Indeed he speaks of learning from the thoughts of others. But he was against “dogmatic disputatiousness”, a frame of mind which revels in criticizing and attacking the doctrines of others, while at the same time being unwilling to seek the element of truth in these doctrines. His reasons for opposition [167/168] to “dogmatic disputatiousness” are stated at greater length in a letter to D'Eichthal of 9 February 1830, where he explains that if controversy were avoided,
no one's offended amour propre would make him cling to his errors; no one would connect, with the adoption of truth, the idea of defeat; and no one would feel impelled by the ardour of debate and the desire of triumph, to reject, as almost all now do whatever of truth there really is in the opinions of those whose ultimate conclusion differs from theirs. [Mill, Earlier Letters, 46]
What is, however, somewhat confusing is the fact that Mill sometimes says that he is against “discussion” when what he is really against is disputatiousness. Thus he tells D'Eichthal that he would read all the literature he gets about the Saint-Simonian doctrines, ask for any necessary explanations, and always state his reasons for differing from these doctrines; but, he adds, “on no account will I discuss with you” (Mill, Earlier Letters, 46). Mill's present dislike of controversy is a reaction against the zeal with which he rushed into disputes at the London Debating Society. Sterling's withdrawal from that Society after his debate with Mill may have hastened and sustained this reaction. But Mill did not reject the importance of freedom of discussion. He merely recognized that injured pride and other human frailties may obstruct the acquisition of true opinions. Even the Mill of On Liberty, the staunch defender of freedom of discussion, was fully aware that men, engaged in strong controversies, might refuse to see the truth:
I acknowledge that the tendency of all opinions to become sectarian is not cured by the freest discussion, but is often heightened and exacerbated thereby; the truth which ought to have been, but was not, seen, being rejected all the more violently because proclaimed by persons regarded as opponents. But it is not on the impassioned partisan, it is on the calmer and more disinterested bystander, that this collision of opinions works its salutary effect. [On Liberty, 111]
In the case of his private letters there were of course no disinterested bystanders to profit from any controversy. But Mill had faith in the value of an exchange of views, for in a letter of 20 October 1832 he speaks of the good of “association & collision with other minds” (Earlier Letters, 124).
But though the evidence does not show that the Mill of [168/169] this period was against freedom of discussion, it does show that there is a significant difference between Mill's views in The Spirit of the Age and those in On Liberty. It lies in his evaluation of the value of freedom of discussion for the ordinary man. In the essay On Liberty Mill thinks that freedom of thought is indispensable “to enable average human beings to attain the mental stature which they are capable of” (94). Freedom of discussion is needed so that men may not only have true opinions, but that they may also know the truth. To know the truth one has to know the grounds for it, and be prepared to listen to conflicting views, and modify one's own view in the light of further argument and evidence; it is not enough merely to accept an opinion and believe in it on trust or blindly. In the presence of freedom of discussion “even persons of the most ordinary intellect” may be raised to “something of the dignity of thinking beings” (95). But in The Spirit of the Age and in the letter to Sterling (20 to 22 October 1832), Mill held a different view. He did not believe that the ordinary man had sufficient opportunities for acquiring the knowledge or experience which would enable him to know the truth. He must in the end always accept his opinions on trust from those who have devoted themselves specially to the study of moral and political philosophy. Freedom of discussion was valued because it enabled ordinary men to have true opinions and not because it enabled them to know the truth. To know the truth was the privilege of the more cultivated men (Mill, Essays, 12).
But even at this period of his life Mill believed that the ordinary man should not be forced to accept the unanimous opinions of the more cultivated minds. In his description of the natural state of society, he says that the opinions and feelings of the people are to be formed for them “with their voluntary acquiescence” (Mill, Essays, 36). On the other hand, he wanted society to be so organized that “wordly power” was put in the hands of the more cultivated members so as “to render their power over the minds of their fellow-citizens paramount and irresistible” (36). In this effort to make the power of the cultivated minds “irresistible”, in the apparent lack of any concern over the possible “spiritual and temporal despotism” such a power might exercise, and in his omission to define [169/170] any area of a man's life except that of his own “particular calling or occupation” where he is capable of knowing the truth, the Mill of this period differed radically from the Mill of On Liberty and also of Auguste Comte and Positivism.
However, when the essay On Genius was published in October 1832, Mill had already discarded some elements in his doctrine that the people should accept their ideas on the authority of the more cultivated minds. This essay is a strong plea that it is the duty of all men to seek to know the truth in certain areas and that they should not be satisfied with accepting it on trust:
Let each person be made to feel that in other things he may believe upon trust -- if he find a trustworthy authority -- but that in the line of his peculiar duty, and in the line of the duties common to all men, it is his business to know. [On Genius, 101; Mill's emphasis]
The ideal of knowing the truth, of the desirability of the “active” as opposed to the “passive” mind, so prominent in the essay On Liberty, was already dominating Mill's thoughts here. And here too, as in On Liberty, it was an ideal that he held out for all men, and not just for a few limited number of cultivated ones (On Genius, 94).
It is difficult to ascertain when exactly Mill changed his views. Himmelfarb seems to think that there is a continuity of beliefs between The Spirit of the Age and a second series of articles which Mill wrote for the Examiner in 1832 and which lost the paper about two hundred Radical readers. If this is correct, then the essay On Genius is probably the first expression of his changed views. However, I do not think that Himmelfarb is correct about the articles she mentions. These are two articles on pledges published on 1 and 15 July 1832. Mill contended there that, except for a few cases, no pledges should be exacted from intending Members of Parliament. However, his arguments show that while he believed that legislation should be in the hands of the more cultivated minds, he was none the less alive to the dangers of unchecked power, even if exercised by wise men. He felt that legislation, like medicine, is a profession, and that if legislators were chosen on the basis of their greater political wisdom, it would then be ridiculous for the electors [170/171] to impose their own views on them through the pledge. But he regarded the people's right of periodically changing their legislators as a security against the abuse of power by the legislators:
Government must be performed by the few, for the benefit of the many: and the security of the many consists in being governed by those who possess the largest share of their confidence, and no longer than while that confidence lasts. [Examiner, 1 July 1832, 417]
To strengthen this security, Mill advocated a shortening of the duration of parliaments. He feared the corruption of continued power. There is here no overemphasis on the good which a group of cultivated intellects may produce. Here is a Mill conscious of the need for checks even on the power of this grouMill always retained a respect for the leadership of the cultivated minds, but the extreme confidence in their “irresistible power” does not seem to have lived beyond 1831. What about the Mill of the 1820s? In Prefaces to Liberty, Bernard Wishy has conveniently brought together a number of Mill's writings on liberty leading up to the essay On Liberty. Many of these belong to the period 1823 to 1828, and we see the young Mill ardently defending individual freedom against religious persecution, and arguing for freedom of discussion. Of special interest is an article on religious persecutions from The Westminister Review of July 1824, and another article on the liberty of the press and the law of libel published in April 1825. Mill argues that persecution may force the unbeliever to conform outwardly to the requirements of the accepted religious system, but it cannot ensure a genuine and sincere change of mind. Christians are reminded that their religion breathes “charity, liberty, and mercy, in every line”, and that it is “monstrous” for them to use their power to crush and persecute others in the same way as they themselves have been persecuted when they were not in power (Wishy, 99). In arguments similar to those in On Liberty about the desirability of freedom of discussion both when the received opinion is false or partly false, as well as when it is true, Mill warns that “religion divorced from reason will sink into a mere prejudice, losing the power of truth as the proofs of its truth are unregarded, and becoming feeble for resistance and worthless in its influence” (Wishy, 78), and maintains [171/172] that even when the existing religion of a country is already absolutely perfect, freedom of discussion should be welcome because it leads to “a more general and vivid perception” of the value of the religion, and thus strengthens and extends its influence (Wishy, 71). To the argument that the people are ignorant and incapable of forming true opinions, Mill replies that it is only through discussion that their ignorance can be removed. The suppression of discussion is the cause of ignorance, and freedom of discussion is the cure. Freedom of discussion also acts as a check on the abuse of power (Wishy, 146-47).
But Wishy is right to point out that at this period Mill was more sanguine about “the disinterestedness of public opinion” than later on in his life [Wishy, 57]. Mill at this stage regarded public opinion as a great check on any interference with individual liberty. He was later to accuse Bentham of “rivetting the yoke of public opinion closer and closer round the necks of all public functionaries, and excluding every possibility of the exercise of the slightest or most temporary influence either by a minority, or by the functionary's own notions of right” (Essays, 112). But in the 1820s there was no talk of “the despotism of Public Opinion”, only of its liberating influence. This belief in the effectiveness of public opinion in preventing the corruptions of power reached its climax in the Speech on Perfectibility delivered to the London Debating Society in 1828 in which Mill concludes:
And there is another thing that is requisite: to take men out of the sphere of the opinion of their separate and private coteries and make them amenable to the general tribunal of the public at large; to leave no class possessed of power sufficient to protect one another in defying public opinion, and to manufacture a separate code of morality for their private guidance; and so to organize the political institutions of a country that no one could possess any power save what might be given to him by the favourable sentiments, not of any separate class with a separate interest, but of the people. [Appendix to Autobiography, 298-89]
Mill's change of mind was a gradual affair. In the Autobiography he describes his mental crisis of 1826 when he became disillusioned with his Benthamite beliefs, but it was only in 1829 that he first came into contact with Saint-Simonian doctrines, the influence of which is so conspicuous in The Spirit of the Age. In that year he had already accepted [172/173] the necessity of a Pouvoir Spirituel [cf. Mill, Earlier Letters, 40], though he was still much less sympathetic to these doctrines than he was to be in 1831.
There are, then, three phases in the development of Mill's views on liberty. In the earliest phase of the 1820s, he was fearful of any power that might be exercised without the control of public opinion. Then in The Spirit of the Age he seems to have advocated a passive acceptance by the public of the enlightened doctrines propounded by more cultivated minds. From a belief in “the disinterestedness of public opinion” he swung over to a belief in the disinterestedness of the opinions of cultivated minds. Finally, in what is by far the longest phase, his fear of “the tyranny of the majority” was tempered by a realization that even wise men are capable of being corrupted, and by an increasing belief in the importance of the free, spontaneous, and active development of all men. This third phase culminated, of course, in the essay On Liberty, where the leadership of the more cultivated minds, and their constant challenges to established and customary beliefs, are accepted as very valuable, but at the same time the chief justification of freedom of discussion is seen as consisting of the opportunities it provides for the flowering of “an intellectually active people”. In none of these phases did Mill reject freedom of discussion. The cause of individual freedom was Mill's lifelong preoccupation. His analysis of the threats to freedom, and the barriers he believed should be erected against them, varied from time to time. But they were problems which were never far from his thoughts. It is as the passionate champion of individual liberty that he has been, and generally still is, attacked or admired. As parts of the essay On Liberty, which appear to be ambiguous, are illuminated by other works of his, our understanding of him will no doubt increase. But by reading too much into some of his statements, and by focusing attention on one aspect of his thought or life at the expense of the rest, one may be tempted to reject, or radically modify, the traditional picture of him as the great liberal. That would be a grave error.
Last modified 1 May 2015