Chapter Nine: Mill and Liberty -- Introduction

Chin Liew Ten, Professor of Philosophy, National University of Singapore

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Chapter 9, part 1, of the author's Mill on Liberty, which Clarendon Press published in 1980. It has been included in the Victorian Web with the kind permission of the author and of the Clarendon Press, which retains copyright.

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decorative initial 'T' 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. [p. 8]

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 persuasive6.


Cowling, Maurice. Mill and Liberalism. Cambridge, 1963.

Himmelfarb, Gertrud. "Introduction" to John Stuart Mill. Essays on Politics and Culture. New York, 1963.

Letwin, Shirley. The Pursuit of Certainty. Cambridge, 1965.

Mill, John Stuart. Essays on Politics and Culture, ed. Gertrude Himmelfarb. New York, 1963.

Rees, J. C. "A Phase in the Development of Mill's Ideas on Liberty" Political Studies, 6 (1958).

_____ "The Reaction to Cowling on Mill" The Mill News Letter. Vol. i., No. 2 (1966).

_____ "Was Mill For Liberty" Political Studies, 14 (1966).

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Last modified 22 April 2001