Chapter Nine: Mill and Liberty -- The Young Mill

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

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Chapter 9, part 4, 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 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, p. 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, p. 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, p. 77]

Himmelfarb, however, quotes from a letter to extlinkCarlyle 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, p. 153; cf. Himmelfarb, Introduction, p. xii; Himmelfarb, Liberty, pp. 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, p. 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, p. 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, p. 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, p. 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" (p. 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" (p. 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, p. 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, p. 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" (p. 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, p. 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, p. 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, p. 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 group. Mill 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, p. 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, p. 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, p. 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, p. 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, pp. 57]. Mill at this stage regarded public opinion as a great check on any interference with individual liberty. He was later to accuse extlinkBentham 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, p. 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, pp. 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, p. 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.


Examiner, 1 July 1832.

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

_____ On Liberty and Liberalism: The Case of John Stuart Mill. New York, 1974.

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

_____ Autobiography (World's Classics Ed.).

_____ On Genius. Mill's Essays on Literature and Society, ed. J. B. Schneewind. New York and London, 1965.

The Earlier Letters of John Stuart Mill, 1849-1873, ed. Francis E. Mineka. Collected Works. Vol. xii. Toronto and London, 1963.

Wishy, Bernard. Prefaces to Liberty: Selected Writings of John Stuart Mill. Boston, 1959,

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Last modified 22 April 2001