The heroic individual and his enemies

Mill turns in Chapter III of On Liberty to the freedom of individuals to put their thought into action. Whereas the threats to liberty in Chapter II came mainly from laws, Mill now defends the freedom of individuals to act without society hindering them in any way, so long as others are not harmed. This gets into the knotty problem raised in the first post: how can individuals be protected from non-governmental actors’ criticism without destroying society? Mill begins to provide an answer in this chapter. First, people are free to act “at their own risk and peril.” Mill is not asking for hate speech laws or subsidies for unpopular opinions. In fact, it seems that chapters like this one are part of his solution, which is to persuade society that allowing people as much freedom to violate custom is in society’s best interest. He believes that a society that gives individuals the most space to develop will produce the kinds of great men that bring progress to nations and humanity as a whole.

Mill is certainly child of the Enlightenment, as his explicit praise of the movement in Chapter II and his allegiance to progress and the freedom of expression attest. Yet in this chapter he also seems to reveal the influence of Romanticism on his thought. The heroic, creative genius is a hallmark of Romanticism, seen here in Mill’s description of how geniuses develop:

Persons of genius, it is true, are, and are always likely to be, a small minority; but in order to have them, it is necessary to preserve them in the soil in which they grow. Genius can only breathe freely in an atmosphere of freedom…. If from timidity they consent to be forced into one of these moulds, and to let all that part of themselves which cannot expand under the pressure remain unexpanded, society will be little the better for their genius. If they are of a strong character, and break their fetters, they become a mark for the society which has not succeeded in reducing them to commonplace, to point at with solemn warning as “wild,” “erratic,” and the like; much as if one should complain of the Niagara river for not flowing smoothly between its banks like a Dutch canal. (mostly copied and pasted from Project Gutenberg)

The comparison between the managed, tame Dutch canal and the roaring Niagara also seems to fit with the Romantic fascination with nature and skepticism of rationalism. Mill’s contention that “different persons also require different conditions for their spiritual development; and can no more exist healthily in the same moral, than all the variety of plants can in the same physical atmosphere and climate” reminded me of an excerpt from the writings of Johann Gottfried von Herder about the influence of environment on culture. The relationship between environment and culture can also be found Book II, Chapter x and Book III, Chapter viii of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Social Contract, and Rousseau (who had an important influence on Romanticism) references Montesquieu in the latter section. This was probably a common observation, so perhaps it only reminded me of Herder because I read Herder first.

Mill defends “Individuality” from three enemies: Calvinism, “Custom,” and contemporary trends. He sees Calvinism as requiring the destruction of human nature and that it may be replaced with “Obedience.” The dour, joyless kind of Calvinism that he describes is fairly easy to criticize, but I think that it is mostly based on either stereotypes or Calvinism done badly.

Next, unthinking Custom (he capitalizes it) smothers individuals and, with them, progress. This is such an important concept for Mill that it is actually the foundation of his view of history, seeing the battle of “the progressive principle” and “Custom” as “the chief interest of the history of mankind.” This leads him to the striking observation that “the greater part of the world has, properly speaking, no history, because the despotism of Custom is complete.” This relates back to the difference between the civilized and uncivilized world that he broached in Chapter I.

But Mill does not let Europe off the hook, either. The individual faces a different set of challenges. In Britain, increasing popular participation in politics and movements for moral improvement (quite common in the mid-19th century) promoted mediocrity in political and personal life, respectively. Indeed, even the European fascination with new things represented a custom of its own, when the new was pursued only for its own sake. Collective progress was more highly valued than liberty or individuality, which in his mind was counterproductive: “the only unfailing and permanent source of improvement is liberty, since by it there are as many possible independent centres of improvement as there are individuals.” It is these individuals that will prevent Europe from suffocation by modern customs.



  1. I don’t find Mill’s (or the modern) distinction of progressive vs. customary (conservative) to be particularly helpful, but blaming Custom for the technological stagnation of the East sounds almost plausible (though it smells more like a symptom rather than a cause). What do you think?

    Scott wrote:

    This leads him to the striking observation that “the greater part of the world has, properly speaking, no history, because the despotism of Custom is complete.” This relates back to the difference between the civilized and uncivilized world that he broached in Chapter I.

    I missed that connection since he focused on the stagnant East which would be civilized, but I think you’re right. By Mill’s definition, the uncivilized (barbarian?) world has not progressed since he apparently only admits specific forms of net change, not historical progress or regress or digress.

    It’s odd how the relativistic aspects of Mill’s perspective must mix with his concept of progress, as though any step in any direction is progress. Or he sees a line through history and calls it progress.

    Does Mill ever objectively define progress? If pressed, I’d imagine he might say that the masses define progress, but they do not create it. Yet I doubt he would find it satisfying to give the masses that much credit.

    Mill wrote:

    In ancient history, in the middle ages, and in a diminishing degree through the long transition from feudality to the present time, the individual was a power in himself; and if he had either great talents or a high social position, he was a considerable power. At present individuals are lost in the crowd.

    In politics it is almost a triviality to say that public opinion now rules the world. The only power deserving the name is that of masses, and of governments while they make themselves the organ of the tendencies and instincts of masses.

    Sometimes it seems like Mill is arguing against the tyranny of the majority, which I can get behind, but he slides over into this bizarre longing for the prominence of a few individuals rather than the liberty and elevation of everyone. Your categorization of him fits really well: he’s just being overly Romantic. I, on the other hand, am just the right amount of romantic. 🙂

  2. I think that his thought about custom smothering the East can make some sense, although it seems far too general. He was living in a time when the West was rich and powerful enough to have credibility to define progress and say that everyone else is behind, but of course the West was also in the process of walking away from a lot of its Christian heritage in the name of progress, which never provided the same kind of direction after World War I and II. Mill was writing in a time of growth that didn’t have to deal with the bloodsoaked 20th century and the big hit that Western cultural confidence seems to have taken since then.

    I think you’re right that he does not define progress. In my textbook for Latin American history (Born in Blood and Fire), the author writes about how the notion of progress took hold of Latin American liberals around this time and the definition seemed self-evident, something like reason, science and industry, liberty, and disestablishment of official churches (my summary). I imagine that this was self-evident for Mill, too, in this age of growing European power and wealth, along with the growing confidence of science to explain the world.

    Liberals of this time were not generally known for having faith in the common man. This also shows their Enlightenment roots, perhaps, where the philosophes often distrusted the masses. Liberals in the 19th century were usually identified with the middle class, which in Europe meant not average but that small, often accomplished group between the nobility and the masses. So yes, I think that he is quite concerned about a small group and distrustful of the masses. I don’t know what Mill’s position on democracy was, but 19th century liberals often believed that people should have some property (and thus political independence from someone dominating them from above) in order to vote.

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