May 12, 2003

1. John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty

Our discussion group is now reading On Liberty, by John Stuart Mill. I’m very impressed by it: the prose is excellent, the thought profound, the learning extensive; it’s a work of genius, and also a first-rate literary work.

Liberty, says Mill, originally meant limiting the power of the monarch. When democracy began to replace monarchy, it became apparent that the power of the people needed to be limited, just as the power of the monarch had to be limited. A democracy had to protect against the “tyranny of the majority” — a phrase coined by Tocqueville, for whom Mill had great respect. The main theme of On Liberty is that, in the modern age, in an age of The People, liberty is threatened, and must be vigilantly protected. Mill seemed to foresee the totalitarian excesses of the 20th century, when individuals were crushed by the power of The State.

Mill warns against the utopian socialists and proto-Marxists who discarded traditional religion, and dreamed of establishing a heaven on earth: “some of those modern reformers who have placed themselves in strongest opposition to the religions of the past, have been no way behind either churches or sects in their assertion of the right of spiritual domination: M. Comte, in particular, whose social system [aims at establishing] a despotism of society over the individual, surpassing anything contemplated in the political ideal of the most rigid disciplinarian among the ancient philosophers.”

Mill seems to foresee the Marxist attacks on the bourgeoisie: if there is “a considerable diffusion of Socialist opinions... it may become infamous in the eyes of the majority to possess more property than some very small amount, or any income not earned by manual labor.” One thinks of the millions of landlords and capitalists who were killed in China, Cambodia, Russia, etc.

Besides warning against proto-Marxists, Mill warns against Fascist tendencies in thinkers like Carlyle and Nietzsche; specifically, Mill takes issue with Carlyle’s hero worship: “I am not countenancing the sort of ‘hero-worship’ which applauds the strong man of genius for forcibly seizing on the government of the world and making it do his bidding in spite of itself. All he can claim is, freedom to point out the way. 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.”

Mill anticipates the horrors of totalitarianism because he sees that the individual is becoming weaker, while The State is becoming stronger: “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.” As mentioned in previous discussions of Mill (October ’01 and December ’02), he believed that the masses no longer listened to leaders, the masses were “in revolt”, they listened to “men much like themselves.”

Mill abhors tyranny because it crushes individuality. Mill’s goal is the greatest possible development of man, and this is only possible when individuality can spread its wings: “It is not by wearing down into uniformity all that is individual in themselves, but by cultivating it and calling it forth, within the limits imposed by the rights and interests of others, that human beings become a noble and beautiful object of contemplation.... To give any fair play to the nature of each, it is essential that different persons should be allowed to lead different lives. In proportion as this latitude has been exercised in any age, has that age been noteworthy to posterity. Even despotism does not produce its worst effects, so long as Individuality exists under it; and whatever crushes individuality is despotism, by whatever name it may be called, and whether it professes to be enforcing the will of God or the injunctions of men.”

Mill thinks that everyone should be free to follow his own bent, to march to the beat of his own drummer. Thus, innovation and individuality will prosper. Mill’s argument reminds one of the argument for laissez-faire economic policy. In both cases, experience shows that freedom works better than the heavy hand of government control. Reason, however, always thinks that there must be One Right Way, One Best Way, One Rational Way, and government should push people toward this Way. The argument for liberty — political and economic liberty — is an argument against Reason, it says, “there is no Best Way, or at least, we can’t be sure that we’ve found it. Reason is imperfect, fallible.”

Mill’s love of liberty, and his dislike of state-imposed uniformity, leads him to oppose public schools. Mill says that the state should require education, but “leave to parents to obtain the education where and how they pleased, and content itself with helping to pay the school fees of the poorer classes of children, and defraying the entire school expenses of those who have no one else to pay for them.... That the whole or any large part of the education of the people should be in State hands, I go as far as any one in deprecating. All that has been said of the importance of individuality of character, and diversity in opinions and modes of conduct, involves, as of the same unspeakable importance, diversity of education. A general State education is a mere contrivance for molding people to be exactly like one another: and as the mold in which it casts them is that which pleases the predominant power in the government, whether this be a monarch, a priesthood, an aristocracy, or the majority of the existing generation, in proportion as it is efficient and successful, it establishes a despotism over the mind, leading by natural tendency to one over the body. An education established and controlled by the State, should only exist, if it exist at all, as one among many competing experiments, carried on for the purpose of example and stimulus, to keep the others up to a certain standard of excellence.” It should be pointed out that American public schools, however flawed they may be, aren’t guilty of all the sins that Mill speaks of, since they’re under local control, not the control of one central agency.

Mill castigates his contemporaries for their lukewarm Christianity, and for stifling those who question Christianity. Here he reminds one of Kierkegaard, who never tired of berating his contemporaries for their lukewarm Christianity. Like Kierkegaard, Mill complains that people don’t live by Christianity, they just pay homage to it on Sunday: “Not one Christian in a thousand guides or tests his individual conduct by reference to [the] maxims and precepts contained in the New Testament.... The standard to which he does refer it, is the custom of his nation, his class, or his religious profession.... The doctrines [of Christianity] have no hold on ordinary believers — are not a power in their minds. They have an habitual respect for the sound of them, but no feeling which spreads from the words to the things signified.”1

Christianity claims to have answered the ultimate questions, and so people stop speculating about these ultimate questions, stop arguing about them, etc. Mill believed that the Christianity of his day suffocated intellectual life, suffocated speculation on the deepest issues. Mill speaks of, “The fatal tendency of mankind to leave off thinking about a thing when it is no longer doubtful.... A contemporary author has well spoken of ‘the deep slumber of a decided opinion.’” You and I believe that the earth revolves around the sun, but we don’t know the reasons behind that belief, we’ve stopped thinking about that because it’s a “decided opinion”.

While Kierkegaard was a passionate Christian, Mill seems hostile to Christianity. Mill charges Christianity with stifling individuality, with teaching people to do God’s will instead of their own will, with teaching people that ‘whatever is not a duty, is a sin’. “Many persons, no doubt, sincerely think that human beings thus cramped and dwarfed, are as their Maker designed them to be; just as many have thought that trees are a much finer thing when clipped into pollards, or cut out into figures of animals, than as nature made them.”

In addition to a general distaste for the Christianity of his day, Mill had a special distaste for reformers, do-gooders: “there is a philanthropic spirit abroad,” Mill writes, “for the exercise of which there is no more inviting field than the moral and prudential improvement of our fellow-creatures. These tendencies of the times cause the public to be more disposed than at most former periods to prescribe general rules of conduct, and endeavor to make every one conform to the approved standard. And that standard, express or tacit, is to desire nothing strongly. Its ideal of character is to be without any marked character; to maim by compression, like a Chinese lady’s foot, every part of human nature which stands out prominently, and tends to make the person markedly dissimilar in outline to commonplace humanity.... Instead of great energies guided by vigorous reason, and strong feelings strongly controlled by a conscientious will, its result is weak feelings and weak energies.”

click here for an e-text of On Liberty

2. Mutual Arising

As discussed in earlier issues of Phlit, Proust felt that he caused the death of his beloved chauffeur, Albert Agostinelli, who died in an airplane crash in the south of France, on May 30, 1914. Proust felt that he had “willed” Agostinelli’s death — unconsciously or semi-consciously. But events can rarely be traced to just one cause; close examination usually reveals a vast network of causes — innumerable causes. As Joseph Campbell said, “A great number of things round about, on every side, are causing what is happening now. Everything, all the time, is causing everything else. The Buddhist teaching in recognition of this fact is called the Doctrine of Mutual Arising.”2

In the case of Agostinelli’s death, many causes can be discerned besides Proust’s “will”:

  1. Agostinelli was something of a daredevil, who liked fast cars, etc.
  2. Agostinelli didn’t know how to swim, and could have survived his accident if he had known.
  3. Agostinelli’s wife seems to have encouraged him to pursue his flying ambitions.
  4. Agostinelli’s accident might have been averted if his training had been a little better, his plane a little better, etc.
An event like the death of Agostinelli has infinite causes, and many people, besides Proust, could say, “it was my fault”. The Doctrine of Mutual Arising applies not only to the life of individuals, but also to the history of nations; an event such as World War II has infinite causes.

3. E-Literature

A recent article in the New York Times described efforts to digitize large numbers of books. I often thought that a machine should be developed to automate this process, and now that’s happened. A Times reporter visited the Stanford library: “a Swiss-designed robot about the size of a sport utility vehicle was rapidly turning the pages of an old book and scanning the text. The machine can turn the pages of both small and large books as well as bound newspaper volumes and scan at speeds of more than 1,000 pages an hour. Occasionally the robot will stumble, turning more than a single page. When that happens, the machine will pause briefly and send out a puff of compressed air to separate the sticking pages....

“The first book-scanning robots were introduced this spring by 4DigitalBooks of St. Aubin, Switzerland, and Kirtas Technologies of Victor, N.Y. The machines have already begun to generate interest from libraries and private and nonprofit groups now working to digitize books. Until now, the job has been done mostly by students or armies of low-cost workers in countries like India and the Philippines. But manual digitization presents significant logistical problems. Book collections may have to be moved long distances to digitization centers.”3

The Stanford librarian dreams of having the entire Stanford library in digital form. “Such an undertaking — involving eight million volumes — could cost upward of $250 million.” This seems like a small price to pay for all human knowledge. The article mentions a “Million Book Project” being carried out by Carnegie Mellon University; this project, according to the Times, will “continue to rely on manual digitization for several more years.... Another project, led by the Internet Archive in San Francisco, recently shipped 80 tons of old books acquired from the Kansas City Library to Hyderabad, India, where they will be scanned.”

© L. James Hammond 2003
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1. Thoreau: “It is remarkable that, notwithstanding the universal favor with which the New Testament is outwardly received... there is no appreciation of the order of truth with which it deals.... There is [no book] so truly strange, and heretical, and unpopular.... ‘Lay not up for yourselves treasures on earth.’ ‘If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven’.... Think of repeating these things to a New England audience!”(Henry David Thoreau, by J.W. Krutch, ch. 6) back
2. Myths To Live By, ch. 7, p. 144 back
3. The New York Times, “The Evelyn Wood of Digitized Book Scanners”, by John Markoff, May 10, 2003 back