On Liberty

On Liberty
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Джон Стюарт Милль. On Liberty










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John Stuart Mill was born on 20th May 1806. He was a delicate child, and the extraordinary education designed by his father was not calculated to develop and improve his physical powers. "I never was a boy," he says; "never played cricket." His exercise was taken in the form of walks with his father, during which the elder Mill lectured his son and examined him on his work. It is idle to speculate on the possible results of a different treatment. Mill remained delicate throughout his life, but was endowed with that intense mental energy which is so often combined with physical weakness. His youth was sacrificed to an idea; he was designed by his father to carry on his work; the individuality of the boy was unimportant. A visit to the south of France at the age of fourteen, in company with the family of General Sir Samuel Bentham, was not without its influence. It was a glimpse of another atmosphere, though the studious habits of his home life were maintained. Moreover, he derived from it his interest in foreign politics, which remained one of his characteristics to the end of his life. In 1823 he was appointed junior clerk in the Examiners' Office at the India House.

Mill's first essays were written in the Traveller about a year before he entered the India House. From that time forward his literary work was uninterrupted save by attacks of illness. His industry was stupendous. He wrote articles on an infinite variety of subjects, political, metaphysical, philosophic, religious, poetical. He discovered Tennyson for his generation, he influenced the writing of Carlyle's French Revolution as well as its success. And all the while he was engaged in studying and preparing for his more ambitious works, while he rose step by step at the India Office. His Essays on Unsettled Questions in Political Economy were written in 1831, although they did not appear until thirteen years later. His System of Logic, the design of which was even then fashioning itself in his brain, took thirteen years to complete, and was actually published before the Political Economy. In 1844 appeared the article on Michelet, which its author anticipated would cause some discussion, but which did not create the sensation he expected. Next year there were the "Claims of Labour" and "Guizot," and in 1847 his articles on Irish affairs in the Morning Chronicle. These years were very much influenced by his friendship and correspondence with Comte, a curious comradeship between men of such different temperament. In 1848 Mill published his Political Economy, to which he had given his serious study since the completion of his Logic. His articles and reviews, though they involved a good deal of work – as, for instance, the re-perusal of the Iliad and the Odyssey in the original before reviewing Grote's Greece– were recreation to the student. The year 1856 saw him head of the Examiners' Office in the India House, and another two years brought the end of his official work, owing to the transfer of India to the Crown. In the same year his wife died. Liberty was published shortly after, as well as the Thoughts on Parliamentary Reform, and no year passed without Mill making important contributions on the political, philosophical, and ethical questions of the day.


Liberty was published in 1859, when the nineteenth century was half over, but in its general spirit and in some of its special tendencies the little tract belongs rather to the standpoint of the eighteenth century than to that which saw its birth. In many of his speculations John Stuart Mill forms a sort of connecting link between the doctrines of the earlier English empirical school and those which we associate with the name of Mr. Herbert Spencer. In his Logic, for instance, he represents an advance on the theories of Hume, and yet does not see how profoundly the victories of Science modify the conclusions of the earlier thinker. Similarly, in his Political Economy, he desires to improve and to enlarge upon Ricardo, and yet does not advance so far as the modifications of political economy by Sociology, indicated by some later – and especially German – speculations on the subject. In the tract on Liberty, Mill is advocating the rights of the individual as against Society at the very opening of an era that was rapidly coming to the conclusion that the individual had no absolute rights against Society. The eighteenth century view is that individuals existed first, each with their own special claims and responsibilities; that they deliberately formed a Social State, either by a contract or otherwise; and that then finally they limited their own action out of regard for the interests of the social organism thus arbitrarily produced. This is hardly the view of the nineteenth century. It is possible that logically the individual is prior to the State; historically and in the order of Nature, the State is prior to the individual. In other words, such rights as every single personality possesses in a modern world do not belong to him by an original ordinance of Nature, but are slowly acquired in the growth and development of the social state. It is not the truth that individual liberties were forfeited by some deliberate act when men made themselves into a Commonwealth. It is more true to say, as Aristotle said long ago, that man is naturally a political animal, that he lived under strict social laws as a mere item, almost a nonentity, as compared with the Order, Society, or Community to which he belonged, and that such privileges as he subsequently acquired have been obtained in virtue of his growing importance as a member of a growing organisation. But if this is even approximately true, it seriously restricts that liberty of the individual for which Mill pleads. The individual has no chance, because he has no rights, against the social organism. Society can punish him for acts or even opinions which are anti-social in character. His virtue lies in recognising the intimate communion with his fellows. His sphere of activity is bounded by the common interest. Just as it is an absurd and exploded theory that all men are originally equal, so it is an ancient and false doctrine to protest that a man has an individual liberty to live and think as he chooses in any spirit of antagonism to that larger body of which he forms an insignificant part.

Nowadays this view of Society and of its development, which we largely owe to the Philosophie Positive of M. Auguste Comte, is so familiar and possibly so damaging to the individual initiative, that it becomes necessary to advance and proclaim the truth which resides in an opposite theory. All progress, as we are aware, depends on the joint process of integration and differentiation; synthesis, analysis, and then a larger synthesis seem to form the law of development. If it ever comes to pass that Society is tyrannical in its restrictions of the individual, if, as for instance in some forms of Socialism, based on deceptive analogies of Nature's dealings, the type is everything and the individual nothing, it must be confidently urged in answer that the fuller life of the future depends on the manifold activities, even though they may be antagonistic, of the individual. In England, at all events, we know that government in all its different forms, whether as King, or as a caste of nobles, or as an oligarchical plutocracy, or even as trades unions, is so dwarfing in its action that, for the sake of the future, the individual must revolt. Just as our former point of view limited the value of Mill's treatise on Liberty, so these considerations tend to show its eternal importance. The omnipotence of Society means a dead level of uniformity. The claim of the individual to be heard, to say what he likes, to do what he likes, to live as he likes, is absolutely necessary, not only for the variety of elements without which life is poor, but also for the hope of a future age. So long as individual initiative and effort are recognised as a vital element in English history, so long will Mill's Liberty, which he confesses was based on a suggestion derived from Von Humboldt, remain as an indispensable contribution to the speculations, and also to the health and sanity, of the world.


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