The Magazine

Mill of the Gods

He knew that the best people know what's best for you.

Jun 15, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 37 • By BARTON SWAIM
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For the liberal, using that term in the American sense, political freedom isn't freedom from governmental coercion but freedom from moral and social convention.

It is the obliteration of everything that stands in the way of personal fulfillment, and if that means forcing people to countenance what they abhor, or outlawing practices that are second nature to them-then so be it. That is the notion of freedom entertained by at least a third of American citizens, and the great majority of Europeans. John Stuart Mill did not invent this view, but he did more than any other writer to lodge it in the minds of educated people as the only possible way to understand political freedom.

Everybody knows the story of Mill's precociousness-how, coached by his father, James Mill, he began learning Greek at age three; how he read Hume and Gibbon at four; Xenophon, Lucian, and Plato at eight; Aristotle, Sophocles, Euripides, Virgil, Horace, Ovid, and Cicero at 12. But the key moment in Mill's early development happened at age 15 when he read Jeremy Bentham for the first time. He fell into a sort of intellectual hallucination.

"The feeling rushed upon me," he recalled in his Autobiography, "that all previous moralists were superseded and here indeed was the commencement of a new era in thought. .  .  . The 'principle of utility'"-the principle that all laws and moral precepts should provide for the greatest happiness of the greatest number-"gave unity to my conception of things. I now had opinions; a creed, a doctrine, a philosophy; .  .  . a religion."

Within a few years, to his credit, Mill came to see the moral vacuity of Bentham's "principle of utility." But that feeling of superiority encouraged by seductive ideologies marked his outlook permanently. Mill was a god in his own eyes; those of whose ideas he disapproved, barely human. Robert Peel, the great prime minister, was a "third-rate man." Of David Hume he could write that "regard for the truth formed no part of his character." Macaulay-for whom Mill reserved a special hatred-was "an intellectual dwarf." It is entirely appropriate that Mill is known today for calling the Conservative party "the stupid party"-or more correctly, "the stupidest party" (the remark appears in a footnote in Considerations on Representative Government). He was never able to accept the possibility that opinions differing from his own were anything but the result of imbecility.

Mill is often thought of as a dry, lifelessly rational creature. But although he seems to have been personally a bore, his prose is not dry at all but splendidly incisive and often sizzling with indignation. Nor is he the strictly logical writer one might expect-or prefer. Taken as a whole, his writings contain cogent analysis, inconsistencies, and spectacularly bad arguments in more or less equal measure.

The fact that, for generations, he has been quoted as an authority by both libertarians and socialists is itself an indication that his writings lack the level of congruence one expects in a writer lauded as a great political philosopher. Some of his more remarkable inconsistencies may be excused on the grounds that he changed his mind over time; we all do. In other instances, however, opinions intrinsically opposed to each other could co-exist in Mill's mind quite comfortably. In Principles of Political Economy (1848), an enormously popular and influential work in his day, he championed free trade and the free exchange of ideas, but also state ownership of property.

His most enduring work, of course, is On Liberty (1859). Mill's wife Harriet died just before it was published. Whether the book was as much a collaboration with his wife as Mill claimed, it is difficult to know; but he considered the text sacred and refused to alter or add to it. He should have both altered and added to it: It is a deeply flawed book, as even Mill's most ardent admirers have admitted for one reason or another. He states his argument with clarity and force:

The object of this essay is to assert one very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control. .  .  . That principle is that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number is self-protection.