Review: On Liberty by John Stuart Mill

But the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race… If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, a clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.

Chapter 2 – Of the liberty of thought and discussion

On Liberty by John Stuart Mill is a classic that is useful to be relearned for our modern age, although it was a product of its own time. This five-chapter document presents an invigorating and dynamic discussion on the importance of liberty of opinion and action, particularly in the backdrop of the felt legacies of Calvin and Knox in the post-Reformation period. Written in early [Correction: middle] 19th century England, Mill produces a passionate and heartfelt review of English civilisation about [Correction: over] 300 years after the Reformation, points out dangers and possible ways forward. I’m peppering this article with quotes from the article for a taste of what he had to say.

… for the majority of the eminent men of every past generation held many opinions now known to be erroneous, and did or approved numerous things which no one will now justify.

Chapter 2 – Of the liberty of thought and discussion

While acknowledging and praising the breathtaking revolution of the Protestant Reformation as a libertarian achievement from the social control and authoritarian rule wielded by the Roman Catholic Church at that time*, Mill observed a similar high handedness and moral policing in the afterward established form of the reformed church. It is thrilling how Mill expounds on the aptitude of society to impose their will upon others, whichever side they are on. The repercussions of such tyranny, also practiced by the reformers in the centuries after Luther’s thesis, is the dulling of the human capacities, the downsizing of human potential. Surely a race created by a good and magnificent Creator should not suffer such suppression by his fellow man in the name of God, he quips.

He advocates liberty of diverse opinion and continuing development of human relations as the beginning of a more loving, caring and developed human race, closer to the Christian ideal of a race created by a Maker who is good.

On Liberty deals with a myriad of social and governance topics, the most significant being the relationship between the majority and minority, individuality and societal customs and the parameters of private and public life. He also touches on trade. Some of his discussion allude to the healthiness of a two-party political system. He is known as a utilitarian thinker and brings this into the discussion. Overall, he presents a fascinating insight into the context of his time.

There are spots where I cringed, for example, the little clause that says it’s okay for despotism to reign over a backward or under developed class, whatever that means. Again, it was a meditation for its time, and not without its arguability. Again, Mill was no proponent for slavery and made no uncertain terms about that. Today, as the world reviews Western perspectives with the prospect of reconstructing it, this document provides a picture of Western thinking embedded in the Greek tradition, as is Mill’s background.

I personally found the document to be a gut wrenching and introspectively honest read, especially for Christians who desire to sharpen their faith and bring it to the ground. At the end of the read, or even throughout, you might say “How can I change, what false application of my faith should I repent from, how can I make peace with those unlike me that I have hurt and disrespected? How can I have a meek and humble faith?”, questions we ask only when faced with an earnest, and sagely opponent who patiently seeks to bring insight and reason with utmost gentleness.

Mill is an agnostic and dissident of the form of Christianity pervasive during his time. As a result, he regards himself a minority voice in a majority Christian England at the time. His ultimate critique of Christianity is made with conviction, although he is fair and inclusive in his argument. (He is much more frank and unguarded in his autobiography on what he thinks about Christianity). On Liberty must be read and struggled through by Christians as valid questions by an onlooker of the kingdom of God in how it is presented and lived out.

Recommended.

Happy 500th year of the Reformation. May God bring humility into our hearts as we reflect introspectively into this significant anniversary.

However unwillingly a person who has a strong opinion may admit the possibility that his opinion may be false, he ought to be moved by the consideration that however true it may be, if it is not fully, frequently, and fearlessly discussed, it will be held as a dead dogma, not a living truth.

Chapter 2

* In his autobiography, Mill was taught by his father that the reformation was “the great and decisive contest against priestly tyranny for liberty of thought”. 

My rating: 5/5
Difficulty: 4.5/5
Year written: 1859
Original transcript: English
How you can read it: Freebooks App (available on iTunes and Android)
Next related book: Autobiography of John Stuart Mill

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