On Liberty – John Stuart Mill
On Liberty – On Liberty is a philosophical work by the English philosopher John Stuart Mill, originally intended as a short essay. The work, published in 1859, applies Mill’s ethical system of utilitarianism to society and the state. Mill attempts to establish standards for the relationship between authority and liberty. He emphasizes the importance of individuality, which he conceived as a prerequisite to the higher pleasures—the summum bonum of utilitarianism. Furthermore, Mill criticizes the errors of past attempts to defend individuality where, for example, democratic ideals resulted in the “tyranny of the majority”. Among the standards established in this work are Mill’s three basic liberties of individuals, his three legitimate objections to government intervention, and his two maxims regarding the relationship of the individual to society.
On Liberty was a greatly influential and well received work, although it did not go without criticism. Some attacked it for its apparent discontinuity with Utilitarianism, while others criticized its vagueness. The ideas presented in On Liberty have remained the basis of much liberal political thought. It has remained in print continuously since its initial publication. To this day, a copy of On Liberty is passed to the president of the British Liberal Democrats as a symbol of office. A copy of the same book is also presented to and then held by the president of the Liberal Party as a symbol of office.
Mill’s marriage to his wife Harriet Taylor Mill greatly influenced the concepts in On Liberty, which was largely finished prior to her death, and published shortly after she died.
On Liberty remains a classic. . . . The present world would be better than it is if [MillÆs] principles were more respected. (Bertrand Russell)
John Stuart Mill (1806-73) was educated by his father and through his influence obtained a clerkship at India House. He formed the Utilitarian Society which met to read and discuss essays, and in 1825 he edited Bentham’s Treatise upon Evidence. In 1826 he suffered an acute mental crisis and found that poetry helped him recover the will to live, particularly the work of Wordsworth. Having reconsidered his aims and those of the Benthamite school, he met Harriet Taylor and she inspired a great deal of his philosophy. They married in 1851. Utilitarianism was published in 1861 but before that Mill published his System of Logic (1843), Principles of Political Economy (1848) and On Liberty (1839). His other works include his classic Autobiography (1873). Mill retired in 1858 and became the independent MP for Westminster from 1865 to 1868. He spent the rest of his life in France and died in Avignon.
Alan Ryan has served as a judge for the Film Fantasy Awards and is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. He regularly contributes to The Washington Post, USA Today, The Smithsonian, and Travel and Leisure, among other publications.
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