Monday, June 3, 2013

Liberty Articulated: Quotes from John Stuart Mill

Having completed On Liberty, written by John Stuart Mill, I thought I would share some of the best quotes.  Mill has a wonderful way of expressing his ideas.  Many of them are hard hitting and potent:

On The State

"But in political and philosophical theories, as well as in persons, success discloses faults and infirmities which failure might have concealed from observation."

"Wherever there is an ascendant class, a large portion of the morality of the country emanates from its class interests, and its feelings of class superiority."

"They [opinion leaders] have occupied themselves rather in inquiring what things society ought to like or dislike, than in questioning whether its likings or dislikings should be a law to individuals. They preferred endeavouring to alter the feelings of mankind on the particular points on which they were themselves heretical, rather than make common cause in defense of freedom, with heretics generally."

"What the State can usefully do, is to make itself a central depository, and active circulator and diffuser, of the experience resulting from many trials. Its business is to enable each experimentalist to benefit by the experiments of others, instead of tolerating no experiments but its own."

"It is not, also, to be forgotten, that the absorption of all the principal ability of the country into the governing body is fatal, sooner or later, to the mental activity and progressiveness of the body itself. Banded together as they are—working a system which, like all systems, necessarily proceeds in a great measure by fixed rules—the official body are under the constant temptation of sinking into indolent routine."

"If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind."

"All silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility."

"The spirit of improvement is not always a spirit of liberty, for it may aim at forcing improvements on an unwilling people...but the only unfailing and permanent source of improvement is liberty, since by it there are as many possible independent centres of improvement as there are individuals."

"In many cases, though individuals may not do the particular thing so well, on the average, as the officers of government, it is nevertheless desirable that it should be done by them, rather than by the government, as a means to their own mental education—a mode of strengthening their active faculties, exercising their judgment, and giving them a familiar knowledge of the subjects with which they are thus left to deal."

"Despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement, and the means justified by actually effecting that end. Liberty, as a principle, has no application to any state of things anterior to the time when mankind have become capable of being improved by free and equal discussion."

On The Individual

"Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign."

"A person may cause evil to others not only by his actions but by his inaction, and in either case he is justly accountable to them for the injury".

"This, then, is the appropriate region of human liberty. It comprises, first, the inward domain of consciousness; demanding liberty of conscience, in the most comprehensive sense; liberty of thought and feeling; absolute freedom of opinion and sentiment on all subjects, practical or speculative, scientific, moral, or theological."

"All that makes existence valuable to any one, depends on the enforcement of restraints upon the actions of other people."

"Those whose bread is already secured, and who desire no favours from men in power, or from bodies of men, or from the public, have nothing to fear from the open avowal of any opinions, but to be ill-thought of and ill-spoken of, and this it ought not to require a very heroic mould to enable them to bear."

On Truth

"The truth of an opinion is part of its utility. If we would know whether or not it is desirable that a proposition should be believed, is it possible to exclude the consideration of whether or not it is true? In the opinion, not of bad men, but of the best men, no belief which is contrary to truth can be really useful."

"The impressiveness of an error is measured by the wisdom and virtue of him who falls into it."

"The dictum that truth always triumphs over persecution, is one of those pleasant falsehoods."

"Men are not more zealous for truth than they often are for error, and a sufficient application of legal or even of social penalties will generally succeed in stopping the propagation of either."

"We may hope that if there be a better truth, it will be found when the human mind is capable of receiving it; and in the meantime we may rely on having attained such approach to truth, as is possible in our own day. This is the amount of certainty attainable by a fallible being, and this the sole way of attaining it."

On Intellectual Development

"There have been, and may again be, great individual thinkers, in a general atmosphere of mental slavery. But there never has been, nor ever will be, in that atmosphere, an intellectually active people."

"No one's idea of excellence in conduct is that people should do absolutely nothing but copy one another."

"The mental and moral, like the muscular powers, are improved only by being used."

"He who lets the world, or his own portion of it, choose his plan of life for him, has no need of any other faculty than the ape-like one of imitation. He who chooses his plan for himself, employs all his faculties. He must use observation to see, reasoning and judgment to foresee, activity to gather materials for decision, discrimination to decide, and when he has decided, firmness and self-control to hold to his deliberate decision."

"Genius can only breathe freely in an atmosphere of freedom."

"Originality is the one thing which unoriginal minds cannot feel the use of."

"The general tendency of things throughout the world is to render mediocrity the ascendant power among mankind."

"That so few now dare to be eccentric, marks the chief danger of the time."

On Character

"It really is of importance, not only what men do, but also what manner of men they are that do it."

"Strong impulses are but another name for energy. Energy may be turned to bad uses; but more good may always be made of an energetic nature, than of an indolent and impassive one."

"The same strong susceptibilities which make the personal impulses vivid and powerful, are also the source from whence are generated the most passionate love of virtue, and the sternest self-control."


I strongly recommend you pick up a copy of his work.  It is a window into the time in which he lived and there are many lessons we can take from it and apply to dilemmas we face today.

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