“On Liberty” (by John Stuart Mill, 1859).
Part 1: February 12, 1859
Mr. Mill is one of the few men who could venture in the present day to publish a treatise, little longer than an ordinary review article, on a subject of first-rate importance, with the certainty of commanding the deepest and most respectful attention from all who have the least title to be considered as serious thinkers. It is a significant, and in some respects a rather melancholy fact, that one of our ablest living writers should feel himself called upon, by the course of events, to vindicate doctrines which to so many persons appear to have long since passed from the sphere of discussion into that of action. That Englishmen at the present day should need to be reminded of truths which for the most part they look upon as established beyond the reach of controversy, is, no doubt, humiliating; and when we take into account the tone in which Mr. Mill writes, as well as the subject which he chooses, the impression is considerably deepened. Our agreement with the general tone of the book is so complete, and it coincides so entirely with the temper of mind in respect to political institutions and to customary social law which we have uniformly advocated, that we feel disposed rather to congratulate ourselves on being able to claim the sanction of so great a name for opinions which we have maintained in such various forms, and with reference to so many different subjects, than to praise the wisdom or the truth of the opinions themselves.
Mr. Mill begins by tracing very shortly the growth of the conception of liberty. After showing how it meant, in early times, the possession of immunities on the part of subjects which their rulers were not to be allowed to infringe—and how to this succeeded the theory of a delegation by the nation, to a certain number of agents, of powers to be exercised for the common good—he shows how in our own day the process must be carried a step further, and how the rights of individuals must be protected against the oppression of society at large, whether that oppression operates through legal enactments or through prevailing sentiments and general customs:
‘Protection against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough; there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to better the development, and, if possible, prevent the formation of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and to compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own.’Hitherto, he proceeds, men have, with scarcely an exception, regulated their legal and social codes by their likings and dislikings. They have made no attempt to lay down principles by which it should be decided what particular acts or classes of acts should be visited with legal or social penalties, but have been actuated on the one side by a dislike of law, and on the other by a contempt for freedom. Mr. Mill’s object is to supply such a principle, and he accordingly enunciates it as follows:
‘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. The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because in the opinion of others to do so would we wise, or even right.’The appropriate region of human liberty is thus described:—
‘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. The liberty of expressing and publishing opinions may seem to fall under a different principle, since it belongs to that part of the conduct of an individual which concerns other people; but being almost of as much importance as the liberty of thought itself, and resting in great part on the same reasons, is practically inseparable from it. Secondly, the principle requires liberty of tastes and pursuits, of framing the plan of our life to suit our own character, of doing as we like, subject to such consequences as may follow without impediment from our fellow-creatures, so long as what we do does not harm them, even though they should think our conduct foolish, perverse, or wrong. Thirdly, from this liberty of each individual, follows the liberty within the same limits of combination among individuals, freedom to unite for any purpose not involving harm to others, the persons combining being supposed to be of full age, and not forced or deceived.’Trite as this doctrine may appear to some persons, Mr. Mill is obviously prompted to assert it by a fear that it is by no means universally accepted in practice, and by a feeling—which we are afraid is but too well grounded—that, notwithstanding our political freedom, many causes are at work which tend to subject us to a tyranny far more searching, infinitely more powerful, and much more difficult to resist, than any which depends on merely material force; for it arises from the gradual destruction of a the peculiarities of individuals, and the general adoption of a sort of commonplace ideal of character, to which every one is forced to conform, by a vast variety of petty sanctions applying with a leaden invariable persistency to all the common actions of life. After pointing out (not with entire accuracy) a few instances in which the law of the land has been made an instrument of affixing not only disgrace, but inconvenience, to the profession of infidel opinions, Mr. Mill describes a symptom of our present national condition which is all the more serious because it requires some attention to detect its existence. This is that “strong permanent leaven of intolerance which at all times abides in the middle classes of this country”—an intolerance which attaches such a stigma to heretical opinions that the profession of opinion here is far less free than it is in many Continental States. In Mr. Mill's energetic language—
‘Though we do not inflict so much evil on those who think differently from us as it was formerly our custom to do, it may be that we do ourselves as much evil as ever by our treatment of them. Socrates was put to death, but the Socratic philosophy rose like the sun in heaven, and spread its illumination over the whole intellectual firmament. Christians were cast to the lions, but the Christian Church grew up a stately and spreading tree, overtopping the older and less vigorous growths, and stifling them by its shade. Our merely social intolerance kills no one, roots out no opinions, but induces, men to disguise them, or to abstain from any active effort for their diffusion. With us, heretical opinions do not perceptibly gain or even lose ground in each decade or generation. They never blaze out far and wide, but continue to smoulder in the narrow circles of thinking and studious persons, among whom they originate, without ever lighting up the general affairs of mankind with either a true or a deceptive light, . . . . . A convenient plan for having peace in the intellectual world, and keeping all things going on therein very much as they do already. But the price paid for this sort of intellectual pacification is the sacrifice of the entire moral courage of the human mind. A state of things in which a large portion of the most active and inquiring intellects find it advisable to keep the genuine principles and grounds of their convictions within their own breasts, and attempt, in what they address to the public to fit as much as they can of their own conclusions to premises which they have internally renounced, cannot send forth the open, fearless characters, and logical consistent intellects who once adorned the thinking world.Apart from the injury which is thus inflicted not only on those who hold unpopular opinions, but on those who would hold them if they gave their minds fair play, the injury inflicted upon persons who fall in with received tenets is perhaps even more important. What is never fairly doubted and fully discussed is not more than half believed. Established opinions lose their vitality, as heretical opinions lose their distinctness; and so we stumble on—“destitute of faith, and terrified at scepticism.” If the unpopular opinion is true, to silence its advocates is to stifle truth; if it is false, such conduct prevents the manifestation of its falsehood. If truth is shared, in whatever proportions, between the opinions in and out of possession, the prevention of discussion not only prevents the apportionment of their due to each, but weakens the hold of either party upon that share of truth which rightfully belongs to him.
The sort of men who can be looked for under it are either mere conformers to commonplace or time-servers for truth, whose arguments on all great subjects are meant for their hearers, and are not those which have convinced themselves. Those who avoid this alternative do so by narrowing their thoughts and interest to things which can be spoken of without venturing within the region of principles—that is, to small practical matters which would come right of themselves if but the minds of mankind were strengthened and enlarged, and which will never be made effectually right until then—while that which would strengthen and enlarge men's minds, free and daring speculation on the highest subjects, is abandoned.’
From the consideration of freedom of thought and discussion, Mr. Mill passes to a subject of which it is impossible to overrate the importance, especially in a time when it is so frequently overlooked. This is “individuality as one of the elements of well-being.” It is, he admits, indispensable to all that men hold dear that restraints should be imposed on individual inclination. In early times, when society was in its infancy, the individual element was too strong for the legal one; but this state of things has long since gone by. Society in our days has got the upper hand, and beliefs and restraints are in all directions asserting a tyrannical superiority over desires and impulses. We are losing sight of the great maxim that “it really is of importance, not only what men do, but also what manner of men they are that do it;” and large masses of people are growing up “incapable of any strong wishes or native pleasures, and generally without either opinions or feelings of their own.” It is sad that a man of genius should feel it necessary to show that this is a tremendous misfortune; but it would be impossible to discharge that duty more splendidly than in the following words:
‘If there were nothing new to be done, would human intellect cease to be necessary? Would it be a reason why those who do the old things should forget why they are done, and do them like cattle, not like human beings? There is only too great a tendency in the best beliefs and practices to degenerate into the mechanical; and unless there were a succession of persons whose ever-recurring originality prevents the grounds of those beliefs and practices from becoming merely traditional, such dead matter would not resist the smallest shock from anything really alive, and there could be no reason why civilization should not die out, as in the Byzantine Empire.’The necessity for original minds was never greater than it is now, when “masses, that is to say, collective mediocrity,” govern the world; for “the initiation of all wise or noble things comes, and must come, from individuals,” and the dominant mass ought to wish for, as they can have, no higher glory than that of following with their eyes open that initiative. Mr. Mill does not advocate a system of hero-worship in which the strong man is to force the world to adopt his views. Such a state of things would corrupt the strong, and check the growth of the weak. All that he claims for men of genius is the freedom of asserting their position, and the special duty which he imposes upon them is that of claiming the position to which they are justly entitled, in order that the world may be shaken out of the self-satisfied mediocrity into which it is so much disposed to settle down. Mr. Mill augurs sadly—too sadly, let us hope—of the consequences of “the present low state of the human mind;” but it is right that his warnings should be carefully heeded:—
‘Already energetic characters on any large scale are becoming merely traditional. There is now scarcely any outlet for energy in this country except business. The energy expended in that may still be regarded as considerable. What little is left from that employment is expended on some hobby which may be a useful, even a philanthropic hobby, but is always some one thing, and generally a thing of small dimensions. The greatness of England is now all collective; individually small, we only appear capable of anything great by our habit of combining, and with this our moral and religious philanthropists are perfectly contented. But it was men of another stamp than this that made England what it has been, and men of another stamp will be needed to prevent its decline. . . . .
The Chinese have succeeded beyond all hope in what English philanthropists are so industriously working at--in making a people all alike, all governing their thoughts and conduct by the same maxims and rules—and these are the fruits. The modern régime of public opinion is, in an unorganised form, what the Chinese educational and political systems are in an organised; and unless individuality shall be able successfully to assert itself against this yoke, Europe, notwithstanding its noble antecedents and its professed Christianity, will tend to become another China.’We know of nothing in English literature since the Areopagetica more stirring, more noble, better worthy of the most profound and earnest meditation, than these two chapters of Mr. Mill's Essay.
Passing from the subject of Individuality, Mr. Mill attempts to lay down the limits of the authority which society may rightfully exercise over individuals. Though no one who has studied his earlier works with that degree of attention which they demand and deserve can be surprised at the grand outburst of feeling which lights up every line of the chapters to which we have already referred, the logical power which is his special characteristic is perhaps better marked in this most difficult inquiry than in any other part of the book. Adopting a classification of moral virtues as social or self-regarding, which, if we are not mistaken, was invented by Bentham, Mr. Mill contends that breaches of the duties arising out of the former are the only proper subjects for punishment, either legal or social; and that breaches of self-regarding duties should, as such, entail no penal consequences whatever, though they may be, and often are, associated with breaches of social duties which do deservedly incur them.
Mr. Mill does not contend that men ought to regard one another from a selfish point of view, as purely isolated beings. No man can cut himself off from his fellows, or ought to wish to do so. Considerations to aid the judgment of another, exhortations to strengthen his will, may be offered to him or even obtruded on him by others—nay, men may go further, and may properly regulate their feelings towards each other according to the manner in which they discharge their self-regarding duties. A man may become an object of contempt; his society may become offensive to others, and he may thus incur much social inconvenience by his faults. Men may lawfully caution their friends against his example or conversation, and they may prefer others to him in optional good offices; but these and similar inconveniences, “which are strictly inseparable from the unfavourable judgment of others, are the only ones to which a person should ever be subjected for that portion of his conduct and character which concerns his own good, but which does not affect the interests of others in their relations with him.” Duty to oneself means either prudence, or self-respect, or self-development; and for none of these per se is a man accountable to his neighbours. The illustrations given of this principle are characteristically ingenious and complete. Conscientious Mahometans have no right to prevent people from eating pork, though it may be clearly wrong and offensive in the last degree according to their consciences. Sabbatarians have no right to prevent what they call Sabbath-breaking, either by moral or legal penalties. The Maine Liquor Law is given as another instance of the transgression of this principle; and the manner in which Mormonism (of which Mr. Mill strongly disapproves) is treated, both here and in America, as another. We cannot here specify, in sufficient detail to be interesting, the various applications of the principles of the Essay which are worked out in the concluding chapter. They are as valuable and as careful as they might have been expected to be.
We do not propose on the present occasion to enter upon the points on which we are obliged to differ, or to qualify our agreement, with Mr. Mill. Our points of agreement with him are so much more important and numerous that we have preferred to confine ourselves to giving our readers, as well as we could, the substance of the work. We do not think it would have been possible to convey in the same space a greater quantity of matter which is not only valuable, but absolutely vital. This treatise stands out in noble contrast to some of the most popular and most pernicious of our modern heresies. We can imagine no more effective reproof than it conveys to that complacent optimism which takes for granted, that knowledge and civilization, have a sort of inherent power of progress which is not only independent of individual efforts, but supersedes the necessity for individual greatness, as if the raiment and the meat had been definitively proved to be superior to the body and the life. Nor is it less important as a protest against that vile indifference to the truth, as compared to the fancied social importance, of a doctrine, which is creeping unperceived into the holiest places, and masquerading under the most venerable disguises, whilst it palsies all that is generous in this life, and substitutes a desperate resolution to believe in the next for any real confidence in either.
It will be some consolation for the changes which have deprived the public of Mr. Mill's official services, if the leisure which he has earned so well continues to be employed so nobly. We hope on a future occasion to recur to the subject of this work, and to state some particulars in which Mr. Mill's arguments do not command our full assent.
Part 2: February 19, 1859.
We attempted last week to give our readers some account of the contents of Mr. Mill's Essay on Liberty. We purpose, on the present occasion, to fulfil the intention which we then expressed of stating some of the points in which we either differ from him, or are obliged to qualify our assent to his opinions. It would be impossible, in the limited space at our command, to attempt even to hint at all the interesting points for discussion suggested by this remarkable book. We will confine ourselves to two points, which are in themselves of great interest, and which will serve to show the character of the difference between Mr. Mill and ourselves.
The general tone of the book is altogether melancholy. It suggests, if it does not quite express, the conviction that the writer's lot is cast in petty times, in which the people are multiplied and the joy not increased, the individual dwindles, and the world is more and more. Quoting M. de Tocqueville's remark, that the existing generation of Frenchmen resemble each other far more than the last, he observes that this is still more true of Englishmen; and he concludes by the eloquent warning, which we quoted last week, that we are in danger, notwithstanding the grandeur of European history and the professed Christianity of Europe, of becoming a second China. Mr. Mill is not likely to be charged with saying rashly that the former times were better than these; and he, if any man, is likely to consider wisely concerning this. We do not in the least deny the dangers which he points out. We think them real and pressing, nor are we prepared to suggest any cure for them; but we also think that these considerations are only a part of the truth, and that Mr. Mill's language does not do justice to the present times. We fully agree with the opinion that the free development of individual differences of character is one of the greatest of all elements of well-being. We also agree that the dumb intolerance of the present day, which acts in private spheres, and is closely allied to and strongly supported by the narrowness and pettiness which are so often associated with schemes of active philanthropy tends strongly to prevent that development. But we do not think that Mr. Mill quite perceives —he certainly does not point out—what an immense scope for the development of individual character is afforded in one direction by the very social arrangements which appear to forbid it in another; and he seems to us to be distinctly wrong in asserting that, as a matter of fact, originality of character is ceasing to exist.
It is most true that the base instinct of dislike for everything that is not commonplace, which is characteristic of certain classes of society, has erected a code which executes itself with unfailing rigour, though it is altogether disconnected from any sound principles whatever. There is a standard of dress, of manner, of conversation, and of some other things which it is very difficult to transgress without incurring social penalties unpleasant enough to amount, with many persons, to a down-right prohibition; and the consequence is, that the external uniformity of all classes of society is probably greater at this moment than it ever was before, and has a constant tendency to increase. It is, however, at least equally true that this code is as narrow in its range as it is arbitrary in its decrees and rigorous in its penalties. In this age of great cities, the isolation of every single person in his own house is as complete as if he lived in the Great Desert. What hat and what coat he shall wear, how far he shall express his opinions in mixed society, and in what manner, is settled for him by an inflexible law; but what he shall read, how he shall think, how he shall educate his children, whether or not he shall have any sort of religious creed, and take part in any kind of public worship, are questions which he is left to settle—not nominally, but practically—for himself. There probably never was a time when men who have any sort of originality or independence of character had it in their power to hold the world at arm's length so cheaply. The quit-rent which they have to pay for these privileges is really not worth a thought. Thou shalt wear chimney-pot hats, thou shalt shave, thou shalt not say to stupid people things that would shock them (or, as another reading has it, thou shalt not cast thy pearls before swine)—these, and a few other observances of the same kind are the only ones which society at large either does or can enforce upon that thoughtful minority whose interests Mr. Mill has very properly so much at heart. As to the degree in which it is true that social intolerance is so powerful as to “induce men to disguise their opinions, and to abstain from any active effort for their diffusion,” every one of course must speak from his own experience. We should say that there are large classes of society in which the fact is so. The least educated part of the clergy— for with the minority it is far otherwise—and what is called the religious world, are very intolerant. They are also immensely powerful, and their influence is extending itself widely and deeply amongst the mercantile classes. But we should have thought that this was by no means true of the members of lay professions, or of that part of society which possesses independent fortunes. These classes form an audience large enough to secure a fair hearing to men who maintain social and theological views, from which many of them who read with interest the books in which they are promulgated, and associate on friendly terms with their authors, differ very widely indeed. We could mention several books of this character which have entailed no social penalties worth speaking of; but as we have no desire to trespass on private life, we will only refer to the great popularity of Mr. Buckle's History of Civilization. In many points it deviates fundamentally and irreconcileably from all the ordinary standards of orthodoxy; and we should certainly have supposed that the tone in which it is written would convey to most readers the notion that the real deviation was even greater than the apparent one.
That men who hold what would be called heretical views abstain from propagating them is a fact which, if true, may be explained on a different ground from that which Mr. Mill assigns. It appears to us to be owing, to an immense extent, to the general course which philosophical and theological controversy has taken in England for some years past. Mr. Mill refers in his Essay with regret to the neglect into which the study of the art of logical controversy has fallen; but surely this is owing, in no small degree, to the fact that a great proportion of the logical battles which once raged so fiercely have been fought out, and have resulted, as such battles always must, in bringing the combatants to antagonistic assertions, the truth of which is matter not of argument, but of evidence. On the great subjects of natural theology, for example, it is surely the case that the argument between the Theist and the Atheist has gone as far as it can be carried. It is a widely-spread opinion that upon either hypothesis an account can be given of all the phenomena of existence, and that the ultimate decision must depend, not on removing misconceptions and exposing contradictions (which is all that logic can do), but on the result of a method in which history and criticism, play a very important part, though its nature and limits are ill understood. So, with regard to morals, it is impossible to carry the question between the doctrines of conscience and utility much further. All that remains to be done is to attempt to find some criterion which will decide between two systems equally symmetrical as systems, but equally ill-adapted for the regulation of conduct. No one has yet decided what is the ultimate rule to which the individual conscience must conform; or what is the ultimate sanction of the law that the greatest happiness of the greatest number is to be pursued. Assume the existence of such a rule, or of such a sanction, and the system, which is at present a mere theory, will become a living guide and authority; but the investigation of the propriety of this assumption is obviously a process in which logic plays only a secondary part.
If this is a fair view of the stage at which the great standing controversies of life have at present arrived, it will follow that the absence of distinct enunciations of formal consistent doctrines, whether heterodox or orthodox, is for the present unavoidable. The method of conducting such speculations has not yet been fully investigated, nor have the necessary preparations—historical and critical—for conducting them to any satisfactory result, been completed. This view seems to us to derive force from the consideration that the silence which prevails extends to the advocates as well as to the antagonists of established opinions. Dogmatic defences of them are as rare as dogmatic attacks upon them. If the fear of consequences alone had silenced the minority, the majority might have been expected to triumph over them, but this is not the case. There is as little firing from the walls as from the trenches, but we are strangely mistaken if the Sappers and Miners are not occupied on both sides in a manner which is perhaps all the more effective because it is so quiet. To drop all metaphor, we think that all the modern investigations into natural science, into language, into mythology, into history in all its forms, political, theological, social, legal, and philosophical, have, and are felt to have, relations of the very deepest importance to all the great subjects of human inquiry, and especially to theology and morals. What result they will ultimately bring out no one can predict, but that, when the circuit is once completed, an electric shock of extraordinary power will be communicated in some direction or other, no rational man can doubt. Let any one compare the effect which geological discoveries alone have had on the interpretation of Scripture with that which has been produced by any amount of logic, and he will be in a position to estimate the results which may follow, and that at no very distant time, from inquiries of a similar character. We are for the first time beginning to understand, or at any rate to try to understand, the processes by which society grew up, the order of succession of different views of those legal and social relations which once were grouped together indiscriminately under such phrases as the social contract and the law of nature. the real character of early mythology, the sources from which it is derived, and the tendencies in the human mind which it represents —such, for example, as the state of feeling which produces such apparently monstrous creeds as Buddhism and Brahminism. We are also receiving new information every day on physiology, on the regularity or quasi-regularity which pervades large departments of human action which appear at first sight to be capricious, and on many other kindred subjects. Mere logical controversy at such a time would be out of place. It will begin again when any one possessed of adequate power of understanding and of moral and intellectual courage attempts the gigantic task of combining into one focus the scattered rays of light emitted from these various subjects, and of directing them upon the great practical questions by which human action is guided and human character formed.
Mr. Mill would say that our existing state is such that there is no probability that such a person will arise amongst us. We do not venture to prophesy, but we have a higher opinion of the level at which intelligence and originality stand in the intellectual classes of this country. To deny that there may be now living amongst us some eight or ten men of the first order, of whom two or three may ultimately be actually what they are potentially, would surely be rash. That we cannot lay our fingers upon them at the present moment proves nothing at all. We can only argue as to the probable greatness of the exceptions from the stature of ordinary people. It is that stature which Mr. Mill (himself a sort of giant) rather unfairly looks down upon. He is not to be told that all the human faculties develope themselves, pari passu. What is genius in one man in a million is, in the rank and file of society, vigorous, lively talent—combined with the habit of looking at things with your own eyes, and drawing your own conclusions. Is this state of mind rare amongst us? Do ordinary Englishmen resemble each other every day more and more closely? Surely, all the standing oppositions of life may still be traced in our art, in our literature, in our politics, in our theology, even though they may not be represented by men of great genius. Surely, if any one will run over in his mind the names of ten or twelve of his more immediate friends, he will arrive at the conclusion that they differ from each other as radically as the ash, the oak, the birch, and the elm, though it may be that just at present the wind is not rubbing their branches, together as, it does occasionally. What nobler proof could any nation have given of the qualities of its commonplace members than was given by the Indian Mutiny? Hundreds of men and women thrown on their own unassisted resources to fight for their lives at a moment's notice, displayed a degree of individual resource and energy, combined with an unflinching reliance, not on each other primarily, but on themselves, which cannot be paralleled from the history of any other time or country. People who, at any common English dinner-table, or on the platform of some local Missionary Society, would have drawled out the dreariest of all incoherent twaddle, and have impressed Mr. Mill with the notion that they were not only on their way to an intellectual China, but had absolutely reached it, and given themselves over to spiritual pigtails, started into heroes at the approach of real danger, took its measure with the clearest and most original intelligence, and met, and generally conquered it with that desperate courage which is the great constituent element of individuality.
Another point in Mr. Mill's book in which we think he does injustice to his countrymen is in his estimate of the causes of the want of originality which, as he says, is spreading amongst us. After describing, with great power, the formation of a conventional character, he asks:—
‘Now, is this or is it not the desirable condition of human nature?No one will accuse us of an undue partiality for Calvinism, but we think Mr. Mill misapprehends its whole scope. We will not quarrel about the word, which appears to us to be used somewhat vaguely; but we say that the belief that to obey God's will in every action of life is the highest aim of human existence, far from being a slavish one, is the noblest conception of life that any mortal creature can form. So far from crushing the faculties and susceptibilities, it is the best of all means of developing them to the highest pitch of excellence and glory of which they are capable. No one will accuse Mr. Mill of believing that the desirable position for man is that of living exactly as his inclinations prompt him from time to time, without reference to any general principle whatever. A man who lives to develope his own faculties, or to benefit his race or nation, subordinates his temporary inclinations to those ends, and raises and purifies his character by doing so. Self-control is, indeed, the highest and most distinctly human function of life, and differs as widely as possible from a slavish mechanical submission to superior force. Willing obedience enforced on oneself at all risks, and in the face of any amount of dislike, is the greatest of all agents in ennobling and developing the character, whether it is rendered to a principle or to a person; for it implies action, and action of the most unremitting and various kinds. Is a dog a worse dog for obeying a good master? Is a wife the less womanly for obeying a good husband? If not, is man less manly in obeying God? The iron does not obey the blacksmith, nor does a slave under the fear of the lash, in the proper sense of the word, obey his master. He rebels against him whilst he yields to him. What all Christians understand by obeying God's will is, entering into and adopting God's plans and purposes as the rule of life, and acting up to them in every particular. “Love is the fulfilling of the law.” Mere acquiescence and submission is quite another thing. Almost all Christians, at least in Western Europe, have always understood the plan of God respecting them, which they were thus to obey, to involve the diligent cultivation of various parts of their nature: and, in point of fact, the extreme vivacity, and individuality of much of the history of modern Europe are derived from this very obedience which appears to Mr. Mill so slavish. The Crusaders were trying to obey God when they invaded Palestine; and so were many of the Popes when they asserted, and of the feudal kings when they denied, the right of the Church to temporal supremacy. Luther, Cromwell, Queen Elizabeth, and many others, considered obedience to God as the mainspring of their lives. How far they rightly apprehended God's will is quite another question; but it is too plain for argument that obedience to God was in them an active and not a passive, a developing, and not a crushing sentiment. Indeed, the very parts of history in which great men were greatest, and in which individual energy was most highly developed, are just those periods at which the sentiment of obeying God was most powerful. Calvinism is notoriously the creed of the most vigorous and least submissive nations in the world. A theory must be strangely wrong which proves that the Scotch in the seventeenth century ought to have been a slavish pusillanimous people, with no marked characters amongst them.
It is so on the Calvinistic theory. According to that theory, the one great offence of man is Self-will. All the good of which humanity is capable is comprised in Obedience. You have no choice; thus you must do, and not otherwise. “Whatever is not a duty is a sin.” Human nature being radically corrupt, there is no redemption for any one till human nature is killed within him. To one holding this theory of life, crushing out any of the human faculties, capacities, and susceptibilities is no evil; man needs no capacity but that of surrendering himself to the will of God; and if he uses any of his faculties for any other purpose but to do that supposed will more effectually, he is better without them. That is the theory of Calvinism, and it is held, in a mitigated form, by many who do not consider themselves Calvinists, the mitigation consisting in giving a less ascetic interpretation to the alleged will of God, asserting it to be his will that mankind should gratify some of their inclinations, of course not in a manner they themselves prefer, but in a way of obedience, that is, in a way prescribed to them by authority, and, therefore, by the necessary conditions of the case, the same for all.’
It is of the essence of Calvinism, as Mr. Mill uses the word, to recognise special talents and faculties as good and perfect gifts given by God to be used and honoured by the use accordingly. Surely such a belief supplies the most effective means for developing individuality. It is only when it is perverted that it can crush the mind. That human nature is corrupt— i.e., that men have a natural tendency to do wrong, or (which is the same thing) a natural incapacity to do right—is a fact which every system of morality must recognise in some form or other. That there is any element of human nature which must be radically exterminated is no part of what Mr. Mill calls the Calvinistic doctrine. We fully admit that Calvinists, as well as other people, have often entertained very wrong notions as to what God's will is, and that they have frequently depicted it in such a light as to make it almost indistinguishable from the will of the Devil. Of course, to obey such a will as that is a dreadful thing; but even in that case, the result would be to develope the character (though in a very unpleasant direction), and not to crush it. A man who tyrannizes over himself, crushes his own affections, and destroys his own sensibility because he believes it to be God's will that he should do so, has done what is very wrong and very foolish, and has experienced what may almost be called blasphemous feelings; but when all is done, he has developed himself in a certain direction. His will is strengthened and not destroyed. He has a fair chance of becoming a sort of devil, but is in very little danger of being a mere commonplace man. We have little doubt that, if it were so to effect a detailed comparison between families in which what Mr. Mill describes as “Calvinism” does and does not prevail, it would be found that, caeteris paribus, the former had a larger share of originality of character than the latter. If we are right in considering the principle of obedience to be an active and not a passive one, this might have been expected.
The real sources of the prevalence of the weak, slight, ineffectual type of character which is such a grievance to Mr. Mill, appear to us to be quite unrelated to religious principle. Small French shopkeepers are, to say the least, as feeble a folk as any class of Englishmen, and their worst enemies would not accuse them of having been degraded by Calvinism. The real cause, or at least one great cause, is undoubtedly to be found in the prevalence of small prosaic occupations, which engross the attention without developing the intellectual or moral powers of those who pursue them. How can he be wise whose talk is of oxen? And if oxen, which are at any rate living creatures, with dispositions, wills, health, and other individual peculiarities, do not afford sufficient occupation to the mind to develope its higher powers, how can the sale of pastry, the concoction of hairdyes and perfumes, and a hundred other petty occupations of the same sort, with their small vicissitudes and trifling successes, make men and women of those who pass their life in them? When we remember that the class occupied in these trivial pursuits is at present one of the most numerous, most increasing, and most influential in the country—that men who represent its level of education and knowledge make its inclinations, the weakly propensities which would be its passions if it had any, and the minutiae of its daily life, the subjects of photographic descriptions—and that literature of this kind, which never rises above grotesqueness, and never touches the great interests of life in any other temper than that of Thersites, is the principal food of what many people call their minds—we need not wonder that herds of wretched dwarfs are growing up amongst us who are the natural prey of intolerant bigots, and the natural enemies of all that looks unusual to narrow minds coddled into imbecility by every influence which can convert the strong wine of our native English character into a wretched mixture less unworthy of the title of eau sucrée than of any other,
Saturday Review, February 12 and 19, 1859.