On Liberty: with full text by John Stuart Mill and modern introduction by Rupert Matthews by Rupert Matthews - Read Online
On Liberty
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On Liberty is undoubtedly the most influential and best known of the works by the British philosopher John Stuart Mill. And unlike many philosophical works, it is written in relatively easy to understand language and is fairly short. It is, therefore, one of those books which is very often included on reading lists for schools and colleges. Despite this apparent accessibility, however, the book and its key messages are open to misunderstandings.
As with many books of apparent general principle, it is difficult to understand On Liberty properly without knowing something of the conditions in which it was written. Both the world in general and Mills' life in particular had a profound impact on the book and the thinking behind it.
By establishing in clear and direct language the "principle of harm", On Liberty established in the public consciousness a principle that had been touched on by others but which was now put at the forefront of public debate. The idea that a person should be free to do anything they wish so long as it does not harm others is now espoused by anyone who claims to be liberal or enlightened. His setting forth of the three basic freedoms that a person needs to enjoy to be deemed "free" have been similarly popular. These are the freedom of speech, the freedom of action and the freedom of assembly.
Although On Liberty is flawed in some places, and now seriously out of date in others, its influence on liberal thinking has been immense and continuous. A
This edition includes a new introduction and conclusion by historian Rupert Matthews in which he sets out the background to the writing of the book - both the general political situation of the time and the very particular personal situation in which John Stuart Mill found himself.

Published: Bretwalda Books on
ISBN: 9781907791796
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On Liberty - Rupert Matthews

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On Liberty is undoubtedly the most influential and best known of the works by the British philosopher John Stuart Mill. And unlike many philosophical works, it is written in relatively easy to understand language and is fairly short. It is, therefore, one of those books which is very often included on reading lists for schools and colleges. Despite this apparent accessibility, however, the book and its key messages are open to misunderstandings.

As with many books of apparent general principle, it is difficult to understand On Liberty properly without knowing something of the conditions in which it was written. Both the world in general and Mill' life in particular had a profound impact on the book and the thinking behind it.

The world in 1859, when the book first appeared, was a very different place to how it is today. The vast majority of the world's population was illiterate, lived in conditions we would consider to be primitive and inhabited states run by autocratic monarchies that allowed no democracy and precious few human rights. Execution for crimes such as treading on the king's shadow were not unknown, while many states used torture as a matter of routine.

Even in those states that held themselves to be enlightened and advanced, human rights were something of a nebulous concept. Britain, for example, prided itself on its democratic principles when compared to the brutal dictatorship of Tsarist Russia. And yet in Britain barely a third of the adult population had the right to vote in elections.

Such lack of democracy and human rights was then considered to be perfectly natural and normal. The majority of people accepted that society should be hierarchical and rigidly defined - by law if not by social convention.

Queen Victoria sat on the throne of Britain at the time Mill was writing. Her rule was relatively democratic by the standards of the time.

Opposed to these views were those few voices - though western societies held more of them than elsewhere - that called for greater freedoms, rights and responsibilities for the masses. In North America these calls had led to the founding of the United States of America, with its Constitution that guaranteed many of these rights and freedoms. In Europe there had been occasional revolutions and rebellions that aimed at establishing utopian societies of democracy, friendship and equality. Although some were initially successful, they all eventually foundered in the face of economic or military realities.

The Peterloo Massacre of 1819 saw British soldiers attack a crowd of political protestors at Manchester. In all 15 people were killed and 650 injured. The commander of the soldiers later claimed he had feared a riot was about to take place.

The most widespread of these waves of revolution came in 1848. The upheavals began in Sicily in January, spreading rapidly through the Italian states of Tuscany, Venice, Naples, Rome, Parma and more. France was engulfed in revolution in February and King Louis-Phillippe fled abroad. Germany then erupted with Baden, Prussia, Bavaria, Saxony and Austria all being hit by liberal revolutions. Denmark, Poland, Belgium, Hungary and other states also saw uprisings of variying degrees of seriousness. The revolutionaries all shared demands for democracy, social reforms and economic changes, but the uprisings were generally poorly organised, lacked cohesion and lacked trained military manpower. By the summer of 1849 the revolutions had all collapsed.

The failure of the uprisings led to prolonged debates on the nature of democracy, economic freedom, social conventions and other matters. It was in this atmosphere that Mill began work on a short essay that he intended to be a contribution to the debate on the meaning of liberty. What he had intended to be a quickly completed project gradually expanded and became more involved as Mill developed his ideas, brought in other strands of thought and sought examples to bolster his arguments.

Mill' own personal life also urged him on to write on the themes of liberty and the stifling aspects of social conventions. He had had a constricted childhood, educated at home by his father, the Scottish philosopher and economist James Mill. He was taught Greek from the age of three, Latin from five and by eight was reading Diogenes, Plato, Homer and Herodotus in the original. He was kept isolated from children his own age and forced to spend all his time studying texts and works specified by his father. Mill senior was devoted to the utilitarianism school of thinking and inculcated its main teachings into his son. Utilitarianism held that actions and behaviours had no intrinsic moral worth, but should be judged by their outcomes. It could be summarised by the idea that what works is good and right simply because it works.

James Mill, father of John Stuart, was a political theorist and philosopher in his own right, a leading light of the Utilitarianism movement.

The supporters of utilitarianism liked to describe it as the Principle of Greatest Happiness. Its detractors scorned it as a morally vacuous philosophy that came dangerously close to anarchism. In the practical world, utilitarianism suffered from the difficulty of predicting outcomes. A person might take a morally dubious decision thinking it would produce the best outcome, only to find that it did not.

John Stuart Mill himself ran into a morally uncertain situation when he met and fell in love with Harriet Taylor. She was intelligent, witty and highly educated, mixed in radical society and leaned towards utilitarianism. Unfortunately she was also married. In 1833, three years after meeting Mill, she moved out of the family home into a house with her daughter, leaving her two sons with her husband. Scandal followed the move with many people believing that Mill and Taylor were lovers – thought they denied this. In 1849 Harriet's husband died and soon afterwards she married Mill. The wedding did nothing to still the scandal and several people refused to socialise with Mill. This example of society imposing morals on Mill may be reflected in several passages within On Liberty when he writes of unwritten rules and the tyranny of social norms.

Harriet Taylor (later Mill) painted by an unknown artist in about 1845.

Mill had all this time been working for the East India Company in their London offices. He and his father were instrumental in imposing on the Company reforms and regulations that encapsulated utilitarianism in practice. A good number of the Company's older staff, and those in India, objected to the reforms saying that they cut across the grain of Indian society and in particular of the customs of the Indian military. Mill and his supporters ignored the protests and pushed ahead.

In May 1857 the army and local civilian employees of the Company erupted in the great rebellion that became known as the Indian Mutiny. Local soldiers employed by the East India Company switched allegiance to local princes, killed their European officers and families and began a war that would cost many tens of thousands of lives. Many British soldiers and administrators in India blamed the imposition of utilitarianist policies for the underlying grievances behind the trouble. The Indian Mutiny took place as Mill was working on On Liberty. Undoubtedly the catastrophe and the blame that many sought to pin on his ideas and policies influenced his writings. The sections on how to rule barbarians was no doubt written with an eye on the situation in India.

The final work was published in 1859. Harriet had died in 1858, only seven years after marrying Mill, and the pair had worked closely together on the document. Mill declared that the publication was to consecrate the work to her memory. It was met by high critical acclaim and controversy. It rapidly became one of the main foundations of late 19th century liberalism and has never really lost that position.



THE SUBJECT of this Essay is not the so-called Liberty of the Will, so unfortunately opposed to the misnamed doctrine of Philosophical Necessity; but Civil, or Social Liberty: the nature and limits of the power which can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual. A question seldom stated, and hardly ever discussed, in general terms, but which profoundly influences the practical controversies of the age by its latent presence, and is likely soon to make itself recognised as the vital question of the future. It is so far from being new, that, in a certain sense, it has divided mankind, almost from the remotest ages; but in the stage of progress into which the more civilized portions of the species have now entered, it presents itself under new conditions, and requires a different and more fundamental treatment.

The struggle between Liberty and Authority is the most conspicuous feature in the portions of history with which we are earliest familiar, particularly in that of Greece, Rome, and England. But in old times this contest was between subjects, or some classes of subjects, and the Government. By liberty, was meant protection against the tyranny of the political rulers. The rulers were conceived (except in some of the popular governments of Greece) as in a necessarily antagonistic position to the people whom they ruled. They consisted of a governing One, or a governing tribe or caste, who derived their authority from inheritance or conquest, who, at all events, did not hold it at the pleasure of the governed, and whose supremacy men did not venture, perhaps did not desire, to contest, whatever precautions might be taken against its oppressive exercise. Their power was regarded as necessary, but also as highly dangerous; as a weapon which they would attempt to use against their subjects, no less than against external enemies. To prevent the weaker members of the community from being preyed on by innumerable vultures, it was needful that there should be an animal of prey stronger than the rest, commissioned to keep them down. But as the king of the vultures would be no less bent upon preying upon the flock than any of the minor harpies, it was indispensable to be in a perpetual attitude of defence against his beak and claws. The aim, therefore, of patriots was to set limits to the power which the ruler should be suffered to exercise over the community; and this limitation was what they meant by liberty. It was attempted in two ways. First, by obtaining a recognition of certain immunities, called political liberties or rights, which it was to be regarded as a breach of duty in the ruler to infringe, and which, if he did infringe, specific resistance, or general rebellion, was held to be justifiable. A second, and generally a later expedient, was the establishment of constitutional checks, by which the consent of the community, or of a body of some sort, supposed to represent its interests, was made a necessary condition to some of the more important acts of the governing power. To the first of these modes of limitation, the ruling power, in most European countries, was compelled, more or less, to submit. It was not so with the second; and, to attain this, or when already in some degree possessed, to attain it more completely, became everywhere the principal object of the lovers of liberty. And so long as mankind were content to combat one enemy by another, and to be ruled by a master, on condition of being guaranteed more or less efficaciously against his tyranny, they did not carry their aspirations beyond this point.

A time, however, came, in the progress of human affairs, when men ceased to think it a necessity of nature that their governors should be an independent power, opposed in interest to themselves. It appeared to them much better that the various magistrates of the State should be their tenants or delegates, revocable at their pleasure. In that way alone, it seemed, could they have complete security that the powers of government would never be abused to their disadvantage. By degrees this new demand for elective and temporary rulers became the prominent object of the exertions of the popular party, wherever any such party existed; and superseded, to a considerable extent, the previous efforts to limit the power of rulers. As the struggle proceeded for making the ruling power emanate from the periodical choice of the ruled, some persons began to think that too much importance had been attached to the limitation of the power itself. That (it might seem) was a resource against rulers whose interests were habitually opposed to those of the people. What was now wanted was, that the rulers should be identified with the people; that their interest and will should be the interest and will of the nation. The nation did not need to be protected against its own will. There was no fear of its tyrannizing over itself. Let the rulers be effectually responsible to it, promptly removable by it, and it could afford to trust them with power of which it could itself dictate the use to be made. Their power was but the nation's own power, concentrated, and in a form convenient for exercise. This mode of thought, or rather perhaps of feeling, was common among the last generation of European liberalism, in the Continental section of which it still apparently predominates. Those who admit any limit to what a government may do, except in the case of such governments as they think ought not to exist, stand out as brilliant exceptions among the political thinkers of the Continent. A similar tone of sentiment might by this time have been prevalent in our own country, if the circumstances which for a time encouraged it, had continued unaltered.

But, in political and philosophical theories, as well as in persons, success discloses faults and infirmities which failure might have concealed from observation. The notion, that the people have no need to limit their power over themselves, might seem axiomatic, when popular government was a thing only dreamed about, or read of as having existed at some distant period of the past. Neither was that notion necessarily disturbed by such temporary aberrations as those of the French Revolution, the worst of which were the work of an usurping few, and which, in any case, belonged, not to the permanent working of popular institutions, but to a sudden and convulsive outbreak against monarchical and aristocratic despotism. In time, however, a democratic republic came to occupy a large portion of the earth's surface, and made itself felt as one of the most powerful members of the community of nations; and elective and responsible government became subject to the observations and criticisms which wait