Years sometimes elapse between the times I reread his work, but the words of John Stuart Mill are tattooed on my heart. I was aghast recently when a friend of mine (taking a philosophy course) told me she thought Mill was boring. My God! I find him one of the most exciting men in history! Granted, his writing style can strike the modern reader, ill-equipped as many of us are at the art of Active Reading, as a bit dry and erudite; at the same time, however, Mill is eminently quotable. In the early days of my awakening to adult thinking, the writings of John Stuart Mill, along with those of Thomas Jefferson, were my guiding lights— guiding lightningbolts, more like it. Both men had their personal issues and Jefferson especially had his moral failings (as far as I know, Mill was an upright man)—but their ideas helped me begin along my philosophical road at a time when I did not even realize my journey up the mountain had begun.
David Boaz devotes numerous pages to the words of Mill in his book, The Libertarian Reader, which I read recently as my Self-Doctorate’s Work Number (I dunno… gotta start numbering them I guess).
Mill was on the right side of history in just about every area about which he chose to write. Like Kropotkin The Anarchist, much of Mill’s political philosophy rests on his foundational belief that each and every human being deserves the opportunity to reach his or her full potential.
Mill believes that a healthy society is composed of individuals, not drones, and that Society, somewhat ironically, needs the very rebels and free thinkers who it tends to beat down. It is these mavericks who have the imagination to think outside the box and the bravery to challenge the status quo. Mill says that “there is always need of persons not only to discover new truths” but also to “point out when what were once truths are true no longer.” That last part is what I think a lot of stuffed shirts don’t get. Yes, sometimes customs grow up precisely because they have proven over time their value to society. But also, sometimes, customs can become outdated and do more harm than good. Last year’s clothes may this year pinch and bind– as badly as we may wish they did not!
Looking around himself at the land of conformity that was Victorian Era England, Mill opined, “that so few now dare to be eccentric, marks the chief danger of the time.” Mill dreaded the consequences of a Society in which conformity and custom ruled with an iron fist. Unlike some political philosophers, who either by accident or design base their arguments on what is good for “Society,” Mill stays focused on the individual. After all, to what purpose a smoothly functioning and wealthy Society if the individuals who comprise it are unhappy, underdeveloped, and unfulfilled?
To do everything simply because “that’s the way it’s always been done” is, for Mill, the stultifying road to Loserville. “He who does anything because it is the custom, makes no choice,” contends Mill. “He gains not practice either in discerning or in desiring what is best. The mental and moral, like the muscular powers, are improved only by being used.”
Mill, like Kropotkin, sincerely desires that each individual should become the noble and beautiful creature he or she is capable of becoming. And Mill is convinced that independence of thinking is the path for reaching one’s potential. “It is only the cultivation of individuality which produces, or can produce, well-developed human beings,” he says, adding, “what more or better can be said of any condition of human affairs than that it brings human beings, themselves, nearer to the best thing they can be?” Mill, unlike many modern Americans I know, obviously does not overly value the “condition of human affairs” that brings human beings the most toys.
Mill contended that people should not try to hide and beat down their individuality. Instead, they should cherish their “eccentricities.” If each of us would only try to become the best Me we can be, Mill felt the human race would become a “noble and beautiful object of contemplation.”
John Stuart Mill… the man who boldly proclaimed, “whatever crushes individuality is despotism…” I put him in history’s Hero column… “boring” or no.