I’ve never known the difference between the word freedom and the word liberty–I think the two are interchangeable but most likely they are not. However I am too lazy to look it up. It’s like watching all the seasons of “Frasier”, but never really figuring out the difference between a psychiatrist and a psychologist.
Still I’ve always been wondering how free I am. Of course in the Asian immigrant community here, one hears often about a hardworking person who suddenly dies of heart attack due to stress and overwork, a person who wants to go to Thailand and possibly even retires there–but he has been talking like that for years. All these things just bring the questions of life, freedom, existence. And I don’t know where to look for answers. After reading a little about existentialism, I proceed to “On Liberty” by John Stuart Mill. The problem with these books is that they never answer the questions I have in my real life. So I am still left with all the questions I had before the reading.
Since “On Liberty” was written in 1859, a lot of its messages have been well accepted by now and some may even sound cliche. I tried to select those interesting quotes that are not so well known, but still you may find them too often mentioned elsewhere.
Since the first chapter is introduction and the last chapter is application, I will skip the first and the last chapter, going directly to the body of the book, which consists of Chapter 2, 3, and 4: “Thought And Discussion”, “Individuality”, and “Limits To The Authority”.
Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough: there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling.
Strange it is, that men should admit the validity of the arguments for free discussion, but object to their being “pushed to an extreme;” not seeing that unless the reasons are good for an extreme case, they are not good for any case.
No Christian more firmly believes that Atheism is false, and tends to the dissolution of society, than Marcus Aurelius believed the same things of Christianity; he who, of all men then living, might have been thought the most capable of appreciating it.
All languages and literatures are full of general observations on life, both as to what it is, and how to conduct oneself in it; observations which everybody knows, which everybody repeats, or hears with acquiescence, which are received as truisms, yet of which most people first truly learn the meaning, when experience, generally of a painful kind, has made it a reality to them.
Having said that Individuality is the same thing with development, and that it is only the cultivation of individuality which produces, or can produce, well-developed human beings, I might here close the argument: for 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? or what worse can be said of any obstruction to good, than that it prevents this? Doubtless, however, these considerations will not suffice to convince those who most need convincing.
The general tendency of things throughout the world is to render mediocrity the ascendant power among mankind.
At present individuals are lost in the crowd. In politics it is almost a triviality to say that public opinion now rules the world. The only power deserving the name is that of masses, and of governments while they make themselves the organ of the tendencies and instincts of masses. This is as true in the moral and social relations of private life as in public transactions.
But they are always a mass, that is to say, collective mediocrity. And what is a still greater novelty, the mass do not now take their opinions from dignitaries in Church or State, from ostensible leaders, or from books. Their thinking is done for them by men much like themselves, addressing them or speaking in their name, on the spur of the moment, through the newspapers.
But the strongest of all the arguments against the interference of the public with purely personal conduct, is that when it does interfere, the odds are that it interferes wrongly, and in the wrong place.
In its interferences with personal conduct it is seldom thinking of anything but the enormity of acting or feeling differently from itself; and this standard of judgment, thinly disguised, is held up to mankind as the dictate of religion and philosophy, by nine-tenths of all moralists and speculative writers. These teach that things are right because they are right; because we feel them to be so. They tell us to search in our own minds and hearts for laws of conduct binding on ourselves and on all others.
…for in these cases public opinion means, at the best, some people’s opinion of what is good or bad for other people; while very often it does not even mean that; the public, with the most perfect indifference, passing over the pleasure or convenience of those whose conduct they censure, and considering only their own preference.
…the egotism which thinks self and its concerns more important than everything else, and decides all doubtful questions in its own favour;—these are moral vices, and constitute a bad and odious moral character.