Celebrating John Stuart Mill Month + an exciting announcement
And don't forget to watch your inbox for a special announcement coming *tomorrow*!
May is a special month for John Stuart Mill, as it was both the month he was born and the month he left this world (May 20, 1806 - May 8, 1873).
Mill’s most famous work, On Liberty (1859), is one of the most important discussions of how citizens in a free society ought to be able to exercise their liberties, an especially timely question in our current moment.
To commemorate what I have affectionately dubbed “Mill Month,” below are some reflections on Mill, which I’ve adapted from my forthcoming book on civility, soon to be published by St Martin’s Press.
Mill’s interest in free expression and individuality was largely a response to his upbringing in Victorian England, a time and place governed by strict codes of conduct dictating every aspect of life.
He famously condemned the social expectations of his day. He analogized social conformity to the ancient Chinese practice of foot binding: Succumbing to such Procrustean pressures is “To be without any marked character; to maim by compression... every part of human nature which stands out prominently, and tends to make the person markedly dissimilar in outline to commonplace humanity.”
According to Mill, the greatest threat to free speech was social “tyranny of the majority”—the tendency of an audience to economically and socially punish speech and speakers it did not like. Mill knew that legal freedoms alone were not enough to protect free expression. Just as, if not more, important is that members of a society remain open to dialogue even on topics they disagree with.
Mill condemned the repressive nature of “class markers”—the aristocratic manners and the stuffy norms of politeness—in a democratic and tolerant society. He argued that “despotism of custom” encouraged individuals to moderate their tastes and needs, prompting them to “desire nothing too strongly,” and, in practice, become like everyone else.
He also criticized the social expectation that middle and working classes accept their lot in life. In Mill’s era, when people questioned their position or questioned those in a higher class, they were dismissed as “rude” and socially punished, by both aristocrats and their peers. Mill rejected this part of his culture, arguing instead for the important role that criticism and conflict play in the marketplace of ideas.
Responses to ideas we dislike
Mill said that when we encounter a new idea, there are three possibilities: it’s entirely wrong, partially right, or entirely true.
(Edmund Burke agreed: encountering opinions that we disagree with challenges us to think more deeply about why we hold the beliefs we do, and help to refine our thinking. I also love this quote from Burke: “He that wrestles with us strengthens our nerves and sharpens our skill. Our antagonist is our helper.”)
I hope you’ll take the opportunity that May—AKA “Mill Month”— presents, and pick up a copy of On Liberty!
A special announcement: Philosophy + Film!
Tomorrow is launch day for CR’s second course, Philosophy + Film!
The best teachers in my life were those that loved learning themselves. That’s why I’m thrilled to launch this course: I’m excited for the chance to dive into these texts, films and questions with and alongside you.
These are questions that no one ever outgrows.
In this four-module course, we will put great films into dialogue with philosophical works, exploring thinkers such as Plato, Kierkegaard, Seneca and more.
This self-paced course will only be available for purchase for ONE WEEK.
Once purchased, you can then take the course at your own pace at ANY time!
If you are interested in this course and would like to reserve a spot, send me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org
See you tomorrow—and thank you for being part of the Civic Renaissance Community!
I’m grateful that you’re here.
“When a people are ripe for free institutions, there is a still more vital consideration. Free institutions are next to impossible in a country made up of different nationalities. Among a people without fellow-feeling, especially if they read & speak different languages, the united public opinion, necessary to the working of representative government, cannot exist.”
—John Stuart Mill, Representative Government (1861)