On Liberty | Study Guide

John Stuart Mill

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On Liberty | Chapter 3 : Of Individuality, as One of the Elements of Well-Being | Summary



Chapter 3 begins by taking the precepts of the previous chapter and applying them to broader notions of freedom of individual activity. First, there are important limitations to speech when they become actions. For example, a document saying that "private property is robbery" delivered in a paper is different than if it were delivered orally to a mob. With that said, for the individual, "the same reasons which show that opinion should be free, prove also that he should be allowed, without molestation, to carry his opinions into practice at his own cost," provided that "he refrains from molesting others in what concerns them, and merely acts according to his own inclination and judgment in things which concern himself." While differing opinions are "useful," so too are different "modes of living" and here too the widest possible freedom should be allowed. Too many people are satisfied with conformity and tradition. Instead, "individual spontaneity" should be more highly valued. Mill quotes German philosopher Wilhelm von Humboldt, who says that "the end of man ... is the highest and most harmonious development of his powers to a complete and consistent whole." Hence, and again quoting Humboldt, Mill finds that "individual vigor and manifold diversity" should be the highest callings of social organization.

To Mill people should not unquestioningly accept the traditions and mores of the past but should question those traditions and seek to find individual fulfillment and satisfaction. There is no one formula, guideline, or set of standards for living that applies to all persons. Individuals have different needs and preferences that should be allowed to flourish based on their own interests and practices. People have desires and impulses and consciousnesses that all play a part in creating a whole person. These factors can be said to be human "energy," which may be directed in positive or negative avenues. Sometimes, particularly in the past, this places individuality at odds with society, for which rules and restrictions are required. Too often people bow to these rules, as with Calvinist theory which emphasizes obedience, leading to people made "cramped and dwarfed."

Instead, argues Mill, human diversity and individuality incomparably benefit the social whole, improving thought and general condition. This is a reciprocal process whereby "each person becomes more valuable to himself, and is therefore capable of being more valuable to others." So each person should be allowed widest personal freedom, which is the foundation for both individual development and social development. Now, there may be some who reject personal liberty for themselves and for others, but they would benefit by allowing others fuller expression of themselves so individual talents and insights can be developed uniquely and applied for the benefit all. While not everyone's action will benefit the whole, there are some unique individuals, the "salt of the earth," from whose talents and insights all will gain advantage. Furthermore, individual genius can only develop in this environment of tolerance and expression. In sum, "all good things which exist are the fruits of originality," which itself cannot develop in an environment of conformity.

While most of history owes its development to this individual originality, Mill argues, his contemporary period was marked by "collective mediocrity." Instead of great individual feats, the modern era is marked by mass phenomena, for example public opinion, or class interests, whereby masses follow leaders without much thought or originality. This condition reflects the "present low state of the human mind," in which many "bend the knee" to conformity and custom. Instead, what is needed is "eccentricity," the ability of the individual to buck dominant social trends. Individuality is not reserved for unique or talented individuals but for all people: humans are as unique in mental proclivities as they are in physical attributes.

According to Mill, the progress of improvement and liberty may be at odds at times, but what he calls the "despotism of custom" is always at odds with both. An example for him is China, where according to Mill, a once thriving and advanced civilization became enamored with custom and retarded their development, whereby the English and European peoples have overtaken them. Much of Europe, however, Mill argues, is on the path of conformity that led to stagnation in China. Indeed, Europe is rapidly becoming prey to assimilation, with the same or similar habits of activity, reading, and thought. "The desire for rising," once the domain of "a particular class," had in Mill's time become the want "of all classes." Particularly concerning is the rise of public opinion in the affairs of state, which increases conformity. Mill concludes by arguing that the defense of liberty should be made now against further encroachment.


Chapter 3 develops the insights into freedom of thought made in Chapter 2 and pushes them into the realm of human activity and expression. This chapter, however, is more about the individual and the relationship of the individual to society than strictly about individual freedom. The basis for the argument in the chapter comes from insights from Prussian philosopher Wilhelm von Humboldt—particularly his idea that individual development and fruition should be the highest goal of a society. With that notion in mind, Mill then argues that much like truth, which flowers through diverse interchange of opinion, so too do individuals best develop and blossom in settings of diversity and tolerance for individual proclivities. Individual genius, Mill argues, is made only in an environment of freedom. Indeed, Mill goes so far to advocate "eccentricity" as a social good that should be encouraged.

Several important themes animate Chapter 3. One tension that runs throughout and centers Mill's thoughts is the relationship of individual greatness to the culture and institutions of society. On the one hand, genius is made only through a collective effort in a spirit of conviviality, discovery, and acceptance. On the other hand, social collectivity stifles individual achievement and leads to what he alternatively calls "collective mediocrity" and the "despotism of custom." Mill apparently sees no contradiction between these terms, and his emphasis throughout is on the individual and individual freedom as the leading process and hallmark of social good, while social forces of conformity stand as threats. Note Mill's hostility to democratic practice in this argument. With the individual and society standing in such tension, the "tyranny of the majority" is clearly a paramount concern for Mill. Another theme of note is Mill's colonial perspective. His use of China in the passage as a negative example highlights his support for British imperialism expressed elsewhere.

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