[Book] On Liberty

For random thoughts of mine, please skip to the end (if you really care).

For summary in Vietnamese, please find the link below for your ease of reference.

Trạm Đọc | Tóm tắt sách: Bàn về tự do

I think that there were various summary notes for this book on the Internet, however, if you are interested, you may refer to the following links

Spark Notes: On Liberty

Wikipedia: On Liberty

For the free copy of the book, you may find here:

Project Gutenberg | On Liberty

on liberty

While the book has only 140 pages, it is not easy to get the author’s ideas at the first reading. I think what makes it difficult to follow what the author tried to convey should be his style of writing: too long a passage, no headline or title for ease of reading (except for the chapter title) and sometimes deviating from the key topic. So it is recommended to ones who are interested in reading the book that it is of great use to scan through the summary to catch the main ideas.

Fortunately, I came across its hard copy while wandering by a used bookstore in Taipei and bought it with too good a price (NTD100) and found the book still stay in good state. The version of mine includes the introduction by Currin V. Shields.

In this post, I do not attempt to make a comprehensive review on the book or the idea conveyed by the author but pick up several parts and add up my comments respectively.

John Stuart Mill, as referred to in the Introduction, is “no doubt the most widely known nineteenth-century British political writer.” He, like another famous political writers as far as I remember, was well equipped with a standard formal education with study of Greek/ Latin or reading of classics, history, politics and philosophy from such young an age. What makes me feel interested about his background is that notwithstanding the stern and somehow ideal education like this, John, at such young an age, often found a lack of emotional feelings. He felt no sense of purpose in life, stating himself being “left stranded at the commencement of my voyage, with a well-equipped ship and rudder, but no sail.” He sought to fill up such lack of emotional stimulation by turning to music, poetry and art with a view to remedying such defect and retaining the balanced personality. His idea of the necessity of gaining balanced personality and cultivation of emotional stimulation in addition to intellectual discipline is something that I feel totally empathized. As one who often struggles herself to get over all the accounting and legal stuff for some minutes of reading fiction or free writing, I often yearn for the need of balanced state of mind.

The book was divided into five main parts:

I. Introductory

II. Of the liberty of thoughts and discussions

III. Of Individuality, as One of the Elements of Well-Being

IV. Of the Limits to the Authority of Society over the Individuals

V. Applications

The most impressive part to me should be Part II, where the author, while stressed the importance of thoughts and discussions, also stressed the importance of being tolerant of both good and bad ideas and emphasized on the need of challenging the status quo. Some of his ideas may be valuable even in today given what we have seen in the debate on our Internet when both sides of the debate are too aggressive on their own views without really considering the reasons of the other side. It is so easy for us to find a reason to defend our arguments but it is difficult to really listen to the other side, finding some valid reasons to invalidate the other side’s argument and more difficult to admit that perhaps we are wrong indeed.

“The whole strength and value, then, of human judgment, depending on the one property, that it can be set right when it is wrong, reliance can be placed on it only when the means of setting it right are kept constantly at hand. In the case of any person whose judgment is really deserving of confidence, how has it become so? Because he has kept his mind open to criticism of his opinions and conduct. Because it has been his practice to listen to all that could be said against him; to profit by as much of it as was just, and expound to himself, and upon occasion to others, the fallacy of what was fallacious. Because he has felt, that the only way in which a human being can make some approach to knowing the whole of a subject, is by hearing what can be said about it by persons of every variety of opinion, and studying all modes in which it can be looked at by every character of mind. No wise man ever acquired his wisdom in any mode but this; nor is it in the nature of human intellect to become wise in any other manner. The steady habit of correcting and completing his own opinion by collating it with those of others, so far from causing doubt and hesitation in carrying it into practice, is the only stable foundation for a just reliance on it: for, being cognisant of all that can, at least obviously, be said against him, and having taken up his position against all gainsayers—knowing that he has sought for objections and difficulties, instead of avoiding them, and has shut out no light which can be thrown upon the subject from any quarter—he has a right to think his judgment better than that of any person, or any multitude, who have not gone through a similar process.”

“The rational position for him would be suspension of judgment, and unless he contents himself with that, he is either led by authority, or adopts, like the generality of the world, the side to which he feels most inclination. Nor is it enough that he should hear the arguments of adversaries from his own teachers, presented as they state them, and accompanied by what they offer as refutations. That is not the way to do justice to the arguments, or bring them into real contact with his own mind. He must be able to hear them from persons who actually believe them; who defend them in earnest, and do their very utmost for them. He must know them in their most plausible and persuasive form; he must feel the whole force of the difficulty which the true view of the subject has to encounter and dispose of; else he will never really possess himself of the portion of truth which meets and removes that difficulty. Ninety-nine in a hundred of what are called educated men are in this condition; even of those who can argue fluently for their opinions. Their conclusion may be true, but it might be false for anything they know: they have never thrown themselves into the mental position of those who think differently from them, and considered what such persons may have to say; and consequently they do not, in any proper sense of the word, know the doctrine which they themselves profess. They do not know those parts of it which explain and justify the remainder; the considerations which show that a fact which seemingly conflicts with another is reconcilable with it, or that, of two apparently strong reasons, one and not the other ought to be preferred. All that part of the truth which turns the scale, and decides the judgment of a completely informed mind, they are strangers to; nor is it ever really known, but to those who have attended equally and impartially to both sides, and endeavored to see the reasons of both in the strongest light. So essential is this discipline to a real understanding of moral and human subjects, that if opponents of all important truths do not exist, it is indispensable to imagine them, and supply them with the strongest arguments which the most skillful devil’s advocate can conjure up.”

And what I am used to complaining to my friend so far, many people are so in love with categorizing the whole world into two poles: the good and the bad but forget the thing that stays between the two poles. For example, it is an idea generally accepted by many people that the West should be better than the East, as such, studying abroad in an UK university should be better than studying in a Korean university. Then, there was a time when I witnessed an influx of Vietnamese students going to the USA for overseas study, people keep writing and talking about how superior it is to study in the US until the last US election. Many Vietnamese I happened to know cast doubt on the American dream and the democracy and then easily come into conclusion that even in America, bad thing can happen like this so it is normal to witness not so good a thing in Vietnam. However, many forget that America is not the only country in the world that has democracy and why we have to set America as our only model for developing?

“It still remains to speak of one of the principal causes which make diversity of opinion advantageous, and will continue to do so until mankind shall have entered a stage of intellectual advancement which at present seems at an incalculable distance. We have hitherto considered only two possibilities: that the received opinion may be false, and some other opinion, consequently, true; or that, the received opinion being true, a conflict with the opposite error is essential to a clear apprehension and deep feeling of its truth. But there is a commoner case than either of these; when the conflicting doctrines, instead of being one true and the other false, share the truth between them; and the nonconforming opinion is needed to supply the remainder of the truth, of which the received doctrine embodies only a part.”

And here comes the three recaps of Chapter II.

“We have now recognised the necessity to the mental well-being of mankind (on which all their other well-being depends) of freedom of opinion, and freedom of the expression of opinion, on four distinct grounds; which we will now briefly recapitulate.

First, if any opinion is compelled to silence, that opinion may, for aught we can certainly know, be true. To deny this is to assume our own infallibility.

Secondly, though the silenced opinion be an error, it may, and very commonly does, contain a portion of truth; and since the general or prevailing opinion on any subject is rarely or never the whole truth, it is only by the collision of adverse opinions, that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied.

Thirdly, even if the received opinion be not only true, but the whole truth; unless it is suffered to be, and actually is, vigorously and earnestly contested, it will, by most of those who receive it, be held in the manner of a prejudice, with little comprehension or feeling of its rational grounds. And not only this, but, fourthly, the meaning of the doctrine itself will be in danger of being lost, or enfeebled, and deprived of its vital effect on the character and conduct: the dogma becoming a mere formal profession, inefficacious for good, but cumbering the ground, and preventing the growth of any real and heartfelt conviction, from reason or personal experience”

The following passage is perhaps a nice guide to the manner for getting involved in discussion or debate:

“Undoubtedly the manner of asserting an opinion, even though it be a true one, may be very objectionable, and may justly incur severe censure. But the principal offences of the kind are such as it is mostly impossible, unless by accidental self-betrayal, to bring home to conviction. The gravest of them is, to argue sophistically, to suppress facts or arguments, to misstate the elements of the case, or misrepresent the opposite opinion. But all this, even to the most aggravated degree, is so continually done in perfect good faith, by persons who are not considered, and in many other respects may not deserve to be considered, ignorant or incompetent, that it is rarely possible on adequate grounds conscientiously to stamp the misrepresentation as morally culpable; and still less could law presume to interfere with this kind of controversial misconduct. With regard to what is commonly meant by intemperate discussion, namely invective, sarcasm, personality, and the like, the denunciation of these weapons would deserve more sympathy if it were ever proposed to interdict them equally to both sides; but it is only desired to restrain the employment of them against the prevailing opinion: against the unprevailing they may not only be used without general disapproval, but will be likely to obtain for him who uses them the praise of honest zeal and righteous indignation. Yet whatever mischief arises from their use, is greatest when they are employed against the comparatively defenceless; and whatever unfair advantage can be derived by any opinion from this mode of asserting it, accrues almost exclusively to received opinions. The worst offence of this kind which can be committed by a polemic, is to stigmatise those who hold the contrary opinion as bad and immoral men. To calumny of this sort, those who hold any unpopular opinion are peculiarly exposed, because they are in general few and uninfluential, and nobody but themselves feel much interest in seeing justice done them; but this weapon is, from the nature of the case, denied to those who attack a prevailing opinion: they can neither use it with safety to themselves, nor, if they could, would it do anything but recoil on their own cause. In general, opinions contrary to those commonly received can only obtain a hearing by studied moderation of language, and the most cautious avoidance of unnecessary offence, from which they hardly ever deviate even in a slight degree without losing ground: while unmeasured vituperation employed on the side of the prevailing opinion, really does deter people from professing contrary opinions, and from listening to those who profess them. For the interest, therefore, of truth and justice, it is far more important to restrain this employment of vituperative language than the other; and, for example, if it were necessary to choose, there would be much more need to discourage offensive attacks on infidelity, than on religion. It is, however, obvious that law and authority have no business with restraining either, while opinion ought, in every instance, to determine its verdict by the circumstances of the individual case; condemning every one, on whichever side of the argument he places himself, in whose mode of advocacy either want of candour, or malignity, bigotry, or intolerance of feeling manifest themselves; but not inferring these vices from the side which a person takes, though it be the contrary side of the question to our own: and giving merited honour to every one, whatever opinion he may hold, who has calmness to see and honesty to state what his opponents and their opinions really are, exaggerating nothing to their discredit, keeping nothing back which tells, or can be supposed to tell, in their favour. This is the real morality of public discussion; and if often violated, I am happy to think that there are many controversialists who to a great extent observe it, and a still greater number who conscientiously strive towards it.

The third chapter is more about how an individual should live independently from the customary life led by the previous generations.

“He who lets the world, or his own portion of it, choose his plan of life for him, has no need of any other faculty than the ape-like one of imitation. He who chooses his plan for himself, employs all his faculties. He must use observation to see, reasoning and judgment to foresee, activity to gather materials for decision, discrimination to decide, and when he has decided, firmness and self-control to hold to his deliberate decision. And these qualities he requires and exercises exactly in proportion as the part of his conduct which he determines according to his own judgment and feelings is a large one. It is possible that he might be guided in some good path, and kept out of harm’s way, without any of these things. But what will be his comparative worth as a human being? It really is of importance, not only what men do, but also what manner of men they are that do it. Among the works of man, which human life is rightly employed in perfecting and beautifying, the first in importance surely is man himself. Supposing it were possible to get houses built, corn grown, battles fought, causes tried, and even churches erected and prayers said, by machinery—by automatons in human form—it would be a considerable loss to exchange for these automatons even the men and women who at present inhabit the more civilised parts of the world, and who assuredly are but starved specimens of what nature can and will produce. Human nature is not a machine to be built after a model, and set to do exactly the work prescribed for it, but a tree, which requires to grow and develop itself on all sides, according to the tendency of the inward forces which make it a living thing.”

Though progressive and liberal it seems to be, in light of the modern view, John may be criticized for his too confident view on the superiority of the Western civilisation to that of the East.

“Despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement, and the means justified by actually effecting that end.”

“This is the case over the whole East. Custom is there, in all things, the final appeal; justice and right mean conformity to custom; the argument of custom no one, unless some tyrant intoxicated with power, thinks of resisting. And we see the result. Those nations must once have had originality; they did not start out of the ground populous, lettered, and versed in many of the arts of life; they made themselves all this, and were then the greatest and most powerful nations in the world. What are they now? The subjects or dependants of tribes whose forefathers wandered in the forests when theirs had magnificent palaces and gorgeous temples, but over whom custom exercised only a divided rule with liberty and progress. A people, it appears, may be progressive for a certain length of time, and then stop: when does it stop? When it ceases to possess individuality. If a similar change should befall the nations of Europe, it will not be in exactly the same shape: the despotism of custom with which these nations are threatened is not precisely stationariness. It proscribes singularity, but it does not preclude change, provided all change together. We have discarded the fixed costumes of our forefathers; every one must still dress like other people, but the fashion may change once or twice a year. We thus take care that when there is change, it shall be for change’s sake, and not from any idea of beauty or convenience; for the same idea of beauty or convenience would not strike all the world at the same moment, and be simultaneously thrown aside by all at another moment. But we are progressive as well as changeable: we continually make new inventions in mechanical things, and keep them until they are again superseded by better; we are eager for improvement in politics, in education, even in morals, though in this last our idea of improvement chiefly consists in persuading or forcing other people to be as good as ourselves. It is not progress that we object to; on the contrary, we flatter ourselves that we are the most progressive people who ever lived. It is individuality that we war against: we should think we had done wonders if we had made ourselves all alike; forgetting that the unlikeness of one person to another is generally the first thing which draws the attention of either to the imperfection of his own type, and the superiority of another, or the possibility, by combining the advantages of both, of producing something better than either.”

Given that the essay was published in 1859 in the period of colonialism, it is unavoidable that the author held such a view.

It is said in the introduction that the subsequent essay of John “On Social Freedom”, John somehow switched from his liberal, individualistic position toward socialism and idealism. As noted below, there was a time I used to be obsessed with the idea of individualism as stated in the novel “The Fountainhead” written by Ayn Rand and recently found myself moving toward socialism. It may be worth a try to find his later essay to understand about his view conveyed in this regard.


I have never thought that I get hooked on the topics related to philosophy, politics, etc. before I started reading philosophy-related books, i.e. “Sophie’s World” and “From Socrates to Sartre: The Philosophic Quest” two years ago. During the last two years, perhaps more than two years, I am often obsessed with the idea of individuality. My favorite period in philosophic history should be the Enlightenment period, I am a little bit obsessed with individualism and fall in love with The Fountainhead written by Ayn Rand wherein the author emphasized on the pursuit of self-interest as the means to the well-being of society as a whole. I often wonder about the limitation to freedom of speech and question about the legitimacy of totalitarianism. I am a great supporter of feminism and uphold the idea that people are allowed to do anything provided that their actions do not cause any inconvenience to anyone. I am more likely to lean toward the idea that learning should be for learning’s sake and learning is more like a means of setting ones free. When I came to Taiwan and had more time on my own, reading more books and staying in the same class with friends who hold too liberal a view, I just felt somehow I have been liberal and held some kinds of complacent view toward the view that I hold. I was a little bit perplexed when my French friend held aggressive view toward giant corporations and financial institutions while I thought it was not so bad indeed to work in big firms. When coming back in Vietnam, I found myself often in the aggressive mood to the crony capitalism.

I do not mean to get you perplexed with all the terms as mentioned above. I am always in such confusing state of mind and though I love reading on philosophy or politic, I am often messed up with many schools of thoughts and the more I read the more I know that I know nothing in this regard. I just have vague ideas about what it means by saying “left”, “right”, “pan”, “liberalism”, “utilitarianism”, “socialism”. While my current concern now is more about the individualism, the equality, and the complicated relationship between the individuals and the society, all of my ideas were merely random thoughts collected from various sources and by now, it is a good news to me to say that I no longer hold a complacent view toward what I learnt or how I viewed the world.

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