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Reforming Liberalism

Reforming Liberalism: J.S. Mill's Use of Ancient, Religious, Liberal, and Romantic Moralities

Robert Devigne
Copyright Date: 2006
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 320
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  • Book Info
    Reforming Liberalism
    Book Description:

    InReforming Liberalism, Robert Devigne challenges prevailing interpretations of the political and moral thought of John Stuart Mill and the theoretical underpinnings of modern liberal philosophy. He explains how Mill drew from ancient and romantic thought as well as past religious practices to reconcile conflicts and antinomies (liberty and virtue, self-interest and morality, equality and human excellence) that were hobbling traditional liberalism.The book shows that Mill, regarded as a seminal writer in the liberal tradition, critiques liberalism's weaknesses with a forcefulness usually associated with its well-known critics. Devigne explores Mill's writings to demonstrate how his thought has been misconstrued--as well as oversimplified--to the detriment of our understanding of liberalism itself.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-13390-5
    Subjects: Philosophy

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-9)

    Because both supporters and critics of liberalism view John Stuart Mill as formulating many of its key theoretical underpinnings, a truly comprehensive assessment of his thought is essential to any evaluation of liberalism itself. Such an assessment has proved to be elusive. It is evident, of course, that Mill contributes to liberalism by defending free speech and arguing for the liberation of women. But precisely because this aspect of his writing speaks so forcefully and persuasively on matters of intimate and immediate concern to us, it has tended to blot out sections of Mill’s thought he himself considered crucial to...

  5. Chapter 1 The Moderns and Plato
    (pp. 10-26)

    Late twentieth-century analyses of Plato highlight how the many paradoxes, tensions, and dramatic settings in which the Platonic dialogues occur often seem to undermine the substance of Plato’s foundational and doctrinal assertions—the doctrine of ideas, the pure spirit, philosopher-kings, among others. These commentaries reopen questions that were shut down in the wake of the midcentury totalitarian verdict dealt to Plato by R. H. S. Crossman, Karl Popper, and others.¹ This closed view of Plato as a monolithic dogmatist had limited analysts’ ability to understand modern, as well as ancient, political thought.

    John Stuart Mill, for instance, considered Plato the...

  6. Chapter 2 Liberty and the Just Moral Conscience
    (pp. 27-61)

    What excited Mill about reading Plato was what he saw as Plato’s attempt to join different ends: creative individuals and the universal good. On the one hand, the Platonic dialogues cultivate reason and aim to create individuals liberated from society’s constricting norms. On the other hand, the dialogues are concerned with the development of common ethical bonds. But Mill believed Plato was unable to reconcile these goals and ultimately upset this balance when he allowed the need for stable social forms to overtake the dialectical, liberating side of his thinking, especially in works like theLaws.¹ Mill saw Plato as...

  7. Chapter 3 The Cultivation of the Individual and Society: J. S. Mill’s Use of Ancient and Romantic Dialectics
    (pp. 62-104)

    Mill is reputed to be the unequivocal defender of all human conduct not deemed harmful to others. It is a legacy that paints an incomplete picture of Mill’s political philosophy. In Mill’s view, liberal societies can neither self-preserve nor prosper without values and civil practices that raise some individuals above narrow, self-interested activity. It simply isn’t enough for an entire society to subsist via the harm principle. Mill believes that the morality and rules of justice will limit potential instabilities or troubles that energetic, willful individuals may engender. However, even if creative individuals periodically cause conflicts and tensions, the problems...

  8. Chapter 4 On Liberty: Overcoming the West’s One-Sided Moral Development
    (pp. 105-137)

    At the very center ofOn LibertyMill places the objectives of both the good and the right: the goal of cultivating higher forms of individuality, including the exceptional individual, or genius; and the aim of ensuring justice and moral development among the general public. Mill presents each respective objective as an expression of opposed conceptions of liberty and posits that each of these perspectives is dangerously one-sided and in need of balance by the other. By setting up the contrasts between these conflicting ideas of liberty in chapter 2, Mill prepares the way for an idea of human excellence...

  9. Chapter 5 Reforming Reformed Religion: J. S. Mill’s Critique of the Natural Religion of the Enlightenment
    (pp. 138-162)

    Before identifying how Mill developed his critique of natural religion and proposed Religion of Humanity in his political philosophy, I want to address two important questions. Why are Mill’s most comprehensive statements on revealed Christianity, natural religion, and the Religion of Humanity found in hisDiary,private correspondence, and posthumous publications theAutobiographyand theThree Essays on Religion?And why are Mill’s criticisms of Christianity an understated or subordinate theme in the essays—most notably,On Liberty—published during his lifetime? It cannot be said that Mill failed to publicly criticize Christianity during his lifetime, but neither did he...

  10. Chapter 6 On Liberty: The Summum Bonum of Modern Liberalism
    (pp. 163-206)

    Modern liberal thought does not center on human perfection or the best life. “Liberalism’s deepest conviction is in place” from its very inception, in the belief of the earliest defenders of toleration, born in horror at the religious wars, “that cruelty is an absolute evil, an offense against God or humanity.” It is because of that tradition that liberal political philosophy has generally resisted views that there is asummum bonum,or best way of life.¹ Liberal thinkers have generally feared that a standard of what is best could easily grant political authorities the unconditional right to impose beliefs and...

  11. Chapter 7 Mill and Political Philosophy
    (pp. 207-234)

    Unlike traditional liberals of Anglo-Scottish thought who focus primarily on protecting a private sphere for human conduct, Mill believed that societies also needed to create institutions and practices that contributed to the development of the human faculties, moral education of society, and human excellence. Specific proposals to achieve these goals are a representation system that ensures a disproportionate role for the highly educated, public voting, an education system characterized by “restraining discipline,” an idea of the best life, and a reflection that is generally ignored or dismissed in the secondary literature, namely, his argument for a Religion of Humanity and...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 235-282)
  13. Bibliography
    (pp. 283-300)
  14. Index
    (pp. 301-309)