Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
On Liberty

On Liberty

David Bromwich
George Kateb
Jean Bethke Elshtain
Owen Fiss
Richard A. Posner
Jeremy Waldron
Copyright Date: 2003
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 272
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    On Liberty
    Book Description:

    Since its first publication in 1859, few works of political philosophy have provoked such continuous controversy as John Stuart Mill'sOn Liberty,a passionate argument on behalf of freedom of self-expression. This classic work is now available in a new edition that also includes essays by distinguished scholars in a range of fields.The book begins with a biographical essay by David Bromwich and an interpretative essay by George Kateb. Then Jean Bethke Elshtain, Owen Fiss, Judge Richard A. Posner, and Jeremy Waldron present commentaries on the pertinence of Mill's thinking to current debates. They discuss, for example, the uses of authority and tradition, the shifting legal boundaries of free speech and free action, the relation of personal liberty to market individualism, and the tension between the right to live as one pleases and the right to criticize anyone's way of life.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-13016-4
    Subjects: Political Science

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Editorial Note
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. A Note on the Life and Thought of John Stuart Mill
    (pp. 1-27)

    John Stuart Mill said in hisAutobiographythat his father, James Mill, was “the last of the eighteenth century.” He intended a deep homage to the man who had educated him to carry on the work of social amelioration and enlightenment—an homage a little touched by irony, since James Mill did in fact live most of his life in the nineteenth century. But the description of his father also implies a judgment by John Stuart Mill of himself. What accomplishments of the earlier epoch did he look back on with so mingled a sense of loyalty and reserve? The...

  5. A Reading of On Liberty
    (pp. 28-66)

    Mill’sOn Libertyis a great work. It has engendered an immense response that began in the year of its publication, 1859. There is no reason to think that any account of the book will ever satisfy all who take the book seriously. Indeed, any single reader is likely to grow dissatisfied after a while with his or her own interpretation. The book is restless, and induces restlessness. The most important source of the book’s power to compel commentary is its indefatigable intensity. Mill never lets up. Practically every sentence is freighted, invested by Mill with concentrated meaning. And the...

  6. On Liberty

    • A Note on the Text
      (pp. 69-72)

      The present text reprints the first edition ofOn Liberty(1859). Notes by the editors appear as numbered footnotes. Mill’s own footnotes are signaled by asterisks. In a few cases, the editors have appended, in brackets, comments after Mill’s notes.

      To the beloved and deplored memory of her who was the inspirer, and in part the author, of all that is best in my writings—the friend and wife whose exalted sense of truth and right was my strongest incitement, and whose approbation was my chief reward—I dedicate this volume. Like all that I have written for many years,...

    • CHAPTER I Introductory
      (pp. 73-85)

      The subject of this Essay is not the so-called Liberty of the Will, so unfortunately opposed to the misnamed doctrine of Philosophical Necessity; but Civil, or Social Liberty: the nature and limits of the power which can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual. A question seldom stated, and hardly ever discussed, in general terms, but which profoundly influences the practical controversies of the age by its latent presence, and is likely soon to make itself recognised as the vital question of the future. It is so far from being new, that in a certain sense, it has divided...

    • CHAPTER II Of the Liberty of Thought and Discussion
      (pp. 86-120)

      The time, it is to be hoped, is gone by, when any defence would be necessary of the “liberty of the press” as one of the securities against corrupt or tyrannical government. No argument, we may suppose, can now be needed, against permitting a legislature or an executive, not identified in interest with the people, to prescribe opinions to them, and determine what doctrines or what arguments they shall be allowed to hear. This aspect of the question, besides, has been so often and so triumphantly enforced by preceding writers, that it needs not be specially insisted on in this...

    • CHAPTER III Of Individuality, as One of the Elements of Well-Being
      (pp. 121-138)

      Such being the reasons which make it imperative that human beings should be free to form opinions, and to express their opinions without reserve; and such the baneful consequences to the intellectual, and through that to the moral nature of man, unless this liberty is either conceded, or asserted in spite of prohibition; let us next examine whether the same reasons do not require that men should be free to act upon their opinions—to carry these out in their lives, without hindrance, either physical or moral, from their fellow-men, so long as it is at their own risk and...

    • CHAPTER IV Of the Limits to the Authority of Society over the Individual
      (pp. 139-155)

      What, then, is the rightful limit to the sovereignty of the individual over himself? Where does the authority of society begin? How much of human life should be assigned to individuality, and how much to society?

      Each will receive its proper share, if each has that which more particularly concerns it. To individuality should belong the part of life in which it is chiefly the individual that is interested; to society, the part which chiefly interests society.

      Though society is not founded on a contract, and though no good purpose is answered by inventing a contract in order to deduce...

    • CHAPTER V Applications
      (pp. 156-176)

      The principles asserted in these pages must be more generally admitted as the basis for discussion of details, before a consistent application of them to all the various departments of government and morals can be attempted with any prospect of advantage. The few observations I propose to make on questions of detail, are designed to illustrate the principles, rather than to follow them out to their consequences. I offer, not so much applications, as specimens of application; which may serve to bring into greater clearness the meaning and limits of the two maxims which together form the entire doctrine of...

  7. Rethinking On Liberty

    • A Freedom Both Personal and Political
      (pp. 179-196)

      The plurality of the human condition and the capacity of each individual to create a distinctive life for himself lie at the core of John Stuart Mill’s worldview. Mill wroteOn Libertyto foster our individuality, even to the point of eccentricity, and to attack the forces that drive us to conformity. ‘‘That so few now dare to be eccentric,’’ Mill warned, ‘‘marks the chief danger of the time’’ (p. 131).

      Mill sought such diversity not for its own sake but rather to fulfill a larger vision of human development. He defended individuality, and even eccentricity, on the theory that...

    • On Liberty: A Revaluation
      (pp. 197-207)

      On Libertyis the best, as well as the best-known, statement of what I consider to be my own political philosophy (usingpoliticalin a very broad sense, given Mill’s belief that public opinion is an even bigger threat to liberty than government is). I do not mean that it is the source of that philosophy. I became a libertarian in approximately Mill’s sense before I readOn Libertyfor the first time about a decade ago, though I cannot deny the possibility of indirect influence. Nor do I mean to imply agreement with every particular of Mill’s thesis, or...

    • Mill’s Liberty and the Problem of Authority
      (pp. 208-223)

      I can still recall my reaction on reading radical feminist tomes in the 1970s that attacked liberalism and the vocabulary of liberal political thought, together with extant political regimes constituted by liberal principles. I, too, believed that there were many things wrong with “the System,” but it was news to me that the whole thing was rotten: root, tree, and branch.

      What was rotten about it seemed to be encapsulated inbourgeois liberalism,with liberalism always preceded by the modifier that indicted it as the tool of a dominant class. Bourgeois liberalism was sometimes transmogrified intopatriarchal liberalismorliberal...

    • Mill as a Critic of Culture and Society
      (pp. 224-246)

      Suppose we take seriously Mill’s insistence thatOn Libertyshould be understood as an argument about social and cultural coercion rather than as an argument about the limits of the criminal law. I don’t think that it is necessary to spend much time establishing thefactof this insistence. It forms much of the argument of Chapter I of the essay, a chapter in which Mill traces the dominant source of tyranny in society from rule by the few, through democratic rule by the many (the “tyranny of the majority”), to the informal tyranny of society.¹ The whole argument in...

  8. Bibliography
    (pp. 247-250)
  9. Back Matter
    (pp. 251-252)