On Liberty by John Stuart Mill 1859

On Liberty
John Stuart Mill
Batoche Books
Batoche Books Limited
52 Eby Street South
Kitchener, Ontario
N2G 3L1
email: [email protected]
Chapter 1: Introductory ……………………………………………………………. 6
Chapter 2: Of the Liberty of Thought and Discussion. ……………….. 18
Chapter 3: Of Individuality, as one of the Elements of Well-being. . 52
Chapter 4: Of the Limits to the Authority of Society over the Individual.
……………………………………………………………………………. 69
Chapter 5: Applications. ………………………………………………………… 86
Notes …………………………………………………………………………………. 106

The grand, leading principle, towards which every argument unfolded
in these pages directly converges, is the absolute and essential importance
of human development in its richest diversity.
Wilhelm von Humboldt: Sphere and Duties of Government.
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, it belongs as much to her as to
me; but the work as it stands has had, in a very insufficient degree, the
inestimable advantage of her revision; some of the most important portions
having been reserved for a more careful re-examination, which
they are now never destined to receive. Were I but capable of interpreting
to the world one half the great thoughts and noble feelings which are
buried in her grave, I should be the medium of a greater benefit to it,
than is ever likely to arise from anything that I can write, unprompted
and unassisted by her all but unrivalled wisdom.
6/John Stuart Mill
Chapter 1
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 mankind, almost from the remotest ages; but in the
stage of progress into which the more civilised portions of the species
have now entered, it presents itself under new conditions, and requires a
different and more fundamental treatment.
The struggle between Liberty and Authority is the most conspicuous
feature in the portions of history with which we are earliest familiar,
particularly in that of Greece, Rome, and England. But in old times this
contest was between subjects, or some classes of subjects, and the Government.
By liberty, was meant protection against the tyranny of the
political rulers. The rulers were conceived (except in some of the popular
governments of Greece) as in a necessarily antagonistic position to
the people whom they ruled. They consisted of a governing One, or a
governing tribe or caste, who derived their authority from inheritance or
conquest, who, at all events, did not hold it at the pleasure of the governed,
and whose supremacy men did not venture, perhaps did not desire,
to contest, whatever precautions might be taken against its oppressive
exercise. Their power was regarded as necessary, but also as highly
dangerous; as a weapon which they would attempt to use against their
subjects, no less than against external enemies. To prevent the weaker
members of the community from being preyed upon by innumerable
vultures, it was needful that there should be an animal of prey stronger
than the rest, commissioned to keep them down. But as the king of the
vultures would be no less bent upon preying on the flock than any of the
minor harpies, it was indispensable to be in a perpetual attitude of defence
against his beak and claws. The aim, therefore, of patriots was to
set limits to the power which the ruler should be suffered to exercise
over the community; and this limitation was what they meant by liberty.
It was attempted in two ways. First, by obtaining a recognition of certain
immunities, called political liberties or rights, which it was to be
On Liberty/7
regarded as a breach of duty in the ruler to infringe, and which if he did
infringe, specific resistance, or general rebellion, was held to be justifiable.
A second, and generally a later expedient, was the establishment
of constitutional checks, by which the consent of the community, or of a
body of some sort, supposed to represent its interests, was made a necessary
condition to some of the more important acts of the governing
power. To the first of these modes of limitation, the ruling power, in
most European countries, was compelled, more or less, to submit. It
was not so with the second; and, to attain this, or when already in some
degree possessed, to attain it more completely, became everywhere the
principal object of the lovers of liberty. And so long as mankind were
content to combat one enemy by another, and to be ruled by a master, on
condition of being guaranteed more or less efficaciously against his tyranny,
they did not carry their aspirations beyond this point.
A time, however, came, in the progress of human affairs, when men
ceased to think it a necessity of nature that their governors should be an
independent power, opposed in interest to themselves. It appeared to
them much better that the various magistrates of the State should be
their tenants or delegates, revocable at their pleasure. In that way alone,
it seemed, could they have complete security that the powers of government
would never be abused to their disadvantage. By degrees this new
demand for elective and temporary rulers became the prominent object
of the exertions of the popular party, wherever any such party existed;
and superseded, to a considerable extent, the previous efforts to limit
the power of rulers. As the struggle proceeded for making the ruling
power emanate from the periodical choice of the ruled, some persons
began to think that too much importance had been attached to the limitation
of the power itself. That (it might seem) was a resource against
rulers whose interests were habitually opposed to those of the people.
What was now wanted was, that the rulers should be identified with the
people; that their interest and will should be the interest and will of the
nation. The nation did not need to be protected against its own will.
There was no fear of its tyrannising over itself. Let the rulers be effectually
responsible to it, promptly removable by it, and it could afford to
trust them with power of which it could itself dictate the use to be made.
Their power was but the nation’s own power, concentrated, and in a
form convenient for exercise. This mode of thought, or rather perhaps
of feeling, was common among the last generation of European liberalism,
in the Continental section of which it still apparently predominates.
8/John Stuart Mill
Those who admit any limit to what a government may do, except in the
case of such governments as they think ought not to exist, stand out as
brilliant exceptions among the political thinkers of the Continent. A
similar tone of sentiment might by this time have been prevalent in our
own country, if the circumstances which for a time encouraged it, had
continued unaltered.
But, in political and philosophical theories, as well as in persons,
success discloses faults and infirmities which failure might have concealed
from observation. The notion, that the people have no need to
limit their power over themselves, might seem axiomatic, when popular
government was a thing only dreamed about, or read of as having existed
at some distant period of the past. Neither was that notion necessarily
disturbed by such temporary aberrations as those of the French
Revolution, the worst of which were the work of a usurping few, and
which, in any case, belonged, not to the permanent working of popular
institutions, but to a sudden and convulsive outbreak against monarchical
and aristocratic despotism. In time, however, a democratic republic
came to occupy a large portion of the earth’s surface, and made itself
felt as one of the most powerful members of the community of nations;
and elective and responsible government became subject to the observations
and criticisms which wait upon a great existing fact. It was now
perceived that such phrases as “self-government,” and “the power of
the people over themselves,” do not express the true state of the case.
The “people” who exercise the power are not always the same people
with those over whom it is exercised; and the “self-government” spoken
of is not the government of each by himself, but of each by all the rest.
The will of the people, moreover, practically means the will of the most
numerous or the most active part of the people; the majority, or those
who succeed in making themselves accepted as the majority; the people,
consequently may desire to oppress a part of their number; and precautions
are as much needed against this as against any other abuse of
power. The limitation, therefore, of the power of government over individuals
loses none of its importance when the holders of power are regularly
accountable to the community, that is, to the strongest party therein.
This view of things, recommending itself equally to the intelligence of
thinkers and to the inclination of those important classes in European
society to whose real or supposed interests democracy is adverse, has
had no difficulty in establishing itself; and in political speculations “the
tyranny of the majority” is now generally included among the evils against
On Liberty/9
which society requires to be on its guard.
Like other tyrannies, the tyranny of the majority was at first, and is
still vulgarly, held in dread, chiefly as operating through the acts of the
public authorities. But reflecting persons perceived that when society is
itself the tyrant—society collectively over the separate individuals who
compose it—its means of tyrannising are not restricted to the acts which
it may do by the hands of its political functionaries. Society can and
does execute its own mandates: and if it issues wrong mandates instead
of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to
meddle, it practises a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds
of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme
penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more
deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself. Protection,
therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough: there needs
protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling;
against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil
penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who
dissent from them; to fetter the development, and, if possible, prevent
the formation, of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and
compels all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own.
There is a limit to the legitimate interference of collective opinion with
individual independence: and to find that limit, and maintain it against
encroachment, is as indispensable to a good condition of human affairs,
as protection against political despotism.
But though this proposition is not likely to be contested in general
terms, the practical question, where to place the limit—how to make the
fitting adjustment between individual independence and social control—
is a subject on which nearly everything remains to be done. All that
makes existence valuable to any one, depends on the enforcement of
restraints upon the actions of other people. Some rules of conduct, therefore,
must be imposed, by law in the first place, and by opinion on many
things which are not fit subjects for the operation of law. What these
rules should be is the principal question in human affairs; but if we
except a few of the most obvious cases, it is one of those which least
progress has been made in resolving. No

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