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Chips From A German Workshop, Vol. V. Miscellaneous Later Essays   By: (1823-1900)

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I. On Freedom II. On The Philosophy Of Mythology. III. On False Analogies In Comparative Theology. IV. On Spelling. V. On Sanskrit Texts Discovered In Japan. Index. Footnotes



Presidential Address Delivered Before The Birmingham Midland Institute, October 20, 1879.

Not more than twenty years have passed since John Stuart Mill sent forth his plea for Liberty.(1)

If there is one among the leaders of thought in England who, by the elevation of his character and the calm composure of his mind, deserved the so often misplaced title of Serene Highness, it was, I think, John Stuart Mill.

But in his Essay "On Liberty," Mill for once becomes passionate. In presenting his Bill of Rights, in stepping forward as the champion of individual liberty, he seems to be possessed by a new spirit. He speaks like a martyr, or the defender of martyrs. The individual human soul, with its unfathomable endowments, and its capacity of growing to something undreamt of in our philosophy, becomes in his eyes a sacred thing, and every encroachment on its world wide domain is treated as sacrilege. Society, the arch enemy of the rights of individuality, is represented like an evil spirit, whom it behooves every true man to resist with might and main, and whose demands, as they cannot be altogether ignored, must be reduced at all hazards to the lowest level.

I doubt whether any of the principles for which Mill pleaded so warmly and strenuously in his Essay "On Liberty" would at the present day be challenged or resisted, even by the most illiberal of philosophers, or the most conservative of politicians. Mill's demands sound very humble to our ears. They amount to no more than this, "that the individual is not accountable to society for his actions so far as they concern the interests of no person but himself, and that he may be subjected to social or legal punishments for such actions only as are prejudicial to the interests of others."

Is there any one here present who doubts the justice of that principle, or who would wish to reduce the freedom of the individual to a smaller measure? Whatever social tyranny may have existed twenty years ago, when it wrung that fiery protest from the lips of John Stuart Mill, can we imagine a state of society, not totally Utopian, in which the individual man need be less ashamed of his social fetters, in which he could more freely utter all his honest convictions, more boldly propound all his theories, more fearlessly agitate for their speedy realization; in which, in fact, each man can be so entirely himself as the society of England, such as it now is, such as generations of hard thinking and hard working Englishmen have made it, and left it as the most sacred inheritance to their sons and daughters?

Look through the whole of history, not excepting the brightest days of republican freedom at Athens and Rome, and you will not find one single period in which the measure of liberty accorded to each individual was larger than it is at present, at least in England. And if you wish to realize the full blessings of the time in which we live, compare Mill's plea for Liberty with another written not much more than two hundred years ago, and by a thinker not inferior either in power or boldness to Mill himself. According to Hobbes, the only freedom which an individual in his ideal state has a right to claim is what he calls "freedom of thought," and that freedom of thought consists in our being able to think what we like so long as we keep it to ourselves... Continue reading book >>

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