John Stuart Mill's On Liberty (1859) is typically considered a carefully argued treatise on freedom delivered in the cool language of a political philosopher. But a close reading produces a surprisingly different view of a manifesto aiming, among other things, to incorporate into the moral and political discourse of the West a Romantic ideal of the spontaneous and authentically feeling Self. (1) It was an ideal that Mill adopted from the theory and practice of Romantic poetry, especially that of William Wordsworth, and to which he began at once adapting his political theories concerning liberty and the individual.
It is well known that in addition to Mill's lifelong interest in liberty he had a growing commitment to ideas of "ultimate improvement" that he said "went far beyond Democracy," and would class him and Harriet Taylor, his wife, "decidedly under the general designation of Socialists." (2) In this respect, scholars such as Linda Raeder have made the case that what she describes as Mill's "lingering," or "apparent," or "putative" commitment to classical liberalism and individualism was, in a final assessment of his work, overshadowed by his collectivist "religion of humanity." (3) In showing the special influence of romantic poetry on Mill's On Liberty the argument of this article runs parallel to, and may ultimately be compatible with, Raeder's case for Mill's special form of collectivism. It was a form inspired in part by Comte, which came very close to what Irving Babbitt called "sentimental humanitarian-ism," and both aspects--the poetic and the collectivist--illustrate Mill's strong attraction to the romantic sensibility. However, while Raeder emphasizes the collectivist aspect, this article draws attention to an individualist aspect that is equally important and that in this writer's view was a necessary condition for the special form of collectivism he favored. The result in Mill is a seemingly odd but historically influential hybrid that I will here call "libertarian socialism." My interest, then, is not in demonstrating whether the "true" Mill was in theory two parts libertarian and three parts socialist or the reverse. Rather, 1 am concerned mostly with the practical influence of his "liberty legacy," so to speak, for I believe his interest in liberty was lifelong and far more than lingering, and that his arguments defending liberty continue to do profound social damage for reasons it is the chief burden of this article to explain.
The first objective, then, is to show that Mill's case for the absolute importance of liberty, which has almost iconic status today as indisputable rational truth, is not in fact grounded in reason but in a Romantic theory of poetry that is visible everywhere in his theory of liberty. As a corollary of this point I try to explain how the Romantic mystique of the Self onto which he fastened influenced his brand of collectivism and why it was quite different from that of continental thinkers like Rousseau (to be discussed at the end of this article). And last, I speculate that our modern democracies have found a way to live quite comfortably with a blend of Millian individualism and collectivism that are only superficially irreconcilable.
As a young boy Mill suffered the most thoroughgoing and coldly rational home-schooling imaginable at the hands of his own father, whose Utilitarian philosophy--taken from friend Jeremy Bentham and resting on a quantitative ideal of "happiness" as the greatest good of the greatest number--was imbued in Mill at a very young age. Eventually, he was drawn to its simplicity so strongly that he considered it "a creed, a doctrine, a philosophy; in one among the best senses of the word, a religion." (4) In retrospect, it seems that for his entire life Mill was prone to think of whatever new intellectual passion was gripping him at the time as "a religion," by which he loosely meant a belief system that provided him with foundational intellectual axioms. At any rate, he dutifully worshipped at the utilitarian altar until, in 1826, at the age of twenty, the contradictions inherent in such an impoverished moral dogma fell upon him like a pall, with the realization that some forms of happiness are simply morally higher and more valuable than others. He famously summarized the dilemma this presented when he said that "it is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they know only their own side of the question." (5)
His realization that human happiness is more about qualities than quantities, and is also more a by-product of right living than an object in itself, caused Mill to fall into a dark depression from which for almost two years there seemed to be no exit. Then, in search of solace, he happened upon Marmontel's Memoirs. He was moved to tears, and suddenly "the oppression of the thought that all feeling was dead within me, was gone. I was no longer hopeless. I was not a stock or a stone." (6) But the main source of new life for him, in the autumn of 1828, was the discovery of William Wordsworth's Lyrical Ballads, a collection of poems first published in 1798 and republished in 1815 along with a theoretical Preface defending the role of emotion in Romantic poetry as against the then prevalent rational standards of neo-classical poetry. (7) It was his newly discovered feelings in contact with poems such as The Prelude that affected Mill like a sudden spiritual revelation, leading to novel personal insights and deeper emotions than he had ever known. As he read: "Oh, many a time have I, a five years' child, / In a small mill-race severed from his stream, / Made one long bathing of a summer's day; / Basked in the sun, and plunged and basked again / Alternate, all a summer's day, or scoured / The sandy fields, leaping through flowery groves," he rejoiced sympathetically in the boyhood joys that Wordsworth had so deliciously experienced, even as he mourned a youth of which he clearly had been deprived, for "I was never a boy," he told a friend, and "never played at cricket," which led him to say sadly that his life until then had been artificial, and to conclude that "it is better to let Nature have her way." (8) And it was surely lines such as the last two of his favorite poem, Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood ("To me the meanest flower that blows can give / Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears."), that so powerfully shaped his emerging persuasion as to the superiority of poetic feeling and insight to rational argument. This privileging of feeling over reason and emotional insight over logic became a new foundation in Mill's life that may fairly be described as mystical. As Wordsworth had put it in a memorable phrase that became a banner slogan for Romantic poetry, its source was not clear dogma, not organized religion, and not reasoned argument, but "the spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling; it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility" (9) (emphasis added).
Much of the story I want to tell, then, is about the striking way in which Mill began changing his life in the name of his new-found interest in Romantic poetry and theory and especially how the Romantic conception of the Self became fused with his political thought as expressed in On Liberty. Moreover, it is likely the fusion of underlying Romantic thought with Mill's ostensibly rational argumentation that has made this book so appealing to an age longing for more personal and democratic freedom. At any rate, On Liberty quickly became a kind of freedom bible, a touchstone for the anti-statist "classical liberal" movement of the century. As that movement betrayed its origins, however, slowly transforming into our modern form of liberalism promoting enormous managerial welfare states (for which, ironically, Mill was also in part responsible), his book was adopted anew by conservatives and libertarians eager to continue the campaign against encroaching state power that their liberal brethren had abandoned. Indeed, as historian Gertrude Himmelfarb put it, Mill's little book soon became "the classic text of radicalism ... carrying out ... the goal of true liberation. It is, in short, something of an icon of modernity, giving intellectual authority and legitimacy to ideas and attitudes that dominate our society." (10) Even more, On Liberty soon took on a peculiar life of its own, and although it "was radical enough in its own time ... it is, in a sense, more radical in ours, because it seems to validate contemporary ideas about liberty which go well beyond what Mill intended." (11) One reason so many readers of that book continue to go beyond what Mill intended is that they eagerly embrace the dogmatic first part promoting personal liberty and the privatization of morality, but as resolutely ignore or simply do not bother to read the conflicted and contradictory latter parts in which Mill presents a host of strict limitations on his own first principles and proposes quite a bit of socialist legislation and various other forms of government control. This makes it rather ironic that the existing and self-contradictory condition of public political philosophy in most of the Western democracies--the "libertarian socialism" of which I speak--may be seen as a reflection of the same conflicting strands in Mill himself, for in many respects, at least in English-speaking countries, he has been the default enunciator of both trends. (12)
Mill's philosophical legacy concerning freedom, however, departed even from the liberal traditions of his own time. Then, ordinary liberal thinkers rightly warned against state coercion, interference, and undue regulation because they wanted individuals to be free to form themselves spontaneously into strong self-governing civil associations as...