Courtesy Reuters

Mill's Liberty Today

EIGHTY years ago the European continent was passing through the last moments of conservative reaction that had followed the Revolutions of 1848. Serfdom had three more years to run in Russia, as slavery had six more years to live in the United States. Napoleon III, dictator of France, was clearing the ground for the war in Italy that was destined to shake the foundations of his dictatorship. The Hapsburg Monarchy was in the last year of its bureaucratic strait-jacket under the Bach régime. Prussia, still among the autocratic states, stood on the eve of the "New Course" that was to lead to an era, first of conflict between Parliament and king, and then of compromise. More than half of the Balkan area was still under Turkish rule; and in most of Italy, harsh police measures filled the prisons with men who called themselves "liberals." Acre for acre, man for man, the political Europe of 1858 seemed not less hostile to the spirit that called itself liberalism than seems the Europe of 1938. But there was this difference: that the liberals of that day were confident that they were pulling with the tide. They faced the dawn with hope. They knew their day would come.

It was in that year that John Stuart Mill wrote his essay "On Liberty." It is a statement of principles so fundamental and so comprehensive that it takes rank with Rousseau's "Social Contract," Marx's "Communist Manifesto," and Leo XIII's "Encyclical on the Conditions of Labor" as a basic programmatic document of modern times.

In the decades that have supervened, there has been no end of writing and speaking about liberty. Some of it has been frothy and sweet, like a meringue; some has been stimulating, like a cocktail; some has been soothing and pleasant for political children, like an all-day sucker. Mill's essay is of another sort. It is the good hard bread of thought, such as the Victorians were wont to consume -- leavened by the philosophy of

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