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 the eighteenth century, kneaded in the turmoil of the English Reform, and baked in the furnace of the Industrial Revolution. It may be dry, but it is nourishing. Take it and bite into it:

. . . the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.

. . . the appropriate region of human liberty . . . comprises, first, the inward domain of consciousness . . . absolute freedom of opinion and sentiment on all subjects. . . . The liberty of expressing and publishing opinions . . . is practically inseparable from it. Secondly . . . liberty of tastes and pursuits; of framing the plan of our life to suit our own character; of doing as we like, subject to such consequences as may follow; without impediment from our fellow-creatures, so long as what we do does not harm them. . . . Thirdly, from this liberty of each individual, follows the liberty, within the same limits, of combination among individuals; freedom to unite, for any purpose not involving harm to others: the persons combining being supposed to be of full age, and not forced or deceived.

A person may cause evil to others not only by his actions but by his inaction, and in either case he is justly accountable to them for the injury.

There are also many positive acts for the benefit of others, which he may rightfully be compelled to perform; such as to give evidence in a court of justice; to bear his fair share in the common defense, or in any other joint work necessary to the interest of the society of which he enjoys the protection.

. . . opinions lose their immunity when the circumstances in which they are expressed are such as to constitute their expression a positive instigation to some mischievous act.

. . . trade is a social act. Whoever undertakes to sell any description of goods to the public, does what affects the interest of other persons, and of society in general . . . the principle of individual liberty is not involved in the doctrine of Free Trade . . .

If society lets any considerable number of its members grow up mere children, incapable of being acted on by rational consideration of distant motives, society has itself to blame for the consequences.

The State, while it respects the liberty of each in what specially regards himself, is bound to maintain a vigilant control over his exercise of any power which it allows him to possess over others.

I regard utility as the ultimate appeal on all ethical questions; but it must be utility in the largest sense, grounded on the permanent interests of a man as a progressive being.

The worth of a State, in the long run, is the worth of the individuals composing it . . . a State which dwarfs its men, in order that they may be more docile instruments in its hands even for beneficial purposes -- will find that with small men no great thing can really be accomplished.

Has anything happened since 1858 to make this closely-reasoned argument less applicable to human affairs? We have become more dependent upon each other as our economy has become more highly geared, but Mill acknowledges that to compel men to do their share of what is necessary for society is not a violation of their liberty. Economic organization has given to some men a stature of power beside which other men, be they laborers or stockholders, are as pygmies; but Mill declares that the state must exercise vigilant control over any power it allows one man to hold over another. We have seen the "freedom to unite" used to build up parties that have made it their first enterprise to destroy the conditions of freedom in which they grew; but Mill limits the freedom to unite to purposes not involving harm to others. Radio and all the arts of propaganda have made "the liberty of publishing and expressing an opinion" more potent in inducing action than Mill would have thought possible; but Mill was willing to permit restraints on the expression of opinion if the circumstance should be such as to lead directly from the expression of opinion to wrongful acts. Forms of competition may have become more destructive since Mill's day, and the human damage suffered in the competitive struggle may have increased; but Mill concedes that society can make the rules of the competitive game in accordance with the general interest. Mill's statement that "trade is a social act" is broader than the commerce clause in the Constitution in its justification of all needful regulation of business. And Mill sees very clearly that liberty defeats itself if it is interpreted to exclude compulsory education. If collectivists argue their case with a promise of high productivity, Mill will meet them by accepting utility "broadly conceived" as the supreme ethical criterion. There is much that has happened which Mill did not foresee, and not a little of what he discussed has become a dead issue (his defense of the Mormons, for instance). Yet the main structure of his argument still holds against all the material and political developments of the last two generations.

In the year that Mill wrote the essay "On Liberty" he ended his life career in the India Office. For the next fifteen years, until his death in 1873, he saw the doctrines of political liberalism sweep everything before them. France, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Italy, Sweden -- all fell fully into line with new or renovated parliamentary institutions. Even Russia passed through its liberal phase under Alexander II. Everything liberal was dubbed desirable, and everything desirable was dubbed liberal. But while the world became liberal, what was happening to liberty -- to liberty as Mill defined it and championed it?

The liberty that Mill championed was not realized automatically by the introduction of parliamentary government or popular rule. It might indeed be threatened thereby. He sought to erect a bulwark of principles not only against the power of despots, but against the power of majorities, and not only against the tyranny of magistrates, but 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 upon those who dissent from them." In this sphere Mill felt, even as he wrote, that the tide was running against him. He saw that "the tendency of all the changes taking place in the world is to strengthen society, and diminish the power of the individual," and that "this encroachment is not one of the evils which tend spontaneously to disappear, but, on the contrary, to grow more and more formidable." On the eve of the triumph of liberalism, he already feared for liberty.

The fears he felt were not unlike those that came to the mind of Henry Adams as he meditated on the degradation of the democratic dogma -- the fear that mediocrity would triumph over originality, and servility over independence of character. "He who lets the world, or his own portion of it, choose his plan of life for him, has no need of any other faculty than the ape-like one of imitation. . . . It really is of importance, not only what men do, but also what manner of men they are that do it." "Formerly, different ranks, different neighborhoods, different trades and professions, lived in what might be called different worlds; at present to a great degree the same. Comparatively speaking, they now read the same things, listen to the same things, see the same things . . . have their hopes and fears directed toward the same objects, have the same rights and liberties, and the same means of asserting them."

The twentieth century continued this process of clamping down on individuality, and of imposing conformities on ways of living. The catalogue of imposed conformities is extended by such things as movies, radio, national advertising and chain stores in democratic countries, by police measures and positive propaganda in totalitarian states. The technological requirements of mass production call not only for regimented workers, but also for regimented consumers.

But the change of material conditions, and even of social attitudes, has opened some new zones to individuality in life. The shortening of working hours has extended the possibilities of leisure-time pursuits. The spread of knowledge of contraception has increased the power of individuals over their life plans. The growth of the metropolis has granted the shelter of anonymity to millions. And, in America at least, the automobile has supplemented the metropolis in curbing the power of the neighborhood. The encroachment upon individuality does not come today from society so much as from the state. The enemy of liberty today, as in the early nineteenth century, is the state.

Free living, as Mill saw it, and as we must see it today, is not separable from free thinking. And with this step, the argument reaches the very heart of Mill's idea and of the world's present uneasiness. What is the place of liberty in the sphere of consciousness? Here Mill's stand was absolute and intransigent. Man must be just as free to hold and defend wrong opinions as to hold and defend right ones. "If all mankind minus one were of one opinion," he writes, "and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind." There can be no distinction made on the basis of the utility of an opinion, for "the usefulness of an opinion is itself matter of opinion: as disputable, as open to discussion, and requiring discussion as much as the opinion itself."

In arguing for freedom of opinion from political control, he was preaching, as he thought, to the converted. He thought the time had gone by when a defense was needed of freedom of the press. It was social pressure against heterodox opinion that he most feared. He saw the danger of mass rule by public opinion, unleavened by new ideas, and feared that the wearing down of heterodoxy would make England another China. Against this prospect he argued with irrefutable syllogism that only by confronting opinions with their contraries could the road to truth be lighted, that truths unquestioned must remain truths unproved.

Point for point his argument is unassailable: if an opinion is right, its suppression deprives people of a chance to exchange error for truth; if it is wrong, people lose by its suppression the livelier impression of truth produced by its collision with error. The ordeal of persecution is no test of truth. "It is a piece of idle sentimentality that truth, merely as truth, has any inherent power denied to error of prevailing against the dungeon and the stake." But the ordeal of reason is always a test of truth. Man rectifies his errors by discussion and experience; "as mankind improve, the number of doctrines that are no longer disputed or doubted will be constantly on the increase." Action, whether individual or social, flows from the correct apprehension of truth as demonstrated in discussion. It is this principle that justifies faith in progress for men sufficiently civilized to use discussion as a control of action, that justifies the use of force against backward peoples not capable of using the same instrument, and that forces a society that wishes to move on this path to compel the education of its children to the point where they can participate in the symposium.

This demonstration of the value of free discussion is monolithic. Around it all the rest of the argument is built, and yet it is here that twentieth-century thinking has moved farthest from John Stuart Mill. In its political practice, a substantial part of the world is still with him in defending freedom of opinion. In its social manners, it has relaxed controls, and has come to regard the word "Victorian" as describing a stuffy repression of parlor conversation. The material world has not registered a decision against liberty of thought; at least half of the political and social world continues, in the main, to respect it. But the metaphysical foundations are no longer what they were.

For two generations since Mill we have studied, talked and discussed together -- hundreds of thousands of us in laboratory and library, hundreds of millions of us in sweatshop and barber shop, in hotel lobby and in homes. And do we still think, as Mill said eighty years ago, that "the number of doctrines which are no longer disputed or doubted will be constantly on the increase?" If we accept Mill's dictum that "the number and gravity of the truths which have reached the point of being uncontested" are a measure of the well-being of mankind, must we conclude that "wellbeing" thus measured has increased or diminished since his day?

It was a magnificent feast of reason for which Mill planned the menu and laid the table. He had, it is true, some misgivings that guests at the universal banquet might lack the fine sense to appreciate all that was offered; he did not foresee that they would come to the banquet, share in it, and then go hungry away.

The drift away from the metaphysical foundation of Mill's argument is a drift away from his assumption that truth is divisible for purposes of discussion and verification. Now it is evident that a Nazi, a Communist, and a Catholic hold each to a vast body of interlocking opinions, so integrated that they cannot be broken down into separate parts and subjected to separate analysis; and at the same time so comprehensive that they cannot be carried as a whole to the point of verification or disproof by evidence and information that any man, in his lifetime, can accumulate. Free discussion, under such conditions, does not lead to conclusions.

There is a profound harmony uniting Mill's "A System of Logic" with his essay "On Liberty." Both point the same road to the apprehension of truth. It is the road that Francis Bacon surveyed in the seventeenth century; it is the road by which learning in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries organized its stupendous achievements. The road is paved with monographs and learned journals. But now we ask, what if every word is true separately, what if each item of truth has been polished with verifications, what if we know the syntax of Bantu and the effect of ultra violet rays on the chromosomes of a sea-urchin's egg -- are these separate truths the truths that men can live by? Taken all together, do they constitute a truth that men can understand? The technique of verification which Mill deemed universal is applicable to fragments; but the very unity of personality for which Mill pleaded is not satisfied with fragments of truth.

Consider, for instance, one method of investigation which would seem to be the unassailable stronghold of objectivity, the method by which contrary assertions can be led to confront each other with perfect intellectual decorum, with error always yielding to truth. This is the method of statistical analysis. It has grown by leaps and bounds since Mill's day. Our supply of statistics is beyond his dreams; our use of them permeates government, business, and education, as well as the fields of scholarship. Hitler's speeches are full of them; Soviet reports bristle with them; they chart themselves in the offices of the sales managers; they send shivers down the spines of bankers. They may be abused at times, but the liars who figure can ultimately be confronted with the figures that do not lie. The free discussion of the interpretation of statistics should furnish an ideal vehicle for the application of reason to human affairs.

But there is lurking in the development of the statistical controls of social policy a potential danger to the principle of individuality itself. Already in large classes in the schools, individual students and individual teachers are fighting a losing battle against the normal curve of distribution. Every refinement of statistical method is an exquisite device for making men look like atoms. Universal suffrage, unable to take into account subtle differences among individuals in the degree of their interest in a subject or the extent of their capacity to understand it, is but a special case of the application of the adding machine technique to the determination of social policy. Proportional representation is a statistical refinement. Taxation policies are already made on calculating machines, and standards of living are measured by the method of least squares. When mankind becomes an equation of N variables and the horizon of his life is plotted on a Y axis, when individuality is a parameter of variation and personality an exponential function, will not the disciples of Mill quail before the monstrosities of statistical abstraction? Statistics do indeed render truth divisible for purposes of verification, but the great truths escape while the small ones are verified.

Perhaps there is another method by which free discussion of opinion can be relied upon to sift errors from truths in terms of the vast units of truth which are necessary for significance. Mill thought that the interpretation of experience would be such a method. But what does this mean? It means that we regard the League of Nations as an experiment, the Soviet union as a laboratory enterprise, and problems of policy as subject to the method of trial and error. In small matters the method is full of merit. On great affairs the laboratory fees are paid in blood, and when the reports of the experiment are written they are found to have contributed to the world an embellishment of mythologies rather than a bundle of verified truths.

Little as Mill foresaw that Western Europe would reach this state, yet the framework of his thought was vast enough to take it into account: "Liberty, as a principle, has no application to any state of things anterior to the time when mankind have become capable of being improved by free and equal discussion." Fundamentally, Mill's faith in progress was so unconditional that he did not imagine that a people which had learned to improve itself by free and equal discussion could lose the art. But the conclusion would have to be drawn from his argument that if the time should ever come when the thought structure of the world should lose its anchorage in induction, the day of improvement by free discussion would have passed, and with it the day of liberty.

It has now come to pass that the whole system of liberty has been reduced to one among a number of competing ideologies; it no longer furnishes the universal framework within which ideologies compete. Half the world still holds to this ideology, preferring it to others; the other half has undertaken to carry the police regulation of thought to a point of efficiency unprecedented in history. Propaganda and counter-propaganda are organized state activities, into which even the democratic countries are drawn. Just as the early modern state squeezed out the private administration of justice, so the totalitarian states squeeze out the private administration of thought. The democratic states at least engage in competition with non-state agencies in propaganda. Within the states that are still loyal to the ideal of liberty, two questions arise: To what extent shall the state undertake to propagate opinions? Can the state impose some restrictions on the propagation of opinions without destroying liberty in its entirety? Mill's principles would seem to rule that, just as thought is divisible for purposes of discussion and verification, so liberty of thought and expression is indivisible. One cannot lose any of it without losing it all. The sole limitation that Mill was willing to concede was restraint upon the expression of thought that would lead directly to mischievous acts. He would not allow a man to shout, "Hang the baker" during a bread riot, but he would permit anyone to shout "Down with capitalism" on Union Square.

This concession made by Mill may be like the thin end of a wedge which, driven by twentieth century conditions, will render liberty divisible. Fraudulent advertising claims would seem to be subject to state police measures, since "trade is a social act." And perhaps fraudulent political claims might be included by stretching the doctrine that "freedom to unite" is defensible only on condition that the persons uniting are "undeceived." A law requiring the registration of lobbyists and public relations counsellors would not seem to be contrary to Mill's principle of liberty.

In the propagation of opinions by the state, the state-controlled schools are first in importance. Mill saw that state education would tend to become state propaganda. He hoped to avoid the evils of this by leaving the schools so far as possible under private control and by restricting the rôle of the state to that of an examiner. The examination, he thought, would be exclusively on questions of fact. Here again his confidence that great and significant truths were merely the sum of a great number of facts gave him a solution which modern educators must regard as all too simple.

These problems would exist in a régime of liberty even if it had no contact with foreign states or with totalitarian régimes. But the propaganda activity and the threats of force that arise in the totalitarian states render these problems more pressing. It happened that while Mill was writing his essay, Orsini attempted to assassinate Napoleon III, and the British Government complied with a French request that the British press should be restrained from attacking the heads of foreign states. Napoleon demanded, though on a modest scale, what Hitler demands today. Mill was shocked by the violation done the freedom of the press. He evidently did not regard English press campaigns against Napoleon as coming within his definition of expressions of opinion leading directly to mischievous acts.

But the issue involved is not simple, for the régime of liberty cannot survive during modern warfare. A régime of liberty implies a policy of peace, and peace between nations may in fact be threatened by press campaigns that arouse international hatred. This situation has led many partisans of collective security under the League of Nations to advocate "moral disarmament," a program which means the restraining of international hatemongers by their own governments. The famous Carlsbad Decrees of 1819 that were enforced against the freedom of the press in the German states were based on precisely this principle. They did not compel the state of Baden, for instance, to suppress journalistic attacks upon the government of Baden; they applied only to pamphleteering in one state against another state, or against the German Confederation as a whole. Radio, which leaps across political parties, has sharpened this dilemma for the adherents of the principles of liberty. Italy can blackmail England with a pro-Islamic radio campaign, and totalitarian radio propaganda in Latin America can drive the American Government to counter measures.

Finally, the adherents of the system of liberty face the more serious dilemma of whether to aid each other in defending their system by armed force. John Stuart Mill wrote down the rules of a game in which people write letters to the Times. Do circumstances now indicate that it is not enough to write letters to the Times, that we must rather go over seas and string barbed wire in Spain? If paid agents of a totalitarian state are building up a party in a free country, must the free country give freedom even to them?

These problems confronting the adherents of liberty today are not insoluble. Already our thinkers are working to shore up the crumbling places in the metaphysical foundations of liberty by turning their attention from the verification of small truths to the analyses of great ones. The Encyclopædia of the eighteenth century was a philosophy; the Encyclopædia of the nineteenth century was a disorderly museum of facts; the Encyclopædia of the twentieth century is only in the making. It need not and cannot contain the answers to all questions, but it may turn out to be an intellectual achievement that will inspire confidence that even the most comprehensive and meaningful opinions are ultimately capable of objective verification or disproof. The dilemmas encountered in applying the principles of liberty to human affairs are by no means so serious as those encountered in applying the alternative ideologies. The totalitarian states have yet to show that they can produce great characters. It takes forty years to make a man. The great names in these states are the names of men who were made by liberty, whether under a régime of liberty or despite a régime of repression.

John Stuart Mill ruled a great empire of thought and ruled it well; his satraps were principles and his army was an army of facts. The law of that empire was the law of liberty, progress and utility. The empire still stands, though there are barbarians swarming on the frontiers, and the satraps have set themselves up as semi-independent rulers of petty domains. But the good law that he laid down is still good law, and the empire will stand wherever men believe with him that "the worth of a State, in the long run, is the worth of the individuals composing it."

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  • ROBERT C. BINKLEY, Professor of History in Western Reserve University; Visiting Professor at Columbia University, 1937-38; author of "Realism and Nationalism" and other works
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