15. J. S. Mill’s On Liberty

“The line between matters that are affected with the public interest and the private concerns of individual men is a difficult one to draw. What part of anyone’s life or conduct is nobody’s business, and what part is everyone’s business because it affects the lives of others and the welfare of society as a whole? There may be no satisfactory answer to this question, but some determination of what is private and what is public is necessary to determine the proper scope of government and the sphere of individual liberty. “This is the problem John Stuart Mill undertakes to solve in his essay On Liberty.” (Mortimer J. Adler and Peter Wolff, The Development of Political Theory and Government, volume 2 of The Great Ideas Program, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1959)

In introducing my last post, on Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, I said that although I didn’t share the antipathy that some hold of it I was tempted not to include an article on it in this series of posts at Bob’s Corner on the writings considered in The Development of Political Theory and Government because I found it difficult to read. I have no such problem with On Liberty, finding it easy to read. Additionally, although J. S. Mill’s discussion of where to draw the line between conduct that affects others and conduct that affects the individual’s personal life was published over one and one-half centuries ago, it seems quite contemporary to me.

In their guide to On Liberty Adler and Wolff consider Mill’s view of its importance, the meaning of “liberty,” the importance of individuality, and two other questions about On Liberty. Here I’ll give  the sketch of J. S. Mill’s life that I included in my earlier post on his Representative Government and summarize and comment on what Adler and Wolff say.

The Life of Mill

John Stuart Mill was born in Pentonville, London, on May 20, 1806, the oldest son of James Mill, an outstanding philosopher, political thinker, and practical statesman. He was educated exclusively by his father, a strict disciplinarian. He began to study Greek and arithmetic at the age of three; by the time he was eight he had read the whole of the historian Herodotus, six dialogues of Plato, and considerable history; and before he was twelve had studied Euclid and algebra, the Greek and Latin poets, and some English poetry. At twelve he was introduced to logic, and his thirteenth year (the last under his father’s direct supervision) was devoted to political economy under his father, who was working on his Elements of Political Economy. He furthered his studies with his father’s friends, studying law with Austen and economics with Ricardo.

In 1826, at the age of twenty, Mill suffered what he later called “a crisis in my mental history.” He became greatly depressed, asking himself, “Suppose that all your objects in life were realized; that all the changes in institutions and opinions which you were looking forward to, could be completely effected at this very instant: would this be a great joy and happiness and happiness to you?” and answering with “an irrepressible self-consciousness” with “No.” This depression lasted several months and affected him for three or four years. He finally emerged from it with a new appreciation for the value of the emotions and a realization that philosophical analysis was only part of life. (The quotations in this paragraph are from Adler and Wolff, The Development of Political Theory and Government, page 181.)

From the time he was seventeen, Mill supported himself by working for the British East India Company, where his father was an official. Like his father he worked in its examiner’s office and rose (on his father’s death in 1836) to be chief examiner. He spent thirty-five years at it, retiring in 1858 when the company was dissolved and its functions were taken over by the British Government. In addition to his regular employment, he took part in many activities tending to prepare public opinion for legislative reform; for example, he wrote often for newspapers friendly to the “radical” cause. However these activities didn’t present him from pursuing his own intellectual interests, his studies resulting in the publication of System of Logic (1843) and Principles of Political Economy (1848).

Mill attributed the development and productivity of these years to his relationship with Mrs. Harriet Taylor, who was the wife of John Taylor when he met her in 1830. They were married in 1851, two years after the death of her first husband. Mill later wrote that his friendship with her “has been the honour and chief blessing of my existence, as well as the source of a great part of all that I have attempted to do, or hope to do hereafter, for human improvement.” Although in the seven years of their married life he published less than at any other period of his life (because of his increasing absorption in the work of India House), he thought out and discussed with her such important works as On Liberty and Representative Government (published in 1859 and 1861, respectively).

Mill died on May 8, 1873, in his cottage at Avignon which had been built so that he might be close to the grave of his wife, who had died there on November 3, 1858.

Mill’s View of the Importance of On Liberty

Mill thought that On Liberty would be his most lasting work and attributed its high quality to his wife’s help with it. In the Autobiography he says:

“The ‘Liberty’ was more directly and literally our joint production than anything else which bears my name,  for there was not a sentence of it that was not several times gone through by us together, turned over in many ways, and carefully weeded of many faults, either in thought or expression, that we detected in it. It is in consequence of this that, although it never underwent her final revision [because of her death], it far surpasses, as a mere specimen of composition, anything which has proceeded from me, either before or since.…

“The ‘Liberty’ is likely to survive longer than anything else than anything else that I have written… because the conjunction of her mind with mine has rendered it a kind of philosophic text-book of a single truth, which the changes progressively taking place in modern society tend to bring out into ever stronger relied: the importance, to man and society, of a large variety in types of character, and of giving full freedom to human nature to expand itself in innumerable and conflicting directions.” (New York, 1948, pages 176-77; quoted in Adler and Wolff, The Development of Political Theory and Government, page 209-10)

The Meaning of “Liberty”

“Liberty consists in doing what one desires” (J. S. Mill, On Liberty in volume 43 of Great Books of the Western World, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952, page 313).

As indicated in the following statement, On Liberty assigns both a positive and a negative aspect to liberty:

“The only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our only good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it” (J. S. Mill, On Liberty, page 273).

Positively, liberty means that a person can think, express himself, and do as he pleases. Chapter 2, “Of the Liberty of Thought and Discussion,” deals with why people should be free to form and express opinions without reserve, and Chapter 3, “Of Individuality, as one of the Elements of Well-Being,” deals with why people should be free to act on one’s opinions without hindrance from others. (For more on Chapters 2 and 3, see respectively the first question in “Questions about On Liberty” and “The Importance of Individuality” below.)

Negatively, liberty has only one restriction on it‒the exercise of one’s freedom must not interfere with a similar freedom on the part of others. Chapter 4, “Of the Limits to the Authority of Society over the Individual,” deals with the extent to which society is justified in interfering with the individual’s freedom. (For more on Chapter 4, see the second question in “Questions about On Liberty” below.)

(Chapters 2-4 constitute the main body of On Liberty, with Chapters 1, “Introductory,” and 5, “Applications,” introducing and concluding it.)

The Importance of Individuality

Throughout Chapter 3 Mill tells us that most people don’t appreciate the value of individuality. For example, near the beginning of the chapter, he says:

“Individual spontaneity is hardly recognized by the common modes of thinking as having any intrinsic worth, or deserving any regard on its own account. The majority, being satisfied with the ways of mankind as they now are…cannot comprehend why those ways should not be good enough for everyone.” (J. S. Mill, On Liberty, page 294)

In the chapter Mill gives an assortment of reasons why individuality should be highly regarded. Adler and Wolff identify three:

(1) Although a person should learn from the experiences of others, their experience might be suitable for their circumstances but not suitable for him. Nor can he rely on customs.

“Customs are made for customary circumstances and customary characters; and his circumstances or his character may be uncustomary” (J. S. Mill, On Liberty, page 294).

(2) Only by choosing and acting for oneself can a person develop fully as a human being.

“A person whose desires and impulses are his own‒are the expression of his own nature, as it has been developed and modified by his own culture‒is said to have a character. One whose desires and impulses are not his own, has no character, no more than a steam-engine has a character.” (J. Mill, On Liberty, page 295)

(3) People’s preference for the uniformity and customariness of routine lives leads to a depressing sameness in tastes, desires, and actions.

“Comparatively speaking, [all people] now read the same things, listen to the same things, go to the same places, have their hopes and fears directed to the same objects, have their hopes and fears directed to the same objects, have the same rights and liberties, and the same means of asserting them. Great as are the differences of position which remain, they are nothing to those which have  ceased. And the assimilation is still proceeding.” (J. S. Mill, On Liberty, page 302)

In light of the many things in society endangering individuality, Mill encourages unusual thought and behaviour.

“Precisely because the tyranny of opinion is such as to make eccentricity a reproach, it is desirable, in order to break through that tyranny, that people should be eccentric. Eccentricity has always abounded when and where strength of character has abounded; and the amount of eccentricity in society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigour, and moral courage it contained. That so few now dare to be eccentric marks the chief danger of the time.” (J. S. Mill, On Liberty, page 299)

Questions about On Liberty

What are Mill’s arguments in favor of liberty of thought and discussion?

In Chapter 2 Mill says that everyone’s opinions, whether right or wrong, ought to be allowed to be expressed, discussed, and disseminated.

“The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, [men] are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.” (J. S. Mill, On Liberty, page 275)

Adler and Wolff’s consideration of the question consists mainly of the posing of several follow-up questions. Although I’ll give only a few of them here, I’ll add my answers to them. I invite you to also share your answers to them, in the Bob’s Corner and/or Facebook discussions of this article. (The questions quoted below are from Adler and Wolff, The Development of Political Theory and Government, page 215-16.)

“In this view [the view expressed in the quotation above], should free discussion of any opinion put forth (in public discussion, in the newspapers, etc.) be permitted? Or are there any opinions the suppression of which Mill would think justified?” Yes to both questions. An example of the latter is:

“An opinion that corn-dealers are starvers of the poor, or that private property is robbery, ought to be unmolested when simply circulated through the press, but they may justly incur punishment when delivered orally to an excited mob assembled before the house of a corn-dealer, or when handed about among the same mob in the form of a placard.” (J. S. Mill, On Liberty, page 293)

“Does the freedom of opinion which Mill advocates extend to all subjects? Or are any excepted? For instance, are theological matters to be excepted in a country‒like England‒where there is an established church?” Yes, no, and no, respectively. Mill even argues that doctrines being challenged gives life to them. For example, he says:

“There are many reasons, doubtless, why doctrines which are the badge of a sect retain more of their vitality than those common to all recognized sects, and why more pains are taken by teachers to keep their meaning alive; but one reason certainly is, that the peculiar doctrines are more questioned, and have to be oftener defended against open gainsayers. Both teachers and learners go to sleep at their post, as soon as there is no enemy in the field.” (J. S. Mill, On Liberty, page 287)

“It is sometimes said that ‘the public business must be public,’ that is, that there must be no closed sessions of legislatures, city councils, etc. Would these bodies sometimes not function more efficiently and more courageously if their deliberations were not subject to public scrutiny? Is the loss in efficiency made up for by a gain in liberty?” Yes to both questions.
As I read Chapter 2, I wondered what Mill would say about the current attempts in my country, Canada, of the BGLT community to censor public objections to homosexualism on the grounds that the objections display intolerance. What do you think?

Are there any restrictions on freedom of action?

Actions should not be allowed which harm or threaten to harm other people.

“Acts, of whatever kind, which, without justifiable cause, do harm to others, may be, and in the most important cases absolutely require to be, controlled by the unfavourable sentiments, and, when needful, by the active interference of mankind” (J. S. Mill, On Liberty, page 293).

In Chapter 4 Mill sums up his view of the relation of society and the individual thus:

“As soon as any part of a person’s conduct affects prejudicially the interests of others, society has jurisdiction over it, and the question whether the general welfare will or will not be promoted by interfering with it, becomes open to discussion. But there is no room for entertaining any such question when a person’s conduct affects the interests of no persons besides himself, or needs not affect them unless they like.” (J. S. Mill, On Liberty, page 303)

14. Hegel’s Philosophy of Right

“Of all the contributions to political theory which are included in this Reading Plan, that of Hegel is least likely to elicit a sympathetic response in a democratic audience. On the contrary, its main tenets are such as to produce an emotional antipathy verging even on an unwillingness to give his views a fair hearing. Yet they deserve our closest attention in spite of the distaste they may arouse in us, precisely because they represent so clearly and powerfully the antithesis of our most fundamental convictions.” (Mortimer J. Adler and Peter Wolff, The Development of Political Theory and Government, volume 2 in The Great Ideas Program, page 195)

Thus Adler and Wolff introduce their consideration of the Introduction and Subsection III (The State) of the Third Part of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. The antipathy that they refer to results from Hegel’s being viewed as promoting totalitarianism when he affirms that man is made for the state, rather than that the state is made for man as believers in democracy hold. However, in view of his also emphasizing the principles of right and justice, respecting law as the voice of reason, and insisting on constitutional government, I didn’t share the antipathy that some hold of Philosophy of Right when I read the selections from it.

However for a different reason I was tempted not to include an article on Philosophy of Right in this series of posts at Bob’s Corner on the writings considered in The Development of Political Theory and Government. The reason is:

“Hegel constructed a philosophic system. He does not treat the various fields as independent realities, but binds everything together with a few central ideas. It is difficult to understand any part of Hegel’s system without understanding the whole.” (Adler and Wolff, The Development of Political Theory and Government, page 197) 

Although Adler and Wolff go on to say that Philosophy of Right can be more easily read separately than some of Hegel’s other works, I still found it difficult. (I was also turned off by Hegel’s dogmatic presentation of his views and cavalier dismissal of other views.)

Yet because of Hegel’s importance in the history of political theory, I didn’t want to omit him in the series of posts. I discussed my problem with my daughter Allison (see Allison’s Book Bag). She suggested that I base my article on what Adler and Wolff say about the selection rather than on the selection itself. I liked her suggestion and decided to follow it except for including also a sketch of Hegel’s life. Thus this post contains a sketch of Hegel’s life and a summary of Adler and Wolff’s discussion of the Introduction and Subsection III (The State) of the Third Part of Philosophy of Right. The latter considers the content and method of Hegel\s philosophy, his conception of the state and freedom, and three questions about the reading.

The Life of Hegel

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was born at Stuttgart, Germany, August 27, 1770, the oldest child of a revenue officer. His achievement at the local grammar school and gymnasium was unremarkable. In 1788 he entered the University of Tűbingen as a student of theology. He showed little aptitude for theology, his sermons being a failure and his finding more congenial reading in the classics. After leaving the university in 1793, he earned his livelihood as a family tutor, first at Berne (1793-96) and then at Frankfurt (1797-1800). From his years as a tutor came numerous manuscripts, in various stages of completion and of varying importance but all indicative of a great deal of study.

In 1799 Hegel’s father died and a small inheritance offered him a brief period of independence. He wrote to a friend, Schelling, asking him to suggest a suitable town for a brief period of studious withdrawal. Schelling’s answer must have been enthusiastic because Hegel joined him at Jena almost immediately. Here he became a Privadocent at the university. In the winter of 1801-02 his lectures on logic and metaphysics were attended by eleven students. Succeeding series in later years were attended by about thirty students and were devoted to a “system of speculative philosophy,” the history of philosophy, pure mathematics, and other topics. His academic career was brought abruptly to a close by the Napoleonic campaign culminating in the battle of Jena in late 1806. However despite the war his first great work, The Phenomenology of Spirit, appeared in 1807.

At loose ends Hegel edited a newspaper at Bamberg for a time (1807-08) but, finding journalism distasteful, he accepted a position a position as headmaster of the Gymnasium at Nuremberg, where he remained until 1816. In 1811 he married; the marriage was entirely happy and his wife bore him two sons. Two volumes of his Science of Logic were published in 1812 and a third in 1816. Offered professorships at Erlangen, Heidelberg, and Berlin, he accepted the invitation to Heidelberg. However after the publication of his Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences in 1817, the offer of Berlin was renewed and he accepted it.

The thirteen years of Hegel’s professorship at the University of Berlin (1818-31) brought him to the summit of his career and made him the recognized leader of philosophic thought in Germany. Philosophy of Right, the last of the large works published in his lifetime, appeared in 1821. His lectures on aesthetics, the philosophy of religion, the philosophy of history, and the history of philosophy were constantly revised and improved and finally published after his death. In 1830 he became rector of the university and was decorated by Frederick William III of Prussia. He died of cholera on the 14th of November, 1831.

Content and Method of Hegel’s Philosophy

To make the reading of the Introduction and Subsection III (The State) of the Third Part of Philosophy of Right easier, Adler and Wolff consider two things that are central to Hegel’s philosophy, the first having to do with its content and the second with its method.

(1) Hegel is often called an “idealist” in philosophy because what for him is most real are ideas or concepts or thoughts. The most important aspect of the world is its ideal or rational character. The sensible or phenomenal aspect of the world (what we see, hear, feel, etc.) is intelligible only insofar as we recognize it as partaking of rationality. The state and its institutions, which we read about in Philosophy of Right, are of interest to Hegel only insofar as they reflect the rational spirit which is reality. For Hegel, the real is the ideal.

(2) Hegel calls his method “dialectical.” The dialectical approach, in Hegel’s sense, involves viewing everything, including ideas, as developing and changing. Most important is the development that occurs when an idea and its opposite clash. Out of such a meeting of a “thesis” and its “antithesis” there emerges a “synthesis,” a stage of development in which the earlier opposites are both contained but in such a way that they are reconciled. In Philosophy of Right the state is a synthesis of two opposite poles, subjective and objective freedom; for the distinction between them, see the next section.

Hegel’s Conception of the State and Freedom

The main political question in ancient and medieval political writings was “To what end should the power of the state be used?” Since the seventeenth century that question has been replaced by Rousseau’s “Man is born free; yet everywhere he is in chains. What is the reason for this and what makes it legitimate?” Hegel presents a mixture of these traditions, being much concerned about the problem of freedom (like his contemporaries and immediate predecessors) and yet viewing nothing as right which doesn’t serve the state (like the ancients). Because he doesn’t conceive of the state and freedom the same as most other political writers do, Adler and Wolff next consider somewhat closely his use of those key terms.

Observing that Hegel identifies the state with both freedom, “The state is the actuality of concrete freedom” (Hegel, Philosophy of Right in volume 46 of Great Books of the Western World, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952, page 82), and rationality, “the state is absolutely rational” (op. cit., page 80), Adler and Wolff suggest that for him freedom and rationality are closely related and perhaps even identical. They confirm this with the following quotation from Philosophy of Right:

“Rationality, taken generally and in the abstract, consists in the throughgoing unity of the universal and the single. Rationality, concrete in the state, consists (a) so far as its content is concerned, in the unity of objective freedom (i.e. freedom of the universal or substantial will) and subjective freedom (i.e. freedom of everyone in his knowing and in his volition of particular ends); and consequently, (b) so far as its form is concerned, in self-determining action on laws and principles which are principles and universal.” (Hegel, Philosophy of Right, page 80)

Subjective freedom is the freedom of the individual person to be himself, to act and do as he and he alone pleases. Objective freedom is the freedom which the will achieves when it wills not what it pleases but what is right for it. The object of the will when it wills thus wills rightly is necessarily universal. A man so determined in his choices and actions will not be free in the sense of subjective freedom: he will no longer be able to arbitrarily choose this way ot that way. But he will be free in the objective sense: he will be free from all those attractions that the will ought not to follow because they are not truly good for man. Hegel asserts:

“The idea which people most commonly have of freedom is that it is arbitrariness‒the mean, chosen by abstract reflection, between the will wholly determined by natural impulses, and the will free absolutely. If we hear it said that the definition of freedom is ability to do what we please, such an idea can be taken to reveal an utter immaturity of thought, for it contains not even an inkling of the absolutely free will, of right, ethical life, and so forth,” (Hegel, Philosophy of Right, page 16; the quotation is an example of what I was referring to when I said above in introducing this article, “I was also turned off by Hegel’s dogmatic presentation of his views and cavalier dismissal of other views.”)

Returning to a statement which they had quoted earlier, “the state is the actuality of concrete freedom,” Adler and Wolff now consider how the state can be an embodiment of freedom. The freedom that Hegel has in mind is the true or objective freedom, his continuing thus after the statement just quoted:

“But concrete freedom consists in this, that personal individuality and its particular interests not only achieve their complete development…but, for one thing, they also pass over of their own accord into the interest of the universal, and, for another thing, they know and will the universal; they even recognize it as their own substantive mind; they take it as their end and aim and are active in its pursuit. The result is that the universal does not prevail or achieve completion except along with particular interests and through the co-operation of particular knowing and willing; and individuals likewise do not live as private persons for their own ends alone, but in the very act of willing these they will the universal in the light of the universal, and their activity is consciously aimed at none but the universal end.” (Hegel, Philosophy of Right, pages 82-83)

Adler and Wolff conclude their consideration of Hegel’s conception of the state and freedom thus:

“In Hegel’s view of the state, then, there is no opposition between the individual’s rights and freedoms on the one side, and the state’s rights and demands on the other. There is no need, therefore, for any provisions to safeguard the individual against the encroachments of the state. Such things as Bills of Right are absurd. The state, not the individual, is supreme. Hegel expresses his idea of the state’s grandeur very plainly: ‘The march of God on earth, that is what the state is’ (p. 141),”  (Adler and Wolff, The Development of Political Theory and Government, page 202)

Three Questions about Philosophy of Right

What is the relation of religion to the state?

In modern times the separation of church and state is a cardinal principle of life in Western countries. This is based on the view that state and religion are concerned with two different spheres of the individual’s life, the former with such things as individuals’ relations to one another, their property, and their security and the latter with matters that concern an individual’s relation with God.

However for Hegel the individual can have no rights apart from what the state gives him. Religion is an expression of a person’s individuality and belongs to his subjectivity. Subjectivity has its place in the state, but its ultimate destiny is always to be transformed and raised up into objectivity. Hegel describes the relation of religion and the state thus:

“If religion be religion of a genuine kind, it does not run counter to the state in a negative or polemical way…It rather recognizes the state and upholds it…The state discharges a duty by affording every protection to the church by affording every assistance and protection to the church in the furtherance of its religious ends.” (Hegel, Philosophy of Right, page 86)

What are the three powers of the state?

The usual numeration of the three powers of the state are the executive, the legislature, and the judiciary. Hegel gives them as the executive, the legislature, and the crown. Here is how he defines them:

“(a) the power to determine and establish the universal‒the Legislature; “(b) the power to subsume single cases and the spheres of particularity under the universal‒the Executive; “(c) the power of subjectivity, as the will with the power of ultimate decision‒the Crown. In the crown, the different powers are bound into an individual unity which is thus at once the apex and  basis of the whole, i.e. of constitutional monarchy.” (Hegel, Philosophy of Right, page 90)

Further on he notes that executive power also includes the judiciary.

What are the divisions of the Philosophy of Right?

The divisions of Philosophy of Right arise from the dialectical method by which the subject of right is treated. The dialectical method take an idea and considers it in its development. Thus Hegel writes:

“In correspondence with the stages in the development of the Idea of the absolutely free will, the will is A. Immediate…‒the sphere of Abstract or Formal Right; B. Reflected from its external embodiment into itself‒it is then characterized as subjective individuality in opposition to the universal…‒the sphere of Morality; C. The unity and truth of both of these abstract moments…‒Ethical Life.” (Hegel, Philosophy of Right, page 20)

On the same principle Ethical Life is divided into three parts: the family, civil society, and the state. And the section of the book dealing with the state is divided into three parts: the state in itself, the state in relation to other states, and the state as it is a phase of world history. On the latter Hegel says:

“The State [is] freedom, freedom universal and objective even in the free self-subsistence of the particular will. This actual and organic mind (α) of a single nation (β) reveals and actualizes itself through the interrelation of the particular national minds until (γ) in the process of world-history it reveals and actualizes itself as the universal world-mind whose right is supreme.” ((Hegel, Philosophy of Right, page 20)

13. J. S. Mill’s Representative Government

“John Stuart Mill’s Representative Government is the first great work in political theory which argues for the proposition that democracy is the ideal form of government. The central democratic principal of universal suffrage was not only an untried and radical proposal in 1861, but it was also one that aroused justifiable fears of mob rule or, at least, misgovernment by the uneducated and inexperienced mass of working-men. Mill himself shared these fears, and he proposed weighted voting and proportional representation to overcome the tyranny of an underprivileged majority legislating in its own interest when it obtained the franchise. But he had the courage, nevertheless, to defend the principal of universal suffrage on the grounds of justice or right‒the right of every men to have a voice in matters which are the common concern of all…. “Representative Government was a tract for the times in Mill’s day. It is still one in our day, and considering the world at large, it is likely to be for some time to come a tract for the future.” (Mortimer J. Adler and Peter Wolff, The Development of Political Theory and Government, volume 2 in The Great Ideas, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1959, pages 177-179)

Adler and Wolff go on to sketch the life of Mill, to compare and traditional conceptions of democracy, to explain why Mill favoured representative government, and to discuss four questions about Mill’s view of representative government. Here I’ll summarize their presentation, occasionally supplementing the sketch of Mill’s life with details from other sources and the rest of their presentation with comments of my own.

The Life of Mill

John Stuart Mill was born in Pentonville, London, on May 20, 1806, the oldest son of James Mill, an outstanding philosopher, political thinker, and practical statesman. He was educated exclusively by his father, a strict disciplinarian. He began to study Greek and arithmetic at the age of three; by the time he was eight he had read the whole of the historian Herodotus, six dialogues of Plato, and considerable history; and before he was twelve had studied Euclid and algebra, the Greek and Latin poets, and some English poetry. At twelve he was introduced to logic, and his thirteenth year (the last under his father’s direct supervision) was devoted to political economy under his father, who was working on his Elements of Political Economy. He furthered his studies with his father’s friends, studying law with Austen and economics with Ricardo.

In 1826, at the age of twenty, Mill suffered what he later called “a crisis in my mental history.” He became greatly depressed, asking himself, “Suppose that all your objects in life were realized; that all the changes in institutions and opinions which you were looking forward to, could be completely effected at this very instant: would this be a great joy and happiness and happiness to you?” and answering with “an irrepressible self-consciousness” with “No.” This depression lasted several months and affected him for three or four years. He finally emerged from it with a new appreciation for the value of the emotions and a realization that philosophical analysis was only part of life. (The quotations in this paragraph are from Adler and Wolff, The Development of Political Theory and Government, page 181.)

From the time he was seventeen, Mill supported himself by working for the British East India Company, where his father was an official. Like his father he worked in its examiner’s office and rose (on his father’s death in 1836) to be chief examiner. He spent thirty-five years at it, retiring in 1858 when the company was dissolved and its functions were taken over by the British Government. In addition to his regular employment, he took part in many activities tending to prepare public opinion for legislative reform; for example, he wrote often for newspapers friendly to the “radical” cause. However these activities didn’t present him from pursuing his own intellectual interests, his studies resulting in the publication of System of Logic (1843) and Principles of Political Economy (1848).

Mill attributed the development and productivity of these years to his relationship with Mrs. Harriet Taylor, who was the wife of John Taylor when he met her in 1830. They were married in 1851, two years after the death of her first husband. Mill later wrote that his friendship with her “has been the honour and chief blessing of my existence, as well as the source of a great part of all that I have attempted to do, or hope to do hereafter, for human improvement.” Although in the seven years of their married life he published less than at any other period of his life (because of his increasing absorption in the work of India House), he thought out and discussed with her such important works as Representative Government (published in 1861) and the work that I’ll report on in my last post in this series of posts, On Liberty (1859).

Mill died on May 8, 1873, in his cottage at Avignon which had been built so that he might be close to the grave of his wife, who had died there on November 3, 1858.

Modern and Traditional Conceptions of Democracy

After observing that Representative Government is the first of the great books on political philosophy to expound the modern theory of democracy and the first one to defend this kind of government as the best form of government, Adler and Wolff explain how modern and traditional theories differ in their conceptions of democracy.

Both Plato and Aristotle were acquainted with forms of government that they called democracies. To them a democratic form of government exists when “the many” rule. However “the many” doesn’t comprise every adult or even every adult male in the state, and so this form of government is democratic only in comparison to the kinds of government to which it is opposed, such as monarchy and oligarchy. However to Mill democracy meant nothing less than universal suffrage.

In addition neither Plato nor Aristotle favours democracy, but Mill unequivocally endorses it. Plato calls it “a charming form of government, full of variety and disorder, and dispensing a sort of equality to equals and unequals alike” (Plato, The Republic, in volume 7 of Great Books of the Western World, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952, page 409). And although Aristotle recognizes democracy as better than oligarchy, he calls the form of democracy in which the citizens (those entitled to vote) are very numerous “the…worst form of democracy” (Aristotle, Politics, in volume 9 of Great Books of the Western World, page 523). But Mill says:

“There is no difficulty in showing that the ideally best form of government is that in which the sovereignty, or supreme controlling power in the last resort, is vested in the entire aggregate of the community, every citizen not only having a voice in the exercise of that sovereignty, but being, at least occasionally, called on to take an actual part in the government, by the personal discharge of some public function, local or general” (Mill, Representative Government, in volume 43 of Great Books of the Western World, page 344).

Why Mill Favoured Representative Government

In Chapters 1 and 2 of Representative Government Mill deals with two preliminary problems, the solution of which will help explain why Mill favoured representative government‒how far governments are subject to human choice (in Chapter 1) and the criteria by which we judge the goodness of a particular form of government (in Chapter 2).

With regard to the first problem, Mill concludes that men can do something about their governments but that not every form of government is possible for every kind of people. He identifies three conditions which must be taken into account in considering whether a form of government is suitable for a given country:

“The people for whom the form of government is intended must be willing to accept it; or at least not so unwilling as to oppose an insurmountable obstacle to its establishment. They must be willing and able to do what is necessary to keep it standing. And they must be willing and able to do what it requires of them to enable it to fulfil its purposes.” (Mill, Representative Government, page 329)

He concludes that within the limits set by these three conditions “institutions and forms of government are a matter of choice” (Mill, Representative Government, page 331).

With regard to the second problem, Mill concludes that the best government is one which fulfils the purposes for which governments are established. He then considers what the purposes of government are and concludes:

“The merit which any set of political institutions can possess…consists partly of the degree in which they promote the general mental advancement of the community, including under that phrase advancement in intellect, in virtue, and in practical activity and efficiency; and partly of the degree of perfection with which they organize the moral, intellectual, and active worth already existing, so as to operate with the greatest effect on public affairs” (Mill, Representative Government, page 338).

In Chapter 3 Mill argues that the representative form of government best fulfils these two purposes and thus is the ideally best form of government. Regarding the former, he claims that the best and happiest kind of person is one who is not content merely to remain what he is but who constantly tries to improve himself and that this active type of character is encouraged by self-government but suppressed in varying degrees by other forms of government. Regarding the latter, he claims that self-government uses the existing good qualities of a people in the best way because it promotes the common good by enlisting the energies of all the people. This just shows the superiority of democracy over other forms of government, but

“since all cannot, in a community exceeding a single small town, participate personally in any but some very minor portions of the public business, it follows that the ideal type of a perfect government must be representative” (Mill, Representative Government, page 350).

Four Questions about Mill’s View of Representative Government

What means does Mill propose in order to counteract the “tyranny of the majority?”

Mill presents the problem thus:

“The pure idea of democracy…is the government of the whole people by the whole people, equally represented. Democracy as commonly conceived and hitherto practised is the government of the people by the mere majority of the people, exclusively represented” (Mill, Representative Government, page 370).

But this is not just.

Mill’s proposed solution is proportional representation, a system of voting which gives minority parties representation in a legislation in proportion to their popular vote. Adler and Wolff comment:

“There is something very persuasive in the arguments advanced by Mill and others in favor of proportional representation. It definitely results in a legislative assembly that is a more exact image of the divisions of popular opinion than can otherwise be obtained. And it seems just that the assembly should mirror the country as a whole. [But] proportional representation seems to encourage unstable governments.” (Adler and Wolff, The Development of Political Theory and Government, page 189)

Years ago, when I was a member of the Reform Party of Canada, I favoured proportional government. However now I think that its disadvantages outweigh its advantages and thus favour our present, non-proportional system of representation.

Who governs in a representative government?

Mill answers:

“The proper duty of a representative assembly is regards to administration is not to decide them by its own vote, but to take care that the persons who have to decide them shall be the proper persons” (Mill, Representative Government, page 358).

And those people, the executive, should be allowed to govern.

Does Mill think that all men are entitled to vote?

Mill answers affirmatively, arguing that only children, illiterates, those who don’t pay taxes, and those on public relief are properly excluded. Adler and Wolff add, “We may assume that he would as a matter of course also exclude convicted criminals” (Adler and Wolff, The Development of Political Theory and Government, page 192). The following passage shows how important Mill considers suffrage, from the point of view both of utility and of justice:

“Whoever, in an otherwise popular government, has no vote, and no prospect of obtaining it, will either be a permanent malcontent, or will feel as one whom the general affairs of society do not concern… “It is a personal injustice to withhold from any one, unless for the prevention of greater evils, the ordinary privilege of having his voice reckoned in which he has the same interest as other people.” (Mill, Representative Government, page 382)

Should everyone’s vote count equally?

Although Mill thought that everyone is entitled to vote, he also thought that some men should be able to vote two or three times. He justifies holding both opinions thus:

“Everyone has a right to feel insulted by being made a nobody, and stamped as of no account at all. No one but a fool…feels offended by the acknowledgement that there are others whose opinion…is entitled to a greater amount of consideration than his” (Mill, Representative Government, page 384-385).

This method of voting is called “plural voting.” In arguing for it, Mill said that it shouldn’t be based on accidental circumstances, such as the possession of property, but on some just qualification, such as superior education or mental ability.

Personally, I disagree with plural voting, for both practical and moral reasons. I think that it would be difficult, perhaps impossible, to select a characteristic to base it on that everyone would agree with. I also think that it is unjust, being incompatible in my opinion with the concepts of representation and universal suffrage.

14. American State Papers

The Declaration of Independence, the document declaring the freedom of the thirteen American colonies from British rule, was adopted by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776. Written primarily by Thomas Jefferson, it affirms the natural rights of man and the doctrine of government by contract, which the Continental Congress felt had been repeatedly violated by King George III. The Constitution of the United States of America, the document defining the principal organs of American government and their jurisdictions, was drafted by the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and, after the ninth state had ratified it, was declared in effect by Congress on March 4, 1789. It consists of seven articles and numerous amendments, the latter affirming the basic rights of citizens as well as clarifying and updating the content of the articles. The Federalist consists of articles appearing in New York newspapers from October 1897 to April 1788 urging the people of the state of New York to ratify the Constitution. Its chief author was Alexander Hamilton, but some of its articles were contributed by James Madison (whose role in framing the Constitution was such that he is often called the “Father of the Constitution”) and some by John Jay; however all of its articles are signed “Publius.”

Mortimer J. Adler and Peter Wolff conclude the introduction to their consideration of the three “American state papers” in volume 1, An Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, of The Great Ideas Program (Encyclopedia Britannica, 1959) with this comment about The Federalist:

“The adult who reads The Federalist for the first time will enjoy the sense of acquiring an understanding of his government which should be the property of every citizen. More than that, he will be struck by the clarity and power of both the thought and the writing. They exemplify the common level of political discourse in the days when this republic was formed. The articles which comprise The Federalist were current political journalism in the years 1787-1789. They were written for newspaper readers. If we contemplate that fact, and compare the level of their style and substance with that of political speeches, articles, or journalism in our own day, we are compelled to wonder about the education of our political leaders as well as of our citizens today.” (Adler and Wolff, An Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, page 160)

Adler and Wolff go on to put the three papers in their historical context, to show how the Constitution displays both the tendency to give power and responsibility to the people (favoured by Jefferson) and the tendency to safeguard against the uses to which people might put such power (favoured by the Federalists), to consider the remedy proposed by Madison in The Federalist to deal with faction in a popular government, to show how the Constitution provides for the separation of the powers of government, and to discuss four other questions about the papers. I opened this post by putting the papers in historical context, and in the rest of the post I’ll summarize what Adler and Wolff say about how the Constitution displays both the tendency to give power and responsibility to the people and the tendency to safeguard against the uses to which people might put such power, about Madison’s remedy for faction in a popular government, and about how the Constitution provides for the separation of powers. However I won’t share here from their discussion of the four other questions.

The Constitution a Compromise between Two Opposed Tendencies

Jefferson favoured placing power and responsibility in the hands of the people as far as possible, but the Federalists wanted safeguards against the uses to which the people might put such power. The Constitution contains many evidences of these two opposed tendencies. Adler and Wolff identify these three: (1) the Congress of the United States consists of a Senate and a House of Representatives with the House of Representatives’s being elected by the people and having its seats up for election every two years, but the Senate’s being chosen by the state legislatures instead of being elected by the people (this was changed by the thirteenth amendment) and having only a third of its seats changed at each election; (2) the President is elected by the people rather than by the state legislatures or governors, but the election is indirect with the people’s electing electors who in turn elect the president; and (3) only the House of Representatives can initiate bills having to do with money matters (presumably because taxation is to go along with representation), but only the Senate is consulted in matters of foreign policy (presumably because it is not subject to sudden and disastrous whims). Adler and Wolff explain how each of the three represents a compromise between the two tendencies.

Dealing with Faction in a Popular Government

In The Federalist, No. 10, Madison deals with the problem of internal instability, and faction in popular governments. Here is how he describes the problem:

“Complaints are everywhere heard from our most considerate and virtuous citizens…that our governments are too unstable, that the public good is disregarded in the conflicts of rival parties, and that measures are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice and the rights of the minor party, but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority.” (The Federalist in volume 43 of Great Books of the Western World, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952, page 49)

Madison blames the problem on factions, groups of citizens which try to control the government for their own special interests rather than for the common good. He says that we can prevent this either by eliminating the causes of factions or by controlling their effects. Factions can be eliminated “by destroying the liberty which is essential to [their] existence” or “by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests” (The Federalist, page 50). However the first remedy is unwise, liberty’s being essential to political life, and the second remedy is clearly impossible. Thus he concludes that the way to deal with factions is to realize that they will always be with us and to concentrate on dealing with their effects.

Observing that a faction becomes dangerous when it becomes the majority in a popular government, Madison proposes a way to prevent a faction from becoming the ruling power‒having republican rather than democratic government. He points out these differences between a democracy and a republic:

“first, the delegation of the government, in the latter, to a small number of citizens elected by the rest; secondly, the greater number of citizens, and greater sphere of country, over which the latter may be extended” (The Federalist, pages 52-52).

And he claims that delegates will often recognize the true interest of the country better than the people themselves could and that a larger country suffers less from the evils of factions than a small one because it takes in a greater variety of parties and interests.

The Separation of the Powers of Government

The separation of the legislative, executive, and judicial powers is a basic provision of the Constitution. Locke mentions the separation of powers, but the doctrine that it is all-important for free government stems from Montesquieu. After explaining how liberty is threatened by the uniting of the legislative powers in the same person or body or the joining of the judicial with either of them, he affirms, “There would be an end of everything, were the same man or the same body, whether of the nobles or of the people, to exercise those three powers, that of enacting laws, that of executing the public resolutions, and of trying the causes of individuals” (Montesquieu, The Spirit of Laws, in volume 38 of Great Books of the Western World, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952, page 70).

However, despite the importance of the separation of powers in the Constitution, there is considerable mixing of government powers (the so-called system of checks and balances). Although some mixture of powers is defensible, they should for the most part be kept separate. How can this be done? The Federalist answers:

“The only answer that can be given is, that as all these exterior provisions are found to be inadequate, the defect must be supplied, by so contriving the interior structure of the government as that its several constituent parts may, by their mutual relations, be the means of keeping each other in their proper place….

“In order to lay a due foundation for that separate and distinct exercise of the different powers of government, which to a certain extent is admitted on all hands to be essential to the preservation of liberty, it is evident that each department should have a will of its own; and consequently should be so constituted that the members of each should have as little agency as possible in the appointment of the members of the others….

“It is equally evident, that the members of each department should be as little dependent as possible on those of the others, for the emoluments annexed to their offices….

“But the great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department, consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others. The provision for defence must in this, as in all other cases, be made commensurate to the danger of attack. Ambition must be made to counterattack ambition. The interest of the man must ve connected with the constitutional rights of the place.” (The Federalist, pages 162-163)

12. Kant’s The Science of Right

My earlier encounter with Kant, via his Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone, was forbidding. Thus I wasn’t looking forward to reading from his The Science of Right in my current reading of selections from Great Books of the Western World (Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952) guided by Mortimer J. Adler (with various co-authors) in The Great Ideas Program (Encyclopedia Britannica, 1959-63). However I was pleasantly surprised, my finding the assigned selection (the Introduction and the Second Part of The Science of Right) to be well-organized and clearly expressed. After similarly praising Kant’s style in their introduction to the selection, Adler and Peter Wolff observe:

“Such system, order, and precision may be expected in metaphysics or mathematics, but it is unusual in political theory. The reader will find here the familiar notions of constitutional government and citizenship, of politic rights and duties, of the forms and powers of government, of freedom, justice, and equality‒notions he has met in the writings of other authors included in this Reading Plan. But they are transformed by the method with which Kant treats them, and the reader will enrich his understanding of them by re-examining them in the new light that is thrown on them by Kant’s definitions, his universal principles, and the rational connections between them which are made explicit by Kant’s systematically reasoned exposition. (Mortimer J. Adler and Peter Wolff, The Development of Political Theory and Government, volume 2 of The Great Ideas Program, 1959, page 164)

In their study of the selection, Adler and Wolff consider Kant’s political theory, his republicanism, his theory of punishment, and his conception of “right.”  Here I’ll summarize what they say about those topics and sketch Kant’s life, starting with the latter.

The Life of Kant

Immanuel Kant was born at Königsberg in East Prussia on April 22, 1724. In his eighth year he entered the Latin school which his parents’ Pietist Lutheran pastor directed and where he acquired a love for the Latin classics. In 1740 he enrolled in the University of Königsberg as a theological student. He was principally attracted to mathematics and physics and decided to pursue an academic career. However in 1746 he had to withdraw for financial reasons and take a position as a family tutor.

In 1755, aided by a relative, Kant was able to complete his degree at the university and assume the role of a lecturer. At first he restricted himself to mathematics and physics and in that and the next year he published several scientific works. But he soon branched into other subjects, including logic, metaphysics, and moral philosophy. He enjoyed success as a lecturer, his style being humorous and vivid, enlivened by many examples drawn from his wide reading. During his fifteen years as a lecturer his fame as writer and lecturer steadily increased. Finally in 1760 he obtained the chair of logic and metaphysics. In later years he served six times as dean of the philosophical faculty and twice as rector.

Kant’s inaugural dissertation as professor, On the Form and Principles of the Sensible and Intelligible World, indicated the direction of his philosophical interests. But it was not until 1781 that his Critique of Pure Reason appeared. Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals came out in 1785, Critique of Practical Reason in 1788, and Critique of Judgment in 1790. The “critical philosophy” was soon being taught in every important German speaking university, and young men flocked to Königsberg as a shrine of philosophy. Kant came to be consulted as an oracle on all kinds of questions, including the lawfulness of vaccination.

As early as 1789 Kant’s health began to decline seriously and in 1797, after a career of forty-two years, he delivered his last lecture and retired from the university. “After a gradual decline that was painful to his friends as well as to himself, Kant died in Königsberg, February 12, 1804. His last words were ‘Es ist gut’ (It is good’). His tomb in the cathedral was inscribed with the words (in German) ‘The starry heavens above me and the moral law within me,’ the two things that he declared in the conclusion of the second Critique ‘fill the mind with new and increasing admiration and awe, the oftener and more steadily we reflect on.’” (“Kant, Immanuel,” Encyclopedia Britannica, 1974, volume 10, page 393)

Kant’s Political Theory

Adler and Wolff begin their survey of Kant’s political theory by observing that it doesn’t differ significantly in content from that of his predecessors. They explain:

“Kant explains the origin of civil society in terms of a state of nature and a social contract….

“Kant’s view of the state of nature is more moderate than Hobbes’s. Nevertheless, he remarks that in such a condition everyone would do what seems good only to him. Like Rousseau and Locke, Kant describes the state of nature as a state of freedom, but a freedom that is precarious and insecure. Men give up this freedom to enter civil society and in so doing gain a different and better freedom.

“With Locke, Kant considers the legislative power as the most important function of the state, to be exercised by none but the people. While Kant’s ‘united will of the people’ is reminiscent of Rousseau’s ‘general will,’ we do not find in Kant, either explicitly or implicitly, the notion of a man’s being forced to be free.

“Kant follows Montesquieu’s view of the powers of government and of their separation. Like Rousseau, Kant is dedicated to the proposition that all legitimate government is republican in character. The Science of Right offers much support for the view that Kant was deeply influenced by Rousseau, especially in his moral philosophy.” (Adler and Wolff, The Development of Political Theory and Government, pages 165-66)

Adler and Wolff next consider what is new or distinctive about Kant’s political theory, showing first the originality of his account of the transition from a state of nature to civil society. Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau justify the transition by the result: what people gain (security, moral freedom, or civil liberty) is better than the independence that they give up. Kant argues instead that what people do should be a matter of duty rather than of what is gained, his asserting that “the natural state of nations as well as of individual man is a state which it is a duty to pass out of, in order to enter into a legal state” (Kant, The Science of Right in volume 42 of Great Books of the Western World, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952, page 455). This duty, like all duties, derives from the command of pure practical reason that men should seek peace.

Kant’s Republicanism

A striking feature of The Science of Right is its thoroughgoing republicanism. The legislative power must belong to the united will of the people. Those who are united for the purpose of legislating are the citizens. Citizens enjoy constitutional freedom, civil equality, and political independence. These three juridical attributes can be realized only through a republican form of government. “The only constitution resulting from the idea of the social contract, upon which every good legislation of a nation ought to be founded, is a republican constitution” (Kant, Perpetual Peace, New York, 1939, page 12; quoted in Adler and Wolff, The Development of Political Theory and Government, page 168).

Kant’s republicanism does not mean that he advocates universal suffrage, his holding in harmony with his time that only some of those living in a state should have full rights to vote and to hold office, but he makes an important contribution to the theory of citizenship by distinguishing between active and passive citizenship, active citizens being all who are entitled to vote and passive citizens being all other members of the state. Active citizens are those who have a measure of independence in the state, and passive citizens are those whose livelihood and existence depend on the will of others, such as “the apprentice of a merchant or tradesman, a servant who is not in the employ of the state, a minor [and] all women” (Kant, The Science of Right, page 437).

However though passive citizens are not equal to active citizens as members of the state, they are equal to them as people. As such they have the right to claim:

“that whatever be the mode in which the positive laws are enacted, these laws must not be contrary to the natural laws that demand the freedom of all the people and the equality that is conformable thereto; and it must therefore be made possible for them to raise themselves from this passive condition in the state to the condition of active citizenship”

(Kant, The Science of Right, page 437).Adler and Wolff say that such a notion was revolutionary.

Kant’s Theory of Punishment

Three purposes are generally given for punishing criminals: retaliating against the criminal, deterring others from committing similar crimes, and reforming the criminal. Kant is emphatic that punishment must never be anything but the first:

“Juridical punishment can never be administered merely as a means for promoting another good either with regard to the criminal himself [reforming him] or to civil society [deterring others], but must in all cases be imposed only because the individual on whom it is inflicted has committed a crime” (Kant, The Science of Right, page 446).

Remedial or Deterrent punishment is instituted for the sake of benefiting either the criminal himself or the rest of society. Thus the criminal is being used, though for a worthy purpose‒the reduction of the number of crimes committed, but Kant maintains that it is wrong for a person to be used, no matter how beneficent the purpose for which he is being used. In this, Kant differs from modern penal theories, most of which acknowledge only remedial and deterrent punishment as legitimate and view retaliation as mere vengeance and as such uncivilised.

Kant’s Conception of Right

The closest that Kant comes to a definition of “right” is:

Right, therefore, comprehends the whole of the conditions under which the voluntary actions of any one person can be harmonized in reality with the voluntary actions of every other person, according to a universal law of freedom” (Kant, The Science of Right, page 397-98).

Thus, in contrast to Hobbes, for whom “right” and “law” are opposed in roughly the same way that freedom and obligation are opposed,  for Kant the right and the lawful are roughly the same.

Kant divides rights in two different ways:

(1) natural right and positive right and (2) innate right and acquired right. “Natural right rests upon pure rational principles a priori; positive or statutory right is what proceeds from the will of a legislator…. Innate right is that right which belongs to every one by nature, independent of all juridical acts of experience. Acquired right is that right which is founded upon such juridical acts” (Kant, The Science of Right, page 401).

Kant says that there is only one innate right, the right of freedom, and gives The Science of Right over to a treatment of natural, acquired rights.

Nations are in a state of nature with respect to one another and thus in a state of continual war. Kant divides the right of nations with respect to the state of war into “1. the right of going to war; 2. right during war; and 3. right after war” and gives their object as “to constrain the nations mutually to pass from this state of war and to found a common constitution establishing perpetual peace?” (Kant, The Science of Right, page 452). From this principle, Kant derives various detailed commands and prohibitions, which Adler and Wolff summarize thus:

“Wars should not be punitive, nor should a war aim at the extermination of the enemy. With regard to the subjects of the warring nations, several important principles follow. They must not be ordered to do anything which would make them unfit as citizens. For by destroying them as citizens, the state destroys itself and thus renders peace unattainable.” (Adler and Wolff, The Development of Political Theory and Government, page 174).

In general Kant’s view is that the end of war is peace and no means should be employed which contradict that end.

I introduced my consideration of The Science of Right by saying:

“My earlier encounter with Kant, via his Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone, was forbidding. Thus I wasn’t looking forward to reading from his The Science of Right in my current reading of selections from Great Books of the Western World (Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952) guided by Mortimer J. Adler (with various co-authors) in The Great Ideas Program (Encyclopedia Britannica, 1959-63). However I was pleasantly surprised, my finding the assigned selection (the Introduction and the Second Part of The Science of Right) to be well-organized and clearly expressed.”

That doesn’t meant that I understand and agree with all of Kant’s assertions. For example, I don’t understand how changing from a natural state to a legal state and seeking peace are duties and I don’t agree that remediation and deterrence are illegitimate reasons for punishment.

I’m now looking forward to reading the other selections by Kant included in The Great Ideas Program: Part I of The Science of Right in volume 5, Philosophy of Law and Jurisprudence; Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals and Part I, Book II, of Critique of Practical Reason in volume 8, Ethics: The Study of Moral Values; and I, First Part, of Critique of Pure Reason in volume 10, Philosophy.

11. Rousseau’s The Social Contract

“‘Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains.’ This ringing declaration, with which Rousseau opens The Social Contract, challenges us at once, but leaves us perplexed as to its truth. In what sense is man born free? Is it the case that men are everywhere in chains? Only when we have the answers to these questions are we prepared to understand Rousseau’s solution of the problem of freedom under government.” (Mortimer J. Adler and Peter Wolff, The Development of Political Theory and Government, volume 2 of The Great Ideas Program, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1958, page 149)

In this post I’ll share the answers that Rousseau gives to those questions in the first two of the four books in The Social Contract guided by Adler and Wolff’s discussion of the two books in The Development of Political Theory and Government. Before doing so though I’ll sketch Rousseau’s life, and after doing so I’ll summarize Adler and Wolff’s discussion of the plausibility of Rousseau’s doctrine.

Rousseau’s Life

Jean Jacques Rousseau was born in Geneva on June 28, 1712. His mother’s dying a few days after his birth, he was raised by his father. At the age of twelve or thirteen he was placed as an apprentice to a notary and, when that proved unsuccessful, to an engraver. The latter treated him roughly and in 1728 Rousseau abandoned him and, aided by a Madame de Warens, went to Turin and stayed for nine days at the Hospice of the Holy Spirit, where he received instruction in and converted to the Catholic faith. After serving a few months as a lackey, he returned to Madame de Warens, who took him into her house. During the nine or ten years that he was with her, he made several efforts to fit himself for an occupation, including studying the priesthood with the priests of St. Lazare and taking music lessons from the choir-master of the cathedral. The only systematic studying he did in those years was at a rural retreat where, prompted by Voltaire’s Philosophical Letters, he undertook to make a survey of all the sciences.

In 1741 Rousseau went to Paris, where he obtained the post of secretary to the French Ambassador at Venice. Returning to Paris in 1745, he copied music for a living, cultivated the society of the literary circles, became a contributor on music to Denis Diderot’s Encyclopédie, and began living with Thérèse le Vasseur, a servant girl at his hotel (they had five children, all of whom were sent to a foundling home, and were finally married in 1768). In 1749 he entered the contest held by the Academy of Dijon for the best essay on “Has the progress of the arts and sciences contributed more to the corruption or purification of morals?” His essay attacking civilization as corrupting the goodness of nature won the prize and immediate literary fame for him. He continued writing. In 1756 he moved to the Hermitage, a small country house near Montmorency belonging to a friend, Madame d’Épinay. However in 1758, becoming involved in a quarrel between Diderot and the lover of Madame d’Épinay, he left the Hermitage and settled in Montlouis, a house near Montmorency belonging to another friend, where he wrote The Social Contract, which was published in 1762.

Unfortunately Rousseau’s views on politics and religion incurred the enmity of the French authorities. Learning that he’d be arrested if he didn’t go into exile, he went into exile–first in Neuchâtel, which then belonged to Prussia; then to the territory of Berne; and finally on the invitation of the philosopher David Hume in England. In 1767, quarrelling with Hume and having learned that he wouldn’t be arrested if he returned to France, he returned there. After wandering about for some time, he settled in Paris in 1770, resumed his former occupation of music-copying, and completed some autobiographical works. In May, 1778, he accepted the offer of a cottage at Ermenonville, where he died about six weeks later, on July 2.

The Social Contract

Rousseau opens The Social Contract by telling us, “I mean to inquire if, in the civil order, there can be any sure and legitimate rule of administration, men being taken as they are and laws as they might be” (Rousseau, The Social Contract in volume 38 of Great Books of the Western World, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952, page 387). Shortly after, he restates his purpose thus:

“Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains. One thinks himself the master of others, and still remains a greater slave than they. How does this change come about? I do not know. What can make it legitimate? That question I think I can answer.” (page 387)

Rousseau hypothesizes a state of nature in which people are free. However because of what Rousseau calls “right of the strongest,” they are actually enslaved by states and their laws. The solution lies in their associating to form a civil society under civil government “in which each, while uniting himself with all, may still obey himself alone, and remain as free as before” (page 391). This is to be found in the social contract:

“Each of us puts his person and all his power in common under the supreme direction of the general will, and, in our corporate capacity, we receive each member as an indivisible part of the whole” (page 392).

How can the social contract enable a person to be free in civil society because he obeys himself only? Rousseau’s argument hinges on two points. First, man gives up natural freedom to gain civil freedom:

“What man loses by the social contract is his natural liberty and an unlimited right to everything he tries to get and succeeds in getting; what he gains is civil liberty and the proprietorship of all he possesses. If we are to avoid mistake in weighing one against the other, we must clearly distinguish natural liberty, which is bounded only by the strength of the individual, from civil liberty, which is limited by the general will.” (page 393)

Second, man in civil society obeys himself only. However citizens are often forced by government or laws to do things against their will. How can a citizen be understood to be obeying himself alone when he is forced to act against his will? He can be forced to be free:

“In order then that the social compact may not be an empty formula, it tacitly includes the undertaking, which alone can give force to the rest, that whosoever refuses to obey the general will shall be compelled to do so by the whole body. This means nothing less than that he will be forced to be free; for this is the condition which, by giving each citizen to his country, secures him against all personal dependence.” (page 393)

The Plausibility of Rousseau’s Doctrine

“This doctrine seems quite implausible. But it may have some plausibility if we accept Rousseau’s understanding of the social contract, civil society, and, especially, the ‘general will.’ In the following section, we shall ask some questions about these basic notions.” (Adler and Wolff, The Development of Political Theory and Government, page 157)

The general will is the will of the state. It “considers only the common interest” and therefore is “always right and tends to the public advantage” (Rousseau, The Social Contract, page 396). It is determined by voting and majority opinion. Each person voting expresses his particular interest, but in the final result these divergent particular interests tend to cancel each other and the pure general will remains. Rousseau admits that the existence of factions, such as political parties, means that there are no longer as many votes as there are people but only as many votes as there are such associations, obscuring the true general will. He recommends that if there are such partial societies there be as many as possible and that they be prevented from being unequal. “These precautions are the only ones that can guarantee that the general will shall always be enlightened” (page 396).

But how is a person free when the will of the majority forces him to do something that is contrary to his own particular will? Rousseau answers:

“I retort that the question is wrongly put. The citizen gives his consent to all the laws, including those which are passed in spite of his opposition, and even those which punish him when he dares to break any of them. The constant will of all the members of the State is the general will; by virtue of it they are citizens and free. When in the popular assembly a law is proposed what the people is asked is not exactly whether it approves or rejects the proposal, but whether it is in conformity with the general will, which is their will. Each man, in giving his vote, states his opinion on that point; and the general will is found by counting votes. When therefore the opinion that is contrary to my own prevails, this proves neither more nor less than that I was mistaken, and that what I thought to be the general will was not so. If my particular opinion had carried the day I should have achieved the opposite of what was my will; and it is in that case that I should not have been free.” (page 426; I’ve followed Adler and Wolff in quoting this passage although it doesn’t appear until Book IV of The Social Contract.)

10. Montesquieu’s The Spirit of Laws

“We find in Montesquieu both ancient and modern notions about civil society. Like Plato and Aristotle, he believed that justice is the end of the state. Like Thomas Aquinas, he believed in a natural law that is embodied in the positive law. But he introduced a new note when he emphasized the historical, sociological, and physical variety of the particular situations in which laws and states take form. It is the particular ‘spirit’ of each nation, formed by all those circumstances, which is the basis of their political institutions. This sense of historical particularity, of concrete spiritual forms, distinguishes Montesquieu from his predecessors and marks the emergence of the historical approach in the modern era.” ((Mortimer J. Adler and Peter Wolff, The Development of Political Theory and Government, volume 2 of The Great Ideas Program, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1958, pages 133-134)

Accordingly it was hard for me to realize as I read Montesquieu’s The Spirit of Laws that it was written by an eighteenth century Frenchman and not by a contemporary Englishman. Actually so far I’ve read just its preface and the first 13 of its 31 books, guided by Adler and Wolff’s consideration of it in The Development of Political Theory and Government, which I quoted from above. They consider its importance, what is meant by “the spirit of laws,” the kinds of government identified by Montesquieu, and these four questions: what other ways are there of classifying the kinds of governments? how does excessive equality destroy democracy? what is the role of liberty in democracies? and how does Montesquieu conceive the separation of powers? Here I’ll sketch Montesquieu’s life and, guided by Adler and Wolff, summarize what Montesquieu says about “the spirit of laws,” the kinds of government, and the separation of powers.

Montequieu’s Life

Charles Louis de la Brède was born on January 18, 1689, in the château of La Brède, near Bordeaux. Following his education at home, in the village, and at a college of the Oratorians near Paris, he studied in the faculty of law at the University of Bordeaux, graduating and becoming a lawyer in 1708. After his father’s death in 1713, he placed himself under the protection of his uncle, the Baron de Montesquieu. When his uncle died in 1716, he was left his uncle’s name and estates and the office of deputy president in the Parlement of Bordeaux. Financially and socially secure at only 27, he settled down to exercise his judicial function, administer his property, and advance his knowledge of the sciences. In 1721 he surprised almost everyone by publishing Lettres persanes, (Persian Letters, purportedly letters between two Persians travelling in Europe satirizing the follies of French society), which established his reputation as a wit. In 1726 he sold his office and moved to Paris to devote himself to literature, and in 1728 he obtained membership in the French Academy.

Soon after, Montesquieu set out on a tour of Europe to observe men, their customs, and their social and legal institutions, possibly having in mind the writing of The Spirit of Laws. Although on returning to his estate at La Brède he seemed to settle down as a squire, his principal occupation was the preparation of his literary works. He was mainly occupied with an essay on the English constitution (not published until 1748 when it became part of The Spirit of Laws) and with Considérations sur les causes de la grandeur des Romains et de leur décadence (The Considerations on the Causes of the Grandeur and Decadence of the Romans). After publication of the latter in 1734, he rested for a short time and then undertook an extensive program of reading in law, history, economics, geography, and political theory in connection with The Spirit of Laws. Although friends who read the finished manuscript advised against publication, he published it in Geneva in 1748 under the title of De l’esprit des loix. In France it met with an unfriendly reception, but in the rest of Europe, especially England, it received high praise. Montesquieu spent most of his remaining eight years in the country although he still visited Paris, and near the end of 1754 he went to Paris with the intention of closing his house there and retiring permanently to La Brède. However while there he was stricken with a fever and died on February 10, 1755.

“The Spirit of Laws”

Adler and Wolff introduce their consideration of what is meant by “the spirit of laws” thus: “By speaking of the spirit of laws, Montesquieu signifies that he is concerned with law in general, rather than with any particular body of laws. The spirit of laws, it would seem, must be whatever animates laws, gives them life and utility, and makes them function as they should” (Adler and Wolff, The Development of Political Theory and Government, page 136).

They go on to support their explanation with the following from The Spirit of Laws:

“Law in general is human reason, inasmuch as it governs all the inhabitants of the earth; the political and civil laws of each nation ought to be only the particular cases in which human reason is applied. “They should be adapted in such a manner to the people for whom they are framed that it should be a great chance if those of one nation suit another. “They should be relation to the nature and principle of each government…the climate of each country…the quality of its soil…its situation and extent…the principal occupation of the natives…the degree of liberty which the constitution will bear…the religion of the inhabitants…their inclinations, riches, numbers, commerce, manners, and customs. In fine, they have relations to each other, as also to their origin, to the intent of the legislator, and to the order of things on which they are established…. These relations…together constitute what I call the Spirit of Laws” (Montesquieu, The Spirit of Laws in volume 38 of Great Books of the Western World, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952, page 3).

The Kinds of Government

According to Montesquieu, there are three main kinds of government: republic, monarchy, and despotism. Here is how he defines them and how he distinguishes between a republic in which the body of the people is possessed of the supreme power and one in which only a part of the people is possessed of the supreme power: “[A] republican government is that in which the body, or only a part of the people, is possessed of the supreme power; monarchy, that in which a single person governs by fixed and established laws; a despotic government, that in which a single person directs everything by his own will and caprice…. “When the body of the people is possessed of the supreme power, it is called a democracy. When the supreme power is lodged in the hands of a part of the people, it is then an aristocracy.” (Montesquieu, The Spirit of Laws, page 4)

Many writers on political subjects have classified the kinds of government by the number of persons (one, some, or all) who rule, but Montesquieu also distinguished between them in terms of their principles. He begins by considering the principle of a republican government and continues by considering the principles of a monarchical government and of a despotic government. In the following excerpts from The Spirit of the Laws, I’ve grouped the passages on each kind of government and italicized their names and principles.

“There is no great share of probity necessary to support a monarchical or despotic government. The force of laws in one, and the prince’s arm in the other, are sufficient to direct and maintain the whole. But in a popular state [a democracy], one spring more is necessary, namely, virtue…. As virtue is necessary in a popular government, it is required also in an aristocracy. True it is that in the latter it is not so absolutely requisite…. [By “virtue” Montesquieu means “political virtue” or “the love of one’s country, and of equality” (Montesquieu, The Spirit of Laws, page xxii). With respect to an aristocracy he explains that although in it the nobility restrains the people by means of their laws, they can restrain themselves only by virtue.]

“In monarchies, policy effects great things with as little virtue as possible…. The state subsists independently of the love of our country…. But…if monarchy lacks one spring, it is provided with another. Honour, that is, the prejudice of every person and rank, supplies the place of the political virtue of which I have been speaking, and is everywhere her representative; here it is capable of inspiring the most glorious actions, and, joined with the force of laws, may lead us to the end of government as well as virtue itself….

“Honour is far from being the principle of despotic government: mankind being here all upon a level, no one person can prefer himself to another; and as on the other hand they are all slaves, they can give themselves no sort of preference…. As virtue is necessary in a republic, and in a monarchy honour, so fear is necessary in a despotic government: with regard to virtue, there is no occasion for it, and honour would be extremely dangerous….

“Such are the principles of the three sorts of government: which does not imply that in a particular republic they actually are, but that they ought to be, virtuous; nor does it prove that in a particular monarchy they are actuated by honour, or in a despotic government by fear; but that they ought to be directed by these principles, otherwise the government is imperfect.” (Montesquieu, The Spirit of Laws, pages 9-13)

The Separation of Powers

The separation of powers consists in the fact that the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government each have distinct and clearly defined powers. Montesquieu asserts that for a state to effectively promote liberty, these three powers must be confided to different individuals or bodies, acting independently:

“The political liberty of the subject is a tranquility of mind arising from the opinion each person has of his safety. In order to have this liberty, it is requisite the government be so constituted as one man need not be afraid of another.

“When the legislative and executive and executive powers are united in the same person, or in the same body of magistrates, there can be no liberty; because apprehensions may arise, lest the same monarch or senate should enact tyrannical laws, to execute them in a tyrannical manner.

“Again, there is no liberty, if the judiciary power be not separated from the legislative and executive. Were it joined with the legislative, the life and liberty of the subject would be exposed to arbitrary control; for the judge would then be the legislator. Were it united to the executive power, the judge might behave with violence and oppression.” (Montesquieu, The Spirit of Laws, page 70)

Montesquieu goes on to describe how he thinks this should work, taking the English constitution as a model. Copleston observes that “Montesquieu’s ideas about balancing of powers exercised an influence both in America and in France, as in the case of the 1791 French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of Citizens” (Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy, Volume VI, London: Search Press, 1960, page 15).

Adler and Wolff conclude the introduction to their consideration of The Spirit of Laws with this claim:

“Montesquieu had a direct effect on actual developments in politics and law, as well as on theories about them. His ideas contributed to the outbreak of the French Revolution and the making of basic law for the new French republic. They also played an important role in the drafting of the federal and state constitutions in the United States.” (Adler and Wolff, The Development of Political Theory and Government, page 134)