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June 20 , 2009

On Liberty

A Translation into Modern English


On Liberty: A Translation into Modern English

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According to Wikipedia: "John Stuart Mill (20 May 18068 May 1873), English philosopher, political theorist, political economist, civil servant and Member of Parliament, was an influential British Classical liberal thinker of the 19th century whose works on liberty justified freedom of the individual in opposition to unlimited state control. He was…

This is a modern language version of John Stuart Mill’s classic 1859 essay. Essentially, it translates the work into current English with the aim of improving its readability and understandability. The translation is substantive but retains literalness and original word order and grammar as far as possible.

Mill's primary concern in the essay is with individual liberty. He is fully aware that personal freedom is only a part of freedom. People live in societies and their personal liberty depends on (and contributes to) economic and political institutional (etc.) freedom. In the essay, Mill touches on many wider socio-cultural liberties. He does not examine them very systematically or in much depth. However, he is not setting out to write a comprehensive treatise on human liberty.

Nor does On Liberty just attack state interference with freedom.

Mill declares that states are only worth the individuals who compose them. Great states produce great individuals – and conversely, great individuals produce great states. In his book, a great state is not a big state. On the contrary, a great state deliberately avoids doing what private citizens can do independently/voluntarily. Big states concentrate power in a few hands, hamper individual development, and turn citizens into dependents. Any state that dwarfs its citizens and makes them docile instruments in its hands will soon discover that with small people, nothing great is achievable.

Nonetheless, as Mill points out, private bodies such as guilds and trade unions, religious organizations, and families are quite capable of suppressing liberty without any help from the state. In democracies, majorities can oppress minorities. Sometimes, entire communities and social classes will act tyrannically towards individuals.

Mill’s basic thesis is that public authorities have no business restricting the liberty of people unless this is to prevent injury to others.


Editorial foreword

Introduction* The limits of liberty * Mill versus Locke* Mill the utilitarian* Free institutions and societies* The individual and liberty* Freedom of belief and expression* Christianity and liberty* The Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism* Christianity and political liberty* Jesus on the liberty of the Christian* Paul on the liberty of the Christian* The state of liberty today (a) progress* The state of liberty today (b) setbacks* Liberty and the constitution*

Chapter 1: Introductory

Subject and purpose of the essay* The historical struggle between liberty and authority* Limiting political power in general* Democratization and the limits of democracy* The tyrannical society* Setting limits on societal authority* The origins of popular notions of good and bad conduct* Liberty and religion* Liberty in England* A general principle to test the propriety of government action* Where coercion is justified* The proper place for liberty: a recapitulation* Authoritarianism old and new* Liberty of thought and expression: the key to understanding other liberties*

Chapter 2: Liberty of thought and discussion

Liberty of the press: a battle won* The peculiar evil of suppressing opinions* The collision between truth and error* The impossibility of absolute certainty and infallibility* Liberty of contradicting and disproving opinions* Learning from our mistakes* Putting opinions and practices to the test* Why there should be no exemptions from free discussion* Assuming religious infallibility* Religious intolerance in action* Persecution versus truth* Truth' s great advantage* The threat of persecution is not over* Persecution and the vagaries of public opinion* The costs of conformity* The benefits of freedom of thinking* Truth turned into dogmas because of lack of critical examination* How doctrines lose their vitality* Christian doctrine* The importance of tolerating minority opinions: the case of Christian morality* Strengthening of doctrines through questioning and attack* The usefulness of negative criticism* Opinion diversity: another major benefit * Rousseau’s salutary shock to 18th century opinion* The benefits of clashing political ideas, colliding public opinions, and freedom of expression in general* Causing offence is no justification for suppressing any opinion* The importance of sticking to the facts in judging opinions*

Chapter 3: Individuality: One of the elements of well-being

Individuality as an element of well-being* The importance of freedom of action and of individuality* The negative effects of conforming to tradition and custom* Self-planning and self-deciding* The benefits of strong designs and impulses* The current deficiency of personal impulses and preferences* Calvinism* Viewing God as a good being* Individuality, human growth, and personal worth* Individual liberty as a benefit even to people who find no use for it* Genius and the importance of breathing freely in an atmosphere of freedom* The benefits of originality, individual brilliance, and non-conformity* The importance of choice to most people* The roots of public intolerance of individuality* The negative effects of conformity today* Custom versus liberty and progress* East versus West* Declining individuality in the West* Reversing the trend towards uniformity*

Chapter 4: The limits to the authority of society over the individual

Introduction* Legitimate social limits on individual liberty* Where individuals should have full freedom* Attitudes and reactions towards other people* Maintaining the distinction between individual and social concerns* Non-legal social controls* Counter-productive official regulation* Outraged feelings: no justification for interference* Moral policing: cases of encroachment on legitimate liberty* Religious dietary prohibitions on non-believers* The Spanish ban on Protestant churches* Puritan intolerance* Democratic populism* Socialist collectivism* Alcohol prohibition* Sabbatarian legislation* The persecution of Mormons*

Chapter 5: Applications

Introduction: applying the principles* Competition: socially beneficial not damaging* Free trade* Official intervention to prevent crime, accidents, and offences against public decency* Freedom of advising, instigating, and inducing* Freedom of ordinary buying and selling* Punitive taxation* Licensing of public houses* Freedom of contract* Family relationships and freedom* Education and liberty* Procreation* Other arguments against government interference* The road to despotism* Bureaucracy and the unfree society* The free civil society* Checks, balances, and accountability in the government machine* Conclusion: the worth of the state*


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