On Compromise
John Morley

Part 3 out of 3

dispenses with the necessity of pertinacious attack upon institutions
that have outlived their time, and interests that have lost their

We are thus brought to the position--to which, indeed, bare observation
of actual occurrences might well bring us, if it were not for the
clouding disturbances of selfishness, or of a true philosophy of society
wrongly applied--that a society can only pursue its normal course by
means of a certain progression of changes, and that these changes can
only be initiated by individuals or very small groups of individuals.
The progressive tendency can only be a tendency, it can only work its
way through the inevitable obstructions around it, by means of persons
who are possessed by the special progressive idea. Such ideas do not
spring up uncaused and unconditioned in vacant space. They have had a
definite origin and ordered antecedents. They are in direct relation
with the past. They present themselves to one person or little group of
persons rather than to another, because circumstances, or the accident
of a superior faculty of penetration, have placed the person or group in
the way of such ideas. In matters of social improvement the most common
reason why one hits upon a point of progress and not another, is that
the one happens to be more directly touched than the other by the
unimproved practice. Or he is one of those rare intelligences, active,
alert, inventive, which by constitution or training find their chief
happiness in thinking in a disciplined and serious manner how things can
be better done. In all cases the possession of a new idea, whether
practical or speculative, only raises into definite speech what others
have needed without being able to make their need articulate. This is
the principle on which experience shows us that fame and popularity are
distributed. A man does not become celebrated in proportion to his
general capacity, but because he does or says something which happened
to need doing or saying at the moment.

This brings us directly to our immediate subject. For such a man is the
holder of a trust It is upon him and those who are like him that the
advance of a community depends. If he is silent, then repair is checked,
and the hurtful elements of worn-out beliefs and waste institutions
remain to enfeeble the society, just as the retention of waste products
enfeebles or poisons the body. If in a spirit of modesty which is often
genuine, though it is often only a veil for love of ease, he asks why he
rather than another should speak, why he before others should refuse
compliance and abstain from conformity, the answer is that though the
many are ultimately moved, it is always one who is first to leave the
old encampment. If the maxim of the compromiser were sound, it ought to
be capable of universal application. Nobody has a right to make an
apology for himself in this matter, which he will not allow to be valid
for others. If one has a right to conceal his true opinions, and to
practice equivocal conformities, then all have a right. One plea for
exemption is in this case as good as another, and no better. That he has
married a wife, that he has bought a yoke of oxen and must prove them,
that he has bidden guests to a feast--one excuse lies on the same level
as the rest. All are equally worthless as answers to the generous
solicitation of enlightened conscience. Suppose, then, that each man on
whom in turn the new ideas dawned wore to borrow the compromiser's plea
and imitate his example. We know what would happen. The exploit in
which no one will consent to go first, remains unachieved. You wait
until there are persons enough agreeing with you to form an effective
party? But how are the members of the band to know one another, if all
are to keep their dissent from the old, and their adherence to the new,
rigorously private? And how many members constitute the innovating band
an effective force! When one-half of the attendants at a church are
unbelievers, will that warrant us in ceasing to attend, or shall we
tarry until the dissemblers number two-thirds? Conceive the additions
which your caution has made to the moral integrity of the community in
the meantime. Measure the enormous hindrances that will have been placed
in the way of truth and improvement, when the day at last arrives on
which you and your two-thirds take heart to say that falsehood and abuse
have now reached their final term, and must at length be swept away into
the outer darkness. Consider how much more terrible the shock of change
will be when it does come, and how much less able will men be to meet
it, and to emerge successfully from it.

Perhaps the compromiser shrinks, not because he fears to march alone,
but because he thinks that the time has not yet come for the progressive
idea which he has made his own, and for whose triumph one day he
confidently hopes. This plea may mean two wholly different states of the
case. The time has not yet come for what? For making those positive
changes in life or institution, which the change in idea must ultimately
involve? That is one thing. Or for propagating, elaborating, enforcing
the new idea, and strenuously doing all that one can to bring as many
people as possible to a state of theory, which will at last permit the
requisite change in practice to be made with safety and success? This is
another and entirely different thing. The time may not have come for the
first of these two courses. The season may not be advanced enough for us
to push on to active conquest. But the time has always come, and the
season is never unripe, for the announcement of the fruitful idea.

We must go further than that. In so far as it can be done by one man
without harming his neighbours, the time has always come for the
realisation of an idea. When the change in way of living or in
institution is one which requires the assent and co-operation of numbers
of people, it may clearly be a matter for question whether men enough
are ready to yield assent and co-operation. But the expression of the
necessity of the change and the grounds of it, though it may not always
be appropriate, can never be premature, and for these reasons. The fact
of a new idea having come to one man is a sign that it is in the air.
The innovator is as much the son of his generation as the conservative.
Heretics have as direct a relation to antecedent conditions as the
orthodox. Truth, said Bacon, has been rightly named the daughter of
Time. The new idea does not spring up uncaused and by miracle. If it has
come to me, there must be others to whom it has only just missed coming.
If I have found my way to the light, there must be others groping after
it very close in my neighbourhood. My discovery is their goal. They are
prepared to receive the new truth, which they were not prepared to find
for themselves. The fact that the mass are not yet ready to receive, any
more than to find, is no reason why the possessor of the new truth
should run to hide under a bushel the candle which has been lighted for
him. If the time has not come for them, at least it has come for him. No
man can ever know whether his neighbours are ready for change or not. He
has all the following certainties, at least:--that he himself is ready
for the change; that he believes it would be a good and beneficent one;
that unless some one begins the work of preparation, assuredly there
will be no consummation; and that if he declines to take a part in the
matter, there can be no reason why every one else in turn should not
decline in like manner, and so the work remain for ever unperformed. The
compromiser who blinds himself to all those points, and acts just as if
the truth were not in him, does for ideas with which he agrees, the very
thing which the acute persecutor does for ideas which he dislikes--he
extinguishes beginnings and kills the germs.

The consideration on which so many persons rely, that an existing
institution, though destined to be replaced by a better, performs useful
functions provisionally, is really not to the point. It is an excellent
reason why the institution should not be removed or fundamentally
modified, until public opinion is ripe for the given piece of
improvement. But it is no reason at all why those who are anxious for
the improvement, should speak and act just as they would do if they
thought the change perfectly needless and undesirable. It is no reason
why those who allow the provisional utility of a belief or an
institution or a custom of living, should think solely of the utility
and forget the equally important element of its provisionalness. For the
fact of its being provisional is the very ground why every one who
perceives this element, should set himself to act accordingly. It is the
ground why he should set himself, in other words, to draw opinion in
every way open to him--by speech, by voting, by manner of life and
conduct--in the direction of new truth and the better practice. Let us
not, because we deem a thing to be useful for the hour, act as if it
were to be useful for ever. The people who selfishly seek to enjoy as
much comfort and ease as they can in an existing state of things, with
the desperate maxim, 'After us, the deluge,' are not any worse than
those who cherish present comfort and case and take the world as it
comes, in the fatuous and self-deluding hope, 'After us, the
millennium.' Those who make no sacrifice to avert the deluge, and those
who make none to hasten their millennium, are on the same moral level.
And the former have at least the quality of being no worse than their
avowed principle, while the latter nullify their pretended hopes by
conformities which are only proper either to profound social
contentment, or to profound social despair. Nay, they seem to think that
there is some merit in this merely speculative hopefulness. They act as
if they supposed that to be very sanguine about the general improvement
of mankind, is a virtue that relieves them from taking trouble about any
improvement in particular.

If those who defend a given institution are doing their work well, that
furnishes the better reason why those who disapprove of it and
disbelieve in its enduring efficacy, should do their work well also.
Take the Christian churches, for instance. Assume, if you will, that
they are serving a variety of useful functions. If that were all, it
would be a reason for conforming. But we are speaking of those for whom
the matter does not end here. If you are convinced that the dogma is not
true; that a steadily increasing number of persons are becoming aware
that it is not true; that its efficacy as a basis of spiritual life is
being lowered in the same degree as its credibility; that both dogma and
church must be slowly replaced by higher forms of faith, if not also by
more effective organisations; then, all who hold such views as these
have as distinctly a function in the community as the ministers and
upholders of the churches, and the zeal of the latter is simply the most
monstrously untenable apology that could be invented for dereliction of
duty by the former.

If the orthodox to some extent satisfy certain of the necessities of the
present, there are other necessities of the future which can only be
satisfied by those who now pass for heretical. The plea which we are
examining, if it is good for the purpose for which it is urged, would
have to be expressed in this way:--The institution is working as
perfectly as it can be made to do, or as any other in its place would be
likely to do, and therefore I will do nothing by word or deed towards
meddling with it. Those who think this, and act accordingly, are the
consistent conservatives of the community. If a man takes up any
position short of this, his conformity, acquiescence, and inertia at
once become inconsistent and culpable. For unless the institution or
belief is entirely adequate, it must be the duty of all who have
satisfied themselves that it is not so, to recognise its deficiences,
and at least to call attention to them, even if they lack opportunity or
capacity to suggest remedies. Now we are dealing with persons who, from
the hypothesis, do not admit that this or that factor in an existing
social state secures all the advantages which might be secured if
instead of that factor there were some other. We are speaking of all the
various kinds of dissidents, who think that the current theology, or an
established church, or a monarchy, or an oligarchic republic, is a bad
thing and a lower form, even at the moment while they attribute
provisional merit to it. They can mean nothing by classing each of
these as bad things, except that they either bring with them certain
serious drawbacks, or exclude certain valuable advantages. The fact that
they perform their functions well, such as they are, leaves the
fundamental vice or defect of these functions just where it was. If any
one really thinks that the current theology involves depraved notions of
the supreme impersonation of good, restricts and narrows the
intelligence, misdirects the religious imagination, and has become
powerless to guide conduct, then how does the circumstance that it
happens not to be wholly and unredeemedly bad in its influence, relieve
our dissident from all care or anxiety as to the points in which, as we
have seen, he does count it inadequate and mischievous? Even if he
thinks it does more good than harm--a position which must be very
difficult for one who believes the common supernatural conception of it
to be entirely false--even then, how is he discharged from the duty of
stigmatising the harm which he admits that it does?

Again, take the case of the English monarchy. Grant, if you will, that
this institution has a certain function, and that by the present chief
magistrate this function is estimably performed. Yet if we are of those
who believe that in the stage of civilisation which England has reached
in other matters, the monarchy must be either obstructive and injurious,
or else merely decorative; and that a merely decorative monarchy tends
in divers ways to engender habits of abasement, to nourish lower social
ideals, to lessen a high civil self-respect in the community; then it
must surely be our duty not to lose any opportunity of pressing these
convictions. To do this is not necessarily to act as if one were anxious
for the immediate removal of the throne and the crown into the museum of
political antiquities. We may have no urgent practical solicitude in
this direction, on the intelligible principle that a free people always
gets as good a kind of government as it deserves. Our conviction is not,
on the present hypothesis, that monarchy ought to be swept away in
England, but that monarchy produces certain mischievous consequences to
the public spirit of the community. And so what we are bound to do is to
take care not to conceal this conviction; to abstain scrupulously from
all kinds of action and observance, public or private, which tend ever
so remotely to foster the ignoble and degrading elements that exist in a
court and spread from it outwards; and to use all the influence we have,
however slight it may be, in loading public opinion to a right attitude
of contempt and dislike for these ignoble and degrading elements, and
the conduct engendered by them. A policy like this does not interfere
with the advantages of the monarchy, such as they are asserted to be,
and it has the effect of making what are supposed to be its
disadvantages as little noxious as possible. The question whether we can
get others to agree with us is not relevant. If we were eager for
instant overthrow, it would be the most relevant of all questions. But
we are in the preliminary stage, the stage for acting on opinion. The
fact that others do not yet share our opinion, is the very reason for
our action. We can only bring them to agree with us, if it be possible
on any terms, by persistency in our principles. This persistency, in all
but either very timid or very vulgar natures, always has been and
always will be independent of external assent or co-operation. The
history of success, as we can never too often repeat to ourselves, is
the history of minorities. And what is more, it is for the most part the
history of insurrection exactly against what the worldly spirits of the
time, whenever it may have been, deemed mere trifles and accidents, with
which sensible men should on no account dream of taking the trouble to

'Halifax,' says Macaulay, 'was in speculation a strong republican and
did not conceal it. He often made hereditary monarchy and aristocracy
the subjects of his keen pleasantry, while he was fighting the battles
of the court and obtaining for himself step after step in the peerage.'
We are perfectly familiar with this type, both in men who have, and men
who have not, such brilliant parts as Halifax. Such men profess to
nourish high ideals of life, of character, of social institutions. Yet
they never think of these ideals, when they are deciding what is
practically attainable. One would like to ask them what purpose is
served by an ideal, if it is not to make a guide for practice and a
landmark in dealing with the real. A man's loftiest and most ideal
notions must be of a singularly ethereal and, shall we not say,
senseless kind, if he can never see how to take a single step that may
tend in the slightest degree towards making them more real. If an ideal
has no point of contact with what exists, it is probably not much more
than the vapid outcome of intellectual or spiritual self-indulgence. If
it has such a point of contact, then there is sure to be something which
a man can do towards the fulfilment of his hopes. He cannot substitute a
new national religion for the old, but he can at least do something to
prevent people from supposing that the adherents of the old are more
numerous than they really are, and something to show them that good
ideas are not all exhausted by the ancient forms. He cannot transform a
monarchy into a republic, but he can make sure that one citizen at least
shall aim at republican virtues, and abstain from the debasing
complaisance of the crowd.

'It is a very great mistake, said Burke, many years before the French
Revolution is alleged, and most unreasonably alleged, to have alienated
him from liberalism: 'it is a very great mistake to imagine that
mankind follow up practically any speculative principle, either of
government or of freedom, as far as it will go in argument and logical
illation. All government, indeed every human benefit and enjoyment,
every virtue, and every prudent act, is founded on compromise and
barter. We balance inconveniences; we give and take;--we remit some
rights that we may enjoy others.... Man acts from motives relative to
his interests; and not on metaphysical speculations.[29] These are the
words of wisdom and truth, if we can be sure that men will interpret
them in all the fulness of their meaning, and not be content to take
only that part of the meaning which falls in with the dictates of their
own love of ease. In France such words ought to be printed in capitals
on the front of every newspaper, and written up in letters of burnished
gold over each faction of the Assembly, and on the door of every bureau
in the Administration. In England they need a commentary which shall
bring out the very simple truth, that compromise and barter do not mean
the undisputed triumph of one set of principles. Nor, on the other hand,
do they mean the mutilation of both sets of principles, with a view to
producing a _tertium quid_ that shall involve the disadvantages of each,
without securing the advantages of either. What Burke means is that we
ought never to press our ideas up to their remotest logical issues,
without reference to the conditions in which we are applying them. In
politics we have an art. Success in politics, as in every other art,
obviously before all else implies both knowledge of the material with
which we have to deal, and also such concession as is necessary to the
qualities of the material. Above all, in politics we have an art in
which development depends upon small modifications. That is the true
side of the conservative theory. To hurry on after logical perfection is
to show one's self ignorant of the material of that social structure
with which the politician has to deal. To disdain anything short of an
organic change in thought or institution in infatuation. To be willing
to make such changes too frequently, even when they are possible, is
foolhardiness. That fatal French saying about small reforms being the
worst enemies of great reforms is, in the sense in which it is commonly
used, a formula of social ruin.

On the other hand, let us not forget that there is a sense in which this
very saying is profoundly true. A small and temporary improvement may
really be the worst enemy of a great and permanent improvement, unless
the first is made on the lines and in the direction of the second. And
so it may, if it be successfully palmed off upon a society as actually
being the second. In such a case as this, and our legislation presents
instances of the kind, the small reform, if it be not made with
reference to some large progressive principle and with a view to further
extension of its scope, makes it all the more difficult to return to the
right line and direction when improvement is again demanded. To take an
example which is now very familiar to us all. The Education Act of 1870
was of the nature of a small reform. No one pretends that it is anything
approaching to a final solution of a complex problem. But the government
insisted, whether rightly or wrongly, that their Act was as large a
measure as public opinion was at that moment ready to support. At the
same time it was clearly agreed among the government and the whole of
the party at their backs, that at some time or other, near or remote, if
public instruction was to be made genuinely effective, the private,
voluntary, or denominational system would have to be replaced by a
national system. To prepare for this ultimate replacement was one of the
points to be most steadily borne in mind, however slowly and tentatively
the process might be conducted. Instead of that, the authors of the Act
deliberately introduced provisions for extending and strengthening the
very system which will have eventually to be superseded. They thus by
their small reform made the future great reform the more difficult of
achievement. Assuredly this is not the compromise and barter, the give
and take, which Burke intended. What Burke means by compromise, and what
every true statesman understands by it, is that it may be most
inexpedient to meddle with an institution merely because it does not
harmonise with 'argument and logical illation.' This is a very different
thing from giving new comfort and strength with one hand, to an
institution whose death-warrant you pretend to be signing with the

In a different way the second possible evil of a small reform may be
equally mischievous--where the small reform is represented as settling
the question. The mischief here is not that it takes us out of the
progressive course, as in the case we have just been considering, but
that it sets men's minds in a posture of contentment, which is not
justified by the amount of what has been done, and which makes it all
the harder to arouse them to new effort when the inevitable time

In these ways, then, compromise may mean, not acquiescence in an
instalment, on the ground that the time is not ripe to yield us more
than an instalment, but either the acceptance of the instalment as
final, followed by the virtual abandonment of hope and effort; or else
it may mean a mistaken reversal of direction, which augments the
distance that has ultimately to be traversed. In either of these senses,
the small reform may become the enemy of the great one. But a right
conception of political method, based on a rightly interpreted
experience of the conditions on which societies unite progress with
order, leads the wise conservative to accept the small change, lest a
worse thing befall him, and the wise innovator to seize the chance of a
small improvement, while incessantly working in the direction of great
ones. The important thing is that throughout the process neither of them
should lose sight of his ultimate ideal; nor fail to look at the detail
from the point of view of the whole; nor allow the near particular to
bulk so unduly large as to obscure the general and distant.

If the process seems intolerably slow, we may correct our impatience by
looking back upon the past. People seldom realise the enormous period of
time which each change in men's ideas requires for its full
accomplishment. We speak of these changes with a peremptory kind of
definiteness, as if they had covered no more than the space of a few
years. Thus we talk of the time of the Reformation, as we might talk of
the Reform Bill or the Repeal of the Corn Duties. Yet the Reformation is
the name for a movement of the mind of northern Europe, which went on
for three centuries. Then if we turn to that still more momentous set
of events, the rise and establishment of Christianity, one might suppose
from current speech that we could fix that within a space of half a
century or so. Yet it was at least four hundred years before all the
foundations of that great superstructure of doctrine and organisation
were completely laid. Again, to descend to less imposing occurrences,
the transition in the Eastern Empire from the old Roman system of
national organisation to that other system to which we give the specific
name of Byzantine,--this transition, so infinitely less important as it
was than either of the two other movements, yet occupied no less than a
couple of hundred years. The conditions of speech make it indispensable
for us to use definite and compendious names for movements that were
both tardy and complex. We are forced to name a long series of events as
if they were a single event. But we lose the reality of history, we fail
to recognise one of the most striking aspects of human affairs, and
above all we miss that most invaluable practical lesson, the lesson of
patience, unless we remember that the great changes of history took up
long periods of time which, when measured by the little life of a man,
are almost colossal, like the vast changes of geology. We know how long
it takes before a species of plant or animal disappears in face of a
better adapted species. Ideas and customs, beliefs and institutions,
have always lingered just as long in face of their successors, and the
competition is not less keen nor less prolonged, because it is for one
or other inevitably destined to be hopeless. History, like geology,
demands the use of the imagination, and in proportion as the exercise of
the historic imagination is vigorously performed in thinking of the
past, will be the breadth of our conception of the changes which the
future has in store for us, as well as of the length of time and the
magnitude of effort required for their perfect achievement[30].

This much, concerning moderation in political practice. No such
considerations present themselves in the matters which concern the
shaping of our own lives, or the publications of our social opinions. In
this region we are not imposing charges upon others, either by law or
otherwise. We therefore owe nothing to the prejudices or habits of
others. If any one sets serious value upon the point of difference
between his own ideal and that which is current, if he thinks that his
'experiment in living' has promise of real worth, and that if more
persons could be induced to imitate it, some portion of mankind would be
thus put in possession of a better kind of happiness, then it is selling
a birthright for a mess of pottage to abandon hopes so rich and
generous, merely in order to avoid the passing and casual penalties of
social disapproval. And there is a double evil in this kind of flinching
from obedience to the voice of our better selves, whether it takes the
form of absolute suppression of what we think and hope, or only of
timorous and mutilated presentation. We lose not only the possible
advantage of the given change. Besides that, we lose also the certain
advantage of maintaining or increasing the amount of conscientiousness
in the world. And everybody can perceive the loss incurred in a society
where diminution of the latter sort takes place. The advance of the
community depends not merely on the improvement and elevation of its
moral maxima, but also on the quickening of moral sensibility. The
latter work has mostly been effected, when it has been effected on a
large scale, by teachers of a certain singular personal quality. They do
nothing to improve the theory of conduct, but they have the art of
stimulating men to a more enthusiastic willingness to rise in daily
practice to the requirements of whatever theory they may accept. The
love of virtue, of duty, of holiness, or by whatever name we call this
powerful sentiment, exists in the majority of men, where it exists at
all, independently of argument. It is a matter of affection, sympathy,
association, aspiration. Hence, even while, in quality, sense of duty is
a stationary factor, it is constantly changing in quantity. The amount
of conscience in different communities, or in the same community at
different times, varies infinitely. The immediate cause of the decline
of a society in the order of morals is a decline in the quantity of its
conscience, a deadening of its moral sensitiveness, and not a
depravation of its theoretical ethics. The Greeks became corrupt and
enfeebled, not for lack of ethical science, but through the decay in the
numbers of those who were actually alive to the reality and force of
ethical obligations. Mahometans triumphed over Christians in the East
and in Spain--if we may for a moment isolate moral conditions from the
rest of the total circumstances--not because their scheme of duty was
more elevated or comprehensive, but because their respect for duty was
more strenuous and fervid.

The great importance of leaving this priceless element in a community
as free, as keen, and as active as possible, is overlooked by the
thinkers who uphold coercion against liberty, as a saving social
principle. Every act of coercion directed against an opinion or a way of
living is in so far calculated to lessen the quantity of conscience in
the society where such acts are practised. Of course, where ways of
living interfere with the lawful rights of others, where they are not
strictly self-regarding in all their details, it is necessary to force
the dissidents, however strong may be their conscientious sentiment. The
evil of attenuating that sentiment is smaller than the evil of allowing
one set of persons to realise their own notions of happiness, at the
expense of all the rest of the world. But where these notions can be
realised without unlawful interference of that kind, then the forcible
hindrance of such realisation is a direct weakening of the force and
amount of conscience on which the community may count. There is one
memorable historic case to illustrate this. Lewis XIV., in revoking the
Edict of Nantes, and the author of the still more cruel law of 1724, not
only violently drove out multitudes of the most scrupulous part of the
French nation; they virtually offered the most tremendous bribes to
those of less stern resolution, to feign conversion to the orthodox
faith. This was to treat conscience as a thing of mean value. It was to
scatter to the wind with both hands the moral resources of the
community. And who can fail to see the strength which would have been
given to France in her hour of storm, a hundred years after the
revocation of the Edict of Nantes, if her protestant sons, fortified by
the training in the habits of individual responsibility which
protestantism involves, had only been there to aid?

This consideration brings us to a new side of the discussion. We may
seem to have been unconsciously arguing as strongly in favour of a
vigorous social conservatism as of a self-asserting spirit of social
improvement. All that we have been saying may appear to cut both ways.
If the innovator should decline to practise silence or reserve, why
should the possessor of power be less uncompromising, and why should he
not impose silence by force? If the heretic ought to be uncompromising
in expressing his opinions, and in acting upon them, in the fulness of
his conviction that they are right, why should not the orthodox be
equally uncompromising in his resolution to stamp out the heretical
notions and unusual ways of living, in the fulness of his conviction
that they are thoroughly wrong? To this question the answer is that the
hollow kinds of compromise are as bad in the orthodox as in the
heretical. Truth has as much to gain from sincerity and thoroughness in
one as in the other. But the issue between the partisans of the two
opposed schools turns upon the sense which we design to give to the
process of stamping out. Those who cling to the tenets of liberty limit
the action of the majority, as of the minority, strictly to persuasion.
Those who dislike liberty, insist that earnestness of conviction
justifies either a majority or a minority in using not persuasion only,
but force. I do not propose here to enter into the great question which
Mr. Mill pressed anew upon the minds of this generation. His arguments
are familiar to every reader, and the conclusion at which he arrived is
almost taken for a postulate in the present essay.[31] The object of
these chapters is to reiterate the importance of self-assertion,
tenacity, and positiveness of principle. The partisan of coercion will
argue that this thesis is on one side of it a justification of
persecution, and other modes of interfering with new opinions and new
ways of living by force, and the strong arm of the law, and whatever
other energetic means of repression may be at command. If the minority
are to be uncompromising alike in seeking and realising what they take
for truth, why not the majority? Now this implies two propositions. It
is the same as to say, first, that earnestness of conviction is not to
be distinguished from a belief in our own infallibility; second, that
faith in our infallibility is necessarily bound up with intolerance.

Neither of these propositions is true. Let us take them in turn.
Earnestness of conviction is perfectly compatible with a sense of
liability to error. This has been so excellently put by a former writer
that we need not attempt to better his exposition. 'Every one must, of
course, think his own opinions right; for if he thought them wrong, they
would no longer be his opinions: but there is a wide difference between
regarding ourselves as infallible, and being firmly convinced of the
truth of our creed. When a man reflects on any particular doctrine, he
may be impressed with a thorough conviction of the improbability or even
impossibility of its being false: and so he may feel with regard to all
his other opinions, when he makes them objects of separate
contemplation. And yet when he views them in the aggregate, when he
reflects that not a single being on the earth holds collectively the
same, when he looks at the past history and present state of mankind,
and observes the various creeds of different ages and nations, the
peculiar modes of thinking of sects and bodies and individuals, the
notions once firmly held, which have been exploded, the prejudices once
universally prevalent, which have been removed, and the endless
controversies which have distracted those who have made it the business
of their lives to arrive at the truth; and when he further dwells on
the consideration that many of these, his fellow-creatures, have had a
conviction of the justness of their respective sentiments equal to his
own, he cannot help the obvious inference, that in his own opinion it is
next to impossible that there is not an admixture of error; that there
is an infinitely greater probability of his being wrong in some than
right in all.'[32]

Of course this is not an account of the actual frame of mind of ordinary
men. They never do think of their opinions in the aggregate in
comparison with the collective opinions of others, nor ever draw the
conclusions which such reflections would suggest. But such a frame of
mind is perfectly attainable, and has often been attained, by persons of
far lower than first-rate capacity. And if this is so, there is no
reason why it should not be held up for the admiration and imitation of
all those classes of society which profess to have opinions. It would
thus become an established element in the temper of the age. Nor need we
fear that the result of this would be any flaccidity of conviction, or
lethargy in act. A man would still be penetrated with the rightness of
his own opinion on a given issue, and would still do all that he could
to make it prevail in practice. But among the things which he would no
longer permit himself to do, would be the forcible repression in others
of any opinions, however hostile to his own, or of any kind of conduct,
however widely it diverged from his own, and provided that it concerned
themselves only. This widening of his tolerance would be the natural
result of a rational and realised consciousness of his own general

Next, even belief in one's own infallibility does not necessarily lead
to intolerance. For it may be said that though no man in his senses
would claim to be incapable of error, yet in every given case he is
quite sure that he is not in error, and therefore this assurance in
particular is tantamount by process of cumulation to a sense of
infallibility in general. Now even if this were so, it would not of
necessity either produce or justify intolerance. The certainty of the
truth of your own opinions is independent of any special idea as to the
means by which others may best be brought to share them. The question
between persuasion and force remains apart--unless, indeed, we may say
that in societies where habits of free discussion have once begun to
take root, those who are least really sure about their opinions, are
often most unwilling to trust to persuasion to bring them converts, and
most disposed to grasp the rude implements of coercion, whether legal or
merely social. The cry, 'Be my brother, or I slay thee,' was the sign of
a very weak, though very fiery, faith in the worth of fraternity. He
whose faith is most assured, has the best reason for relying on
persuasion, and the strongest motive to thrust from him all temptations
to use angry force. The substitution of force for persuasion, among its
other disadvantages, has this further drawback, from our present point
of view, that it lessens the conscience of a society and breeds
hypocrisy. You have not converted a man, because you have silenced him.
Opinion and force belong to different elements. To think that you are
able by social disapproval or other coercive means to crush a man's
opinion, is as one who should fire a blunderbuss to put out a star. The
acquiescence in current notions which is secured by law or by petulant
social disapproval, is as worthless and as essentially hypocritical, as
the conversion of an Irish pauper to protestantism by means of
soup-tickets, or that of a savage to Christianity by the gift of a
string of beads. Here is the radical fallacy of those who urge that
people must use promises and threats in order to encourage opinions,
thoughts, and feelings which they think good, and to prevent others
which they think bad. Promises and threats can influence acts. Opinions
and thoughts on morals, politics, and the rest, after they have once
grown in a man's mind, can no more be influenced by promises and threats
than can my knowledge that snow is white or that ice is cold. You may
impose penalties on me by statute for saying that snow is white, or
acting as if I thought ice cold, and the penalties may affect my
conduct. They will not, because they cannot, modify my beliefs in the
matter by a single iota. One result therefore of intolerance is to make
hypocrites. On this, as on the rest of the grounds which vindicate the
doctrine of liberty, a man who thought himself infallible either in
particular or in general, from the Pope of Rome down to the editor of
the daily newspaper, might still be inclined to abstain from any form of
compulsion. The only reason to the contrary is that a man who is so
silly as to think himself incapable of going wrong, is very likely to be
too silly to perceive that coercion may be one way of going wrong.

The currency of the notion that earnest sincerity about one's opinions
and ideals of conduct is inseparably connected with intolerance, is
indirectly due to the predominance of legal or juristic analogies in
social discussion. For one thing, the lawyer has to deal mainly with
acts, and to deal with them by way of repression. His attention is
primarily fixed on the deed, and only secondarily on the mind of the
doer. And so a habit of thought is created, which treats opinion as
something equally in the sphere of coercion with actions. At the same
time it favours coercive ways of affecting opinion. Then, what is still
more important, the jurist's conception of society has its root in the
relation between sovereign and subject, between lawmaker and those whom
law restrains. Exertion of power on one hand, and compliance on the
other--this is his type of the conditions of the social union. The
fertility and advance of discussion on social issues depends on the
substitution of the evolutional for the legal conception. The lawyer's
type of proposition is absolute. It is also, for various reasons which
need not be given here, inspired by involuntary reference to the lower,
rather than to the more highly developed, social states. In the lower
states law, penalties, coercion, compulsion, the strong hand, a sternly
repressive public opinion, were the conditions on which the community
was united and held together. But the line of thought which these
analogies suggest, becomes less and less generally appropriate in social
discussion, in proportion as the community becomes more complex, more
various in resource, more special in its organisation, in a word, more
elaborately civilised. The evolutionist's idea of society concedes to
law its historic place and its actual part. But then this idea leads
directly to a way of looking at society, which makes the replacement of
law by liberty a condition of reaching the higher stages of social

The doctrine of liberty belongs to the subject of this chapter, because
it is only another way of expressing the want of connection between
earnestness in realising our opinions, and anything like coercion in
their favour. If it were true that aversion from compromise, in carrying
out our ideas, implied the rightfulness of using all the means in our
power to hinder others from carrying out ideas hostile to them, then we
should have been preaching in a spirit unfavourable to the principle of
liberty. Our main text has been that men should refuse to sacrifice
their opinions and ways of living (in the self-regarding sphere) out of
regard to the _status quo_, or the prejudices of others. And this, as a
matter of course, excludes the right of forcing or wishing any one else
to make such a sacrifice to us. Well, the first foundation-stone for the
doctrine of liberty is to be sought in the conception of society as a
growing and developing organism. This is its true base, apart from the
numerous minor expediencies which may be adduced to complete the
structure of the argument. It is fundamentally advantageous that in
societies which have reached our degree of complex and intricate
organisation, unfettered liberty should be conceded to ideas and, within
the self-regarding sphere, to conduct also. The reasons for this are of
some such kind as the following. New ideas and new 'experiments in
living' would not arise, if there were not a certain inadequateness in
existing ideas and ways of living. They may not point to the right mode
of meeting inadequateness, but they do point to the existence and
consciousness of it. They originate in the social capability of growth.
Society can only develop itself on condition that all such novelties
(within the limit laid down, for good and valid reasons, at self
regarding conduct) are allowed to present themselves. First, because
neither the legislature nor any one else can ever know for certain what
novelties will prove of enduring value. Second, because even if we did
know for certain that given novelties were pathological growths and not
normal developments, and that they never would be of any value, still
the repression necessary to extirpate them would involve too serious a
risk both of keeping back social growth at some other point, and of
giving the direction of that growth an irreparable warp. And let us
repeat once more, in proportion as a community grows more complex in its
classes, divisions, and subdivisions, more intricate in its productive,
commercial, or material arrangements, so does this risk very obviously
wax more grave.

In the sense in which we are speaking of it, liberty is not a positive
force, any more than the smoothness of a railroad is a positive
force.[33] It is a condition. As a force, there is a sense in which it
is true to call liberty a negation. As a condition, though it may still
be a negation, yet it may be indispensable for the production of certain
positive results. The vacuity of an exhausted receiver is not a force,
but it is the indispensable condition of certain positive operations.
Liberty as a force may be as impotent as its opponents allege. This does
not affect its value as a preliminary or accompanying condition. The
absence of a strait-waistcoat is a negation; but it is a useful
condition for the activity of sane men. No doubt there must be a
definite limit to this absence of external interference with conduct,
and that limit will be fixed at various points by different thinkers. We
are now only urging that it cannot be wisely fixed for the more complex
societies by any one who has not grasped this fundamental preconception,
that liberty, or the absence of coercion, or the leaving people to
think, speak, and act as they please, is in itself a good thing. It is
the object of a favourable presumption. The burden of proving it
inexpedient always lies, and wholly lies, on those who wish to abridge
it by coercion, whether direct or indirect.

One reason why this truth is so reluctantly admitted, is men's
irrational want of faith in the self-protective quality of a highly
developed and healthy community. The timid compromiser on the one hand,
and the advocate of coercive restriction on the other, are equally the
victims of a superfluous apprehension. The one fears to use his liberty
for the same reason that makes the other fearful of permitting liberty.
This common reason is the want of a sensible confidence that, in a free
western community, which has reached our stage of development,
religious, moral, and social novelties--provided they are tainted by no
element of compulsion or interference with the just rights of others,
may be trusted to find their own level. Moral and intellectual
conditions are not the only motive forces in a community, nor are they
even the most decisive. Political and material conditions fix the limits
at which speculation can do either good or harm. Let us take an
illustration of the impotence of moral ideas to override material
circumstances; and we shall venture to place this illustration somewhat
fully before the reader.

There is no more important distinction between modern civilised
communities and the ancient communities than the fact that the latter
rested on Slavery, while the former have abolished it. Hence there can
hardly be a more interesting question than this--by what agencies so
prodigious a transformation of one of the fundamental conditions of
society was brought about. The popular answer is of a very ready kind,
and it passes quite satisfactorily. This answer is that the first great
step towards free labour, the transformation of personal slavery into
serfdom, was the result of the spiritual change which was wrought in
men's minds by the teaching of the Church. It is unquestionable that the
influence of the Church tended to mitigate the evils of slavery, to
humanise the relations between master and slave, between the lord and
the serf. But this is a very different thing from the radical
transformation of those relations. If we think of society as an
organism we instantly understand that so immense a change as this could
not possibly have been effected without the co-operation of the other
great parts of the social system, any more than a critical evolution
could take place in the nutritive apparatus of an animal, without a
change in the whole series of its organs. Thus in order that serfage
should be evolved from slavery, and free labour again from serfage, it
could not be enough that an alteration should have been wrought in men's
ideas as to their common brotherhood, and the connected ideas as to the
lawfulness or unlawfulness of certain human relations. There must have
been an alteration also of the economic and material conditions. History
confirms the expectations which we should thus have been led to
entertain. The impotence of spiritual and moral agencies alone in
bringing about this great metamorphosis, is shown by such facts as
these. For centuries after the new faith had consolidated itself,
slavery was regarded without a particle of that deep abhorrence which
the possession of man by man excites in us now. In the ninth and tenth
centuries the slave trade was the most profitable branch of the
commerce that was carried on in the Mediterranean. The historian tells
us that, even so late as this, slaves were the principal article of
European export to Africa, Syria, and Egypt, in payment for the produce
of the East which was brought from those countries. It was the crumbling
of the old social system which, by reducing the population, lessening
the wealth, and lowering the standard of living among the free masters,
tended to extinguish slavery, by diminishing the differences between the
masters and their bondsmen. Again, it was certain laws enacted by the
Roman government for the benefit of the imperial fisc, which first
conferred rights on the slave. The same laws brought the free farmer,
whose position was less satisfactory for the purposes of the revenue,
down nearer and nearer to a servile condition. Again, in the ninth and
tenth centuries, pestilence and famine accelerated the extinction of
predial slavery by weakening the numbers of the free population.
'History,' we are told by that thoroughly competent authority, Mr.
Finlay, 'affords its testimony that neither the doctrines of
Christianity, nor the sentiments of humanity, have ever yet succeeded
in extinguishing slavery, where the soil could be cultivated with profit
by slave labour. No Christian community of slave-holders has yet
voluntarily abolished slavery. In no country where it prevailed has
rural slavery ceased, until the price of productions raised by slave
labour has fallen so low as to leave no profit to the slave-owner.'

The moral of all this is the tolerably obvious truth, that the
prosperity of an abstract idea depends as much on the medium into which
it is launched, as upon any quality of its own. Stable societies are
amply furnished with force enough to resist all effort in a destructive
direction. There is seldom much fear, and in our own country there is
hardly any fear at all, of hasty reformers making too much way against
the spontaneous conservatism which belongs to a healthy and
well-organised community. If dissolvent ideas do make their way, it is
because the society was already ripe for dissolution. New ideas, however
ardently preached, will dissolve no society which was not already in a
condition of profound disorganisation. We may be allowed just to point
to two memorable instances, by way of illustration, though a long and
elaborate discussion would be needed to bring out their full force. It
has often been thought since, as it was thought by timorous
reactionaries at the time, that Christianity in various ways sapped the
strength of the Roman Empire, and opened the way for the barbarians. In
truth, the most careful and competent students know now that the Empire
slowly fell to pieces, partly because the political arrangements were
vicious and inadequate, but mainly because the fiscal and economic
system impoverished and depopulated one district of the vast empire
after another. It was the break-up of the Empire that gave the Church
its chance; not the Church that broke up the Empire. It is a mistake of
the same kind to suppose that the destructive criticism of the French
philosophers a hundred years ago was the great operative cause of the
catastrophe which befel the old social regime. If Voltaire, Diderot,
Rousseau, had never lived, or if their works had all been suppressed as
soon as they were printed, their absence would have given no new life to
agriculture, would not have stimulated trade, nor replenished the
bankrupt fisc, nor incorporated the privileged classes with the bulk of
the nation, nor done anything else to repair an organisation of which
every single part had become incompetent for its proper function. It was
the material misery and the political despair engendered by the reigning
system, which brought willing listeners to the feet of the teachers who
framed beneficent governments on the simple principles of reason and the
natural law. And these teachers only busied themselves with abstract
politics, because the real situation was desperate. They had no
alternative but to evolve social improvements out of their own
consciousness. There was not a single sound organ in the body politic,
which they could have made the starting-point of a reconstitution of a
society on the base of its actual or historic structure. The mischiefs
which resulted from their method are patent and undeniable. But the
method was made inevitable by the curse of the old regime.[34]

Nor is there any instance in history of mere opinion making a breach in
the essential constitution of a community, so long as the political
conditions were stable and the economic or nutritive conditions sound.
If some absolute monarch were to be seized by a philanthropic resolution
to transform the ordering of a society which seemed to be at his
disposal, he might possibly, by the perseverance of a lifetime, succeed
in throwing the community into permanent confusion. Joseph II. perhaps
did as much as a modern sovereign can do in this direction. Yet little
came of his efforts, either for good or harm. But a man without the
whole political machinery in his power need hardly labour under any
apprehension that he may, by the mere force of speculative opinion,
involuntarily work a corresponding mischief. If it is true that the most
fervent apostles of progress usually do very little of the good on which
they congratulate themselves, they ought surely on the same ground to be
acquitted of much of the harm for which they are sometimes reviled. In a
country of unchecked and abundant discussion, a new idea is not at all
likely to make much way against the objection of its novelty, unless it
is really commended by some quality of temporary or permanent value. So
far therefore as the mere publication of new principles is concerned,
and so far also as merely self-regarding action goes, one who has the
keenest sense of social responsibility, and is most scrupulously afraid
of doing anything to slacken or perturb the process of social growth,
may still consistently give to the world whatever ideas he has gravely
embraced. He may safely trust, if the society be in a normal condition,
to its justice of assimilation and rejection. There are a few
individuals for whom newness is a recommendation. But what are these
few among the many to whom newness is a stumbling-block? Old ideas may
survive merely because they are old. A new one will certainly not, among
a considerable body of men in a healthy social state, gain any
acceptance worth speaking of, merely because it is new.

The recognition of the self-protecting quality of society is something
more than a point of speculative importance. It has a direct practical
influence. For it would add to the courage and intrepidity of the men
who are most attached to the reigning order of things. If such men could
only divest themselves of a futile and nervous apprehension, that things
as they are have no root in their essential fitness and harmony, and
that order consequently is ever hanging on a trembling and doubtful
balance, they would not only gain by the self-respect which would be
added to them and the rest of the community, but all discussion would
become more robust and real. If they had a larger faith in the stability
for which they profess so great an anxiety, they would be more free
alike in understanding and temper to deal generously, honestly, and
effectively with those whom they count imprudent innovators. There is
nothing more amusing or more instructive than to turn to the debates in
parliament or the press upon some innovating proposal, after an interval
since the proposal was accepted by the legislature. The flaming hopes of
its friends, the wild and desperate prophecies of its antagonists, are
found to be each as ill-founded as the other. The measure which was to
do such vast good according to the one, such portentous evil according
to the other, has done only a part of the promised good, and has done
none of the threatened evil. The true lesson from this is one of
perseverance and thoroughness for the improver, and one of faith in the
self-protectiveness of a healthy society for the conservative. The
master error of the latter is to suppose that men are moved mainly by
their passions rather than their interests, that all their passions are
presumably selfish and destructive, and that their own interests can
seldom be adequately understood by the persons most directly concerned.
How many fallacies are involved in this group of propositions, the
reader may well be left to judge for himself.

We have in this chapter considered some of the limitations which are
set by the conditions of society on the duty of trying to realise our
principles in action. The general conclusion is in perfect harmony with
that of the previous chapters. A principle, if it be sound, represents
one of the larger expediencies. To abandon that for the sake of some
seeming expediency of the hour, is to sacrifice the greater good for the
less, on no more creditable ground than that the less is nearer. It is
better to wait, and to defer the realisation of our ideas until we can
realise them fully, than to defraud the future by truncating them, if
truncate them we must, in order to secure a partial triumph for them in
the immediate present. It is better to bear the burden of
impracticableness, than to stifle conviction and to pare away principle
until it becomes more hollowness and triviality. What is the sense, and
what is the morality, of postponing the wider utility to the narrower?
Nothing is so sure to impoverish an epoch, to deprive conduct of
nobleness, and character of elevation.


[Footnote 27: _The Study of Sociology_, p. 396.]

[Footnote 28: No one, for instance, has given more forcible or decisive
expression than Mr. Spencer has done to the duty of not passively
accepting the current theology. See his _First Principles_, pt. i. ch.
vi, Sec. 34; paragraph beginning,--'Whoever hesitates to utter that which
he thinks the highest truth, lest it should be too much in advance of
the time, may reassure himself by looking at his acts from an impersonal
point of view,' etc.]

[Footnote 29: _Speech on Conciliation with America_.]

[Footnote 30: 'Toute enormite dans les esprits d'un certain ordre n'est
souvent qu'une grande vue prise hors du temps et du lieu, et ne gardant
aucun rapport reel avec les objets environnants. Le propre de certaines
prunelles ardentes est de franchir du regard les intervalles et de les
supprimer. Tantot c'est une idee qui retarde de plusieurs siecles, et
que ces vigoureux esprits se figurent encore presente et vivante; tantot
c'est une idee qui avance, et qu'ils croient incontinent realisable. M.
de Couaen etait ainsi; il voyait 1814 des 1804, et de la une
superiorite; mais il jugeait 1814 possible des 1804 ou 1805, et de la
tout un chimerique entassement.--Voila un point blanc a l'horizon,
chacun jurerait que c'est un nuage. "C'est une montagne," dit le
voyageur a l'oeil d'aigle; mais s'il ajoute: "Nous y arriverons ce soir,
dans deux heures;" si, a chaque heure de marche, il crie avec
emportement: "Nous y sommes," et le veut demontrer, il choque les
voisins avec sa poutre, et donne l'avantage aux yeux moins percants et
plus habitues a la plaine.'--Ste. Beuve's _Volupte_, p. 262]

[Footnote 31: It is sometimes convenient to set familiar arguments down
once more; so I venture to reprint in a note at the end of the chapter a
short exposition of the doctrine of liberty, which I had occasion to
make in considering Sir J.F. Stephen's vigorous attack on that

[Footnote 32: Mr. Samuel Bailey's _Essays on the Formation and
Publication of Opinions_, etc., p. 138, (1826.)]

[Footnote 33: There is a sense, and a most important sense, in which
liberty is a positive force. It is its robust and bracing influence on
character, which makes wise men prize freedom and strive for the
enlargement of its province. As Mr. Mill expressed this:--'It is of
importance not only what men do, but what manner of men they are that do
it,' Milton pointed to the positive effect of liberty on character in
the following passage:--'They are not skilful considerers of human
things who imagine to remove sin by removing the matter of sin. Though
ye take from a covetous man his treasure, he has yet one jewel left; ye
cannot bereave him of his covetousness. Banish all objects of lust, shut
up all youth into the severest discipline that can be exercised in any
hermitage, ye cannot make them chaste that came not thither so. Suppose
we could expel sin by this means; look how much we thus expel of sin, so
much we expel of virtue. And were I the chooser, a dram of well-doing
should be preferred before many times as much the forcible hindrance of
evil-doing. For God sure esteems the growth and completing of one
virtuous person, more than the restraint of ten vicious.']

[Footnote 34: There is, I think, nothing in this paragraph really
inconsistent with De Tocqueville's well-known and striking chapter,
'Comment les hommes de lettres devinrent les principaux hommes
politiques du pays, et des effets qui en resulterent.' (_Ancien Regime_,
iii. i.) Thus Senac de Meilhan writes in 1795;--'C'est quand la
Revolution a ete entamee qu'on a cherche dans Mably, dans Rousseau, des
armes pour sustenter le systeme vers lequel entrainait l'effervescence
de quelques esprits hardis. Mais ce ne sont point les auteurs que j'ai
cites qui ont enflamme les tetes; M. Necker seul a produit cet effet, et
determine l'explosion,' ... 'Les ecrits de Voltaire ont certainement nui
a la religion, et ebranle la croyance dans un assez grand nombre; mais
ils n'ont aucun rapport avec les affaires du gouvernement, et sont plus
favorables que contraires a la monarchie....' Of Rousseau's _Social
Contract_:--'Ce livre profond et abstrait etait peu lu, et etendu de
bien peu de gens.' Mably--'avait peu de vogue.' _De Gouvernment, etc.,
en France_, p. 129, etc.]



Mr. Mill's memorable plea for social liberty was little more than an
enlargement, though a very important enlargement, of the principles of
the still more famous Speech for Liberty of Unlicensed Printing with
which Milton ennobled English literature two centuries before. Milton
contended for free publication of opinion mainly on these grounds:
First, that the opposite system implied the 'grace of infallibility and
incorruptibleness' in the licensers. Second, that the prohibition of
bold books led to mental indolence and stagnant formalism both in
teachers and congregations, producing the 'laziness of a licensing
church.' Third, that it 'hinders and retards the importation of our
richest merchandise, truth;' for the commission of the licenser enjoins
him to let nothing pass which is not vulgarly received already, and 'if
it come to prohibiting, there is not aught more likely to be prohibited
than truth itself, whose first appearance to our eyes, bleared and
dimmed with prejudice and custom, is more unsightly and unplausible
than many errors, even as the person is of many a great man slight and
contemptible to see to.' Fourth, that freedom is in itself an ingredient
of true virtue, and 'they are not skilful considerers of human things
who imagine to remove sin by removing the matter of sin; that virtue
therefore, which is but a youngling in the contemplation of evil, and
knows not the utmost that vice promises to her followers, and rejects
it, is but a blank virtue, not a pure; her virtue is but an excremental
virtue, which was the reason why our sage and serious poet Spenser, whom
I dare be known to think a better teacher than Scotus or Aquinas,
describing true temperance under the form of Guion, brings him in with
his palmer through the cave of Mammon and the tower of earthly bliss,
that he might see and know and yet abstain.'

The four grounds on which Mr. Mill contends for the necessity of freedom
in the expression of opinion to the mental wellbeing of mankind, are
virtually contained in these. His four grounds are, (1) that the
silenced opinion may be true; (2) it may contain a portion of truth,
essential to supplement the prevailing opinion; (3) vigorous contesting
of opinions that are even wholly true, is the only way of preventing
them from sinking to the level of uncomprehended prejudices; (4) without
such contesting, the doctrine will lose its vital effect on character
and conduct.

But Milton drew the line of liberty at what he calls 'neighbouring
differences, or rather indifferences.' The Arminian controversy had
loosened the bonds with which the newly liberated churches of the
Reformation, had made haste to bind themselves again, and weakened that
authority of confessions, which had replaced the older but not more
intolerant authority of the universal church. Other controversies which
raged during the first half of the seventeenth century,--those between
catholics and protestants, between prelatists and presbyterians, between
socinians and trinitarians, between latitudinarians, puritans, and
sacramentalists,--all tended to weaken theological exclusiveness. This
slackening, however, was no more than partial. Roger Williams, indeed,
the Welsh founder of Rhode Island, preached, as early as 1631, the
principles of an unlimited toleration, extending to catholics, Jews, and
even infidels. Milton stopped a long way short of this. He did not mean
'tolerated popery and open superstition, which, as it extirpates all
religious and civil supremacies, so itself should be extirpate, provided
first that all charitable and compassionate means be used to win and
regain the weak and the misled: that also which is impious or evil
absolutely either against faith or manners no law can possibly permit
that intends not to unlaw itself.'

Locke, writing five-and-forty years later, somewhat widened these
limitations. His question was not merely whether there should be free
expression of opinion, but whether there should furthermore be freedom
of worship and of religious union. He answered both questions
affirmatively,--not on the semi-sceptical ground of Jeremy Taylor, which
is also one of the grounds taken by Mr. Mill, that we cannot be sure
that our own opinion is the true one,--but on the strength of his
definition of the province of the civil magistrate. Locke held that the
magistrate's whole jurisdiction reached only to civil concernments, and
that 'all civil power, right, and dominion is bounded to that only care
of promoting these things; and that it neither can nor ought in any
manner to be extended to the saving of souls. This chiefly because the
power of the civil magistrate consists only in outward force, while true
and saving religion consists in the inward persuasion of the mind,
without which nothing can be acceptable to God, and such is the nature
of the understanding that it cannot he compelled to the belief of
anything by outward force.... It is only light and evidence that can
work a change in men's opinions; and that light can in no manner proceed
from corporal sufferings, or any other outward penalties.' 'I may grow
rich by an art that I take not delight in; I may be cured of some
disease by remedies that I have not faith in; but I cannot be saved by a
religion that at I distrust and a ritual that I abhor.' (_First Letter
concerning Toleration_.) And much more in the same excellent vein. But
Locke fixed limits to toleration. 1. No opinions contrary to human
society, or to those moral rules which are necessary to the preservation
of civil society, are to be tolerated by the magistrate. Thus, to take
examples from our own day, a conservative minister would think himself
right on this principle in suppressing the Land and Labour League; a
catholic minister in dissolving the Education League; and any minister
in making mere membership of the Mormon sect a penal offence. 2. No
tolerance ought to be extended to 'those who attribute unto the
faithful, religious, and orthodox, that is in plain terms unto
themselves, any peculiar privilege or power above other mortals, in
civil concernments; or who, upon pretence of religion, do challenge any
manner of authority over such as are not associated with them in their
ecclesiastical communion.' As I have seldom heard of any sect, except
the Friends, who did not challenge as much authority as it could
possibly get over persons not associated with it, this would amount to a
universal proscription of religion; but Locke's principle might at any
rate be invoked against Ultra-montanism in some circumstances. 3. Those
are not at all to be tolerated who deny the being of God. The taking
away of God, _though but even in thought_, dissolves all society; and
promises, covenants, and oaths, which are the bonds of human society,
have no hold on such. Thus the police ought to close Mr. Bradlaugh's
Hall of Science, and perhaps on some occasions the Positivist School.

Locke's principles depended on a distinction between civil concernments,
which he tries to define, and all other concernments. Warburton's
arguments on the alliance between church and state turned on the same
point, as did the once-famous Bangorian controversy. This distinction
would fit into Mr. Mill's cardinal position, which consists in a
distinction between the things that only affect the doer or thinker of
them, and the things that affect other persons as well. Locke's attempt
to divide civil affairs from affairs of salvation, was satisfactory
enough for the comparatively narrow object with which he opened his
discussion. Mr. Mill's account of civil affairs is both wider and more
definite; naturally so, as he had to maintain the cause of tolerance in
a much more complex set of social conditions, and amid a far greater
diversity of speculative energy, than any one dreamed of in Locke's
time. Mr. Mill limits the province of the civil magistrate to the
repression of acts that directly and immediately injure others than the
doer of them. So long as acts, including the expression of opinions, are
purely self-regarding, it seems to him expedient in the long run that
they should not be interfered with by the magistrate. He goes much
further than this. Self-regarding acts should not be interfered with by
the magistrate. Not only self-regarding acts, but all opinions
whatever, should, moreover, be as little interfered with as possible by
public opinion, except in the way of vigorous argumentation and earnest
persuasion in a contrary direction; the silent but most impressive
solicitation of virtuous example; the wise and careful upbringing of the
young, so that when they enter life they may be most nobly fitted to
choose the right opinions and obey the right motives.

The consideration by which he supports this rigorous confinement of
external interference on the part of government, or the unorganised
members of the community whose opinion is called public opinion, to
cases of self-protection, are these, some of which have been already

1. By interfering to suppress opinions or experiments in living, you may
resist truths and improvements in a greater or less degree.

2. Constant discussion is the only certain means of preserving the
freshness of truth in men's minds, and the vitality of its influence
upon their conduct and motives.

3. Individuality is one of the most valuable elements of wellbeing, and
you can only be sure of making the most of individuality, if you have an
atmosphere of freedom, encouraging free development and expansion.

4. Habitual resort to repressive means of influencing conduct tends more
than anything else to discredit and frustrate the better means, such as
education, good example, and the like. (_Liberty_, 148.)

The principle which he deduces from these considerations is--'that the
sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively,
in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number is
self-protection; the only purpose for which power can be rightfully
exercised over any member of a civilised community, is to prevent harm
to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient
warrant. He cannot be rightfully compelled to do or forbear because it
will make him happier, because in the opinion of others to do so would
be wise or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with
him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but
not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil in case he do
otherwise. To justify that, the conduct from which it is desired to
deter him must be calculated to produce evil to others.' (_Liberty_,

Two disputable points in the above doctrine are likely at once to reveal
themselves to the least critical eye. First, that doctrine would seem to
check the free expression of disapproval; one of the most wholesome and
indispensable duties which anybody with interest in serious questions
has to perform, and the non-performance of which would remove the most
proper and natural penalty from frivolous or perverse opinions and
obnoxious conduct. Mr. Mill deals with this difficulty as follows:--'We
have a right in various ways to act upon our unfavourable opinion of any
one, not to the oppression of his individuality, but in the exercise of
ours. We are not bound, for example, to seek his society; we have a
right to avoid it (though not to parade the avoidance) for we have a
right to choose the society most acceptable to us. We have a right, and
it may be our duty, to caution others against him, if we think his
example or conversation likely to have a pernicious effect on those with
whom he associates. We may give others a preference over him in optional
good offices, except those which tend to his improvement. In these
various modes a person may suffer very severe penalties at the hands of
others for faults which directly concern only himself; but he suffers
these penalties only in so far as they are the natural, and as it were
the spontaneous, consequences of the faults themselves, not because they
are purposely inflicted on him for the sake of punishment.' (_Liberty_,
139.) This appears to be a satisfactory way of meeting the objection.
For though the penalties of disapproval may be just the same, whether
deliberately inflicted, or naturally and spontaneously falling on the
object of such disapproval, yet there is a very intelligible difference
between the two processes in their effect on the two parties concerned.
A person imbued with Mr. Mill's principle would feel the responsibility
of censorship much more seriously; would reflect more carefully and
candidly about the conduct or opinion of which he thought ill; would be
more on his guard against pharisaic censoriousness, and that desire to
be ever judging one another, which Milton well called the stronghold of
our hypocrisy. The disapproval of such a person would have an austere
colour, a gravity, a self-respecting reserve, which could never belong
to an equal degree of disapproval in a person who had started from the
officious principle, that if we are sure we are right, it is straightway
our business to make the person whom we think wrong smart for his error.
And in the same way such disapproval would be much more impressive to
the person whom it affected. If it was justified, he would be like a
froward child who is always less effectively reformed--if reformable at
all--by angry chidings and passionate punishments than by the sight of a
cool and austere displeasure which lets him persist in his frowardness
if he chooses.

The second weak point in the doctrine lies in the extreme vagueness of
the terms, protective and self-regarding. The practical difficulty
begins with the definition of these terms. Can any opinion, or any
serious part of conduct, be looked upon as truly and exclusively
self-regarding? This central ingredient in the discussion seems
insufficiently laboured in the essay on Liberty. Yet it is here more
than anywhere else that controversy is needed to clear up what is in
just as much need of elucidation, whatever view we may take of the
inherent virtue of freedom--whether we look on freedom as a mere
negation, or as one of the most powerful positive conditions of
attaining the highest kind of human excellence.

To some persons the analysis of conduct, on which the whole doctrine of
liberty rests, seems metaphysical and arbitrary. They are reluctant to
admit there are any self-regarding acts at all. This reluctance implies
a perfectly tenable proposition, a proposition which has been maintained
by nearly all religious bodies in the world's history in their
non-latitudinarian stages. To distinguish the self-regarding from the
other parts of conduct, strikes them not only as unscientific, but as
morally and socially mischievous. They insist that there is a social as
well as a personal element in every human act, though in very different
proportions. There is no gain, they contend, and there may be much harm,
in trying to mark off actions, in which the personal element decisively
preponderates, from actions of another sort. Mr. Mill did so distinguish
actions, nor was his distinction either metaphysical or arbitrary in its
source. As a matter of observation, and for the practical purposes of
morality, there are kinds of action whose consequences do not go beyond
the doer of them. No doubt, you may say that by engaging in these kinds
in any given moment, the doer is neglecting the actions in which the
social element preponderates, and therefore even acts that seem purely
self-regarding have indirect and negative consequences to the rest of
the world. But to allow considerations of this sort to prevent us from
using a common-sense classification of acts by the proportion of the
personal element in them, is as unreasonable as if we allowed the
doctrine of the conservation of physical force, or the evolution of one
mode of force into another, to prevent us from classifying the
affections of matter independently, as light, heat, motion, and the
rest. There is one objection obviously to be made to most of the
illustrations which are designed to show the public element in all
private conduct. The connection between the act and its influence on
others is so remote (using the word in a legal sense), though quite
certain, distinct, and traceable, that you can only take the act out of
the self-regarding category, by a process which virtually denies the
existence of any such category. You must set a limit to this 'indirect
and at-a-distance argument,' as Locke called a similar plea, and the
setting of this limit is the natural supplement to Mr. Mill's 'simple

The division between self-regarding acts and others then, rests on
observation of their actual consequences. And why was Mr. Mill so
anxious to erect self-regarding acts into a distinct and important
class, so important as to be carefully and diligently secured by a
special principle of liberty? Because observation of the recorded
experience of mankind teaches us, that the recognition of this
independent provision is essential to the richest expansion of human
faculty. To narrow or to repudiate such a province, and to insist
exclusively on the social bearing of each part of conduct, is to limit
the play of motives, and to thwart the doctrine that 'mankind obtain a
greater sum of happiness when each pursues his own, under the rules and
conditions required by the rest, than when each makes the good of the
rest his only object.' To narrow or to repudiate such a province is to
tighten the power of the majority over the minority, and to augment the
authority of whatever sacerdotal or legislative body may represent the
majority. Whether the lawmakers be laymen in parliament, or priests of
humanity exercising the spiritual power, it matters not.

We may best estimate the worth and the significance of the doctrine of
Liberty by considering the line of thought and observation which led to
it. To begin with, it is in Mr. Mill's hands something quite different
from the same doctrine as preached by the French revolutionary school;
indeed one might even call it reactionary, in respect of the French
theory of a hundred years back. It reposes on no principle of abstract
right, but, like the rest of its author's opinions, on principles of
utility and experience. Dr. Arnold used to divide reformers into two
classes, popular and liberal. The first he defined as seekers of
liberty, the second as seekers of improvement; the first were the goats,
and the second were the sheep. Mr. Mill's doctrine denied the mutual
exclusiveness of the two parts of this classification, for it made
improvement the end and the test, while it proclaimed liberty to be the
means. Every thinker now perceives that the strongest and most durable
influences in every western society lead in the direction of democracy,
and tend with more or less rapidity to throw the control of social
organisation into the hands of numerical majorities. There are many
people who believe that if you only make the ruling body big enough, it
is sure to be either very wise itself, or very eager to choose wise
leaders. Mr. Mill, as any one who is familiar with his writings is well
aware, did not hold this opinion. He had no more partiality for mob rule
than De Maistre or Goethe or Mr. Carlyle. He saw its evils more clearly
than any of these eminent men, because he had a more scientific eye, and
because he had had the invaluable training of a political administrator
on a large scale, and in a very responsible post. But he did not content
himself with seeing these evils, and he wasted no energy in passionate
denunciation of them, which he knew must prove futile. Guizot said of De
Tocqueville, that he was an aristocrat who accepted his defeat. Mr. Mill
was too penetrated by popular sympathies to be an aristocrat in De
Tocqueville's sense, but he likewise was full of ideas and hopes which
the unchecked or undirected course of democracy would defeat without
chance of reparation. This fact he accepted, and from this he started.
Mr. Carlyle, and one or two rhetorical imitators, poured malediction on
the many-headed populace, and with a rather pitiful impatience insisted
that the only hope for men lay in their finding and obeying a strong
man, a king, a hero, a dictator. How he was to be found, neither the
master nor his still angrier and more impatient mimics could ever tell

Now Mr. Mill's doctrine laid down the main condition of finding your
hero; namely, that all ways should be left open to him, because no man,
nor majority of men, could possibly tell by which of these ways their
deliverers were from time to time destined to present themselves. Wits
have caricatured all this, by asking us whether by encouraging the tares
to grow, you give the wheat a better chance. This is as misleading as
such metaphors usually are. The doctrine of liberty rests on a faith
drawn from the observation of human progress, that though we know wheat
to be serviceable and tares to be worthless, yet there are in the great
seed-plot of human nature a thousand rudimentary germs, not wheat and
not tares, of whose properties we have not had a fair opportunity of
assuring ourselves. If you are too eager to pluck up the tares, you are
very likely to pluck up with them these untried possibilities of human
excellence, and you are, moreover, very likely to injure the growing
wheat as well. The demonstration of this lies in the recorded experience
of mankind.

Nor is this all. Mr. Mill's doctrine does not lend the least countenance
to the cardinal opinion of some writers in the last century, that the
only need of human character and of social institutions is to be let
alone. He never said that we were to leave the ground uncultivated, to
bring up whatever might chance to grow. On the contrary, the ground was
to be cultivated with the utmost care and knowledge, with a view to
prevent the growth of tares--but cultivated in a certain manner. You may
take the method of the Inquisition, of the more cruel of the Puritans,
of De Maistre, of Mr. Carlyle; or you may take Mr. Mill's method of
cultivation. According to the doctrine of Liberty, we are to devote
ourselves to prevention, as the surest and most wholesome mode of
extirpation. Persuade; argue; cherish virtuous example; bring up the
young in habits of right opinion and right motive; shape your social
arrangements so as to stimulate the best parts of character. By these
means you will gain all the advantages that could possibly have come of
heroes and legislative dragooning, as well as a great many more which
neither heroes nor legislative dragooning could ever have secured.

It is well with men, Mr. Mill said, moreover, in proportion as they
respect truth. Now they at once prove and strengthen their respect for
truth, by having an open mind to all its possibilities, while at the
same time they hold firmly to their own proved convictions, until they
hear better evidence to the contrary. There is no anarchy, nor
uncertainty, nor paralysing air of provisionalness in such a frame of
mind. So far is it from being fatal to loyalty or reverence, that it is
an indispensable part of the groundwork of the only loyalty that a wise
ruler or teacher would care to inspire--the loyalty springing from a
rational conviction that, in a field open to all comers, he is the best
man they can find. Only on condition of liberty without limit is the
ablest and most helpful of 'heroes' sure to be found; and only on
condition of liberty without limit are his followers sure to be worthy
of him. You must have authority, and yet must have obedience. The
noblest and deepest and most beneficent kind of authority is that which
rests on an obedience that is rational and spontaneous.

The same futile impatience which animates the political utterances of
Mr. Carlyle and his more weak-voiced imitators, takes another form in
men of a different training or temperament. They insist that if the
majority has the means of preventing vice by law, it is folly and
weakness not to resort to those means. The superficial attractiveness
of such a doctrine is obvious. The doctrine of liberty implies a broader
and a more patient view. It says:--Even if you could be sure that what
you take for vice is so--and the history of persecution shows how
careful you should be in this preliminary point--even then it is an
undoubted and, indeed, a necessary tendency of this facile repressive
legislation, to make those who resort to it neglect the more effective,
humane, and durable kinds of preventive legislation. You pass a law (if
you can) putting down drunkenness; there is a neatness in such a method
very attractive to fervid and impatient natures. Would you not have done
better to leave that law unpassed, and apply yourselves sedulously
instead to the improvement of the dwellings of the more drunken class,
to the provision of amusements that might compete with the ale-house, to
the extension and elevation of instruction, and so on? You may say that
this should be done, and yet the other should not be left undone; but,
as matter of fact and history, the doing of the one has always gone with
the neglect of the other, and ascetic law-making in the interests of
virtue has never been accompanied either by law-making or any other
kinds of activity for making virtue easier or more attractive. It is the
recognition how little punishment can do, that leaves men free to see
how much social prevention can do. I believe, then, that what seems to
the criminal lawyers and passionate philanthropists self-evident, is in
truth an illusion, springing from a very shallow kind of impatience,
heated in some of them by the addition of a cynical contempt for human
nature and the worth of human existence.

If people believe that the book of social or moral knowledge is now
completed, that we have turned over the last page and heard the last
word, much of the foundation of Mr. Mill's doctrine would disappear. But
those who hold this can hardly have much to congratulate themselves
upon. If it were so, and if governments were to accept the principle
that the only limits to the enforcement of the moral standard of the
majority are the narrow expediencies of each special case, without
reference to any deep and comprehensive principle covering all the
largest considerations, why, then, the society to which we ought to look
with most admiration and envy, is the Eastern Empire during the ninth
and tenth centuries, when the Byzantine system of a thorough
subordination of the spiritual power had fully consolidated itself!


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