Mill on Coleridge
We do not pretend to have given any sufficient account of Coleridge; but we hope we may have proved to some, not previously aware of it, that there is something both in him, and in the school to which he belongs, not unworthy of their better knowledge. We may have done something to show that a Tory philosopher cannot be wholly a Tory, but must often be a better Liberal than Liberals themselves; while he is the natural means of rescuing from oblivion truths which Tories have forgotten, and which the prevailing schools of Liberalism never knew. Read the rest…
—John Stuart Mill, “Coleridge” (1840) in The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, vol x, pp 57-59 (1985).
It’s certainly not one of Mill’s better known works, but his short essay on Coleridge offers a surprising guide to the liberal mind. For Mill, the liberal is hard to imagine without the conservative, the two are an inevitable pairing, living in a sort of political symbiosis. Liberalism seeks inevitably to define itself through an interaction with conservative thought; that process is in fact essential to understanding it. Moreover, Mill’s plea, “Lord, enlighten thou our enemies” should be on the lips of every advocate of America’s new government. It’s tempting to view the Republican opposition as a force of increasing irrelevance (a recent poll shows that young voters’ approval of the Congressional G.O.P. has now fallen into single digits), but Mill suggests to us that this is a short-sighted perspective. The machinery of a democratic society operates best when there is healthy and vigorous debate, and the voice of the “class of property” is an essential part of that debate. It matters tremendously that the voice of reason be present, that the conservative position be advocated by those who have a solid grounding in conservative principles and values rather than by the hysterical doomsayers who now rule the airwaves. Following the 2008 elections, the conservative faction is engaged in a perfectly normal effort to redefine itself. At present a shrill irrational element has seized the center stage, and that fact threatens the equilibrium of the nation’s political debate–as Mill says “their weakness fils us with apprehension, not their strength.” Many in the liberal camp are happy to look on this spectacle with a measure of glee, but that is misplaced. Particularly in a time of economic instability, voices of reason and prudence are needed and the risk presented by demagogic political rhetoric is great. Most Americans fervently hope for the success of Barack Obama. But if Mill is right, then the resurrection of a clear conservative vision to help guide the nation’s political dialogue may be essential to Obama’s success.