The human faculties of perception, judgment, discriminative feeling, mental activity, and even moral preference, are exercised only in making a choice. He who does anything because it is the custom, makes no choice. He gains no practice either in discerning or in desiring what is best. The mental and moral, like the muscular powers, are improved only by being used. The faculties are called into no exercise by doing a thing merely because others do it, no more than by believing a thing only because others believe it. If the grounds of an opinion are not conclusive to the person’s own reason, his reason cannot be strengthened, but is likely to be weakened by his adopting it: and if the inducements to an act are not such as are consentaneous to his own feelings and character (where affection, or the rights of others are not concerned), it is so much done towards rendering his feelings and character inert and torpid, instead of active and energetic.
He who lets the world, or his own portion of it, choose his plan of life for him, has no need of any other faculty than the ape-like one of imitation. He who chooses his plan for himself, employs all his faculties. He must use observation to see, reasoning and judgment to foresee, activity to gather materials for decision, discrimination to decide, and when he has decided, firmness and self-control to hold to his deliberate decision.
—John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, ch iii (1859)
When John Stuart Mill talks about judgment he does not mean the continuous acts of consumer choice with which modern society abounds–Doritos or potato chips, Coca-Cola or Mountain Dew with your lunchtime sandwich? Likewise he spurns the binary political choices that our society permits: liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat, red or blue? Instead he means moral choices which underlie our lives and the society in which we live. Whether life will glide down the path that society pre-defines for it, or whether one will be sufficiently self-actuated to chose a path of one’s own and attempt to shape society rather than be shaped by it. All the apparent choices of our consumer society, and the political alternatives that stream constantly from American cable news are false choices if they cause us to avoid confronting decision-making in an earnest way–they defy rather than promote the process of genuine judgment. Among Mill’s contemporaries, Thoreau and Emerson seem clearly to grasp his message in America. On the continent, Arthur Schopenhauer also proves a kindred spirit, particularly when he spurns the conventions of modern society and expresses his solidarity with the original thinkers of times past by.
But Mill is also writing at a time when political parties had reached the apex of power in Britain. The authority of the state passed hands from Tories to Whigs and then Liberals, and their parliamentary debates strongly shaped the nation’s political discourse. Mill’s own political discourse is formidable, and it is hard to look back on the debate of his age without an admiring note for the intellectual rigor and erudition found in it–qualities which seem so utterly lacking in our own times. Mill is a partisan. Mill understands political parties as essential to the democratic order. And yet in On Liberty and other works he takes an unmistakable swipe at the world of partisan discourse and sounds a warning siren against it: too much of this will poison you, he says. Think for yourself, and don’t let your party think for you.
Of the English novelists of Mill’s day, Elizabeth Gaskell seems to do the best job of bringing Mill’s partisan dilemma to life. Her last novel, and one of her best, is Wives and Daughters–left not quite finished when she died in 1865. She populates this work with characters one might expect to find in a Dickens novel: a Tory country squire, a Whig peer, young Radicals, two young sons of certain promise setting out in the world. But the character of Squire Hamley is a real gem. In chapter iv, Mrs. Gaskell gives us his essence:
He was imperfectly educated, and ignorant on many points; but he was aware of his deficiency, and regretted it in theory. He was awkward and ungainly in society, and so kept out of it as much as possible; and he was obstinate, violent-tempered, and dictatorial in his own immediate circle. On the other side, he was generous, and true as steel; the very soul of honor in fact. He had so much natural shrewdness, that his conversation was always worth listening to, although he was apt to start by assuming entirely false premises, which he considered as incontrovertible as if they had been mathematically proved; but, given the correctness of his premises, nobody could bring more natural wit and sense to bear upon the arguments based upon them.
But as the novel unfolds, we learn that Squire Hamley’s gruff adherence to social prejudice, in sum, his failure to think and act for himself and give vent to his better nature, cause incalculable harm, cheapening and immiserating his own existence. Squire Hamley was a man at length who “let the world, or his portion of it, choose his plan of life for him,” with tragic consequences. No doubt Mrs. Gaskell is taking a swing at the social conventions of the rural gentry and even at the Tory party. But that is not her primary objective, because she also presents us with a Whig landowner limited by his politics.
And in a like way, for Americans today the political and moral dichotomies that stream on our airways are often cheap and illusory, imposing blinders on the choices that are essential to our own happiness and the happiness of our society as a whole. Our technological development has made life easier for the great majority, has given more leisure time and has opened opportunity. But has it liberated or enslaved the vital process of judgment that lies at the heart of human liberty? John Stuart Mill, one suspects, would be fascinated by the technologies and distressed by the use we have made of them.
Listen to Johannes Brahms’s Clarinet Trio in A Minor, op. 114 (1891), in a performance by the Oscine Trio (clarinetist Maiko Sasaki, cellist Reenat Pinchas and pianist Eugene Joubert):