Explain the following lines from On Liberty by John Stuart Mill.  "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...

Explain the following lines from On Liberty by John Stuart Mill.


"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, discrimination to decide, and when he has firmness and self-control, to bold to his deliberate decision."


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davmor1973 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Mill is simply saying that human beings, in the fullest sense of the term, are those who choose their own path in life. They think for themselves; they choose what they want to do, what they want to be. In doing so they use every human faculty, exercising that unique capacity for liberty that is the sole preserve of the human animal. Once someone has made their decision as to what they're going to do in life, they need to be conscientious in making sure that they do what they're supposed to, resolutely sticking to their initial plan through firmness and self-control.

Other people, however, simply go with the flow, drifting through life on a sea of other people's ideas and opinions. Sometimes it's all too easy just to go along with what everyone else does, either out of habit or through a misguided veneration for tradition. We often do things in life, not because we've chosen to do them, but because we're expected to, forced to live out a certain role determined by accidental factors such as race, nationality, family ties, and social position.

If we succumb to society's expectations of what we ought to do, then we're not using all our faculties as human beings—our freedom to choose, to think for ourselves, to determine our own path in life. All we're doing is imitating what other people do, in much the same way that an ape copies human behavior. Mill argues that as human beings we really should be better than that.

droxonian eNotes educator| Certified Educator

John Stuart Mill wrote this work originally as an explanation of how his own system of utilitarianism might relate to a better-functioning free society. Mill was convinced that individualism was the most important element in achieving a free, equal, and profitable society, which this quote bears out.

In this comment Mill is saying that anyone who allows "the world, or his own portion of it"—that is, the part of society within which he finds himself, or the people he frequently associates with—to dictate what he should do with his life may as well be an ape, because the only one of his faculties actually being put to use is that of imitation. He is a "sheep," simply copying the movement of the masses.

By contrast, people who are committed to choosing their own plans and making their own decisions are putting their faculties to proper use, and justifying their increased mental capacity as compared to animals. Mill recommends that, in choosing our own plans, we must make careful choices and be discriminate in our decisions, also to ensure we are not swayed from our choices when we have conviction.

accessteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This famous quote comes from John Stuart Mill's great work On Liberty, so I have moved this question to the appropriate group. In this quote, the author makes a comparison between two types of people. According to this quote, the world is full of two groups of individuals. The first lets the world choose their "plan of life" or destiny for them. They are thus described as passive characters who don't need any other skills or abilities except the "ape-like one of imitation." The author is saying that those who let the world decide their future need only to know how to imitate.

However, the second group of people are those who choose their destiny or plan for themselves. These people, in contrast to the "ape-like" imitators, must use all of their gifts and abilities to be successful. They need to be shrewd observers, they need to have wisdom to know how to act and above all they must have self-control and firmness to stick to their decision to be active and choose their own path in life.