Context

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

John Stuart Mill thought long and hard about the theoretical and practical problems connected with liberal democratic government. Actual service in the British Parliament brought him into intimate contact with applied politics. Beneath the surface of nineteenth century British political experience, Mill came upon the one problem he considered central to everyone’s long-range interests. The clarity with which he stated this problem in On Liberty earned him a justified reputation as defender of the basic principles of liberalism. “The struggle between Liberty and Authority,” he wrote, “is the most conspicuous feature in the portions of history with which we are earliest familiar, particularly in that of Greece, Rome, and England.” The individual’s relation to the organized power of state and popular culture requires that people draw the line between what in principle rightly belongs to each. The liberal task concerns how people are to meet the necessary demands of organized life without destroying the rights of the individual.

Mill mentions two ways in which people gradually subdued sovereign power after long and difficult struggles. First, select groups within a given political domain worked to compel the rulers to grant them special immunities. Second (and historically a later phenomenon), people managed to win constitutionally guaranteed rights through some political body which represented them. These historical tendencies limited the tyrannical aspects of sovereign power without raising questions about the inherited right of the sovereign to rule.