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Zulfikar Ghose is a poet, novelist and literary critic. He is Professor Emeritus in the English Department at the University of Texas at Austin

Questions of liberty are as relevant today as they were when first discussed by philosophers

The state and its individual citizens have mutual obligations in democratic countries — the state to protect the individual’s freedom to say or do what he or she believes is right, the individual to say or do nothing that will harm other citizens. The problematic question of the state’s duty to shield individual liberty against the forces of intolerance has been addressed by philosophers from ancient times, from Socrates, say, to Bertrand Russell in the modern era. The most lucid, passionately argued, and brilliantly written book on this subject is John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, which, published in 1859, elaborates upon and complements the work of the intellectual enlightenment that had begun to be advanced in 17th-century Europe, and furthers the dissemination of progressive ideas which are still, in the 21st century, critically relevant to the role of government in countries as politically different as the United States of America and Pakistan.

First, a few background notes before a discussion of Mill’s ideas. It was in the 17th century that, enriched by expansionist imperialism, the more aggressively acquisitive nations, like England, saw the emergence of a middle class that grew as the plundered resources from the colonies increased the nation’s wealth. No longer downtrodden peasants, but upwardly mobile citizens of a new bourgeoisie, the aspirations of this growing class, newly liberated from poverty, had to be accommodated in an evolving political structure. There was popular pressure to share the national wealth that had been monopolised by the aristocracy and the church. Philosophers like Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, who laid the foundations of British thought in metaphysics and in political philosophy, initiated the rationale that proposed a just and equitable new order for society. Some of our current terminology of political philosophy — equal rights, social contract, freedom of expression, sovereignty — originates from this period and is copiously discussed in Hobbes’s Leviathan, published in 1651, and still strikingly relevant to the human political condition.

The battle that was fought in England before the people’s rights could be won was a real and bloody one: the civil war that briefly established a republic under a Puritan dictator, Oliver Cromwell, who did in England in the 17th century what the Taliban did in Afghanistan in the 20th: executed the king, closed down the theatres, imposed a dress code on women, even suppressed Christmas festivities. Hobbes saw the horrors of religious intolerance and military opportunism, and proposed the terms of a covenant between the government and the people that would preserve national peace and prosperity. Parts of his Leviathan read like the template of a detailed constitution for a progressively inclined new nation.

Leviathan was preceded by Bacon’s great opus, Novum Organum (1620), written as a series of aphorisms of which the first is a bold, almost defiant, assertion that sets the tone of the empiricist argument which was to become the vital bloodstream of British thought: “Man, being the servant and interpreter of nature, can do and understand so much and so much only as he has observed in fact or in thought of the course of nature: beyond this he neither knows anything nor can do anything.” Hobbes echoes this idea in his first chapter: “there is no conception in a man’s mind which hath not at first, totally or by parts, been begotten upon the organs of sense.” It is a bold declaration of a secular epistemology, and implicitly rejects Old Testament theology. No longer to be observed as divine inspiration, reality is nothing more than the play of forms on human senses. The unstated idea behind the assertion is the principle of the separation of state and church.

Ordinary perception, not revelation; the logic of common sense, not the dogma broadcast by the church: that is the new basis of human understanding. In order to achieve that understanding, Bacon’s approach is to “begin with physics and end in mathematics”: we accumulate material data and submit that tabulated objective information to statistical analysis. Metaphysics, suggests Bacon, is an investigation into the “eternal and immutable” forms, which has to be conducted as a detailed analysis of the accumulated facts related to an idea. Taking as an example the idea of heat, he presents an exhaustive tabulation and analysis of the facts related to heat and thus creates an early model of what is universally accepted as the scientific method.

In his “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding”, Locke states that since “it is unavoidable to the greatest part of men, if not all, to have several opinions, without certain and indubitable proofs of their truth”, therefore, a nation cannot limit the “diversity of opinions” by proscribing ideas that one sectarian group, even if it is the majority, considers blasphemous. Freedom of expression is asserted as a central principle of an ordered, civilised society. Liberty of the individual becomes established as an inviolate concept and an obsessive theme in the intellectual debate of the time. Chastened by the civil war and the succeeding republican years when Cromwell, calling himself Lord Protector, ruled like a supreme ayatollah till he died, England restored the monarchy in 1660, disinterred Cromwell and beheaded his corpse, launched the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and passed the Bill of Rights which restricted the king’s powers.

Goodbye the defunct divine right of kings, goodbye fanatic Puritan usurper, welcome the secular earthly rights of the people! It seemed a new constitution had been proclaimed that practiced what had been preached in Leviathan.

The debate begun by Hobbes was taken up with greater passion by writers of the 18th-century Enlightenment in France, whose thinking opened the way for the American Revolution in 1776 and the French Revolution in 1789. Liberty became the most important word. Notably, it is the first word of the rallying cry of the French Revolution, “Liberté, egalité, fraternité”. Take away the covenant guaranteeing people’s liberty, and the government becomes an oppressive instrument of a Cromwellian lust for power that wears a pious Puritan mask. Hobbes describes what happens in a country where “men live without other security” than what protection they can manage with “their own strength and their own invention” — what without the help of government they can themselves do, like building high walls around their houses, hiring armed guards, and silently putting up with the outrageous violence let loose upon society by sectarian groups, persuaded by priests that their violence is a sacred duty. In such a country, says Hobbes in a famous passage in Leviathan, “there is no place for industry”; ignorance thrives there, its people have “no knowledge of the face of the earth”, nor do the arts and sciences flourish; its people live in “continual fear, and danger of violent death”, their life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”

Coming two centuries after Hobbes, John Stuart Mill’s theme is the same. He states in the first sentence of On Liberty that his subject is “the nature and limits of the power which can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual.” The year is 1859. Two years after the Indian Mutiny, Victoria rules the Britannic waves and is about to acquire a whole lot of jewels for her crown. After its revolution, France can’t make up its mind if it wants democracy, anarchy or monarchy, and has settled for the illusion of empire under an upstart who grandly styles himself Napoleon III. European imperial plunder of India, Africa and Latin America is in full swing and slaves are toiling under a sun that never sets. Read in the context of world history (and remember that Karl Marx will launch the idea of a “dictatorship of the proletariat” in his Das Kapital in 1867), Mill’s On Liberty is an illuminating text, and is as relevant today as it was in its time, for it is about and for the individual. And that individual is you.

The individual, says Mill, must be protected “against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion”. No government has the right to impose “its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them”. A society may believe its collective opinion to be sacrosanct but it has no right to penalise an individual who speaks against it. Freedom of conscience is “an indefeasible right”. You should be free to profess whatever belief you choose without needing to be accountable to others, and it is the state’s obligation to guarantee that right. It should be remembered that Jews and Catholics had been suppressed in England, that women were still an oppressed minority; therefore, Mill’s championing of the individual is not a mere academic point but an urgent concern for every individual in the nation.

Mill insists that the state may not compel you to accept some belief held by the majority because it considers your acceptance will make you happier, healthier and wiser. The pursuit of happiness, etc, is entirely the individual’s private business and he may choose what belief he fancies to further that pursuit provided his actions do no harm to others. The individual must be granted “absolute freedom of opinion and sentiment on all subjects, practical or speculative, scientific, moral, or theological”.

Having outlined what he calls “the appropriate region of human liberty”, Mill asserts his central doctrine: “No society in which these liberties are not, on the whole, respected, is free, whatever may be its form of government; and none is completely free in which they do not exist absolute and unqualified.”

He admits that this doctrine is not new — indeed, it is familiar to readers of Hobbes or Thomas Paine; what is repugnant to Mill is that in his own time there should exist “engines of moral repression” — he singles out religion, especially the revival of the spirit of Puritanism — which seek to “control every department of human conduct”. He proceeds to argue, persuasively and at length, why such suppression is wrong, and utters this irrefutable truth: “All silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility”. People who reject your ideas, refuse to listen to your reasoning, brand you a heretic, call you a witch and burn you, do so while ascribing a papal infallibility to their own ideas. Look at history, suggests Mill: every age has “held many opinions which subsequent ages have deemed not only false but absurd”; and don’t think there’s anything special about your faith, says Mill, for what makes a person a Christian in London “would have made him a Buddhist or Confucian in Pekin”. He goes on to point out that “the majority of the eminent men of every past generation held many opinions now known to be erroneous, and did or approved numerous things which no one will now justify”.If Christian believers are unimpressed by his argument, he cites the example of their own founder, Jesus. This person who you believe to be “the Almighty in person”, Mill asks rhetorically, he “was ignominiously put to death, as what?” And he answers: “As a blasphemer”. Moreover, he points out, the high priest who accused Christ of “the blackest guilt” was as sincere as the pious priests “now are in the religious and moral sentiments they profess”. Look at what these priests did to your Son of God, and now you think it’s justified for priests to demand the exclusion of people from society by accusing them of the same wrong for which Christ was nailed to the cross? Mill relates how in mid-19th-century England the church and the judiciary supported laws that penalised the individual for expressing religious dissent, and he gives the example of a man who in 1857 was sentenced to 21 months’ imprisonment for uttering blasphemy against Christianity, and also of a judge at the Old Bailey who, during jury selection, rejected two men because they were atheists. Victorian England is associated with prudery. What was boasted of “as the revival of religion”, Mill saw as “the revival of bigotry”.

His observation of the appalling bigotry of his time led him to write an impassioned passage against religious intolerance and the “general atmosphere of mental slavery” and “mental despotism” created by a society sunk in the mire of an inflexible dogmatism. It is one of the finest passages of English prose — precise, thoughtful, logical and persuasive, which could in fact also be said of the whole book.

Reading On Liberty today, Mill’s England morphs into present-day America. It is astonishing how close is the resemblance between the Victorian bigots and the American Evangelicals and the group known as the lunatic right. Even as I was writing these concluding paragraphs I heard, during a break to listen to the news on the radio, a story about an American film-maker, Laura Poitras, who had just received a MacArthur Genius Award. Because she has made documentaries in Iraq, Yemen and Guantanamo Bay to do with America’s ‘war on terror’, every time she returns to the US, she is held back by immigration and homeland security officers and interrogated as if she were herself a potential terrorist threat; she appears to be harassed for documenting that which the US government would rather its people did not see — this in a country that proclaims itself the freest in the world and boasts of a constitution that guarantees free speech.

I thought it quite disgusting that the government should attempt to impede the freedom of an individual to express herself, and returned to Mill’s On Liberty. My eyes fell on some lines I’d underlined earlier: “it is essential that different persons should be allowed to lead different lives… Even despotism does not produce its worst effects, so long as individuality exists under it; and whatever crushes individuality is despotism, by whatever name it may be called, and whether it professes to be enforcing the will of God or the injunctions of men.”