QOTD (2011-01-30); or, Variations on J.S. Mill

This passage is from the middle of the third chapter of J.S. Mill’s On Liberty:

It will not be denied by anybody that originality is a valuable element in human affairs. There is always need of persons not only to discover new truths and point out when what were once truths are true no longer, but also to commence new practices and set the example of more enlightened conduct and better taste and sense in human life. This cannot well be gainsaid by anybody who does not believe that the world has already attained perfection in all its ways and practices. It is true that this benefit is not capable of being rendered by everybody alike; there are but few persons, in comparison with the whole of mankind, whose experiments, if adopted by others, would be likely to be any improvement on established practice. But these few are the salt of the earth; without them, human life would become a stagnant pool. Not only is it they who introduce good things which did not before exist; it is they who keep the life in those which already existed. If there were nothing new to be done, would human intellect cease to be necessary? Would it be a reason why those who do the old things should forget why they are done, and do them like cattle, not like human beings? There is only too great a tendency in the best beliefs and practices to degenerate into the mechanical; and unless there were a succession of persons whose ever-recurring originality prevents the grounds of those beliefs and practices from becoming merely traditional, such dead matter would not resist the smallest shock from anything really alive, and there would be no reason why civilization should not die out, as in the Byzantine Empire. Persons of genius, it is true, are, and are always likely to be, a small minority; but in order to have them, it is necessary to preserve the soil in which they grow.

Thus both a suspicion of elitism and dedication to ferreting it out and critiquing it where it lies, and a suspicion of the analytical systems which assume that human history is a trajectory of self- and society-improvement, come into conflict with the principles which underpin a belief in Teaching as Vocation, and the reasons for which one answers the call. But we can solve this problem. The thing is, if we’re to believe in teaching as something we do to make our world better, and to inculcate in the next generation a desire to do the same (Mill is as emphatic as I about the power of education to instill these kinds of vague moral principles), we need to place ourself on some kind of teleological timeline that suggests the future can be better than the present and the past. But we must also in so doing refuse to allow ourselves to believe that we are in any way exceptional; that our age, our civilization, our people, our culture, our system of government, is so much nearer perfectibility than others that we close ourselves off to the possibility of further bettering. This, Mill might say (and I, though cautious with regard to his classical liberalism and its relevance to the modern nation-state in an era of late-stage capitalism, am inclined to agree), would be why we need to ensure the freedom of thought and action of dissenters—but I’m interested by the fact that he doesn’t also discuss how the dissenters (even the dissenting geniuses) and their morals and ideals might play a role in what we teach our children.

It is nevertheless true, though, that the greatest good for the greatest number comes when the greatest number of children feel called to better the world their children will inherit.

(my gratitude to JN for providing some of the framework for this post)

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