John Stuart Mill on Liberty and Control

By Joseph Hamburger | Go to book overview

Chapter Nine
MILL'S RHETORIC

No writer, it is probable, was ever more read between the lines. It seems hardly becoming in an author who has attained the highest rank of influence in the intellectual councils of his time, to write as if there were something behind which, as a veracious thinker on human life and morals, he would like to say, but which, under the piteable bigotry of society, must be reserved for an age that does not persecute its benefactors. (James Martineau)

THERE IS SOME IRONY in considering that On Liberty, a book that pleads for candor and openness, is also a book in which Mill disguises, conceals, equivocates, and seeks to mislead. He wrote less as one seeking to present the truth than as a practitioner of rhetoric seeking to shape beliefs. This dimension of Mill's writing was recognized by R. P. Anschutz: “As war is sometimes said to be an extension of policy, so philosophy for Mill was an extension of politics. If, then, he sometimes failed to declare his whole mind on some speculative question, he was merely practicing in philosophy the usual and necessary reticence of the politician.”1 This meant that, in spite of his admiration for Socrates, Mill avoided following the Socratic example of forthrightly stating doubts and opinions about the most sensitive issues and sacred matters. Mill, instead, was cautious and reticent.

There should be no surprise that he practiced this kind of rhetoric in On Liberty and in other writings, for he was trained to it from an early age. When composing his autobiography he recalled his father's comments on his written analyses of Greek and Roman orators, including Demosthenes. Mill emphasized that his father especially “pointed out the skill and art of the orator—how everything important to his purpose was

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1
R. P. Anschutz, The Philosophy of J. S. Mill (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1953), 62. Anschutz thought Mill was mainly concerned with politics of the day, but his observation is also relevant to the cultural politics in which Mill also was engaged. Mill's practice of rhetoric, including the concealing of some opinions, has also been noted by Justman, though in his interpretation, what Mill played down was a committment to the ideals of civic republicanism. The Hidden Text of Mill's Liberty, 9, 10, 27–28, 33, 62, 113, 118, 121, 144–45, 156. Janice Carlisle also recognizes the rhetorical dimension of On Liberty. She suggests that he sought to conceal the sources of his own thought and his motives for writing as they affected his thought. Thus she attributes to him a wish to manipulate: John Stuart Mill and the Writing of Character, 211–14.

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