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On Liberty and Other Essays (Oxford World's Classics) 1st Edition

4.4 out of 5 stars 16 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0199535736
ISBN-10: 0199535736
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Editorial Reviews

About the Author

John Stuart Mill was an English philosopher, politician and economist most famous for his contributions to the theory of utilitarianism. The author of numerous influential political treatises, Mill's writings on liberty, freedom of speech, democracy and economics have helped to form the foundation of modern liberal thought. His 1859 work, On Liberty, is particularly noteworthy for helping to address the nature and limits of the power of the state over the individual. Mills has become one of the most influential figures in nineteenth-century philosophy, and his writings are still widely studied and analyzed by scholars. Mills died in 1873 at the age of 66.

Gray is a professor of European thought at the London School of Economics. He is a regular contributor to the Guardian and the Times Literary Supplement.
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Product Details

  • Series: Oxford World's Classics
  • Paperback: 632 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford Paperbacks; 1 edition (May 15, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0199535736
  • ISBN-13: 978-0199535736
  • Product Dimensions: 7.7 x 1 x 5.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.9 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (16 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #357,797 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
This Oxford collection of four definitive essays by John Stuart Mill, arguably the most famous Victorian writer who could be called a philosopher, gives an excellent profile of a rigorous social reformer and political thinker. The subjects of these essays--liberty, utilitarianism, government, and women's rights--are interrelated to the extent that they reveal a man with a sharp sense of history and its impact on the methods and mores of contemporary society. Mill, after all, was of Charles Dickens's generation and therefore witnessed an era in which the British crown was inclined to manifest its power through tyranny in its efforts to maintain a costly worldwide empire.

Mill's basic concern is liberty, both social and civil. He identifies a difference between freedom and liberty--freedom is the state of being free, while liberty is the freedom that a government or governing body grants its people. Briefly a member of Parliament (the workings of which are described in great detail in "Representative Government") and heavily informed and influenced by Alexis de Tocqueville's "Democracy in America," Mill recognized that the most important (and perhaps the only proper) function of a government is to protect the liberties of its citizens. However, people generally get the form of government they deserve; if laws they allow to go unchecked become the tools of despotic powers, they have only their own ignorance or indolence to blame.

An enumeration of Mill's finer points may suffice as a summary of his ideas:

1. Freedom of the press and freedom of expression are essential rights of man. You don't have to accept as true what other people say, but let them say it because there's always the chance that they're right and you're wrong.
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Format: Paperback
The editor of this collection states that when read together, the four essays contained in this Oxford World's Classics edition reveal Mill to be an organized thinker on par with Marx. I'm not quite so sure of that, but I will say the collections feels thematically consistant and well thought out. Readers should not be scared off because Mill is considered a "classic" text. The tone of these essays, with the possible exception of "Utilitarianism" is pretty light, and Mill even occassionally makes an effort to crack a joke. In "On Liberty" and "Utilitarianism" we see an abstract breakdown of his belief structure where he tries to answer questions like, "When is it justified for government to interfere in individuals lives?" and "What is the overarching goal of society?" After he attempts to answer these questions he gets more specific by applying the principles to how government should operate in "Representative Government" and in "The Subjection of Women". Some concepts now outdated, but on the whole, still a relativly strong argument. It is particularly frustrating to see Mill talking about proportional representation in "Represenative Government" and knowing that the logic of that argument has still not made much headway here in the United States well over a hundred years later. Mill's systematic thinking makes this collection worth owning.
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Format: Paperback
It is surprising to me how many people assume that 'On Liberty' was written before or during the American Revolution - Mill was certainly influenced by the spirit of American liberty, which was variously romanticised and adapted in Britain and Europe during the nineteenth century. Published in 1859, 'On Liberty' is one of the primary political texts of the nineteenth century; perhaps only the writings of Marx had a similar impact, and of the two, in today's world, Mill's philosophy seems (please note that I only said 'seems') the one that is triumphant.

One of the interesting ideas behind 'On Liberty' is that this may in fact be more the inspiration of Harriet Taylor (later Mrs. J.S. Mill) than of Mill himself; Taylor wrote an essay on Toleration, most likely in 1832, but it remained unpublished until after her death. F.A. Hayek (free-market economist and philosopher) noticed this connection. Whether this was the direct inspiration or not, the principles are similar, and the Mills were rather united in their views about liberty.

'On Liberty' is more of an extended essay than a book - it isn't very long. It relates as a political piece to his general Utilitarianism and political reform ideology. A laissez faire capitalist in political economy, his writing has been described as 'improved Adam Smith' and 'popularised Ricardo'. Perhaps it is in part the brevity of 'On Liberty' that gives it an enduring quality.

There are five primary sections to the text. The introduction sets the stage philosophically and historically. He equates the histories of classical civilisations (Greece and Rome) with his contemporary England, stating that the struggle between liberty and authority is ever present and a primary feature of society.
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John Stuart Mill's chief concern is how individual liberty, which he held to be paramount, can be reconciled with public utility or, in other words, in delineating the tensions that arise between the public and private sphere in modern society. He expounds, with much clarity and insight, the feasability, as well as the desirability, of state intervention in the affairs of individuals. He defines freedom, above all, to be the freedom to think and act as one sees right (provided that this does not encroach on the rights of others). His essay "Utilitarianism", is an incisive explication of the philosophy of utilitarianism developed by Mill's father, James Mill and the jurist and philosopher, Jeremy Bentham, which holds "the greatest happiness for the greatest number" as the chief aim of social organisation. "On Representative Government", which should not be mistaken for direct democracy (rule of the people by the people) he covers the mechanisms of state action. "On the Subjection of Women" reveals Mill to have been one of the pioneering feminists, as his arguments for the emancipation of women continue to be adduced by leading feminist philosophers today. Admittedly, one cannot agree with Mill on everything. This is because the "liberalism" of the nineteenth century, with its stress on work, discipline and duty, is almost totally opposed to the "open-minded" liberalism of today. Furthermore, Mill's theories are filled with flaws. Nevertheless, these essays are documents of profound importance and relevance and repay close study.
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