Liberty or Conscience (2006, 2023)

“Both physiocrats and Adam Smith,” according to historian Karieev, “recognized in theory that freedom is one of the best means for healing all social ills, and believed that there is harmony of interests between individuals and social classes: it is only necessary to grant each person the freedom to act in their own interest… and from the interaction of individual aspirations arises the ‘natural order’ that underlies economic life… creating harmony of interests for the benefit of all.” This Liberal belief spread in our country at the end of the 1980s and prevailed after 1991. It is succinctly and vividly expressed in John Stuart Mill’s classic treatise On Liberty (1861), which is critically examined in this essay.


I. Introduction

In its long tossing and turning between successive ‘ideals’, or better to say idols, the Russian intelligentsia favoured two: the socialist and the liberal. If it can be said that thought is either profound or (as it was customary to say in Russia) ‘courageous and honest’, then everything ‘courageous and honest’ censed before one of these two altars. If the domination of socialism in Russia sufficiently demonstrated the emptiness and incapacity of socialist ‘ideology’ for cultural creativity, Russian liberalism had no opportunity to prove itself until the nineties of the XX century, when the Bolshevik government fell, the power lay literally on the road and was picked up by those who, by chance, were closest to it. The banner of the new rulers was liberalism, understood quite literally, in the spirit of the famous saying ‘Laissez passez, laissez faire!’ [1] The results of fifteen years of liberal rule were sad: It did not bring the prosperity that the preachers of the ‘invisible hand of the market’ had hoped for to the country; it gave free rein to everything bad and weakened even that weak bond of law, which was in socialist Russia; nobody even remembered about respect for the individual, so dear to true liberals… And we, the thinkers who have retained our mental independence (if there are still such in ‘free Russia’), have had the opportunity to think for the first time whether the liberal order is as unconditionally beneficial as was thought in Russia in earlier years.

I have chosen John Stuart Mill as an impartial, faithful and eloquent witness. If he is little known in modern Russia, and his classic essay ‘On Liberty’ has not even been published in full (the only modern translation I know of cuts off a little before the middle), his thoughts can be safely called the gospel of modern liberalism. I don’t know whether directly or indirectly, but Mill’s thought has had the strongest influence on the doctrine that today calls itself liberal, and the dogmatic significance of his writings is comparable only to the dogmatic significance of Marx’s writings. Mill, like Marx, was a creator of Utopia, only the Utopia was not socialistic, but liberal; and as a Utopian thinker he gained immense power over minds. The fantastical nature of the constructions, combined with the falsely scientific methodicality of the techniques, gives tremendous power, at least in these days, with their craving for all things ‘scientific’. Even sorcerers and summoners of the dead are required by this age to be scientific; and both Mill and Marx, with their outward sobriety and methodicality, fully satisfy this requirement…

It must be said, however, that Mill’s understanding of freedom is richer than the modern one; there is still a place in his dreams for culture — removed for lack of necessity from the list of goals and values of our day. Mill is certainly inconsistent in this respect — but it is an inconsistency natural to a son of his time. I don’t think anyone in that era understood the truth that is obvious to us: that to recognise God is to recognise the unequal value of the manifestations of human nature; to recognise the higher and the lower; to recognise inequality, hierarchy and culture, and to reject Him is to reject all of the above. (It should be noted that Nietzsche was a naïve atheist, or not an atheist at all, because when he rejected some values, he immediately put others in their place, which is unthinkable for a true atheist, for if he believes in anything, it is in conventionality, and generally speaking, in the absence of any values in the world). In this respect, Mill is indeed inconsistent: he still recognises the value of higher cultural forms, although he derives them from the ‘free development of human nature’, which — in truth and according to the Christian understanding of it — is easily convertible to good and to evil. Higher development is not the fruit of ‘free development’, but is instead the fruit of external coercion or internal struggle. Compared to the current naïve era, Mill is also unusual in his distrust of democracy, which he considers to be the power of a multitude of fools, leading to the depersonalisation of man — and as a curative opposition to which he offers his understanding of freedom as the ultimate personal uniqueness. In this, of course, he is not the teacher of our ‘freedom-loving’ age. However, much else in his writings has been assimilated with surprising completeness by modern thought, and, moreover, serves as a basis for men of action, for leaders and the crowd that echoes their thoughts.

I am speaking in this manuscript about the spiritual meaning of liberalism. However, it is commonly believed (and liberals themselves believe this to be the case) that the meaning of liberal policy is precisely to leave all this dubious ‘spirituality’ to previous generations, as well as to those who have not gone far from them in their development. ‘Liberal’, as we know, is an attitude toward Christianity that sees little difference between it and, say, a ‘voodoo cult’, and demands at best equal tolerance for gospel and daemons. But the denial of faith is also faith; the denial of an answer is also an answer, albeit a kind of answer; so liberalism’s reticences — in judgements about spiritual matters — are themselves eloquent. I am only surprised that the question of the spiritual content of liberal doctrine has not been asked before, and that no one — it seems — has yet discerned the threat hidden in this doctrine. [2] In calling Pushkin a ‘liberal conservative’, of course, they wanted to say only good things about him: it was implied that he was equally devoted to freedom and tradition. Thus, liberalism was seen as a commitment to all freedom, self-government, and in this sense opposed to all the doctrines that asserted that human freedom could and should be limited by outside interference. For people of the 19th and early 20th centuries, the argument about freedom and unfreedom was, it must be admitted, a purely mental, theoretical dispute. Neither ‘freedom’ nor ‘slavery’ in their pure form were known to the Europeans of earlier times, and by these concepts the disputing parties meant either a slightly greater or a slightly lesser interference in human life on the part of the state and the Church. Until the beginning of the 20th century no European had seen a country  quite enslaved, and until the end of this century no European had seen one quite liberated. We have seen both, and so the conversation about ‘freedom and unfreedom’ can continue with a new knowledge that not only our great-grandfathers, but even our fathers, did not have.

Of course, what I call ‘liberalism’ in these notes is a rather complex and heterogeneous whole. After all other currents of thought have ceased to exist in the West, it can be said of Western man that he either thinks liberally or not at all. Therefore, all the remaining mental energies were invested in the development of one root idea: how to settle down man in the absence (or unrecognisability) of universally binding values. Within this doctrine there is even a certain diversity of opinions — as it was within the old Christian theology; moreover, at the most superficial acquaintance with the history of ‘liberal thought’ one cannot but be surprised by this diversity… However, all these are academic subtleties and nuances, unfamiliar to the masses, who from the whole liberal catechism more and more fully assimilate only one provision: ‘everything is allowed that is not prohibited by law’, and the boundaries of this ‘allowed by law’ are increasingly expanding, leaving only two sanctuaries: state interests and private property. ‘Everything that does not cause direct harm to the state and other people’s property, as well as to life is allowed’, this is how the common understanding can be expressed. This list is strangely supplemented by a concern for ‘morality’, the meaning of which is simply incomprehensible in a society of daily and widespread seduction — unless one thinks of Mill, who gave some who had ‘reached the legal age’ the right to seduce and be seduced, while others, who were not yet mature, proposed to be freed from temptation in order to be thrown into the sea of temptation when they reached the specified age. The meaning of this unnatural concern for the morality of infants is quite unclear to me, because, firstly, its preservation in a society of permissiveness is by no means possible, and, secondly, this morality of youth is proposed to be preserved only to be solemnly thrown away on the day of reaching adulthood. ‘Immorality is the privilege of adulthood’, is the only thing one can conclude when looking at these endeavours.

The triumph of liberalism has shown that there is a kind of opposition between law and conscience that the preachers of the liberal idea had not realised in the 19th century. The state has no right to look after the mental welfare of its subjects, said Mill, primarily because no one on earth can say in advance that good is good and evil is evil. This is what Mill believed. However, the removal of the category of spiritual goodness, or more broadly, moral fitness, the spiritual fitness of citizens, had consequences that were not expected. Legislation became accustomed to consider citizens as rubber balls, flying and reflecting from each other and from the boundaries set for them in accordance with certain laws, and began to consider the interior of these ‘balls’ as empty or, at least, not subject to research and ordering. Needless to say, this view of man turned out to be purely false and the retribution for this lie did not take long to come. People are not empty balls. Their movements are determined not by external laws, but primarily by their internal composition, which, through the efforts of liberalism, has been taken out of the scope of the state. Whoever wrote:

‘Russian natures are broad:
Our ideal of truth
Doesn’t fit into the narrow moulds
Of juridical beginnings’,

was laughing at an overly serious subject. The relation of law and conscience is such that where conscience has power, law limps, and where law triumphs, conscience is brought to silence. Either ‘truth’ or ‘legal beginnings’, or some intermediate state between the two — where relations between neighbours are determined by conscience, and only duties towards distant ones by law. Mill (and after him the whole series of liberal legislators, up to and including those who have already legalised same-sex marriage before our eyes and allowed such ‘spouses’ to raise children) believed that concern for the mental well-being of subjects could not succeed simply because no one on earth knows a good to be good until it has been shown by experience. This deification of experience is natural to an age whose whole power was founded on the conquest of nature by experience and exercise, but inexcusable to a thinker who claims to be striving for truth — which is somewhat different from power, and, moreover, very rarely leads to power, except for moral one. In endeavouring to bring the greatest order into the state, the liberal legislator has abandoned all order in the human soul.

But let us hear what Mill says, and make some notes in the margin of his essay on liberty.

II. Mill speaks

It is necessary to defend, writes Mill, the individual against prevailing opinions, thoughts, and patterns of behaviour; it is necessary to give the individual liberty to develop exclusively according to his inclinations. [3]

A view sublime and false, from which all the pernicious conclusions have been drawn in our time. Society is not only a ‘corporation’ of adult and independent citizens; it always remains an educational institution for those who are not yet ready for independence or who are not capable of being independent at all. ‘The formation of the individual according to his inner inclinations’ is an incapable dream with which, unfortunately, many minds are poisoned these days. What is to be understood by these ‘inner inclinations’? The primitive and indistinct impulses of the child? The desires and awakening passions of the adolescent? All are inclinations, and all can be followed. Without qualitative evaluation and the selection determined by this evaluation, the talk about ‘natural inclinations’ is meaningless; a society consisting entirely of individuals who develop exclusively in accordance with their natural impulses would be a fair of various uglinesses. But evaluation, qualitative judgement, is something that Mill (and all liberals of his persuasion after him) try to avoid.

The authorites, he goes on to say, may restrain the individual from harming others, but have no right to concern itself with his material or mental well-being. The independence of the individual in what concerns only himself must be absolute. [4]

This is a rule suitable only for a highly developed society, the foundations of which — cultural and moral foundations — were laid by a purely illiberal order, i. e. one that applied qualitative assessments to matters and people, not to mention the assessment most hated by Mill in terms of the spiritual good of the individual. Mill, and after him the whole series of liberal dreamers, is convinced that the superiority of the higher goods over the lower is so firmly internalised by mankind that its supremacy will never be shaken. ‘Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign’, or rather, it could be sovereign only if it is necessarily directed — I will not say: towards good, since this word frightens many people — but towards higher values, towards qualitatively superior values, towards (ultimately) the more complex rather than the simpler. If in a number of generations we managed, in some unknown way, without any coercion (and education and teaching are based on coercion, until the one being educated and taught learns to see the benefit in them) to obtain personalities, invariably, under all circumstances, striving for the higher and more complex… perhaps there would be no great harm in ‘inalienable human rights’. The higher man can be given rights. But the development of the higher man is always endangered, and in times of liberal democracy in particular; precisely because the masses left to themselves choose not the higher and complex, but the lower and simpler, namely, that in which it is possible to practise without rising one iota above the animal level. Mill, of course, does not forget to stipulate that the requirement of absolute freedom is applicable only to ‘human beings in the maturity of their faculties’. [5]

However, this caveat misses the point. Some will reach maturity before the legal deadline, others will never reach it — and, as far as we can tell, the latter will outnumber the former. So freedom, as a good available to societies capable of self-improvement through free and equal discussion, [6] can never be enjoyed by too many — unless we put a new meaning to the concepts of ‘discussion’ and ‘self-improvement’ and ‘freedom’ itself.

Mill says:

‘[T]he appropriate region of human liberty […] comprises, first, the inward domain of consciousness; demanding liberty of conscience, in the most comprehensive sense; liberty of thought and feeling; absolute freedom of opinion and sentiment on all subjects, practical or speculative, scientific, moral, or theological’.

The firmness of the wording is not less than the vagueness of the content here. The author, as always, takes the qualitative goodness of human actions out of brackets and treats the relations between people as if they were bodies of Newtonian physics. This is probably the highest achievement of the so-called ‘scientific approach’ towards mankind: everything seems to be taken into account except the main thing — the inner meaning and intrinsic value of actions… It does not follow from anything that ‘freely exerted influences’ will be good; or — to use the language of liberals themselves — will prove invariably beneficial to society, and that ‘absolute freedom’ to disseminate imperfect opinions will lead necessarily to social self-improvement. I would say that the obnoxious dogmatism of these claims is forgivable only to the cabinet scholar, who knows only by hearsay about bad passions, and passions in general, and about criminals and the criminal will only from newspaper reports…

We read further:

‘The only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs’. [7]

As can be seen, Mill was sincerely convinced that all the good and all the evil that man can do to man is limited to the realm of the material. ‘That which can be given and taken away’ is the only thing the law should deal with in determining the rights and duties of persons. Everything else is unimportant, unnecessary, and almost non-existent.

Indeed, the liberal view of man is the most external. Of all human things, only certain external actions are considered, to which full freedom must be granted, as long as this freedom does not turn into a crime. The sphere of soul life, the sphere of moral life, the sphere of spiritual and moral mutual influence is excluded from consideration completely. It is somehow tacitly recognised that all the harm that one person can inflict on another is of an entirely material nature. This harm, and only this harm, is punishable by law; all the rest is relegated by Mill (i. e. liberalism) to opinions whose dissemination and acceptance have no significance for society and individuals. Even more, it is argued that diversity of opinions is the guarantee of ‘progress’, i. e. mental growth, since no one can know in advance which opinion is true and which is false. So, one must try and err, and in the end, the true opinions will triumph. However, I’ve misspoken. Mill quite vociferously (as far as the era allowed him) declares that there is no such thing as pure truth in the world, that the truth recognised by the majority is just as obscure and untrustworthy as the truth of the minority, which that majority persecutes as ‘heresy’. Hence, the reference to the fact that diversity of opinion is supposedly conducive to truth is unconscionable and is made more for the sake of the readers’ peace of mind. Mill himself, in my opinion, is not at all concerned with the attainment of any ‘truth’, except in a purely utilitarian sense (we assume this or that to be ‘truth for purposes of action’, he says, ‘and on no other terms can a being with human faculties have any rational assurance of being right’).

And here are beautiful words in defence of free speech:

‘If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind. […] But the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error’.

It is eloquent; it is noble; it denounces breadth of thought. But I cannot agree, thinking of the many seducers of mankind (which it has seen since the freedom of judgement preached by Mill spread everywhere), that ‘by suppressing false opinion, we lose the opportunity of enjoying the purity of truth revealed in its collision with falsehood’. This is some unscrupulous interpretation of the Gospel: ‘it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!’

There the mournful recognition of the inevitability of temptation — here the invitation of temptation into the world for the sake of the greater triumph of truth. This is some frivolous play with truth and the conscience of mankind, based — so far as it concerns all that transcends geometry — on an extraordinary optimism about truth and about human nature, and still more on a schoolboyish and exceptionally cerebral, I cannot say otherwise, conception of human life. Imagine how I see it: on one side of the scale — corrupted children (for the corruption of which so much is done in today’s highly moral, liberal and democratic West), and on the other side — ‘the clearest feeling and the most vivid impression of truth, produced by its collision with lies’. This is some kind of perverted aesthetic outlook; it is close to what Konstantin Leontiev, offended by liberal Western vulgarity, sometimes pronounced: that both evil and suffering must be, so that good and truth may shine brighter in their midst. But Leontiev’s aesthetic sense is undoubted, and for him these were not empty words — unlike Mill, who sees neither evil nor suffering introduced into the world by evil, and draws his curved and straight lines in full confidence that people and geometrical figures differ little from each other.

Mill says:

‘We can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavouring to stifle is a false opinion; and if we were sure, stifling it would be an evil still. […] There is the greatest difference between presuming an opinion to be true, because, with every opportunity for contesting it, it has not been refuted, and assuming its truth for the purpose of not permitting its refutation. Complete liberty of contradicting and disproving our opinion, is the very condition which justifies us in assuming its truth for purposes of action; and on no other terms can a being with human faculties have any rational assurance of being right’.

To this I would reply that freedom of discussion, refutation, and rejection, applied without exception to all truths, must very soon leave society without truths at all — at least, without those which ‘exceed geometry’. It cannot be that Mill (in saying: Mill, I, as always, mean the liberal in general) did not know that all accepted truths concerning the realm of man are neither subject to reasonable proof nor to reasonable refutation. Reason has nothing or very little to say about either the individual or the history of mankind; refutation of ‘strictly rational’ views of the individual and of history should not even be pursued, since they fall one after another with enviable regularity. One might even suspect (as Dostoevsky and others suspected) that human truths, or rather truths about humanity, are irrational, beyond reason, and that neither geometry nor dialectics has anything to do with them; Socrates might have believed that ‘the bliss of the soul is in correctly composed speeches’, but we cannot be so gullible…

On the one hand, Mill declares that ‘mankind have attained the capacity of being guided to their own improvement by conviction or persuasion’; on the other hand, that, for example, ‘on any matter not self-evident, there are ninety-nine persons totally incapable of judging of it, for one who is capable; and the capacity of the hundredth person is only comparative; for 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.’

It is hard not to see the contradiction here. Free and equal discussion, when the opinions of ninety-nine out of a hundred are not worth considering because they have no connexion with the truth, yet are carefully and attentively listened to, must inevitably become a mockery — and it does, as we well know from experience. Having made such a sad generalisation of the human faculty of judgement, however, Mill adds reassuringly that ‘experience and discussion’ have the power to correct false opinions, and draws an origin of wisdom in which experience matters far less than the opinions of those ninety-nine interlocutors mentioned above. In brief, he is wise who has spent his life listening to the criticism of his opinions by others, accepting the correct and discarding the false; listening to all who have anything to say about a subject, and on the basis of this miscellaneous multitude of judgements making his own. ‘No wise man ever acquired his wisdom in any mode but this; nor is it in the nature of human intellect to become wise in any other manner’. It would be little to say that this is not true at all. The picture described by Mill is much more reminiscent of the work of a popular representation with deliberative rights under a powerful monarch, for whom, in fact, the opinions of his subjects, even those who are not strong in judgement, are of value, because they come from places and situations that are not known to him from personal experience, than of the history of the acquisition of wisdom. Wisdom is acquired from conversations with the wise in the first place. For its acquisition is necessary, in addition, restraint in judgement and constant readiness to review and reject our own opinions. He who wants to become wise, indeed, listens a lot, but he listens to few.

Mill states:

‘If even the Newtonian philosophy were not permitted to be questioned, mankind could not feel as complete assurance of its truth as they now do. The beliefs which we have most warrant for, have no safeguard to rest on, but a standing invitation to the whole world to prove them unfounded. If the challenge is not accepted, or is accepted and the attempt fails, we are far enough from certainty still; but we have done the best that the existing state of human reason admits of; we have neglected nothing that could give the truth a chance of reaching us: if the lists are kept open, we may hope that if there be a better truth, it will be found when the human mind is capable of receiving it; and in the meantime we may rely on having attained such approach to truth, as is possible in our own day. This is the amount of certainty attainable by a fallible being, and this the sole way of attaining it’.

This reasoning would be fine if it applied exclusively to those truths which are obtained dialectically, i. e. as Socrates taught us to do, or if everything in the world were amenable to the Socratic method. However, there are whole areas excluded from it — mainly those connected with the interpretation of the experience of the human soul and the meaning of human life, and moreover those in which ‘certainty’, in its human sense, has no place… Here too, perceptions succeed one another; but they appear and spread in a very different way from the accepted truths (received opinions, as Mill puts it) of the ‘Socratic’ order. To demand ‘free discussion’, i. e., rational discussion, for things irrational, not under the control of reason, is to demand their abolition, avoiding only calling things by their proper names. If Mill, i. e., liberalism, were really concerned with the fate of religious and metaphysical questions, he should have limited the area in which references to ‘the present state of human reason’ are valid, and specified rules for discussing those things which cannot be decisively confirmed or refuted by experience. But Mill does nothing of the sort, and demands freedom of rational discussion for religious truths, knowing full well that these truths are derived from irrational paths. [8]

And here are the beautiful and resounding words:

‘However unwillingly a person who has a strong opinion may admit the possibility that his opinion may be false, he ought to be moved by the consideration that however true it may be, if it is not fully, frequently, and fearlessly discussed, it will be held as a dead dogma, not a living truth’.

But the call for freedom of discussion in the realm of the metaphysical, which is what Mill is talking about here, has little to offer humanity, since everything we know about metaphysical matters (if we can use the word ‘know’ here) has its source in the religious inspiration and religious experience of a relatively small number of individuals, which most of us can only join or not join. ‘Reasonable’ discussion of metaphysical questions can be guided only by purely external indicia of truth, i. e., primarily by the criterion of the individual’s spiritual goodness, which is rejected as unacceptable. Metaphysical truths in our world are evaluated according to the fruit they bear on this side of death, and in no other way; truths that bear ugly and deadly fruit must be doubted… ‘The tree is known by his  fruit ’, Christ taught us. In regard to metaphysical questions, one can either adhere to the above rule, or one can indiscriminately deny the very existence of such questions, and all who still look upon them as worthy of attention are to be despised — and removed, if possible, from all public affairs. ‘Freedom of discussion’ in this area very quickly turns into the very thing from which Mill drew as the worst example in the history of human opinions: the struggle against heresy, the ultimate aim of which, however, is not to save the souls of heretics, but to silence them.

Due to the circumstances of his time, it should be noted, Mill demanded some freedom for metaphysical debate in general, as if he were concerned with some other, extra-Christian metaphysical construction. Liberalism still retains this appearance of a noble defender of free debate — a modern Socrates, to say the least — but it is high time to say that from the very beginning it was not a question of the right to freely oppose one religious view to another, one metaphysics to another, one moral (all higher religions are inseparable from morality) rule to another, but the freedom to deny Christianity, or, to put it more broadly, to deny, expel from the world, and prevent the spread of any religious outlook. When Mill spoke of ‘freedom of debate’, he was referring to this very freedom. Do you remember the argument described by Lieskov between the teacher Varnava Prepotensky and the Protopope Tuberozov? ‘You… you want to exile us all to Siberia!’, Varnava told the Protopope. ‘And what do you want? You want us to disappear’, calmly answered Tuberozov, to which the teacher did not dare to reply, because he wanted exactly that, and only for the public’s peace of mind — just like J. S. Mill — spoke of ‘freedom for all opinions’.

By the way, since I’ve already touched on this. In the part of his essay where Mill defends ‘freedom of discussion’, he refers first to Socrates, then to Christ. Socrates, says Mill, was accused by his contemporaries of ‘impiety and immorality’, Christ of ‘sacrilege’. And yet, he adds, their accusers ‘were, by all appearances, not bad people – not worse than people usually are, but rather better; people who fully possessed, or even more than fully, the religious, moral and patriotic feelings of their time and their people; belonged to the same type of people who, at all times, including ours, have every reason to live life, enjoying the respect of others’.

The comparison, in my opinion, is unfair — the same as the call for ‘free discussion’, which — once started — will be reduced to the destruction of the subjects and concepts that were to be discussed. Socrates and Christ, unlike the positivists and atheists of the 19th century, preached positive values, and therefore have remained in history as forces alive and active up to our time. [9]

‘If all men but one were of the same opinion, and only one man of the opposite, mankind would have no more right to silence that person than it, if it had the power, would have the right to block the mouth of mankind’, writes Mill in defence of silenced truths. In reading this, and many passages like it, one must bear in mind that Mill (read: liberalism) speaks of ‘truth’ in a very peculiar and conventional sense. ‘In the interests of action, we take as truth that opinion which, under full freedom of discussion and refutation, has not been refuted’, is roughly how he puts it. Consequently, we are not talking about ‘truths’ at all, not even about reliable opinions, but about temporary assumptions suitable for basing our actions on them. More than that — to the already conditional, provisional, temporary, based only on temporary utility, he adds:  ‘We can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavouring to stifle is a false opinion’ — i. e., continuing the thought, we can never be sure of the truth of our opinions either. The measure of the truth of an opinion becomes its ability to withstand criticism from contemporaries; the opinion of contemporaries, their outlook and level of mental development are made the final judges of our opinions. In essence, this is not new at all: it is exactly what human wisdom has proclaimed in all known times. What is unusual and new is that Mill demands the submission of the wise man to the crowd (‘that miscellaneous collection of a few wise and many foolish individuals, called the public’), while at the same time speaking of ‘defence against the tyranny of the majority’…

Mill devotes many pages to the defence of ‘freedom of conscience’. In this notion he puts no less peculiar a meaning than in the notion of ‘truth’ — a meaning, I note, accepted and internalised by liberalism down to the present day. In the first place, it is freedom to discuss, refute, and reject prevailing opinions; freedom from belief, if you will, as opinions that are not subject to critical scrutiny; freedom from all authority. Mill considers three possible cases: the beliefs of the majority are false; the beliefs of the majority are true; the beliefs of the majority contain only part of the truth; and in all cases finds the freedom to discuss and refute prevailing opinions curative.  All his force and all his eloquence (and even his hidden guile) he invests in the consideration of the first case. There is no doubt that he is convinced beforehand: the opinions of the majority (in his time, at least) are false; those of the persecuted (however conventional the word ‘persecution’ as applied to middle 19th century England) minority are true. Pointing to Socrates, to Christ, to the early Christians, Mill says: ‘What seemed evil to the majority was actually good; what seemed to most to be a lie was in fact the truth’. Socrates was the founder of all future philosophy; Christ was the benefactor of mankind; both were persecuted and killed by their contemporaries. So now, says Mill, are persecuted those ‘who does not profess belief in a God (any god is sufficient) and in a future state’. In saying this he is insincere. If Christ was really the benefactor of mankind; if Christianity, which seemed to his contemporaries false and evil, was really true and good — where in this list of those persecuted for the truth is there room for the deniers of God and eternal life? There is either no such place; or Mill speaks of ‘truth’ in a very special sense (which is partly the case); or all references to Christ and Christians are lightweight and intended to mislead the reader. Even considering the third and last assumption (both generally accepted and unaccepted truths are only partly true), he cannot calmly refer to Christianity (whose Founder he has just called ‘the benefactor of mankind’). To the imaginary question, ‘Does not Christian morality contain a whole, not a partial truth?’ Mill replies, with the greatest irritation, and in a different tone from the calm he had used before, that, first, no complete and self-contained morality can be extracted from the Gospel, as it contains more ‘the impressiveness of poetry or eloquence than the precision of legislation’; that, secondly, for a system of morality one must look to the Old Testament, which, however, is in many respects quite a barbarous work, written for a barbarous people; thirdly, that the morality of St. Paul is essentially the morality of adaptation to the pagan state; that what we call ‘Christian morality’ is mainly the morality of the early Middle Ages — a reaction against the pagan world, with nothing original in it. Not only that, Christian morality is insignificant in its public content, and says nothing about the duties of the individual towards the state, personal dignity and sense of honour.

Finally, Mill explodes — don’t forget, just a few pages after calling Christ the benefactor of mankind and putting Christian martyrs on the same list as modern ‘persecuted’ atheists:

‘I think it a great error to persist in attempting to find in the Christian doctrine that complete rule for our guidance, which its author intended it to sanction and enforce, but only partially to provide. I believe, too, that this narrow theory is becoming a grave practical evil, detracting greatly from the value of the moral training and instruction, which so many wellmeaning persons are now at length exerting themselves to promote. I much fear that by attempting to form the mind and feelings on an exclusively religious type, and discarding those secular standards (as for want of a better name they may be called) which heretofore coexisted with and supplemented the Christian ethics, receiving some of its spirit, and infusing into it some of theirs, there will result, and is even now resulting, a low, abject, servile type of character, which, submit itself as it may to what it deems the Supreme Will, is incapable of rising to or sympathizing in the conception of Supreme Goodness.’

There is no need to point out that, in spite of all the thoroughness and scientific style of his presentation, Mill knows his aims in advance, and is not going to risk proving and rationalising his preferences — i. e. applying to them the method which he so strenuously defends when speaking of religion and metaphysical assertions in general. ‘God and future life’, ‘Christian morality’ are things unconditionally condemned, and there can be no proof of them. Religion, and religion alone, must show reason the credentials it has received from reason; and when reason asserts something that cannot be confirmed or disproved by everyday experience, no special assurance is required. Mill knows that God and future life are false, and presents no evidence for this ‘knowledge’, which there can be none. It is striking that Mill is already so far removed from religion and religious ethics (in this case, Christian) that he seeks and demands from it what can never, under any circumstances, be in it — namely, some ‘public considerations’, ‘promoting a sense of honour’ and the like. This is what distinguishes paganism from the higher religion, that in it the public good is not yet separated from the good of the soul, ethics from law. But Mill, born in the Christian state, is already far from its foundations infinitely, and in the state religion of Rome, and what is there — in Islam is ready to see if not religious (religion occupies him only as a dangerous enemy), then at least an ethical ideal. ‘As Europe rejected the Christian inoculation, the legacy of old Rome became more and more apparent, and finally Christ was gone, but Rome remained’.

Let us restrain the individual from doing harm to others punishable by law, but let him otherwise follow his own inclinations and put his ‘freely formed opinions’ into practice, says Mill, [10] as if forgetting that ‘his own inclinations’ do not manifest themselves in the void, but in society, and are, if not lessons, then examples for others. Indeed the dream of liberalism, its image of society, is an airless void in which dead stones governed by the laws of mechanics glide along their trajectories. A stone will neither seduce nor corrupt a stone — if, of course, these words say anything to Mill and all liberals. Only with such a belief can one paint a picture of a society in which all possible human inclinations and modes of behaviour will ‘freely compete’, and believe that such ‘competition’ will lead to a better… [11]

‘[I]t is the privilege and proper condition of a human being, arrived at the maturity of his faculties, to use and interpret experience in his own way. It is for him to find out what part of recorded experience is properly applicable to his own circumstances and character. The traditions and customs of other people are, to a certain extent, evidence of what their experience has taught them; presumptive evidence, and as such, have a claim to this deference: but, in the first place, their experience may be too narrow; or they may not have interpreted it rightly. Secondly, their interpretation of experience may be correct but unsuitable to him. Customs are made for customary circumstances, and customary characters: and his circumstances or his character may be uncustomary. Thirdly, though the customs be both good as cus-toms, and suitable to him, yet to conform to custom, merely as custom, does not educate or develop in him any of the qualities which are the distinctive endowment of a human being. The human faculties of perception, judgment, discriminative feeling, mental activity, and even moral preference, are exercised only in making a choice. He who does anything because it is the custom, makes no choice. He gains no practice either in discerning or in desiring what is best. The mental and moral, like the muscular powers, are improved only by being used. The faculties are called into no exercise by doing a thing merely be-cause others do it, no more than by believing a thing only because others believe it. If the grounds of an opinion are not conclusive to the person’s own reason, his reason cannot be strengthened, but is likely to be weakened by his adopting it: and if the inducements to an act are not such as are consentaneous to his own feelings and character (where affection, or the rights of others are not concerned), it is so much done towards rendering his feelings and character inert and torpid, instead of active and energetic.

He who lets the world, or his own portion of it, choose his plan of life for him, has no need of any other faculty than the ape-like one of imitation. He who chooses his plan for himself, employs all his faculties’.

All this is beautiful, but it seems to be taken from some other world. What kind of personality will ‘evenly develop all its abilities’ if at the very beginning it is not directed to the path of growth and self-restraint? And how many personalities are capable, if not of an upward movement, then at least of a steady, honourable life? And how many such personalities, having no support in themselves, have found it in custom, in generally accepted opinions and values? Can a man be a judge of himself, and how many are there who can?

Certainly, in Mill’s homeland, Puritanism has nurtured a strong personality, convinced of its cosmic loneliness, accustomed to fatalism, seeing in a desperate struggle against a possibly hostile fate the last salvation. ‘We may all be predestined to perdition. God is inexorable and, generally speaking, has no need of man. It is only by the luck or failure of our earthly affairs that we can, as far as it is humanly possible, determine our afterlife destiny. So let us work fiercely for the glory of this cruel God!’ This desperate outlook developed a breed of strong and self-confident individual who was indeed a harsh judge of himself and others, and a man of this very breed, only completely freed from the idea of God, is drawn to us by Mill. This man has no passions, or they are suppressed to the point of complete indistinguishability; he makes his own plan, erects his own building; ‘his own gardener, his own flower’; and develops himself in that and as much as he wishes… The question is whether this human breed is reproducible in itself, without the religious soil which nourishes it. Time, I believe, has answered that question. Liberalism believed that forever, or for a long time, it would have to deal with a strong and highly developed personality capable of conscious self-restraint, and it saw in the Christian soil, in the state and the Church, only a hindrance to the development and existence of this personality. Life, however, has shown that a highly developed and capable of self-restraint personality does not owe its appearance to itself; that it is only the fruit of many years of cultural development, and Christian morality in this development was not a ‘hindrance’ but a cause.

The clarity and scientific appearance of the statements conceals the true essence of Mill’s essay. In spite of all impressions, we have before us a liberal utopia which, as in all utopias, conceals an inherent crack. ‘The individual’, proclaims Mill, ‘should be absolutely free; with the exception of the age for which submission to authority and the study of other people’s experience befits; but as soon as a person reaches the age of maturity determined by law, man should be freed from all authority, from all other people’s experience, from all moral (not to mention legal) coercion, and can only follow the inclinations of one’s nature in all ways’. There is a whole nest of contradictions in this statement.

Firstly, it is assumed that a person, upon reaching a certain age (which, moreover, is equal for all and can be determined by law) becomes a fully mature being, capable of striving without compulsion for the good and rejecting without compulsion the bad.

Secondly, it is assumed to be self-evident that a person left to himself will strive exclusively for all-round development in accordance with his nature, for ‘lofty thoughts and uplifting feelings’. (Moreover: why is it assumed at all that development in accordance with one’s nature, i. e., according to one’s strongest aspirations, amounts to lofty thoughts and uplifting feelings? ‘Individuality is the same as development’, writes Mill. But why should this development be necessarily positive? And it is altogether rather strange for such a free-thinking mind, which rejects the prevailing idea of good and evil, to refer to ‘lofty’…)

Thirdly, according to Mill, in a society of permissiveness (of which he must rightly be regarded as the spiritual father) there should be a special corner for those who have not yet reached the ‘legal age’ — in which they would develop under the protection of the authority and experience of previous generations; it is hard to imagine! How to distinguish between the world of permissiveness and the world of restrictions and moral compulsions? How to avoid outside influences?

Fourthly and finally, why should the example of the ‘most peculiar individuals’ be necessarily good? What about the far more powerful and contagious bad example? One cannot assume that the most perfect (say) educational and upbringing system will never fail.

One cannot fail to see that, as regards man and society, Mill is a boundless optimist. He takes on faith, without proof, the boldest assumptions about man and his nature, namely, the best, most flattering assumptions. In Puritanism, which claims that ‘man’s nature is fundamentally corrupted’ (a Christian position from which Puritanism draws only extremely far-reaching conclusions), Mill sees not a ‘partial truth’ that should be supplemented and corrected, but a pure lie, and says bluntly: there is nothing wrong with man’s nature, it is only necessary to give him unlimited freedom to act in accordance with this nature. However, if man’s nature were really as good as liberals believe, I believe human history would have a somewhat different view. Christianity speaks not unreasonably of a corruption, a crack in human nature, which does not allow man to be satisfied with an animal existence, nor to surrender to good or evil in purity. There is a certain force that always deflects the compass of human desires, wherever its arrow points — to good or evil. Man is a creature who constructs buildings and destroys them himself, and he does both with equal pleasure. Therefore, whether we look upon man as an animal being, as a ‘mortal god’, or as an evil creature, we are wrong in all cases. Christianity honestly recognises the inherent duality of man — philosophy, with its fear of all dualism, prefers not to see it, and it depends only on the prevailing mood of the age which side of human nature is to be accepted as the only one, the essence of man. Today it is preferred to see in man a destructive daemon; but a few centuries ago it was preferred to look upon him as a mortal god…

The principle of ‘free discussion’ of truths which can be neither proved nor disproved by logical or experiential means, or of such truths, the ‘experiential way’ of verifying which requires whole human lives or centuries, must ultimately lead to the rejection of these truths altogether, or — which is the same thing — to the proclamation of the equal value of all opinions that can be expressed. I do not think that this conclusion is inconsistent with Mill’s intentions. As a condition for the free development of the human personality, he clearly believed that all controversial, and ultimately essential, questions of human existence should be put ‘outside the bracket’. A society that has as its main goal the protection of the interests of the minority, of every human personality, regardless of the values it recognises, may well become a soft bed, a cosy stable, but it will never again be a fence and protection for culture. The liberally understood state ceases to be the home of a peculiarly understood, exclusively recognised, jealously guarded culture, and becomes a warm nest for the breeding of ‘individuals’ who are more concerned with self-assertion than with culture or the future fate of the state that cares for them. This, too, is a kind of ‘ideal’ whose proponents have been numerous in Russia in recent centuries; but it is an ideal hostile to all cultural development. It is surprising that Mill, who is so concerned about the originality of personal development, about ‘lofty thoughts and uplifting feelings’, [12] did not see the direct connection between culture and personal development, in the former did not feel the soil for the latter and forgot that without good soil, no ‘higher personality’ will develop; and on the exhausted ground, taking advantage of ‘unlimited freedom’, weeds will rise… In defence of the individual, culture must be defended; in defence of culture, inequality and selection must be defended, because no culture that we know of has grown up on the basis of a ‘free contest of truths’; on the contrary, from the very beginning it has followed the path of restriction and self-restraint, of jealous defence of the supreme and sacred. The fact that humanity gathered around different altars does not abolish the need for altars altogether. In culture, however, Mill seems to see nothing but a set of more or less false opinions, which only constricts the individual on his way to ‘varied development’. Man is assumed to be operating in a void, ‘comprehensively developing’… what, in fact, is he supposed to develop? He is expected to ‘follow the properties of his nature’. However, in the absence of a nourishing and supporting cultural soil, we are entitled to suspect that the ‘properties of his nature’ will most likely be taken as the dominant inclinations, if not passions. At least the experience of the second half of the 20th century, when liberalism took over the whole of Europe and a certain part of Asia, justifies this suspicion.

We must admit that Mill’s ideal of unlimited individual freedom still has a positive justification — unlike modern liberals, for whom ‘permissiveness’ has become a value in its own right. Not only that, but this justification is completely irrelevant to the whole reasoning and legal system of society preached by Mill. It is remarkably inconsistent — and therefore has not retained value for disciples.

‘In sober truth, whatever homage may be professed, or even paid, to real or supposed mental superi-ority, the general tendency of things throughout the world is to render mediocrity the ascendant power among mankind. In ancient history, in the Middle Ages, and in a diminishing degree through the long transition from feudality to the present time, the individual was a power in himself; and If he had either great talents or a high social position, he was a considerable power. At present individuals are lost in the crowd. […] The only power deserving the name is that of masses, and of governments while they make themselves the organ of the tendencies and instincts of masses. This is as true in the moral and social relations of private life as in public transactions. Those whose opinions go by the name of public opinion, are not always the same sort of public: in America, they are the whole white population; in England, chiefly the middle class. But they are always a mass, that is to say, collective mediocrity. And what is still greater novelty, the mass do not now take their opinions from dignitaries in Church or State, from ostensible leaders, or from books. Their thinking is done for them by men much like themselves, addressing them or speaking in their name, on the spur of the moment, through the newspapers. I am not complaining of all this. I do not assert that anything better is compatible, as a general rule, with the present low state of the human mind. But that does not hinder the government of mediocrity from being mediocre government’.

The sincere and bitter feeling with which Mill says this is not familiar to the liberal of our time. As a ‘man of the masses’, this liberal is quite content with the present state of affairs. The spiritual poverty and mental inferiority of the democratic crowd suits him just as long as the ‘freedom of unrestricted form-making’ remains intact, just as long as the right of the individual to deviate from everything universal as he pleases is not affected. Mill’s passing remark that ‘the average person has not only mediocre mental abilities, but also inclinations’ is completely alien to him… The modern West dogmatically and thoughtlessly reproduces Mill’s preaching of personal uniqueness at all costs, without giving any thought to why it needs this uniqueness. For Mill, originality seems to have been a means rather than an end, though his belief that ‘an excess of personal originality invariably accompanied the high development of personality’ and that ‘eccentricity’ as such is ‘an antidote to the tyranny of public opinion’ can only be surprising in our time. [13]   From the fact that the personalities of the past were highly developed and peculiar, it does not at all follow that peculiarity leads to high development. Snow is white and cold; does it mean that whiteness is chilling?..

A man of transitional era, Mill still valued much of what had been rejected by later generations — the highly elevated original personality, independence and strength of judgement — although he no longer saw the causes that gave rise to what he valued in man. His admiration for the individual is inconsistent and groundless within the value system he affirmed, as modern liberalism has shown, which has no requirements or evaluations regarding the individual’s originality, the power of judgement, and in general regarding the general level of man in a ‘democratic’ society, encouraging — as I had occasion to write long ago — ‘blind freedom of form-making’, freedom for empty shells… Mill’s preferences were shaped by another epoch, i. e. they were unconscious and therefore valuable. Minus these preferences, ‘radical liberalism’ becomes an unconsciously dogmatic doctrine that demands some negative conditions for the sake of forgotten positive values. Strange to say and strange to hear: liberalism used to proclaim some positive values after all! Today, when the demand for ‘empty freedom’, freedom for its own sake, is becoming louder and louder, this is hard to believe. The disciples, as it always happens, learnt only what was consistent and systematic, i. e. dead, from the works of their teacher (and looking at the modern West, one cannot but believe that Mill is its real spiritual teacher, whose role is comparable only to that of Marx in the East). All of his irrational but essential preferences were rejected for the sake of a systematic, but easy to digest, trumpery. It is not by chance that Konstantin Leontiev willingly and sympathetically refers to Mill’s writings in their critical part in relation to modern society — precisely that part which is of no value to the modern liberal who demands freedom for its own sake.

When Mill speaks of ‘good‘, he is not quite frank with the reader. Within himself, he undoubtedly understands ‘good’ to mean ‘the highest utility’. Consequently, when Mill writes that individuals left to themselves will compete freely, and in this free competition the ‘best’ will win and perhaps be internalised by society — he does not weigh his words. In saying ‘the best’ he means ‘the most useful’; but is it proved that the best, i. e., the qualitatively superior, is always ‘useful’? Mill certainly has an answer to this: he is talking about the far benefit of society, not the immediate benefit of the individual, with which this ‘far benefit’ may diverge. However, both from the utilitarian and spiritual point of view, following the ‘higher good’ or ‘higher ideal’ is in many cases dangerous for the individual, threatens, if not to shorten decisively his days, then to expel him from society, to surround him with a wall… Darwin’s doctrine (a special case of utilitarianism as applied to the animal world) cannot explain the origin of the society we know — first of all, because the ‘near’ benefit of the individual in all, as Mill says, ‘far from obvious matters’ is strikingly at variance with the ‘far benefit’ of society; and the pursuit of many private wills for momentarily advantageous purposes leads society, through short-term external prosperity — to internal disintegration, to the disappearance of the power to be. And it is hard to believe that the most successful and ‘contagious’ for society, the most useful for individuals will be those endeavours that we call ‘good’ and utilitarians call ‘useful’. Too great is the human willingness to look not at the ‘far-reaching good’ but at today’s benefit, if not directly at immediate pleasure. What seems good to the individual today is not always useful tomorrow, and in the future may bring direct harm. And vice versa: what seems harmful or indifferent to us today may turn out to be convenient and necessary later. And most importantly: the replacement of irrational measures and evaluations (good and evil) with rational ones (benefit and harm) would be justified if the very society to which we apply these evaluations were a rational institution — of which human history provides no evidence. It is precisely the fact that in it — if not constantly, then from time to time — ideas promising ‘far-reaching benefits’ triumph, that is absolutely disappointing for the rationalist, because these ideas triumph at the cost of all sorts of disadvantages, failures and sufferings of their supporters.

Mill also has an answer to this. He calls the idea that truths must come into the world by persecution and suffering outrageous, suitable only for barbarians; he suggests that ‘enlightened’ society should reasonably accept all new truths, however repugnant they may seem, and discard those that cannot stand the test of experience and free discussion. In order that these disparate truths may ‘freely contend’, Mill suggests that each individual, on the one hand, should be extremely tolerant of external opinions, accepting, on the other hand, his own opinions as true only temporarily, ‘in the interests of action’, until circumstances prove otherwise. The consequence of such a relative understanding of values can only be utilitarian-coloured nihilism, i. e. disbelief in anything except one’s own convenience and benefit. The strength of the individual is the strength of the truth it accepts within itself, not of listless sceptical reasoning about relative usefulness and relative truth. All the scepticism preached by Mill and others was not as all-embracing as it might seem, but belonged only to the realm of the indifferent, external to what was at the heart of their beliefs. I am somewhat embarrassed to speak of these psychological foundations of philosophy, which are quite obvious to me, but it is necessary: the proponents of rational doctrines are too fond of presenting their own mental life as ‘rational’, skilfully illuminating it with the ‘light of reason’ — always so that this ‘light’ does not fall on the dark, opaque and irrational core of their beliefs.

The unrestricted originality of personal behaviour is proposed by Mill as a means of reviving individuality. This is questionable. Unrestrained external form-making with an inner indifference — or at least a purely utilitarian attitude — to truths cannot produce a highly developed and strong personality, primarily because in its development the personality relies more on the positive than on the negative or indifferent — on what it believes than on what it allows. ‘Freedom to criticise, reject and refute’ — as applied to personality there is a murderous freedom. The basis of the developed personality is precisely the positive beliefs, already possessing which, but not before, one can ‘criticise, refute and reject’.

In general, as experience has shown, any consistently critical view of higher questions, carried with proper courage to the end, leads to the destruction of these questions themselves. ‘Unrestricted freedom of criticism’ is ‘nihilism’ in embryo; ‘nihilism’ is ‘unrestricted freedom of criticism’ carried through to the end. Once on the false path of ‘rational enquiry’ into irrational subjects, there is no getting off it. Real scientific approach and criticism can only be manifested in a precise analysis of the irrational; in a careful separation of circumstances from the essence of the matter; but not in ridiculous attempts to ‘reasonably justify or refute’ what is not derived from reason.

The danger of the ‘comprehensive criticism’ so valued in our time is that, starting from a certain point, it ceases to be an investigation of meanings and becomes a decomposition of meanings. For example, in the study of a certain literary work, all critical techniques are good as long as we recognise that the author wanted to tell us exactly what he told us — that is, as long as we recognise the existence of meaning in the work. If, however, we ‘critically’ and quite arbitrarily assume that the author wanted to tell us something completely different; that the author did not want to tell us anything at all; or, finally, that the author wrote his work in a delirium, not realising what he was writing… in this case we enter the realm of the imaginary, while maintaining a highly scientific and critical appearance.

‘Mill is good, but very inconsistent’, writes Konstantin Leontiev. Indeed, how can one say so truly about the sources of the greatness of old Europe: ‘What has made the European family of nations an improving, instead of a stationary portion of mankind? Not any superior excellence in them, which when it exists, exists as the effect, not as the cause; but their remarkable diversity of character and culture. Individuals, classes, nations, have been extremely unlike one another: they have struck out a great variety of paths, each leading to something valuable; and although at every period those who travelled in different paths have been intolerant of one another, and each would have thought it an excellent thing if all the rest could have been compelled to travel his road, their attempts to thwart each other’s development have rarely had any permanent success, and each has in time endured to receive the good which the others have offered. Europe is, in my judgment, wholly indebted to this plurality of paths for its progressive and many-sided development’ — and then to preach a ‘free struggle of truths’ in a society that accepts these truths temporarily and in a utilitarian way, ‘in the interests of action’? The point is that the earlier Europeans believed in their truths unconditionally, and could only therefore draw strength from them. They did not fight in order to arrive in time at some average ‘general truth’ or ‘greatest benefit’, but in order to develop in this struggle for an exclusively understood truth all the best aspects of their character and to follow the path of this truth to the end — which is more enriching for mankind than ‘freedom of criticism and refutation’. To ‘criticise and refute’ neither great intelligence nor special gifts are needed — on the contrary, very small, less than what is necessary for once believing and always striving. And it should also be noted that temporary and conditional truths, taken on faith for reasons of the greatest convenience, leave no trace. A society based on them will not only be ‘freed from the power of custom’, but it will not create any custom that can be followed by posterity. The course of time is broken; the river of history is split into separate bodies of water, almost unconnected with each other, each of which is quite separate, knows only its own interests and benefits, inherits and leaves no inheritance to anyone…

One of the most important notions for the modern liberal — the moral superiority of the minority over the majority — is nowhere explicitly expressed by Mill. However, where Mill speaks of the clash between conventional and ‘heretical’ opinions, he tacitly implies that the persecuted minority is always right, even though he provides no evidence. He only needs the references to Socrates, Christ and the early Christians in order to give his assumption the greatest weight, [14] and to show the modern opponents of Christianity, and indeed of all religion, as persecuted truth-tellers. Since then this thought has developed, grown, if I may say so, into a tall and branching tree, and has borne fruit. Any minority, however ugly its ‘values’ may be, is assumed to be worthy of defence. Opinion is recognised the more valuable the more it diverges from accepted values. Behaviour is valued the more it deviates from natural universal rules.

Mill says:

‘There should be differences, even though not for the better, even though, as it may appear to them, some should be for the worse’.

In other words: we must encourage at all costs the deviation of personality from the norm, both good and bad, without caring about the consequences, because this is the only way to support the dying individuality. In endeavouring to follow this rule, Western society has gone further and further down the path of various perversions, deviations and corruptions of everything human, completely forgetting the positive ideal of the highly developed individual, for the sake of which such dangerous means have been proposed.

What childish naïvety or, on the contrary, satanic sophistication is in these words: ‘Prevention of possible evil is an evil even worse, because you know nothing for certain, but only presumably; your powers are weak; can you judge of good and evil? So, do not worry, and let it be what it will be’. In the history of mankind there have probably been only two temptations of such power: the first, ‘ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil’, and this, the second, ‘be not deceived that you know good and evil, but act as if you had never heard of them: time will justify your actions’. This is far more poisonous than Nietzschean gloomy and lofty ‘on the other side of good and evil’. On the other side of the river that flows around Eden, Nietzsche still found values worth exerting the will for — he rejected good and evil only to redefine them. A twilight world where a freezing, chilly wind of unbelief flows around everything, where half-goods and half-truths ripen on trees, where a man can wander the streets with a knife in his hand and not be stopped — accompanied by a chorus of voices from passers-by: ‘Prevention of evil is worse than evil itself!’ — this world is worse than the one Nietzsche dreamt of.

Mill, unlike the modern liberal, demands freedom for the sake of individual development. We have already seen with what regret he speaks of the former Europe, in which highly and peculiarly developed individuals competed with each other in the name of deeply and variously understood ideals. The masses who ‘read the same things, listen to the same things, see the same things, go to the same places, have their hopes and fears directed to the same objects, have the same rights and liberties, and the same means of asserting them’ cause him concern. He sees that ‘all the political changes of the age […] tend to raise the low and to lower the high’. This order that suppresses the individual is democracy:

‘A more powerful agency than even all these, in bringing about a general similarity among mankind, is the complete establishment, in this and other free countries, of the ascendancy of public opinion in the State. As the various social eminences which enabled persons entrenched on them to disregard the opinion of the multitude, gradually became levelled; as the very idea of resisting the will of the public, when it is positively known that they have a will, disappears more and more from the minds of practical politicians; there ceases to be any social support for non-conformity – any substantive power in society, which, itself opposed to the ascendancy of numbers, is interested in taking under its protection opinions and tendencies at variance with those of the public’.

Mill expects nothing extraordinary from ‘rule of the majority’:

‘No government by a democracy or a numerous aristocracy, either in its political acts or in the opinions, qualities, and tone of mind which it fosters, ever did or could rise above mediocrity, except in so far as the sovereign Many have let themselves be guided (which in their best times they always have done) by the counsels and influence of a more highly gifted and instructed One or Few. The initiation of all wise or noble things, comes and must come from individuals; generally at first from some one individual. […] [W]hen the opinions of masses of merely average men are everywhere become or becoming the dominant power, the counter-poise and corrective to that tendency would be, the more and more pronounced individuality of those who stand on the higher eminences of thought. It Is in these circumstances most especially, that exceptional individuals, instead of being deterred, should be encouraged in acting differently from the mass. In other times there was no advantage in their doing so, unless they acted not only differently, but better. In this age the mere example of non-conformity, the mere refusal to bend the knee to custom, is itself a service’.

I would say that in all this preaching of the high-minded individual, in the sighing about times when elevation protected one from obedience to the crowd, one hears Nietzsche — but only in a calmer and more even tone (even when Mill has to talk about Christianity that deeply outrages him) and a semblance of dispassionate presentation (first Socrates is defended, Christ, and Christians, and then on the basis of these particular cases of persecution of a minority by the majority, the general conclusion is drawn that every minority is right, e.g. — modern atheists in their opposition to Christianity)… The difference is also in the means. A member of a society in which courts and lawyers have long been regarded as guardians of justice — Mill furnishes the individual with legal safeguards, even defines right and wrong as ‘lawful’ and ‘unlawful’ (and in this he is the father of today’s morally blind liberalism). However, the Nietzschean ‘higher man’ would have evoked in him — I am sure! — only approval, as would the Nietzschean contempt for the crowd.

In regard to metaphysical truths, Mill (and with him all liberals) suggests a caution hardly distinguishable from cowardice. From the fact that we cannot be unconditionally and definitively certain of our opinions about the invisible, another conclusion can be drawn, namely, to base society boldly on the few truths of the higher order that have been revealed to us, and to follow the path of self-improvement (so favoured by liberals), remaining faithful to these truths as long as the path is sufficient — that is, to do exactly what all societies that have achieved a high development in the field of the human, that is, culture, including the former Europe, have done. Metaphysical caution, if not cowardice, does not lead to cultural success. On the contrary, cultural development requires that we — naïvely or courageously — believe in certain truths and base our hopes and actions, if not only, then mainly on them. [15]

‘[N]either one person, nor any number of persons, is warranted in saying to another human creature of ripe years, that he shall not do with his life for his own benefit what he chooses to do with it.’ And further, ‘Considerations to aid his judgment, exhortations to strengthen his will, may be offered to him, even obtruded on him, by others; but he, himself, is the final judge. All errors which he is likely to commit against advice and warning, are far outweighed by the evil of allowing others to constrain him to what they deem his good’.

More than once, and with all possible vigour, Mill repeats this thought: the majority is almost always mistaken in the assessments it imposes on the minority. In the realm of ideas it may be so, it may be otherwise; but is it so in the realm of personal morality? So says Mill:

‘On questions of social morality, of duty to others, the opinion of the public, that is, of an overruling majority, though often wrong, is likely to be still oftener right. […] But the opinion of a similar majority, imposed as a law on the minority, on questions of self-regarding conduct, is quite as likely to be wrong as right; for in these cases public opinion means, at the best, some people’s opinion of what is good or bad for other people; while very often it does not even mean that; the public, with the most perfect indifference, passing over the pleasure or convenience of those whose conduct they censure, and considering only their own preference’.

Like many passages in Mill, this one is deliberately obscure. In essence, the point being made here is a very simple one: if society prevents me from obtaining advantage or pleasure in ways that are, in its view, reprehensible, it is wrong. The restrained fury with which Mill attacks the right of society to determine the personal behaviour of its members makes one think that this is not a question of petty tastes and predilections, but of something more substantial:

‘In its interferences with personal conduct it is seldom thinking of anything but the enormity of acting or feeling differently from itself; and this standard of judgment, thinly disguised, is held up to mankind as the dictate of religion and philosophy, by nine tenths of all moralists and speculative writers. These teach that things are right because they are right; because we feel them to be so. They tell us to search in our own minds and hearts for laws of conduct binding on ourselves and on all others. What can the poor public do but apply these instructions, and make their own personal feelings of good and evil, if they are tolerably unanimous in them, obligatory on all the world?’

So many words spent to express one thought: the truth either does not exist, or it is there where I want to look for it, and others know nothing about it. This is a hammer brought against the very notion of norm, and consequently against society as a home for culture, because at the heart of every fruitful and capable of developing and spreading culture lies a certain norm, deviations from which are discarded. This, in fact, is what cultural development consists in: the rooted is accepted, the unrooted is cut off. Mill, on the other hand, proposes a society without foundations, a development without norm, i. e. chaos, kept from disintegration only by the chains of law. This ‘ideal society’ in its achievements must be infinitely far from old Europe, which so delighted Mill with its diversity and the height of personal development. In it, in this old Europe, a very different rule was in force, which I would express in this way: for a fruitful development, truth must subject to itself a somewhat larger number of men than fits into a narrow sect, but also a much, infinitely smaller number than inhabits the globe, and yet allow them to develop their faculties and exercise their opinions freely, provided, of course, that they do not abandon the idea of truth as such and this particular truth as the basis of their actions. In other words, the condition for the development of culture and personality is limited freedom. In rejecting the norm, Mill also rejected development, i. e. he laid a mine under the liberals’ favourite notion of ‘progress’, reducing it to mere technical and economic growth. Progress, from this point of view, is the improvement of tools and conveniences of life; if it is accompanied by moral and cultural degeneration, it is an insignificant price to pay for wealth and power…

Let us continue reading.

Poisons, says Mill, should be sold freely, but with a special warning label, and all acquisitions of this kind should be recorded in a special book, which will prevent ‘making an improper use of it without detection’ — i. e. will not prevent poisoning, but will help to find and punish the poisoner. Mill justifies this decision with the following example:

‘If either a public officer or any one else saw a person attempting to cross a bridge which had been ascertained to be unsafe, and there were no time to warn him of his danger, they might seize him and turn him back without any real infringement of his liberty; for liberty consists in doing what one desires, and he does not desire to fall into the river. Nevertheless, when there is not a certainty, but only a danger of mischief, no one but the person himself can judge of the sufficiency of the motive which may prompt him to incur the risk: in this case, therefore, (unless he is a child, or delirious, or in some state of excitement or absorption incompatible with the full use of the reflecting faculty,) he ought, I conceive, to be only warned of the danger; not forcibly prevented from exposing himself to it. Similar considerations, applied to such a question as the sale of poisons, may enable us to decide which among the possible modes of regulation are or are not contrary to principle <of liberty>’.

This example is worthless: it is either a glaring error or a deliberate deception. The man on the bridge endangers himself; the man who acquires the poison disposes not of himself but of others. For these others, however, Mill has only one cold consolation: the names of possible poisoners will be recorded in special books, and the offence will not remain secret.

Society does not care about the private life of the individual, says Mill, so long as that individual does not conflict with the benefit or pleasure of others.  [16] It is easy to guess that in such a society the concept of ‘lawful’ or at least ‘tolerable’ will have to completely supplant the concept of ‘moral’. Moral judgements would become redundant. In undertaking a certain endeavour, man will not ask himself whether it is in accordance with his conceptions of good and evil (i. e. whether it will not harm his soul), but whether — in the end — it will not conflict with the ‘benefits and pleasures’ of others or harm his own ‘benefits and pleasures’. Such is the inevitable consequence of removing moral judgements from circulation. By freeing society from moral judgements about the individual, we thereby free the individual from moral judgements about himself.  Indifference to moral questions will lead not to a ‘free competition’ between bad and good examples of behaviour, but to the abolition of morality and the evaluations based on it as such. The same law I have mentioned in relation to culture applies here: indifference to values does not protect them, but destroys them. ‘Let us lead decent and responsible lives, but let society not interfere in the lives of those who are incapable of dignity and responsibility. Let them bear the punishment in themselves — we will not increase its severity, but we will help them to stand firm and be like us’. This is the way to reason, but it is not the way to act, because as soon as a person stops hearing annoying and boring reminders about right and wrong, good and evil, he becomes convinced that what he no longer hears about does not exist in the world. The benevolent indifference of society to private life, which Mill preaches, can only be likened to the benevolent reluctance of a doctor to remind a patient of his illness, which, however, does not make the illness cease to exist.

The doctrine preached by Mill may safely be called ‘the doctrine of the free sale of poisons’. Without the slightest exaggeration we can say that its main idea is the idea of freedom of poisoning and self-poisoning, in the realm of the spirit, of course — an area for Mill insignificant and not protected by law. It is difficult not to recall Shigalev, who, to his own surprise, ‘proceeding from boundless freedom, concluded with boundless despotism’. However, Shigalev, unlike Mill, himself saw the contradiction in his theory. The contradiction contained in the ‘philosophy of liberation’ is akin to Shigalev’s: proceeding from the unlimited freedom of the individual, this philosophy expects to come to the blossoming of the higher human abilities (otherwise the game would not be worth the candle, and Mill constantly speaks about it) — but it comes to the decline and withering of everything human. Is it not surprising! Wishing to protect the individual from the ‘tyranny of mediocrities’ inherent in democratic rule, Mill demands the abolition of the very notion of norm; and so the norm, mental, cultural, moral, is gone, and the individual falls, all falls, no longer having a footing.

Oddly enough, Nietzsche and Mill have something in common. Both demand the liberation of the individual from the torment of conscience, but while for Mill this is the end point and limit of aspirations, for Nietzsche it is only the beginning of the journey. Nietzsche attacks existing values because he sees them as a hindrance to human development; Mill considers the existence of values in itself to be evil. Nietzsche does not abandon the qualitative distinction of values, the idea of the good; Mill prefers to get rid of qualitative evaluations in general, and to reduce the good to ‘utility’. A culture based on Nietzsche’s ideas would be one-sided and cold, but still a culture; Mill’s ideas lead to the gradual replacement of culture by everyday habits and customs. Mill speaks, of course, of ‘lofty thoughts and uplifting feelings’, but he either forgets or does not want to know that everything high in man is hostile to the natural; that ‘natural life’ and ‘culture’ are in the highest degree opposites; that the individual who strives in his private relations, alone with his soul to be ‘utterly natural’, will be — as the old cultural world fades — more and more an animal individual.

Mill constantly repeats that it would be a great misunderstanding to understand his ‘system of liberty’ as a system of separate, completely morally independent individuals. He acknowledges moral mutual influence, but is certain that higher examples of behaviour will triumph in a free clash with lower ones, and that our ‘condemnation and refusal to communicate’ will have a depressing effect on the one who leads an unvirtuous life. In general, Mill is confident in the solidity of a highly developed society, and sees in the forces of restraint and limitation (morality and the Church) only the unnecessary guardians of the adult and capable individual. Here is the fundamental error of this whole worldview. The liberal does not recognise the Christian truth about man, i. e. the conviction of the duality of his nature and the resulting break between human goals and achievements. What is offered as a substitute is the doctrine of man as a ‘blank slate’ on which society writes, a belief that socialism also shares. The division between socialist and liberal thought is further, in the realm of practical measures. Socialists propose a coercive social reorganisation, the first step of which is (was, more precisely) the destruction of the old state, the Church, and culture; liberals gradually remove the soil from under culture and religion, so that in time they will have nothing to hold on to. The goal is also different. Having once destroyed the old ideals, the socialist intends (or rather, intended — for there are no true socialists in the world any more, such as would believe in a ‘new historical epoch’) to build new ones, replacing only the religious cult by the cult of the state, Christian morality by the morality of the public good, and so on. For the liberal, the destruction of shrines and values is an end in itself; he sees no possibility for the ‘free development of the individual’ until they are destroyed or at least deprived of their influence. The development of the individual begins where history (i. e. tradition), religion and culture end. Such is the content of this belief. It is not surprising that in the matter of the education of personality it fails utterly; it spends all its efforts in ‘protecting’ the personality from outside influences, without enriching its inner content in any way. ‘Empty shells have a right to remain empty and to resist all attempts to fill themselves’, says the liberal, and adds: ‘Now, at last, nothing can hinder their free development’.

What Mill preaches is the freedom of legitimate self-destruction of the individual with the benevolent connivance of society. ‘Let a man do with his life what he wants to do with it!’ The most superficial knowledge of human nature suggests that an individual left to himself, freed from external moral authority or internal self-restraint, can do only one thing with his life: destroy it. The unrestricted adherence to one’s own desires or benefits on which Mill wants to base personal morality leads to satiety and emptiness. This, after all, is not even a philosophical truth, but a directly physiological one…

III. After the banishment of the norm

Two views are possible concerning society: the Christian and the liberal. According to the first, society is an educational institution. According to the second, society is a madhouse, all those who enter it have an equal right to suffer from their illnesses. However, the comparison is incomplete, because even in the bedlam there is the idea of normality — an idea that is as thoroughly banished from liberal society as possible. The point is that liberalism opposes not what liberals usually talk about, but the notion of norm. By fighting against the norm, by banishing it from life, liberalism is engaged in a fierce struggle against religion and culture, for which this notion is the bedrock. Accordingly, the very notion of freedom is redefined: from the freedom of development within some (considered as perfect) form to the freedom of form-making without any development.

Liberalism, in short, is the doctrine of survival of the person to whom it has been conclusively proved that the ‘meaning of life’ is either absent or incomprehensible. The survival of a society and an individual from which the core has been taken away… The talk of ‘freedom’ and ‘respect for the individual’ with which the preaching of liberalism begins obscures the true nature of its values.

It may seem that the liberal therefore demands the unlimited freedom of the individual and the abolition of all moral authority in society, because he longs for a new truth and new values which the individual of the future, if only he is free, will be able to find. That is, these words are spoken, but they do not express the thoughts of the speaker. The order of values, arguments, justifications is different here: since 1) there are not and cannot be any definite judgements about the ‘meaning of life’, truth, goodness and beauty, 2) all institutions supervising that society does not deviate from the generally recognised higher values, does not forget them for the sake of the lower ones, should be abolished, and 3) individuals should be given unlimited freedom to deviate as much as they like from universal norms (since no one can reasonably judge what is a norm and what is not), in the hope that 4) blind chaotic whirling will eventually lead them to better paths than the present ones. I recently came across Michael Sandel’s words that ‘society is best organised when it is governed by rules that do not presuppose any particular conception of the good’. [18]

This is absolutely in the spirit of J. S. Mill, although he does not have such generalisations, primarily because the latter, in order to retain the respect of the public, had to be at least outwardly deferential of truth and goodness (however narrowly he interprets them, by his interpretation almost rendering them meaningless). It is primarily a question of liberation from the concepts of good and evil, the entire qualitative ladder of values, right up to its completion — the Father of all value, God.

In its enmity to the Deity, the liberal doctrine coincides with socialism (and in general these two streams have been constantly mixing their waters for the last century), but in its ‘positive’ part (if liberalism has anything ‘positive’ to say) it is more dangerous than the latter. Socialism does recognise the existence of values, even though it claims that the ruling classes pervert those values in their own interests. Socialism — now, after the end of its domination in Russia, we can admit it — still had something to affirm, but its values were simplified and flattened, deprived of their divine source, Christian morality. Liberal values, on the other hand, are only a set of tricks and gimmicks that free the individual from moral judgement for unrestricted activity within the limits set by the law, which protects the members of society from material and only material harm. However, as liberalism goes from being a chilly accepted (because it is profitable) belief to becoming an ideology, it comes to require moral coercion, to forcibly propagate the views of… a minority as the bearer of moral and factual rightness! As you read these words, do not forget that this is how the doctrine of how to protect the minority from the tyranny of the majority was transformed. One cannot but remember Dostoevsky, who, when asked by the investigating commission in the case of the Petrashevsky circle — what was his attitude to Fourier’s system? — replied that ‘every system is bad already because it is a system’. The merit of the systematist is determined by how far and fearlessly he is prepared to take the path which leads to the transformation of his thoughts into utter nonsense. Liberalism has come dangerously close to the state of nonsense eagerly accepted as a guide, the true meaning of which — as J. S. Mill himself warned (‘generally accepted truths begin to be mechanically reproduced with oblivion of their real meaning’) — the masses have already forgotten. It should only be noted that liberalism has travelled its way surprisingly quickly, compared to its opponent, Christianity, which has fuelled human development for almost two thousand years…

The dream of liberalism is a society without a beginning, or rather — without beginnings; without any unconditional foundations. Psychologically — such a society is utterly improbable; the ‘personal development’ put on its banner needs first of all firm foundations, in agreement or in struggle with which — both equally useful — the personality grows and strengthens.

‘Personality is in decline these days; Church, State and above all public opinion suppress it. Let us free the persecuted personality from all influences, from all restrictions — until it becomes openly criminal — and the personality will regain its former strength’. What is striking about this view is that it is (it is hard to believe this when one looks at the inseparable alliance which liberalism and democracy have made in our day) prompted in the first place by indignation at the decline in the general level to which the first steps of democracy in the West had led. Mill’s doctrine — which, from all appearances, may be regarded as the root of all subsequent extreme and consistent liberalism in the West — was brought to life by an awareness of the devastation in the human realm which democracy had wrought. Only in time did this worldview, ‘reactionary’ in its origins, merge with a belief in the truth found by majority vote, and even more so with a belief in the moral superiority of the minority over the majority. It is quite impossible to call Mill a ‘democrat’: he does not believe in democracy and in the ‘infallibility of the majority’. The opinion of the majority for him is only a correction, necessary even for the wisest. Most of all he is concerned with the protection of the individual from the crowd — while modernity, on the contrary, thinks about how to protect the crowd from the power of individuals.

Liberalism identifies itself with ‘progress’, i. e. ongoing development, and is usually opposed to backwardness, obscurantism, the power of obsolete ideas — in a word, ‘reaction’. However, in fact, liberalism, as expressed by J. S. Mill and as it is embodied today, is opposed to culture.

Culture — a hierarchy of values, teachers and learners — is illiberal; liberalism is not cultural. Multiculturalism is not a random freak word; it is an attempt to find a verbal expression for the attitude towards culture derived from liberal theory. The same thing could be expressed in a simpler way, without the suffix ‘ism’ and Latin roots: indifference to cultural values. It is believed for some reason that the more indifferent we are to the ideals of others and our own, the more they will be preserved. In reality, of course, this indifference to cultural values, created by generations of people who care about them, is only the first step towards the disappearance of these values in general, as something unnecessary, which no one believes in and whose existence is maintained only by force of habit.

The strength of liberalism lies in its contradictions. On the one hand, it calls for the complete liberation of the individual, for the removal of our actions from the power of higher, i. e. irrational, motives, with the ultimate ideal being the greatest profit and the greatest pleasure of the individual.

Ultimately, it is the ideal of mass corruption, tolerance of depravity (i. e. — not to use a word that has the connotation of moral judgement — perversion of everything human) and hatred of all strict morality as ‘enslavement of the individual’. Such a worldview is more than suitable for the ‘masses’; it is closer to them than socialism with its moral demands borrowed from the Bible. Liberalism, on the other hand, encourages labour for enrichment, honours personal gain, and looks upon the state itself as nothing more than a guardian of that gain. It is economic and enterprising, and serves the wealth of individuals and nations; earthly power is to it the best remedy for doubts about one’s own righteousness. And finally, it unleashes human conscience and initiative, abolishes all immutable bases of personal behaviour, but only within the limits of the iron law, saying, ‘do what you will, but obey the state and do not harm the direct benefit of your neighbour’. In brief, this triune order may be defined as temptation, benefit, and law — a combination more powerful and further-reaching than all previous attempts, based solely on coercion, to turn mankind from its path. Here there is no tyrant and no violence: man himself, enjoying the appearance of freedom, unburdens himself of culture and conscience. This is far stronger, more durable and, in its remote consequences, more dangerous than all previous attempts of evil to establish itself on earth. Liberalism has, I am not afraid to say, an apocalyptic future — so decisively does it break with all that is human, with all that is sacred, and establish itself on earth. If liberalism were only ‘acid dripped into the very centre’, as Rozanov said on another occasion, it would long ago have burned everything it could and burned itself out. Both society and its liberal destroyers would have burned in the fire of pure nihilism. But the power of moral corruption is restrained in it by the power of the labour discipline necessary for acquisition, and the predatory thirst for ever greater acquisitions is limited by the power of the law and an ever stronger state. This, by the way, is the reason why the liberal Russia of our day  is sliding towards decline, and liberal America towards ever greater power over the world (written in 2006). Russia lacks the third and strongest pillar of a permissive society — the law, the power of which is only growing in the West as conscience leaves the Western world.

Once on the path of unlimited expansion of ‘freedoms’, there is no escape from it. There is no definite boundary at which one can stop — except the natural limit from which the loosening and, subsequently, the destruction of society will put an end to ‘liberation’.

Western society of the last century can be likened to a balloon that is increasingly inflated, so that the distances between points on its surface are steadily growing. This is the ideal of ‘liberation’ — society less and less connected, individuals more and more disconnected, enjoying ‘freedom’ in solitude. It cannot be said that the ideal of ‘limitless expansion’ was inherent in liberal doctrine from the beginning. However, after the beginning of ‘free self-determination’ had been successfully applied in several fields (economic and religious freedom), it came to be seen as a remedy all-purposeful and all-good, the key to all doors. If liberalism did not have this capacity for expansive interpretation, this vast field for the application of ‘freedom’, it would have long ago become exhausted and faded away. However, as long as the reserves of available ‘freedom’ are not yet exhausted, as long as the family, the school, and society itself are not yet completely liberated, i. e. destroyed, the movement will continue. The underlying, unspoken goal of this movement is the weakening of all attractions and the strengthening of repulsive forces, leaving man to his personal arbitrariness — and loneliness — in everything. A cold goal, which, however, the modern West ardently strives for…

There is the nation as a community and the nation as a collection of individuals. In the first case, the individual is conscious of his relatively small weight in comparison with the values on which society is based; in the second, the individual values his society only as much as that society values him. These two varieties of society are opposite and irreconcilable. Attempts to ‘re-educate’ a personality belonging to the ‘society-unity’ most often lead to the appearance of a boor, a nihilist, a rebel for the sake of rebellion (‘our business was not to obey, and we did not obey’, says Herzen), a person outside history and culture. At the same time, the individual from the society-collection of individuals may well join the society-unity and find in it a cure for his long-standing and desperate longing — the longing of the lonely individual who has freed himself from everything from which he can be freed, and no longer knows happiness. For one must confess that in order to be happy, one cannot be too free.

There are whole nations in which the introduction of representative government in its pure form will mean only mediocrity, decadence, if not outright political corruption. Even in countries of highly developed, proudly solitary personality, ‘democracy’, reaching universality, losing the last limitations, becomes the power of dark, invisible forces, only covered by the appearance of popular will; in countries of a different kind, democracy from the very beginning will be an unattractive power of predators. The point here, I repeat, is not ‘historical age’ and ‘immaturity’ or ‘uneducatedness’. It is about different ways of development. It’s about different paths of development; different trees with different fruits. No matter how much apples ‘ripen’ they will not become pears. Likewise here. While recognising the partial possibility of the liberal dream being realised in certain Western countries — with all the poisonous consequences of this realisation — it must be understood that outside the Western circle of nations it is possible to impose the liberal order, but it will not succeed even temporarily.

To be a liberal and a conservative are the same thing in the modern West. Conservatism in politics means guarding forms and principles abandoned by content. This is precisely the place of modern liberalism. Its ‘dynamism’, ‘modernity’, ‘forward-looking’ are only appearances, magic words before which the Western ear cannot resist. In reality, the liberal jealously guards principles whose entire beneficial influence remained in the late Middle Ages and early modern times. Already since the 19th century, the consistent implementation of liberal ideas has brought nothing good to mankind in the field of culture and spiritual development — mainly because the contents for which the individual demanded freedom have gone without a trace; only empty forms are jealously guarded. The path of the weathering of positive values has been travelled very quickly by the liberal West, primarily because these positive values are for liberalism not its own, they are borrowed. Liberalism grew and built, if I may say so, around the religious and cultural values of the early modern period, which needed defence against attacks from the Church and the state. In its essence it was a defensive fortification, and only that. The once-defended values are gone without a trace, but the fortifications remain. The conservative nature of liberal politics is already evident from its use of words: ‘protection’ and ‘defence’ are among its favourite expressions. There is nothing in liberal principles that can be developed; the citizen is invited only to ‘exercise liberty’, as Mill says, but there can be no development and creativity, only an endless repetition of the same.

IV. Freedom and the personality

Consistently held ‘respect for the individual’ leads ultimately to the destruction, or at least the weakening, of society. The individual is freed from the last authorities and accustomed to consider himself unlimited — which, of course, can only be self-deceit. This has happened before, but before — before our age of equality — this self-deceit was peculiar to the powers that be and only to them; today it is available to everyone. The individual and society are connected only through authorities external to the individual; few individuals, and only the exceptionally strong, are capable of voluntarily submitting themselves to any order. But without order, without submission, there is no society.

Liberals reject the subordination of society and each individual to any higher values — on the grounds that we do not and cannot know what ‘good’ is, and therefore our morally grounded ‘higher values’ are conditional and not universally binding. But we can define the higher values without the help of the notions of good and evil that so confuse the liberal mind, and give them an extra-moral, so to speak, justification. Namely, everything that requires labour and self-restraint can easily be attributed to the higher values, and the finer and more complex these labour and self-restraint are, the higher the value in question. The higher values, the higher example of behaviour on this scale will not diverge from the Evangelical: ‘Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: for every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened’. The morality of labour and seeking the best, which is inspiring the best of liberals, is itself derived from this same value system, with only one correction: the Gospel teaches to labour and seek the best for the sake of the soul. The morality that follows from this ladder of values is a morality of growth and complexity, i. e., a supernatural one, opposed to the natural course of things. These are traits of a spirit whose ideal is cosmic orderliness, as opposed to the cosmic confusion and disorder to which nature is heading. Looking at the matter in this way, it is easy to see that the liberal ideal of society (blind struggle of blind forces, absence of realised aspirations and goals) is a natural ideal, opposed to the supernatural religious ideal of purposefulness and order, the way of expanding power instead of the way of cultural growth.

Liberalism sees no evil in the world; it may even be said that it sees no Satan and is therefore indifferent, if not outright hostile, to God. With regard to society and man, it is characterised by the most boundless optimism. It does not admit of malice, of persistence in evil, and hence it can make statements as fine-hearted as they are ludicrous:

‘The interference of society to overrule his judgment and purposes in what only regards himself, must be grounded on general presumptions; which may be altogether wrong, and even if right, are as likely as not to be misapplied to individual cases, by persons no better acquainted with the circumstances of such cases than those are who look at them merely from without. In this department, therefore, of human affairs, Individuality has its proper field of action. In the conduct of human beings towards one another, it is necessary that general rules should for the most part be observed, in order that people may know what they have to expect; but in each person’s own concerns, his individual spontaneity is entitled to free exercise. Considerations to aid his judgment, exhortations to strengthen his will, may be offered to him, even obtruded on him, by others; but he, himself, is the final judge. All errors which he is likely to commit against advice and warning, are far outweighed by the evil of allowing others to constrain him to what they deem his good.’

In saying this, the liberal sincerely fails to understand that the relatively favourable state of man and society that Europe had achieved by the 19th century is only a consequence of thousands of years of Christian education of the soul. Moreover, like every rationalist since Socrates, he believes that ‘nothing is more beneficial to the soul than correctly composed speeches’ — in other words, that a man who has been told what his benefit is, has no choice but to follow that benefit, so wonderfully explained. As I have already said, in this sunny worldview there is simply no room for anything unreasonable — both thirst for the salvation of the soul and persistence in evil. The former, from his point of view, is senseless, the latter is impossible. ‘If only a man’s boon be made clear to him, he will never again do himself harm’. Mill, however, admits that there will still be people who do harm to themselves, but their example will be beneficial to society… In fact, this correction is insignificant — it merely shifts the responsibility from the individual to society; instead of recognising the individual as completely sane, it says — yes, the individual can still go wrong, but society is always sober and careful, it cannot be deceived. Let’s give a person unlimited freedom to be mistaken — society will only gain and strengthen from it. Well, historical experience has shown how society grows stronger by giving freedom to seducers…

Mill’s apologia of free judgement begs the question: how should we feel about granting free speech to atheists? Such freedom has been suppressed in the enlightened but still grounded societies of the past, and it cannot be said to have done much harm. For Mill, however, unrestricted freedom in this, as in other areas, is desirable — even (reading Mill’s inner motivations, one might say) more desirable than the same freedom for Christians. Freedom of speech should, supposedly, be granted also to atheists ‘on general grounds’. But what is noteworthy? That, having obtained the coveted freedom of expression, atheists in a short time eliminate all possibility of free expression for the opposite side, create an environment of intolerance and, so to speak, an ideological struggle for faith, in a word, repeat all the sins of the historical Church, only with a change of sign. All this is — for a prepared mind — quite inevitable, since atheism is a metaphysical affirmation, a kind of negative religion, which as a quasi-religion is completely inaccessible to confirmation or refutation. I have said many times that the struggle between science and faith has ended up with science turning into what it fought so long and so (eventually) successfully… Therefore, it is not an exaggeration to say that the restriction of free speech to atheists was perfectly justified. Atheism has never fought for free speech as an independent value. ‘Freedom’ for it is only a proven weapon in the struggle against a certain order of values, upon the destruction of which this weapon can and must be taken out of the hands of the masses who have used it so well. The atmosphere of ideological intolerance, which is evident everywhere where atheists have achieved their goal, is a sufficient confirmation of my words. One cannot but see that there is no advance towards the truth, or at least no weakening of the power of the prevailing dogmas in the ‘liberated society’; the content of the dogmas changes, but not their power over the individual — and, I would say, the materialistic dogmas claim much more, and are much less tolerant of shades of opinion than the beliefs of the Church. Otherwise, the Bolshevik government of Russia (between 1918 and 1991) would not have created a system of persecution of opinions far beyond the wildest dreams of the Holy Inquisition… If the Christian faith allows and considers necessary (‘there must be also heresies (divisions) among you, that they which are approved may be made manifest among you’) shades of opinion, materialism considers the slightest shade to be an apostasy, against which all means of self-defence are good. If science gave its adherents at least the freedom of opinion enjoyed by the Catholic thinkers of the ‘dark’ Middle Ages, its face would be different. However, the intolerance and conviction that the people of materialistic science possess the final truth far surpasses anything that has gone before. The reason for this is on the surface. Whereas the Church, for all its majestic self-consciousness, still considers itself only a reflection of the will of God in this imperfect world, and does not consider the opinions of most of its representatives infallible because of the natural imperfection of human nature (i. e., to put it in more philosophical terms, because of the impossibility for us of complete and exhaustive knowledge), science believes itself to be the possessor of final truths, making no distinction between interpretations and generalisations of known facts and reality itself. I have said much about this, and I do not wish to repeat myself now. I will only say briefly: the basic philosophical, mental sin of the latest thought is that it is devoid of any doubts about the cognitive and generalising capacity of man, and — for this reason — assumes an equality between its generalisations and the actual structure of the universe. The Church was much less naïve, which is not surprising: having arisen in a world in which the domestic philosopher was a necessary part of the life of wealthy families, it remained forever affected by philosophy and the intellectual honesty that philosophy produces.

When, in the name of ‘science’, we are offered a comprehensive, limitless, all-explaining worldview (as it was in Soviet Russia and as it is now in the West), we must politely and emphatically reject it, not recognise its authority over us, and not rely on its conclusions in our judgements. All this we are obliged to do not out of distrust of a comprehensive worldview in general, not because such a worldview is unworthy of faith, but because a true comprehensive worldview, such as religion or philosophy provide, while explaining the roots of things, cannot at the same time explain the particulars. If the same idea explains both the general and the particular at the same time, it is untrustworthy, not to say false. A broad worldview explains the bases, leaving the latter particulars to individual fields of knowledge or mere worldly observation. The counterfeit broad worldview (simply put, counterfeit metaphysics), which is offered to us in the name of science, follows a completely different path: it deduces general causes from private observations, without the slightest embarrassment that, as the generalisations go higher and higher, the validity of each successive statement becomes more and more doubtful. From undoubted factual observations more and more bold assumptions are made, which are then sought to be confirmed by the same private observations. On the basis of facts, a theory is created, which is then confirmed by those same facts! Such ‘metaphysics’ can only be rejected as false knowledge, as malicious self-deception.

There are two realms of values: those that can only partially be attained and those that can be fully possessed. For the natural, uncultivated man, the charm of the latter is immeasurably greater than the former. Where the power of tradition and prevailing opinion is weakened, mental ruin, inner darkness, and fall become much more attractive to the average person than life, light, and ascent. Such is the sorrowful truth about man. Liberal anthropology looks at things differently: for it man has no preferences at all, neither bad nor good, and in everything is a child of environment. It is enough only to offer him good examples to follow, and he will become good… Man, however, is not so simple. Knowing the good, he can sympathise with the evil; knowing the evil, he can strive for the good, in other words, he has free will, and moreover, an unpredictable freedom, with which the liberal doctrine, which does not see the irrational, torn nature of man, does not know what to do. External freedom is pernicious to a being whose intentions are dual; who is incapable of striving for either pure good or pure evil, unless ruled by external authority or internal self-restraint.

While rejecting religion, liberalism (it is not alone — it only shares this conviction with the other branches of man-worship), however, has its own dogmatic anthropology, according to which man is good, has no inner contradiction or damage in himself, and knows no other obstacle on the way to goodness and truth than a lack of reason or will. Christianity is rejected precisely for its doubt of man’s good nature, for the yoke it imposes on the sin-damaged will — in the full assurance that there is no crack, no inner fault in man, and he — if only given freedom — will achieve what he desires. This belief is hostile to all historical evidences; this optimism is not justified by the experience of the last centuries, when the individual was finally given complete freedom — and it would be even gentler to say that the society built by this free individual was not entirely successful. It must be admitted, however, that of all the utopian worldviews generated in the 19th century, only the liberal utopia was able to build a relatively viable society capable of internal development. However, the failure of socialism and national socialism (the other two utopias) matters little: after all, they entered the field earlier and came to their end earlier. The realisation of the liberal utopia began later, almost before the eyes of the current generation — and its lifespan is not yet known. Throughout most of the 20th century, the corrosive effect of pure liberalism, as expressed by Mill, was held in check by the remnants of earlier traditions and beliefs. Individuals prepared for a decisive break with the old culture had for most of the last century gone into the service of some form of socialism which the masses in the West feared as a fierce, open enemy of religion and property. Socialism had to fail decisively before its place — the place of conventional mythology — could be taken by another doctrine. By ‘conventional mythology‘ I mean a worldview that opposes all religions that have ever been, speaks in the name of ‘science‘ and yet is very little ‘rational‘, appealing mainly to blind faith, and whose irrationality is best illustrated by its desire to be accepted as the ‘final truth‘ about all things visible and invisible. This is what socialism and national socialism were, and this is what the liberal worldview is becoming before our eyes. Perhaps instead of ‘myth’ we should speak of a ‘semi-religion’, of a ‘godless religion’, but this likening would go too far.

When the Russian authorities chose liberalism as the state idea in 1991, they made the worst choice possible. Generations of Russian intellectuals were accustomed to looking at liberalism as ‘a doctrine on how to live well and richly’. The origin of this mental aberration is not difficult. Liberal democracy has been taken as the reason for the wealth of those countries that have long been committed to it, whereas both wealth and liberal democracy are only consequences of the varied and complex past of these states, which, incidentally, is drying up before our eyes, passing away, giving place to new combinations of ideas and forces. Liberalism does not teach how to live well and richly: wealth is perhaps only one of the particular consequences of this doctrine. Liberalism teaches, first and foremost, how to free man from values, and, moreover, how to protect man from values. It preaches freedom of conscience not so that the conscience may be freed to choose and voluntarily obey, but so that it no longer has to choose and obey. Liberalism proclaims not freedom to preach new truths, but freedom from new truths, or old truths in general, unless the usefulness of those truths is proved by everyday experience — and that with a big caveat. ‘Every truth which men of narrow capacity are in earnest about, is sure to be asserted, inculcated, and in many ways even acted on, as if no other truth existed in the world’, complains Mill, forgetting that in human activity it is impossible to be guided by more than one truth at any given moment — or else all truth must be forgotten altogether and given over to considerations of ‘the greatest advantage’. Of course, the path of ‘the greatest profit’ leads to the wealth and civil tranquillity of which our liberals dream, but at the same time it is the path of abandoning conscience and all higher values — the path which the ‘new Russia’ has so unhappily chosen.

To organise society liberally means to exclude the spiritual life from it, or at least to deprive it of all influence. It cannot be said that this was part of the liberal idea from the very beginning: they wanted first of all to free the individual from the influence of the Church and the state, and first of all from Christian morality. Spiritual life as such, I think, did not occupy liberal thinkers — they did not even notice its existence. Its elimination, however, had important consequences for the whole liberal conception. For the first time in history, all human energies, without exception, were channelled into the pursuit of earthly values, i. e. benefits and pleasures, after man had been freed from the torment of conscience and higher goals. In order to come to the idea of a ‘welfare society’, one must first forget about the good of the soul, however one defines it, religiously or philosophically. In hindsight, it turned out that liberals should have rejected Christianity for purely utilitarian reasons, since it is Christianity that prevents people from accepting benefits and pleasures as the ultimate and most important good. In Russia it is customary to admire the ease and convenience of life in liberally arranged states, but it should not be forgotten that in order to achieve this ease one had first of all to go through: ‘If man lose his own soul..’ Without this it would never have been possible to transfer values from the mental to the external world, to offer the masses external well-being as the last goal — and, in a spiritual sense, to leave them in the dark, alone with the terrors wandering in these darknesses. We see prosperous nations, and we do not notice that the more prosperous they are, the more they experience an unreasonable fear — a fear which is played upon by the modern ‘magicians and summoners of the dead’; by books, cinema and the periodical press… ‘Prosperous’ humanity is a frightened, inwardly broken humanity; and all because it has removed from life all concern for the spiritual good.

In the modern West it is customary to contrast ‘freedom’ with ‘slavery’, but in any large and complex society neither freedom nor slavery exists in pure form; only in small cells of such a society can ‘freedom’ and ‘slavery’ approach a pure state. The higher we go, the more complex the picture becomes. So, neither ‘freedom’ nor ‘slavery’ are appropriate concepts to characterise a large and complex society; rather, we can speak of selective freedom and the areas of its application. Society is distinguished from society not by some generalised ‘degree of freedom’, but by to whom, when and to what extent it gives this freedom. No society (except for a concentration camp) can be based on ‘pure slavery’ (a favourite target of liberals). Even the most severe state gives its citizens in some areas very great, almost unlimited freedom. One can only speak of ‘slavery’ for the sake of polemical simplification. No society is completely free or unfree; the whole question is what distribution of freedom a given society prefers.

Either the state respects values first and foremost, and then the individual, to the extent that the individual serves those values; or, on the contrary, it respects individuals unconditionally, leaving the question of values to the individual. This is what the ‘liberal state’ is; the preference for personal well-being over higher values is its essential feature; more essential than ‘liberty’ and ‘democratic government’. ‘Liberty and democracy’ do not create the liberal state; they are its means, not its ends. [19]

Either a society of permissiveness, or tyranny, or a society of firm foundations and known restrictions. It is difficult to transform a society of limited freedom into tyranny; on the contrary, from a society of permissiveness to tyranny is an open and favourable path. Freedom, taken as a goal, treacherously eludes the seeker — for it is always lacking. Social development in the direction of ‘even greater freedom’ is an attempt to satiate oneself with what does not saturate, since there is no limit to the expansion of ‘freedoms’…

Freedom, like oxygen, is poisonous in large quantities. The only question is how much freedom a society can handle and for how long. Starting from a certain point, freedom from a necessary enzyme of social relations becomes a poison, an all-destroying acid. This is usually not understood, nor is it realised that the goal of liberal politics is not any stable social order. On the contrary, the last point on the path of liberal development will be a society of extreme instability, a volatility in which the individual, freed from the last moral (i. e. irrational) prohibitions, will be guided and held together only by the ‘law’. Here lies a rarely noticed paradox: it is possible to raise people capable of coping with full, wide, almost unlimited freedom — and only for a short time, for a few generations — only in a society that significantly restricts this freedom. And vice versa, a society of full and wide freedom is not capable of bringing up a morally sane person. Freedom can be achieved, but it cannot be enjoyed for a long time. Just as a stone thrown upwards may rise high above the ground but then be forced to fall back down, so the ‘liberated person’ can only briefly leave a society based not on permissions but on prohibitions. God has always communicated prohibitions and requirements to man; earthly joys have flowed and flow not from ‘rights’ and ‘permissions’, but — by the force of things — from the observance of prohibitions. ‘transgress not, and thou shalt be blessed’, is the eternal morality; ‘transgress as much as possible, and beyond the threshold of the last prohibition thou shalt find happiness’, is the liberal morality. In saying this, I do not mean to represent liberals themselves as people of immorality. Most of them have been brought up on Christian morality, which they may naïvely even consider ‘universal’…

‘Freedom’, in its essence, requires ceaseless expansion, application to ever new things. It would be more correct to speak not of ‘freedom’ but of ‘liberation’. The pathos of liberation is purely negative; it is the pathos of struggle against what already exists, against ‘prohibitions and restrictions’. Since, as I have already mentioned, all cultural societies were built on commandments (i. e., prohibitions) and not on ‘human rights’, liberation means a consistent struggle against the remnants of the previous culture, which is seen as ‘racism’, ‘fascism’, ‘sexism’, and other ‘isms’, according to the mood of the judge.

To the ‘flood of liberty’, with its all-destroying consequences, should be opposed a divided and limited liberty, different for different social positions and occupations, but for all limited more narrowly than the safety or benefit of the neighbour requires. No one denies the usefulness of liberty, I least of all. But it can be understood at least in two ways: as freedom of action and freedom of self-determination. Freedom of action in the chosen field, if this field is not reprehensible and if these actions are not immoral or criminal, is necessary everywhere. Unrestricted freedom of self-determination, and even in conditions of immaturity of judgement and silence of conscience, is certainly harmful. ‘Self-determination of the individual’ is only a beautiful word, behind which there is most often a simple following of natural urges, which has nothing to do with ‘personality’ as a unity produced by labour and self-restraint. ‘Self-determination’ in general makes sense only where there is self-restraint, a screening of motives and goals, a qualitative division of values; in short, it is a thing more befitting Socrates than a blacksmith or a cook. The ‘self-determination of the cook’ can also be expressed in the preparation of poisonous food, and of the blacksmith — in the burning of the forge, which we have long observed…

[1] ‘Let it pass! Stay out of the way!’ (French).

[2] Except for Konstantin Leontiev, who was not recognised in his time. However, Leontiev, for all his exceptional foresight, did not understand J. S. Mill properly, and even spoke sympathetically about him. I am in no way reproaching Leontiev for his lack of foresight, since the programme of the last and final emancipation proposed by Mill must have looked like a mere play of the mind at the time. No one of his contemporaries would have believed in the possibility of its practical application.

[3] ‘[T]here needs protection also, – says Mill, – against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development, and, if possible, prevent the formation, of any individuality not in harmony with its ways’.

[4] ‘That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized com-munity, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a suf-ficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil, in case he do otherwise. To justify that, the conduct from which it is desired to deter him must be calculated to produce evil to some one else. The only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign’.

[5] ‘[T]his doctrine is meant to apply only to human beings in the maturity of their faculties. We are not speaking of children, or of young persons below the age which the law may fix as that of manhood or womanhood. Those who are still in a state to require being taken care of by others, must be protected against their own actions as well as against external injury’.

[6]  ‘Liberty, as a principle, has no application to any state of things anterior to the time when mankind have become capable of being improved by free and equal discussion’.

[7] ‘The only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it. Each is the proper guardian of his own health, whether bodily, or mental or spiritual’.

[8] The confusion of categories he allows by demanding ‘free debate’ about faith between those who pray and those who don’t can only be compared to demanding that those who can’t write be allowed to participate in difficult spelling questions on an equal footing with those who can.

[9] I am aware of how far Socrates’ image is from that of a ‘preacher of positive values’, but still — in the very last account — Socrates taught right thinking, of which it cannot in any way be said that it is not a positive value.

[10] ‘The liberty of the individual must be thus far limited; he must not make himself a nuisance to other people. But if he refrains from molesting others in what concerns them, and merely acts according to his own inclination and judgment in things which concern himself, the same reasons which show that opinion should be free, prove also that he should be allowed, without molestation, to carry his opinions into practice at his own cost’.

[11] ‘[W]hile mankind are imperfect there should be different opinions, so is it that there should be different experiments of living; that free scope should be given to varieties of character, short of injury to others; and that the worth of different modes of life should be proved practically, when any one thinks fit to try them. It is desirable, in short, that in things which do not primarily concern others, individuality should assert itself. Where, not the person’s own character, but the traditions of customs of other people are the rule of conduct, there is wanting one of the principal ingredients of human happiness, and quite the chief ingredient of individual and social progress’.

[12] If, of course, it is said with proper seriousness; to Mill himself the words ‘lofty, ‘elevating’, must have meant very little and nothing at all, given his belief in ‘utility’ as the ultimate measure of goodness. What does ‘useful’ have to do with ‘lofty’?

[13] ‘[W]hen the opinions of masses of merely average men are everywhere become or becoming the dominant power, the counterpoise and corrective to that tendency would be, the more and more pronounced individuality of those who stand on the higher eminences of thought. It Is in these circumstances most espe-cially, that exceptional individuals, instead of being deterred, should be encouraged in acting differently from the mass. In other times there was no advantage in their doing so, unless they acted not only differently, but better. In this age the mere example of non-conformity, the mere refusal to bend the knee to custom, is itself a service. Precisely because the tyranny of opinion is such as to make eccentricity a reproach, it is desirable, in order to break through that tyranny, that people should be eccentric. Eccentricity has always abounded when and where strength of character has abounded; and the amount of eccen-tricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigor, and moral cour-age which it contained. That so few now dare to be eccentric, marks the chief danger of the time’.

[14] Especially since — in essence — the opinions of Christ and Christians are, from Mill’s point of view, of no value, and he calls Christ ‘the benefactor of mankind’ only with a certain diplomatic hypocrisy…

[15] By the way, there is nothing derogatory or improper in the last clause. Mill, like many other enemies of Christianity, reproaches modern Christians for not checking their every step with the Gospel — in this he is remarkably similar to Leo Tolstoy, also a rationalist and also, in his way, an enemy of religion. Like Tolstoy, he does not understand that Christianity — unlike the Old Testament, unlike Islam — requires first of all a certain inclination of the soul, as Pascal said, and this ‘inclination of the soul’ is more precious to him than following the commandments.

[16] ‘In cases of personal conduct supposed to be blameable, but which respect for liberty precludes society from preventing or punishing, because the evil directly resulting falls wholly on the agent; what the agent is free to do, ought other persons to be equally free to counsel or instigate? This question is not free from difficulty. […] Whatever it is permitted to do, it must be permitted to advise to do. […] if the principles which we have hitherto defended are true, society has no business, as society, to decide anything to be wrong which concerns only the individual; that it cannot go beyond dissuasion, and that one person should be as free to persuade, as another to dissuade.”

[17] Maybe yes, maybe no — though Mill seems to believe in the beneficence of free competition.

[18] «Society, being composed of a plurality of persons, each with his own aims, interests, and conceptions of the good, is best arranged when it is governed by principles that do not themselves presuppose any particular conception of the good; what justifies these regulative principles above all is not that they maximize the social welfare or otherwise promote the good, but rather that they conform to the concept of ‘right’, a moral category given prior to the good and independent of it» (Michael Sandel).

[19] I’m not saying that democracy in all matters more important than street lights and taxes is a mere political convention.

2006, 2023

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