[Classic] #39. John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty”

John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty” explores the balance between individual freedom and social control. Mill argues for the importance of expressing all opinions and asserts that society should only interfere with personal actions to prevent harm to others. He emphasizes individuality as crucial for personal and societal well-being. Mill’s insights remain relevant in modern society, providing valuable perspectives on contemporary issues.

Author Introduction

John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) was a British philosopher and political economist. He was born in London as the son of James Mill, a follower of Jeremy Bentham. Mill was rigorously educated from a young age, learning Greek at three and reading Plato’s dialogues by seven. By twelve, he was studying logic and economics. His extensive writings on utilitarianism and political philosophy have had a profound influence on modern thought​​.

Background of the Book

“On Liberty,” written in 1859, was set against the backdrop of Victorian England, a period marked by industrial revolution and the peak of the British Empire. Despite the era’s advancements, social inequality and workers’ rights remained critical issues. Mill aimed to explore the balance between individual freedom and social control in this context​​.

Summary of the Book


Mill defines liberty and addresses the issue of “tyranny of the majority” in a democracy. He discusses the limits of power that society can legitimately exercise over individuals and explores how individual freedom can be protected​​.

Freedom of Thought and Discussion

Mill argues that all opinions should be expressed, whether they are held by the minority or majority, true or false. He emphasizes that the expression and discussion of diverse opinions are crucial for discovering truth and fostering intellectual growth in society​​.

Individuality – An Essential Element of Well-being

Mill stresses the importance of freedom of action, arguing that each person should be free to act in their own way. This individuality is vital for personal happiness and societal progress. He critiques how customs, media, and popular opinion can suppress individual uniqueness​​.

Limits of Authority over the Individual

Mill asserts that society can only exert force over individuals to prevent harm to others. Personal actions that do not harm others should not be subject to societal interference. This principle, however, does not apply to minors or those insufficiently educated​​.

Practical Applications

Mill argues that individuals are not accountable to society for actions that do not affect others. However, actions that cause harm to others warrant social or legal penalties. He advocates for minimal government interference and maximal personal freedom​​.


“On Liberty,” despite being written 150 years ago, remains relevant today. Mill emphasizes the balance between individual freedom and social control, an issue still pertinent in modern society. His advocacy for free discussion and individuality is crucial for personal and societal well-being. Mill’s insights continue to provide valuable perspectives on contemporary issues.

Memorable Quotes

  • “The problem of freedom is not only quantitative but also qualitative. We must not only preserve and increase traditional freedom but also gain new types of freedom that enable us to realize our individual selves.” (p.116)
  • “Modern man has gained freedom from the bondage of pre-individualistic society, but he has not yet achieved positive freedom in the sense of realizing his individual self.” (p.16)

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