A Traditional Interpretation
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Within the powerful current of destructive criticism of Mill’s writings on liberty which has dominated our view of the Essay since its publication in 1859 there are a number of common elements. Taken together, they amount to a formidable indictment of Mill’s enterprise in On Liberty. They suggest that Mill’s moral intuitions were at variance with the implications of his moral theory, and that only by seriously
compromising the one or the other could he have brought the two into balance. They suggest that the arguments and values he invokes in On Liberty are hopelessly at odds with the utilitarian ethics he espouses there and elsewhere in his writings, so that On Liberty, like Mill himself, could not help being divided against itself. This tradition of criticism and interpretation expresses a conventional view of the intellectual history of England in the nineteenth century, in which John Stuart Mill is seen as breaking out of the system of thought of which Bentham and his father were important exponents, but as never fully admitting to himself the extent of his apostasy. His thought is naturally perceived, then, as an eclectic mixture of ill-assorted elements, which tends to fall apart under any sustained critical pressure. It is irresistibly suggested by this view of Mill as an eclectic and transitional thinker that his moral and political writings cannot be expected to yield a coherent doctrine and that the argument of On Liberty, in particular, must inevitably prove abortive.