LibriVox recording of Three Essays on Religion, by John Stuart Mill

His chapter on the subject is brief, little more than half the length of that on local government, perhaps too brief for him to render full justice to the magnitude and complexity of the theme. In “Coleridge” and he had viewed nationality as an essential condition for a stable political society, but emphasized that he did not mean nationality in the vulgar sense. In the interval between these writings and the appearance of Mill saw nationality in Europe grow stronger in influence, more militant, and more uncompromising. It was manifested in a people through a powerful sense of community and an anxiety to live under one government. It was fostered by a variety of influences, such as identity of race, a common homeland, common language, common religion, and a common sense of history. “But the strongest of all is identity of political antecedents: the possession of a national history, and consequent community of recollections; collective pride and humiliation, pleasure and regret, connected with the same incidents in the past” (546). This passage has been quoted and requoted. Yet in his brief sketch Mill does not explain precisely how, why, and when the actual unifying sense of a common national history arises, especially in cases like Germany and Italy, where for generations deep political divergences expressed in a plethora of small states seemed more conspicuous than unity.

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John stuart mill three essays on religion john

In his essay on the “State of Society in America” Mill expressed not merely some additional reflections on the American experiment, but also briefly raised questions on how environment determines a nation’s politics, how nations could benefit from one another’s experience through a science of comparative institutions, and how American society was judged by European observers in the doubtful light of their own prejudices, especially hostility to popular rule. He was strongly convinced that the American form of democracy must be directly related to the special character of American society, moulded by a wide variety of forces: abundant natural wealth, a fast growing population, a remarkable opportunity for all classes to raise their standards of living, the absence of aggressive neighbours, the lack of a leisured class except in the southern states, and the inheritance of a language and culture from a parent nation three thousand miles away. Its experiment in politics was scarcely comprehensible apart from the interplay of these numerous influences, all of which, although seldom the product of government, impinged directly on government. They were not all favourable to the success of democracy. To Mill the United States was a classic demonstration of the intimate bonds between social circumstances and political forms.

Three Essays on Religion by Mill John Stuart - AbeBooks

In “Recent Writers on Reform” Mill examined the ideas of three contemporary writers on parliamentary institutions in the 1850s, selected for their distinction and the importance of their ideas: John Austin, James Lorimer, and Thomas Hare. Austin had been one of Mill’s oldest friends, under whom as a youth he had studied law, and whose ability he greatly admired. Yet Austin, although a disciple of Bentham, had in later years become conservative and estranged from Mill, who in particular was disturbed by his vehement criticism of the French revolutionary government of 1848. In his Austin displayed a hostility to further parliamentary reform in the conviction that it was likely to destroy the delicate balance of the existing constitution and the appropriate attitudes of mind which facilitated its operation. The constitution, he believed, combined democratic and aristocratic elements. The electors were a democratic body, while the elected in the main constituted a remarkably skilled, devoted, and aristocratic governing class, who throughout a long span of time had acquired and were still able to apply the arts of ruling a country they understood.

John Stuart Mill, The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XVIII - Essays on Politics and Society Part I (On Liberty) [1977]
John Stuart Mill, The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XVIII - Essays on Politics and Society Part I, ed

Anthologies Warner, Charles D., ed

If the intellect and judgment of mankind ought to be cultivated, a thing which Protestants at least do not deny, on what can these faculties be more appropriately exercised by any one, than on the things which concern him so much that it is considered necessary for him to hold opinions on them? If the cultivation of the understanding consists in one thing more than in another, it is surely in learning the grounds of one’s own opinions. Whatever people believe, on subjects on which it is of the first importance to believe rightly, they ought to be able to defend against at least the common objections. But, some one may say, “Let them be the grounds of their opinions. It does not follow that opinions must be merely parroted because they are never heard controverted. Persons who learn geometry do not simply commit the theorems to memory, but understand and learn likewise the demonstrations; and it would be absurd to say that they remain ignorant of the grounds of geometrical truths, because they never hear any one deny, and attempt to disprove them.” Undoubtedly: and such teaching suffices on a subject like mathematics, where there is nothing at all to be said on the wrong side of the question. The peculiarity of the evidence of mathematical truths is, that all the argument is on one side. There are no objections, and no answers to objections. But on every subject on which difference of opinion is possible, the truth depends on a balance to be struck between two sets of conflicting reasons. Even in natural philosophy, there is always some other explanation possible of the same facts; some geocentric theory instead of heliocentric, some phlogiston instead of oxygen; and it has to be shown why that other theory cannot be the true one: and until this is shown, and until we know how it is shown, we do not understand the grounds of our opinion. But when we turn to subjects infinitely more complicated, to morals, religion, politics, social relations, and the business of life, three-fourths of the arguments for every disputed opinion consist in dispelling the appearances which favour some opinion different from it. The greatest orator, save one, of antiquity, has left it on record that he always studied his adversary’s case with as great, if not with still greater, intensity than even his own. What Cicero practised as the means of forensic success, requires to be imitated by all who study any subject in order to arrive at the truth. He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side; if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion. The rational position for him would be suspension of judgment, and unless he contents himself with that, he is either led by authority, or adopts, like the generality of the world, the side to which he feels most inclination. Nor is it enough that he should hear the arguments of adversaries from his own teachers, presented as they state them, and accompanied by what they offer as refutations. That is not the way to do justice to the arguments, or bring them into real contact with his own mind. He must be able to hear them from persons who actually believe them; who defend them in earnest, and do their very utmost for them. He must know them in their most plausible and persuasive form; he must feel the whole force of the difficulty which the true view of the subject has to encounter and dispose of; else he will never really possess himself of the portion of truth which meets and removes that difficulty. Ninety-nine in a hundred of what are called educated men are in this condition; even of those who can argue fluently for their opinions. Their conclusion may be true, but it might be false for anything they know: they have never thrown themselves into the mental position of those who think differently from them, and considered what such persons may have to say; and consequently they do not, in any proper sense of the word, know the doctrine which they themselves profess. They do not know those parts of it which explain and justify the remainder; the considerations which show that a fact which seemingly conflicts with another is reconcilable with it, or that, of two apparently strong reasons, one and not the other ought to be preferred. All that part of the truth which turns the scale, and decides the judgment of a completely informed mind, they are strangers to; nor is it ever really known, but to those who have attended equally and impartially to both sides, and endeavoured to see the reasons of both in the strongest light. So essential is this discipline to a real understanding of moral and human subjects, that if opponents of all important truths do not exist, it is indispensable to imagine them, and supply them with the strongest arguments which the most skilful devil’s advocate can conjure up.

John Stuart Mill caught this contradictory quality, with characteristic acuteness, in his essays on Jeremy Bentham (1838) and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1840).

English Essays: Sidney to Macaulay

The preceding instances may be objected to, although unreasonably, as drawn from contingencies impossible among us: opinion, in this country, not being likely to enforce abstinence from meats, or to interfere with people for worshipping, and for either marrying or not marrying, according to their creed or inclination. The next example, however, shall be taken from an interference with liberty which we have by no means passed all danger of. Wherever the Puritans have been sufficiently powerful, as in New England, and in Great Britain at the time of the Commonwealth, they have endeavoured, with considerable success, to put down all public, and nearly all private, amusements: especially music, dancing, public games, or other assemblages for purposes of diversion, and the theatre. There are still in this country large bodies of persons by whose notions of morality and religion these recreations are condemned; and those persons belonging chiefly to the middle class, who are the ascendant power in the present social and political condition of the kingdom, it is by no means impossible that persons of these sentiments may at some time or other command a majority in Parliament. How will the remaining portion of the community like to have the amusements that shall be permitted to them regulated by the religious and moral sentiments of the stricter Calvinists and Methodists? Would they not, with considerable peremptoriness, desire these intrusively pious members of society to mind their own business? This is precisely what should be said to every government and every public, who have the pretension that no person shall enjoy any pleasure which they think wrong. But if the principle of the pretension be admitted, no one can reasonably object to its being acted on in the sense of the majority, or other preponderating power in the country; and all persons must be ready to conform to the idea of a Christian commonwealth, as understood by the early settlers in New England, if a religious profession similar to theirs should ever succeed in regaining its lost ground, as religions supposed to be declining have so often been known to do.

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Such measures in no way prevent the flowering of individuality or cramp new and venturesome experiments in personal living. They merely deal with practices long condemned by the judgment of the world. Alcohol also affects another issue on which Mill has strong views: temperance societies sought to reduce the consumption of liquor by prohibiting its sale. Drinking is mainly a private matter, whereas selling is a social act. Any interference with sales would, in Mill’s opinion, violate the liberty of prospective buyers and consumers. But the campaign for prohibition was supported by those who alleged that their social rights were violated by merchants who trafficked in liquor. In the transient victories of American temperance societies Mill, with much indignation, finds a classic example of pressure groups which ignore the liberty of others in using the machinery of democracy to achieve their own ends (287-8). He likewise rejects sabbatarian legislation, which also reflects the religious prejudices of a part of the population who coerce the remainder into its acceptance.