My Speech on Liberty


Here is the speech on Liberty I gave at the Dicken’s Fair as part of the Lecture Hour.

Friends, I was in Rome a few months ago, the whole place is a historical museum with some theatrical representation of history still going on. I have been to St Peter’s, the apparent smallness of which from without,  astonishes me more than ever — it is vastly inferior in effect externally to St Paul’s—but what a difference internally!  I enjoy it more than I ever did—enjoy is the word—the more so as it is the only warm place I have been in that day, except in my room.

As you may know, I was brought up without any religious belief, homeschooled by my father, to have a unique education, quite unusual and remarkable, solely dedicated to the mind, and by my teen years, had given me a quarter of a century advantage over my contemporaries. I must delve upon this topic more some day, because I believe it may be useful to have record of such an education that has proved how much more than is commonly supposed may be taught, and well taught, in those early years which, in the common modes of what is called instruction, are little better than wasted.

well, lest I let my train of thoughts stray too far away into other topics, I shall constrain myself today to liberty and as i was saying, I was in Rome a few months ago, and on my way back, cogitating thereon I came back to an idea I had talked about with my wife Harriet, who who I must say has been the inspirer, and in part the author, of all that is best in my writings— and I thought that the best thing to write & publish at present is a volume on Liberty. My friends, it is a growing need, for opinion, in these days, tends to encroach more & more on liberty, & almost all the projects of social reformers are really liberticide —August Comte, the french positivist and his humanist religion, particularly so.

Allow me then, to venture some ideas that would make such a volume. First to clarify, this would not be a book on the liberty of the will, following the philosophy of Necessity. No, what I am speaking of is social liberty – the struggle between it and authority, long standing through the ages, where absolute ruling had been the norm. How has this struggle developed? Man’s dealings with despotisms to control it, went through 2 states: 1) by securing concepts and recognition of political liberties and rights and 2) with the establishment of constitutional checks to control the power of the authority.

After a while however, it was recognized that instead of mitigating the power of a state which was always been seen as antagonistic to the people’s interest, it would be better that the power actually reflects the same interests; that the rulers identified with the people. These were the ideas that would lead to the birth of modern democratic ideals.

Democracy however, as it has been developing across the atlantic, has its shortcomings, many of which have been thoroughly studied and clarified by Alexis de Tocqueville in his great treatise, Democracy in America.

Indeed, when we talk about democracy, we tend to used such expression as  “self government” and “power of the people over themselves” but we must be careful with such terms because they don’t reflect the actual state of things. The people who exercise the power are not the same as those over which the power is exercised and it is not the government of each by himself but each by all the rest.

and so it was Tocqueville who opened my eyes on a truly pernicious and dangerous new possibility, what he called, the tyranny of the majority. This was not the first discovery of the phenomena, for it had already been identified by America’s founding founders, in particular John Adams, who first used the expression, but also James Madison, who in federalist paper N10, talks about “the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority”.  The tyranny of the majority then, an even stronger form of oppression than political tyranny because it leaves few means of escape. It penetrates much more deeply into the details of life, enslaving the soul itself.

How in such a context, would the individual develop? What is to become of the freedom of each one, in contrast with the foreseen tyranny of the laws and opinions of the multitude. On what principles, shall government be justified in controlling the private life of the individual?

For that is what would need to be protected by such a principle, what I call the domain of human liberty. It is a sphere of action in which society has only an indirect interest. it comprises of 3 parts:

1) 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 theology. It includes the liberty of expressing and publishing opinions.

2) The liberty of tastes and pursuit, of framing the plan of our life to suit our own character; of doing as we like, subject to such consequences as may follow and without impediment from our fellow-creatures.

3) the liberty within the same limits of combination among individuals, freedom to unite, the persons combining being supposed to be of full age and not forced or deceived”

On what principles then, should government dealings be constraints to allow this domain to flourish? The question is not far from the fundamental one, what is the end of men? I quote here, from the great work of the german philosopher, Wilhelm Von Humboldt, from his book, “the sphere of duties and Government”,

He says, “The end of man is the highest and most harmonious development of his powers to a complete and consistent whole”.

He continues, the object “towards which every human being must ceaselessly direct his efforts, and on which especially those who design to influence their fellow-men must ever keep their eyes, is the individuality of power and development”.

He finishes with two requisites to fulfill this aim, “freedom and variety of situations”, let me repeat that, “freedom and variety of situations”.  That from the union of these arise “individual vigor and manifold diversity” which combine themselves in “originality”.

Dear friends, there is no recognized principle today over which to judge the propriety or impropriety of government interference, with regards to control of individual behavior, and which can ensure “freedom” and “variety of situations”

What I propose then, is a new one, a very simple one, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control, whether the means used be physical force in the form of legal penalties, or the moral coercion of public opinion.

That principle is, that the sole end for which making are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection.

That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.

His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant”.

”Over himself, over his body and mind, the individual is sovereign.”

I hope then to propound more on these ideas in a coming volume on liberty. therefore thank you for all your attention.

Good Day.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s