Questions of liberty are as relevant today as they were when first discussed by philosophers
The state and its individual citizens have mutual obligations in democratic countries — the state to protect the individual’s freedom to say or do what he or she believes is right, the individual to say or do nothing that will harm other citizens. The problematic question of the state’s duty to shield individual liberty against the forces of intolerance has been addressed by philosophers from ancient times, from Socrates, say, to Bertrand Russell in the modern era. The most lucid, passionately argued, and brilliantly written book on this subject is John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, which, published in 1859, elaborates upon and complements the work of the intellectual enlightenment that had begun to be advanced in 17th-century Europe, and furthers the dissemination of progressive ideas which are still, in the 21st century, critically relevant to the role of government in countries as politically different as the United States of America and Pakistan.
First, a few background notes before a discussion of Mill’s ideas. It was in the 17th century that, enriched by expansionist imperialism, the more aggressively acquisitive nations, like England, saw the emergence of a middle class that grew as the plundered resources from the colonies increased the nation’s wealth. No longer downtrodden peasants, but upwardly mobile citizens of a new bourgeoisie, the aspirations of this growing class, newly liberated from poverty, had to be accommodated in an evolving political structure. There was popular pressure to share the national wealth that had been monopolised by the aristocracy and the church. Philosophers like Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, who laid the foundations of British thought in metaphysics and in political philosophy, initiated the rationale that proposed a just and equitable new order for society. Some of our current terminology of political philosophy — equal rights, social contract, freedom of expression, sovereignty — originates from this period and is copiously discussed in Hobbes’s Leviathan, published in 1651, and still strikingly relevant to the human political condition.
The battle that was fought in England before the people’s rights could be won was a real and bloody one: the civil war that briefly established a republic under a Puritan dictator, Oliver Cromwell, who did in England in the 17th century what the Taliban did in Afghanistan in the 20th: executed the king, closed down the theatres, imposed a dress code on women, even suppressed Christmas festivities. Hobbes saw the horrors of religious intolerance and military opportunism, and proposed the terms of a covenant between the government and the people that would preserve national peace and prosperity. Parts of his Leviathan read like the template of a detailed constitution for a progressively inclined new nation.
Leviathan was preceded by Bacon’s great opus, Novum Organum (1620), written as a series of aphorisms of which the first is a bold, almost defiant, assertion that sets the tone of the empiricist argument which was to become the vital bloodstream of British thought: “Man, being the servant and interpreter of nature, can do and understand so much and so much only as he has observed in fact or in thought of the course of nature: beyond this he neither knows anything nor can do anything.” Hobbes echoes this idea in his first chapter: “there is no conception in a man’s mind which hath not at first, totally or by parts, been begotten upon the organs of sense.” It is a bold declaration of a secular epistemology, and implicitly rejects Old Testament theology. No longer to be observed as divine inspiration, reality is nothing more than the play of forms on human senses. The unstated idea behind the assertion is the principle of the separation of state and church.
Ordinary perception, not revelation; the logic of common sense, not the dogma broadcast by the church: that is the new basis of human understanding. In order to achieve that understanding, Bacon’s approach is to “begin with physics and end in mathematics”: we accumulate material data and submit that tabulated objective information to statistical analysis. Metaphysics, suggests Bacon, is an investigation into the “eternal and immutable” forms, which has to be conducted as a detailed analysis of the accumulated facts related to an idea. Taking as an example the idea of heat, he presents an exhaustive tabulation and analysis of the facts related to heat and thus creates an early model of what is universally accepted as the scientific method.