Finding Flourishing in Victorian England


I am taking a course at my school for retirees (read, old folks like me) on the roots of liberalism and am currently reading the works of John Stuart Mill, who remains a cornerstone for thinking about liberty. The class this week included a reading of Chapter 3, “Of individuality, as one of the elements of well-being, from On Liberty, his still in-print set of essays, originally published in 1859. This Chapter follows one in which he lays out his case for protecting freedom of expression and discussion. It is as valid today as it was in the 19th Century. Arguing that freedom of expression/thought is of little practical value unless it is accompanied by freedom of action, he wrote that one should be able to think and act free of any encroachment, except where the thought or act harms another person.

A longish passage caught my eye as I was reading. Mill writes in the style of his times, often very long convoluted sentences that stretch almost a full paragraph in length. He was arguing that freedom of action was essential for the full development of human beings. Here is the passage. This comes after a critique of what he sees as the dominance of conformity in British society.

It is not by wearing down into uniformity all that is individual in themselves, but by cultivating it and calling it forth, within the limits imposed by the rights and interests of others, that human beings become a noble and beautiful object of contemplation; and as the works partake the character of those who do them, by the same process human life also becomes rich, diversified, and animating, furnishing more abundant aliment to high thoughts and elevating feelings, and strengthening the tie which binds every individual to the race, by making the race infinitely better worth belonging to. In proportion to the development of his individuality, each person becomes more valuable to himself, and is therefore capable of being more valuable to others. There is a greater fulness of life about his own existence, and when there is more life in the units there is more in the mass which is composed of them. … To be held to rigid rules of justice for the sake of others, develops the feelings and capacities which have the good of others for their object. But to be restrained in things not affecting their good, by their mere displeasure, develops nothing valuable, except such force of character as may unfold itself in resisting the restraint. If acquiesced in, it dulls and blunts the whole nature. To give any fair-play to the nature of each, it is essential that different persons should be allowed to lead different lives. In proportion as this latitude has been exercised in any age, has that age been noteworthy to posterity. Even despotism does not produce its worst effects, so long as Individuality exists under it; and whatever crushes individuality is despotism, by whatever name it may be called, and whether it professes to be enforcing the will of God or the injunctions of men.
Having said that Individuality is the same thing with development, and that it is only the cultivation of individuality which produces, or can produce, well-developed human beings, I might here close the argument: for what more or better can be said of any condition of human affairs, than that it brings human beings themselves nearer to the best thing they can be? or what worse can be said of any obstruction to good, than that it prevents this?

I read this as a definition of flourishing, very close to the one I have been using, as attaining the full human potential. He is examining only the cultural piece. Look at the second paragraph. Earlier he touched on what I have been calling authenticity, differentiating between acts from within and those following traditions or custom. Here is what he wrote about this.

It is desirable, in short, that in things which do not primarily concern others, individuality should assert itself. Where, not the person’s own character, but the traditions or customs of other people are the rule of conduct, there is wanting one of the principal ingredients of human happiness, and quite the chief ingredient of individual and social progress.

On Liberty is Mill’s argument that the present norms and social structures in Victorian England are squelching individual liberty, both of thought and action. He blames both public opinion (social norms) and government practices. His language is often stilted relative to today’s styles, but the thought is clear. That he feels it necessary to write such a powerful critique supports my argument that flourishing has been recognized as central to human being in the past, but that it has languished under the cultural realities of the time. It is no different today. The world is much changed, but cultural force still repress flourishing. Anyway, I feel ever more empowered to write about flourishing and how to create it today when I find such strong evidence in the work of such thinkers as Mill.