John Peter DiIulio, "Completely Free: The Moral and Political Vision of John Stuart Mill" (Princeton UP, 2022)


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As we emerge from a period of government-mandated lockdowns and as threats to free speech multiply, we would be wise to re-engage with the work of a seminal thinker on the subjects of liberty, freedom and nondomination. We can do so most effectively by reading Completely Free: The Moral and Political Vision of John Stuart Mill (Princeton UP, 2022) by John Peter DiIulio.

Mill (1806–73), for all his influence on fields such as philosophy and political theory, has detractors aplenty. Conservatives consider him lukewarm on religious liberty and even slightly hostile to religion generally and a proto-hippy in his partiality for ideas about experiments in living. For their part, progressives aren’t wild about Mill’s emphasis on virtue and personal character. Libertarians distrust Mill’s embrace of the state when employment of it, in Mill’s view, fosters social harmony and a feeling of security among the populace.

Crucially for our discussion today, all of Mill’s critics seem to agree that much of his thinking is hard to follow and that he will say something in an essay or book that very much conflicts with what he says elsewhere.

DiIulio’s book dissects the many critiques of Mill’s social and political thought and argues that Mill believed that society should aim for zero-tolerance of arbitrary power and strive for the promotion and preservation of individual freedom. Given recent debates over personal freedom and bodily sovereignty issues (such as mandatory mask wearing and vaccination and the Dobbs decision overturning Roe v. Wade), there could hardly be a more opportune moment to drill down into Mill’s writings on the various forms that domination can take (e.g., domination as infantilization, domination as uncertainty, domination as diminution).

Does Mill speak to us today or is he a relic of the Victorian age in all his earnestness and lofty thinking? DiIulio’s book is a strong argument for Mill’s relevance and continuing appeal. DiIulio writes: "Mill is dedicated above all to the idea that the chief and most significant solution to any of the ills that we face as human beings is the general cultivation of deep feeling and high aspiration."

We learn how Mill managed to free himself of the mechanistic aspects of Benthamite Utilitarianism in favor of a richer vision of human happiness that was friendlier to intellectual autonomy and love of the arts while simultaneously demanding of the individual the pursuit of virtue and good character.

Let’s hear what John Peter DiIulio has to say about the multifaceted Mr. Mill.

Hope J. Leman is a grants researcher.