I always find it creates a bit of a shock if I suggest that John Stuart Mill and Nietzsche had much in common about anything. It’s true that Nietzsche was rather rude about Mill and that they expressed contradictory views about parliamentary democracy and the women’s movement. However, it is also true that it would be absurd to interpret Nietzsche according to the first impression his provocative rhetoric gives; and it would be absurd to say that two philosophers who disagree could not have underlying agreement in the area where they have some disagreement.
Nietzsche’s criticisms of 19th Century liberalism need two major qualifiers:
He expressed admiration for liberal figures like Voltaire, Mirabeau (a leading moderate in the early stages of the French Revolution) and Kaiser Friedrich (very briefly German Emperor between William I and II, and unlike them a supporter of liberals in German politics).
His criticisms of parliamentary democracy, and democratic culture, are expressions of the same criticisms that 19th Century liberals had of the culture and politics of the time.
The general context for this, is that 18th and 19th Century liberalism was very anxious about the consequences of a democracy which incorporated voters with little, or no education and property. As much as anything, liberals of that time were concerned with restricting the possibilities of levelling down egalitarianism and incoherent populist surges in democratic politics threatening individual righys, and in the earlier part of that period tended to prefer limitations on voting rights. I would say that idea broke down with Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (1835-40), a major influence on Mill, which really established the idea that it was only a matter of time before all developed countries became fully democratic. Mill himself thought political rights should be denied to ‘barbarous’ peoples, like Tocqueville he thought such peoples should be educated for civilisation and democracy through colonialism. Even in the advanced countries, Mill was concerned with uneducated voters participating in the political process and suggested giving more votes to the more educated. Sometimes, Mill comes very close to suggesting a new aristocracy of education, and intellect, should be ruling in ways that insulated them from waves of popular feeling, amongst the uneducated. In some sense, the existence of a constitution and laws, interpreted by judges not popular assemblies, makes that true of all modern democracies; something Tocqueville who was from an old aristocratic family noted with great interest.
That’s the background, let’s list some specific points where Mill and Nietzsche agree
Modern society promotes conformity and uniformity which undermines the existence of strong and diverse individuals.
Traditions and customs, particularly religion, are chains on the mind which should be cast off.
Traditions and customs, including religion, produced the great, strong, and varied individuals of the past.
We need to find ways of producing great, strong, and varied individuals for the future.
A society is at least partly justified by its creation of particularly notable strong and varied individuals.
Higher cultural values should be recognised, and defended against uniformity in culture, which always descends to a low level.
State decisions should never be based on the immediate desires of an uneducated mass.
I believe that clearly establishes some common ground. Further commentary on this would looks further at themes common to Mill, Tocqueville and Nietzsche; and would consider the relation to Mill and Nietzsche to the kind of liberalism established by Wilhelm von Humboldt in The Limits of State Action. Mill refers directly to this text. and while I’m not aware of any direct references in Nietzsche the parallels are most striking. These issues should be coming up in future posts.