John Stuart Mill and Nietzsche on Individualism

Primary version of this post at Barry Stocker’s Weblog, with picture of Mill, not just the link.

John Stuart Mill picture in the image above.

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.

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2 thoughts on “John Stuart Mill and Nietzsche on Individualism

  1. Hello. Read your post with interest, but from the other side. My main background’s in Spinoza and Marx and I’m currently working on a paper on Spinoza and Nietzsche. In a postcard to Overbeck in the 1860s, Nietzsche expressed enthusiasm for Spinoza’s ideas, but thereafter went on to critically differentiate himself. I’m also interested in Spinoza as a critic of liberal contractualism, and of the social ontology which underpins it. Here, it seems to me that Nietzsche assumes a quite conventional ontology of types, masses and individuals, and I’m interested in shifting angles on Nietzsche as perhaps articulating the dark side of liberalism, which your post in some ways confirms. In connection with this, I came across a post recently which alleged an interesting detail on Locke. During his time at the Board of Trade, when there was economic dislocation throughout England and widespread vagabondage , Locke submitted a document containing proposals on punitive measures, and which contained ( allegedly ), among other things, a recommendation that male children above the age of 12 (?) found begging outside their parish should have their ears cut off, while male adults should serve 3 years’ hard labour. So yes, liberalism has always felt threatened by the propertyless. Anyway I’d be interested in discussing these things, but our views would be different.

    • Thanks for your comment. This is a post from 5 years ago so not exactly fresh in my mind. I don’t think anyone is denying that Locke’s views were very skewed towards the propertied classes of his time and away from the unpropertied. I don’t think anyone would deny that the 17th and 18th century rise of liberalism includes a very large streak of the wish to preserve proper amongst those who already have it and fear of those who don’t have it. But the views of Locke are also devoted against the single biggest institution to preserve property distribution as it is, absolute monarchy. Locke’s political and economic thinking allows for a system which prevents an unquestioned fusion of political and economic privilege. Market thinking allows for the break up and reformation of property distribution, no so as to promote an equal distribution but to prevent complete fusion of economic and political power, and creates conditions for raising everyone living conditions. The market works through distributing increasing amounts of economic welfare throughout the population, it creates drives toward providing more for less for the greatest number of people.Locke’s poetical thinning allows for limits on power and pluralist politics which again break up the most extreme forms of fusion between economic and political power. For these reason his thought is a considerable step forward in political rights and economic welfare throughout the population. The relation between protecting property, the rise of the prison, the optical economy and the legal-political thinking of modern liberalism is something I’ve been discussing through some notes on the most recent publication of Foucault’s lectures. Unfortunately progress on this has been interrupted through other writing commitments and teaching, but I should get back to it before long. The one point I will make here is that whatever the disturbing side of the protection of proper, which I am very interested in investigating, it is increasingly about protecting the property of the major part of the population, and the increasing amount of property in the population at large, in the movement form a society focused on protecting the inherited landholdings of the traditional elite to a society focused on promoting increasing general welfare as necessary to the legitimation of governments and institutions. In short working class living standards rose a lot because of the economic and technological changes of the period we are discussing, and associated political changes. The short term benefits for the poorer classes of urbanisation and industrialisation, and formation of liberal politics, can be debated, the considerable benefits by the later decades of the 19th century (if not earlier) cannot be reasonably denied.

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