Michel Foucault and John Stuart Mill on Liberty

(Extract form wor in progress on Foucault and Liberty)

Foucault’s thoughts about active liberty, and free speaking, have strong precedents in Milton, and can also be compared with John Stuart Mill’s classic work on political freedom including ‘liberty of thought and discussion’, chapter two of On Liberty.  Amongst other things Foucault’s position is close to Mill’s criticisms of the power of conformity. Self-assertion is fundamental to Mill’s discussion, otherwise how could there be the eccentricity and resistance to public opinion that he values in On Liberty?  Mill’s Autobiography shows that he favoured something like parrhēsia in the political sphere.  There he claims that a working class audience responded very well, at a public meeting, to his honest admission that there was a pamphlet in which he had stated that the working class of Britain was disposed to lie.  This is in the spirit of parrhēsia, as described by Foucault, which includes the refusal to flatter the people or a ruler.

Mill refers to parrhēsia, if briefly in the second part of his review of his review of Grote’s History of Greece (1853). In that essay, Mill also quotes Grote who is quoting Thucydides’ report of Pericles’ Funeral Oration, an extract from which appears at the head of this chapter. Mill refers to the importance of the Battle of Marathon in preserving the Greek culture which is then transmitted through history, and which Mill thinks elevated the English above forest life. The spirit of common interest  brought about by democratic institutions in Athens, and by the institutions of oligarchic republics is essential to the total achievements of Greek culture, particularly that of Athens. He refers to the origin of the Athenian empire in a free confederation against Persia, in which Mill distinguishes between the fighting commitment of Athens’ allies in Greece proper, and the financial donations of the weaker in spirit Greeks of Anatolia, or what Mill regards as Oriental Greeks. Republican virtues of common decision making, concern for the public good, political life, and willingness to fight for the political community are important for Mill, though he also distinguishes between the ancient version of democracy and modern representative democracy. The lack of the representative principle is part of the reasons for the short life of the independent Athenian state, why it cannot grow bigger and stronger.

It might look possible to construct an opposition between Foucault’s parrhēsia, which takes place in a political assembly and is as much a duty as a right, with a Millian liberty of freedom from interference, which imposes no expectation of speaking in the political sphere.  However, Mill’s conception of liberty of thought and discussion is part of an overall approach, which seeks self-elevation of the individual to become educated, morally concerned and politically involved.  Freedom of thought and expression is not just offered as the right to say anything in Mill, but as the way that we improve knowledge by constantly testing and challenging it.  This is part of the formation of political judgement, as well as epistemic stimulant.  His major text on ethics, Utilitarianism is even more emphatic on this issue, arguing that Utilitarianism must accept that the greater pleasures are those in which the higher faculties are active (Mill 1991,139).  

Mill tends towards a dialogism about truth in On Liberty, but more towards the establishment of truth by the most educated in Considerations on Representative Government.  The point which joins them is that the educated in the bureaucracy advocated in Considerations on Representative Government need multiple influences and are trying to educate the great majority.  In both cases Mill plays down questions of interest in truth, or at least thinks that the educated, including a proper bureaucracy, will be concerned with truth not interests.

Considerations on Representative Government goes even further than Utilitarianism that in its claims that ‘a people of savages’ should be ruled through obedience, that ‘deficiency of mental cultivation‘ in a people makes it suitable for rule by foreigners, and that those with the most education should be given plural votes.  Nevertheless, Mill also thinks that the exercise of political rights by manual labourers will improve their mental cultivation (327), a point which  might seem to counteract arguments of limiting political rights. Whatever point Mill makes, there is a consistent belief that liberty is not just the existence of a minimal legal right, but is the exercise of faculties in such a way as to improve them individually and in the individual as a whole, and to improve the whole of society.

Foucault puts the citizens’ assemblies of ancient Greece at the centre and refers to the innately challenging nature of free speaking.  Free speaking can put the speaker in considerable danger, as when uttered to a despot. It can lead to the disasters that befall Theseus, Hyppolitus and Phaedre in Euripides’ tragedy Hyppolitus.  It is inherently a form of provocation, and a risk taking enterprise. It is a duty and an obligation as well as a right and an entitlement. Mill is referring to a time when the possibility of politics conducted through a citizens’ assembly has disappeared. That is why he feels the need to write a book on representative government.  Mill’s thoughts are guided by a belief in consensual and rationalistic truth, even though he emphasises the importance of conflict and eccentric views in discussion. These are means by which the epistemic community arrives at truth


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