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Volume 34, Number 2 (Fall 1994)

Rediscovering a Neglected Conservative Mind

book cover imageLiberty, Equality, Fraternity,
by James Fitzjames Stephen.
Edited by Stuart D. Warner.
Liberty Fund, Inc., 1993
xxix + 270 pp., $19.50 cloth; $7.50, paper.

W. Wesley McDonald

Although proclaimed by Sir Ernest Barker as “the finest exposition of conservative thought in the later half of the nineteenth century,” Liberty, Equality, Fraternity never received the attention it deserved. First published in 1873, and revised and republished the following year, this conservative classic, notes the editor, “figured prominently in the mid– to late nineteenth century Victorian debates on two concepts at the heart of politics in the modern world—liberty and equality.” Yet, this forcefully written challenge to classical liberalism remained curiously out of print until Cambridge University Press brought out an edition in 1967. That too went quickly out of print. Then in the 1990s, by coincidence, two editions appeared almost simultaneously; the one reviewed here and another published by the University of Chicago Press (1991).

Until recently then, this book could only be found in the better libraries, and there possibly only on microfiche. Consequently, despite its significance to the contemporary discussion of normative political and moral theory, few within conservative intellectual circles have actually read it. Most knew of Stephen’s greatest work only through secondary sources, most especially Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind. Kirk, in his history of conservative ideas, explicates and summarizes Stephen’s vigorous defense of ordered liberty and the rule of law against the humanitarian and collectivist utopian views of John Stuart Mill. If Kirk had never written about Stephen, it would be fair to say that today only a few scholars of Victorian politics would even recognize Stephen’s name.

Sir James Fitzjames Stephen (1829–94) was a baronet, a barrister, a jurist, an essayist and, for two and a half years, a colonial official in India. The brother of Leslie Stephen and the uncle of Virginia Woolf, Stephen joined such notable conservative Victorian historians and legal scholars as Henry Maine and W. E. H. Lecky to oppose England’s drift into expansive and collectivist democracy. Although Kirk places him within the Burkean conservative tradition and celebrates his blistering blasts at Utilitarianism, Stephen did not reject wholly the Utilitarian label. “In a certain sense I am myself a utilitarian,” he confessed, but by this admission he meant only that any moral system must entail some reference to “happiness” and “expediency” or else be dismissed as hopelessly unrealistic and irrelevant. Stephen’s social and moral thought, however, had been shaped far more by the hard-headed realism of Hobbes, Calvin, and Burke, and by what Patrick Henry called “the lamp of experience” than by the narrowly constricted abstract, materialistic, and hedonistic ideology of Jeremy Bentham and Mill (although he did express a qualified admiration for both).

Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity offers a cogent analysis of John Stuart Mill, especially of Mill’s idea as developed in On Liberty (1859). The title of this work was taken, of course, from the slogan shouted by the Jacobin radicals during the French Revolution. Stephen held that the beliefs suggested by this popular slogan amounted to a dangerous new religious creed that threatened to sweep away the ancient moral foundations of Western civilization. His intention in this work, therefore, was “to examine the doctrines hinted at rather than expressed by the phrase ‘Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity,’ . . .”

The Mill/Stephen debate is instructive today because it goes to the heart of the issues dividing Left and Right. Although the particulars of their quarrels may change, the fundamental philosophical positions at stake have remained constant. For instance, their sharply conflicting views on the nature and possibilities of politics are ultimately rooted in a fundamental disagreement about the human condition. Accordingly, Stephen condemned Mill’s views on man’s supposed rationality and goodness as naively optimistic. “The great defect of Mr. Mill’s later writings seems to me to be that he has formed too favourable an estimate of human nature,” he wrote. The practical experience Stephen had acquired while a member of the India Council convinced him of man’s fundamental depravity. In his Preface, Stephen revealed that his “Indian experience confirmed the reflections which the book contains.” This experience had undoubtedly taught him “there are and always will be in the world an enormous mass of bad and indifferent people.” As Professor Warner points out in his foreword, “Stephen’s own conception of human nature animates Liberty, Equality, Fraternity,” and so the book should be understood “as a meditation upon human nature as applied to the practical world of political associations.”

Mill’s concept of liberty is his most enduring contribution to the liberal tradition. The “sole end for which mankind are warranted individually or collectively,” Mill declared in his famous principle of liberty, “in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number is self-protection.” This libertarian ethic Stephen condemned for being “violated not only by every system of theology which concerns itself with morals, and by every known system of positive morality, but by the constitution of human nature itself.” Are we not to be concerned about our neighbor’s private character as long as it does not affect us? Would any reasonable person “desire gross licentiousness, monstrous extravagance, ridiculous vanity, or the like, to be unnoticed, or, being known, to inflict no inconveniences which can possibly be avoided?”

Mill’s defense of freedom of thought and expression was rooted in his belief that out of the discussion of adverse opinions truth would emerge. The majority of mankind cannot rightfully silence even one person because that lone dissenter might be right. No truth claims can be made until all possible opinions had been considered. Stephen found unpersuasive such complacent expressions of faith in man’s capacity for reasoned judgment. The “notorious result of unlimited freedom of thought and discussion is to produce general scepticism on many subjects in the vast majority of minds,” he observed. Unrestricted questioning of all settled opinions and traditions would lead not, as Mill believed, to the improvement of mankind, but to an empty, dissipated existence in which the will of the mass of mankind becomes either paralyzed with doubt or is perverted by licentious and socially destructive temptations.

Panglossian optimism characterizes, as Stephen would agree, the liberal and social democratic worldview. Mill believed that mankind was progressing from a “law of force” toward an existence based on equality and consensus, in other words—toward the end of politics. Social order, however, insisted Stephen, requires the imposition of force. Law, religion, morality, tradition—all are necessary civilizing restraints upon man’s lower destructive impulses. Even Mill would admit, Stephen observed, “that the political and social changes which have taken place in the world since the sixteenth century” have been “eminently beneficial to mankind; but nothing can be clearer than that they were brought about by force.”

All common sense and experience, Stephen affirmed, disproves the notion that people are equal. “To try to make men equal by altering social arrangement is like trying to make the cards of equal value by shuffling the pack. Men are fundamentally unequal, and this inequality will show itself arrange society as you like.” Attacking Mill’s famous celebrated defense of women’s rights, Stephen dismissed the whole notion of gender equality. “Men are the stronger,” he averred. The social responsibilities of the genders are accordingly unequally distributed. “Men, no one denies, may, in some cases ought to be liable to compulsory military service.” In the event of war, conscription is necessary, but should both sexes “be subject to it indiscriminately? If anyone says that they ought, I have no more to say, except that he has got into the region at which argument is useless.” Even the often prophetic Judge Stephen could not have foreseen the contemporary absurdities into which Mill’s egalitarianism would eventually drive us. Gender equality irreparably damages the institution of marriage. “If the parties to a contract of a marriage are treated as equals, it is impossible to avoid the inference that marriage, like other partnerships, maybe dissolved at pleasure.” Equality, then, would make “women the slaves of their husbands.” While, admittedly, the equalization of gender roles under the law may not have transformed women into slaves, many feminists today are openly admitting that one unexpected consequence of easy divorce is the feminization of poverty.

Stephen recognized that “equality has no special connection with justice, except in the narrow sense of judicial impartiality. . . .” Democracy does not guarantee greater equality. Rather, democracy, while destroying old hierarchical social structures, creates new inequalities. In aristocratic societies, power is wielded by a ruling class which inherits its rank and social position; in a democracy “the ruling men will be the wirepullers and their friends. . . .” As James Burnham, Samuel Francis, Paul Gottfried and other critics of modern democracy have persuasively argued, the end result of the march of democracy is not the expansion of liberty, but rather the emergence of an irreversible managerial, therapeutic state in which all the vestiges of liberty become progressively extinguished.

Can the movement toward greater equality be halted or reversed? Stephen was doubtful. “The whole current of thought and feeling, the whole stream of human affairs, is setting with irresistible force in that direction.” But to admit that equality will continue to grow as a force permeating all human relations does not imply that civilized persons must submit before it obsequiously. “The waters are out,” proclaimed Stephen in the most frequently quoted passage from his work, “and no human force can turn them back, but I do not see why as we go with the stream we need sing Hallelujah to the river god.”

Stephen treated dismissively Mill’s hymn to fraternity expressed as the all-embracing universal love of mankind. “It is not love that one wants from the great mass of mankind, but respect and justice.” Mill mistakenly believed that the source of all strife, vice, and evil in the world lies in hierarchically based social institutions and the unequal distribution of power. Stephen rejected this assertion, affirming instead the belief, rooted in the Judeo-Christian and Classical tradition, that evil originates in human nature itself. Eliminate all inequality and free everyone from all coercion and authority and, contrary to the notions of sentimental humanitarians, the bulk of mankind will not suddenly embrace each other as brothers and proceed to labor cooperatively for harmonious peace. Human nature cannot be fundamentally transformed by such social reforms. Rather, “enmity and strife” will continue to characterize social relations.

Despite his impassioned disagreement with Mill’s social and moral thought, Stephen respects the object of his criticism. He even did Mill the favor of improving upon the explication of his positions. Always the reader feels himself to be in the presence of a fair, judicious, and temperate mind who is genuinely striving for understanding and knowledge, rather than to “best” an adversary.

All the same, the book illustrates the inability of superior thought, logic, and argumentation alone to alter the reigning ideas of a society. As Russell Kirk notes, “the sentimental equalitarianism of Mill’s later days . . . has won ten or twenty times as many readers as Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.” I would only add that the influence of Mill’s ideas in our society is even greater than Kirk estimates. Vulgarized, but still recognizable, Milisian notions have insinuated themselves into our social fabric. The first amendment of the Constitution has been interpreted as if On Liberty had been incorporated into it.

My young classroom charges, although wholly ignorant of Mill, have absorbed unreflectively his platitudes about tolerance and equality. If they agree on any moral principle, it could be summarized simply as, “You can do whatever pleases you as long as you don’t bug me.” They also believe, inconsistently like Mill, that government has the responsibility of guaranteeing more personal liberty while simultaneously bringing about greater equality. And social scientists confidently inform us that crime and social pathologies are mere manifestations of society’s failure to eliminate ignorance entirely. Mill flattered the mass of people with the notion that they are rational and good. Such beliefs, even though all experience refutes them, operate more strongly on the popular imaginations than the bleak assessment of human nature offered by Stephen.

Stuart D. Warner, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Roosevelt University, should be commended for his competent and admirable editing. His copious explanatory notes greatly assist the reader in understanding some of Stephen’s more obscure references. His well-written and impressively researched foreword provides a valuable introduction to Stephen’s thought and life. In addition, he includes a useful comparative table of subjects discussed in Liberty, Equality, Fraternity and On Liberty. This table will enable the reader to compare the ideas of Mill and Stephen on utilitarianism, education, democracy, justice, and the law. Students of Mill, Stephen, and Victorian political thought will find this volume to be an invaluable research tool.  

Wesley McDonald is associate professor of political science at Elizabethtown College, Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania.

Posted: October 7, 2012 in Best of the Bookman.

Mere unthinking negative opposition to the current of events, clutching in despair at what we still retain, will not suffice in this age. A conservatism of instinct must be reinforced by a conservatism of thought and imagination.

Russell Kirk

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