Ideas of Liberty and Self-Realization


The relations between human beings within the society have always been characterized by the considerable complexity and presence of various regulations and laws, moral and ethical norms, legal codes, and philosophical views concerning proper and improper conduct, human rights, and liberties. The epoch of the Enlightenment is rightfully considered to be the time when all the above-mentioned concerns of human existence got wide public attention and received substantial consideration by scholars and philosophers. The French thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the British philosopher John Stuart Mill can be considered the luminaries of the Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment epochs respectively as in their major works both scholars address the controversial topic of liberty and self-realization of any human personality. This paper focuses on the comparative analyses of the views that Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Stuart Mill had on this topic and concludes with a comparative summary of both scholars’ ideas.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

The consideration of the background of each of the philosophers under consideration will provide a better understanding of the origin of the ideas Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Stuart Mill introduced to the 18th and 19th-century society. Thus, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712 – 1778) is a worldwide famous French scholar and philosopher born in Geneva (Philosophical Connections, 2009). The ideas expressed by Rousseau in such of his major works as The Basic Political Writings, Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality among Men, and Social Contract, or Principles of Political Right are nowadays considered to be the basis for the modern democratic society (Philosophical Connections, 2009). The historical role of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s views is also considerable and is regarded by Hollinger (2002) and Philosophical Connections (2009) to have contributed to the start of the Great French Revolution and even the American War of Independence in the 1770s (Hollinger, 2002; Philosophical Connections, 2009). Liberty and self-realization are focal points of Rousseau’s works.

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John Stuart Mill

John Stuart Mill (1806 – 1873) is a well-known English philosopher whose life and work refer to the Classical liberal period and mostly focuses on human rights and freedoms among which the personal liberty of an individual and his/her right for self-realization are crucial (Wilson, 2007). The major works that characterize the views expressed by Mill on the above-mentioned topics include his Thoughts on Parliamentary Reform, Centralization, Utilitarianism, and of course the book On Liberty, in which the Liberty theory formulated by John Stuart Mill is laid out in detail (Open Library of Liberty, 2009; Wilson, 2007). Free will and the harm principle characterize this theory at its best as Mill argued that any activity of a person is acceptable in the society as long as this activity does not harm the society as a whole and any particular member of this society (Science, 2009).

Jean-Jacques Rousseau on Liberty

Thus, to see the similarities and differences between the ideas of liberty expressed by Rousseau and Mill, it is necessary to analyze their basic works regarding this phenomenon, The Basic Political Writings and On Liberty respectively. Rousseau’s liberty is closely connected with the theory of social formation referred to as the theory of social contract. According to Rousseau and Cress (1987), society is a reasonable unity of people who willingly sacrifice parts of their material and spiritual assets to gain security and law as the bases for the society:

What man loses through the social contract is his natural liberty and an unlimited right to everything that tempts him and that he can acquire. What he gains is civil liberty and the proprietary ownership of all he possesses (Rousseau and Cress, 1987, p. 151).

Accordingly, Rousseau argues about the difference between natural and civil freedoms and remarks that the latter allows human beings to have freedom of speech and actions but subordinates all the social processes to the rule and protection of law resulting from the social contract.

John Stuart Mill on Liberty

The major focus of the work by John Stuart Mill is also the concept of civil, or social, liberty as contrasted to the “so-called Liberty of Will” (Mill and Gray, 1998, p. 5). Defining this civil liberty as the power that the society has the right to exercise over every individual it consists of, Mill goes further to argue about the combative nature of liberty. According to On Liberty by Mill (1998), liberty is always achieved in the struggle that is observed over the centuries of human history: “The struggle between Liberty and Authority is the most conspicuous feature in the portions of history with which we are earliest familiar, particularly in that of Greece, Rome, and England” (Mill and Gray, 1998, p. 5). Thus, it is obvious that arguing about the same phenomenon of civil liberty as Rousseau did, Mill considers its other side, i. e. conflict with the authority, while Rousseau saw the good in the existing state limitation of civil liberty (Mills, 2001, pp. 119 – 120).

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Jean-Jacques Rousseau on Self-Realization

Regarding the concept of self-realization as the natural result of civil liberty, Jean-Jacques Rousseau keeps considering his Social Contract Theory in the sense that the right to exercise individual freedom and realize the potential of every single individual is subjected to the needs and norms of the body these individuals referred the parts of their power to, i. e. the society:

In whatever way this acquisition [of private freedoms] is accomplished, each private individual’s right to his very own store is subordinate to the community’s right to all, without which there could be neither solidity in the social fabric nor real force in the exercise of sovereignty (Rousseau and Cress, 1987, p. 153).

Accordingly, Rousseau is not very enthusiastic about the right of unlimited self-realization within the frame of the social contract, but on the other hand, he acknowledges that the limited self-realization that does not contradict the interests of the whole society is granted to every individual that referred a certain part of his or her freedoms to the society.

John Stuart Mill on Self-Realization

The point of view of John Stuart Mill regarding the concept of self-realization differs from Rousseau’s one by its scholarly and deeply historical nature, but is similar to the French thinker’s view in its limited character which, again, can be observed from the history of the mankind:

‘Pagan self-assertion is one of the elements of human worth, as well as Christian self-denial. There is a Greek ideal of self-development, which the Platonic and Christian ideal of self-government blends with, but does not supersede (Mill and Gray, 1998, p. 70).

Thus, according to Mill and Gray (1998) and Mills (2001), self-realization of human beings has always been associated with a type of constraint, whether a religious or a political one, and the epoch contemporary to him, i. e. the 19th century England was not an exception; in this country freedoms and rights of citizens also were limited by both political norms and stereotypes about the nature and extent of the human liberty.

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Thus, ideas by Rousseau and Mill regarding liberty and self-realization display similarities and differences associated with the time differences and the individual incompatibilities that the theories by both scholars have. Rousseau’s and Mill’s views are similar in their unified appeal to civil liberty and contrasted to the unlimited liberty of will. Another similarity is in the fact that both liberty and the right to self-realization are limited by social needs and constraints. The differential points of Rousseau’s vision of liberty are the Social Contract Theory and the partly reference of liberty by human beings to the society. The distinguishing signs of Mill’s views include the historical approach to the theory and the idea of the conflict between Liberty and Authority.

Accordingly, the above-presented discussion allows concluding that the epoch of the Enlightenment and the Classical liberal movement in philosophical thought greatly facilitated the development of the concepts of civil freedom and self-realization in human society. Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Stuart Mill are rightfully considered luminaries of philosophy in the context of liberty. Their works had, and still have, a considerable impact on social development, political structuring, and human relations within the society.

Works Cited

Hollinger, Geoff. Self-Realization and the Place of Positive Liberty in Marxism. FRC, 2002. Web.

Mill, John S. On Liberty in Classics of Moral and Political Philosophy (edited by Michael L. Morgan). Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing, 2001. Print.

Mill, John Stuart and John Gray. On Liberty and Other Essays. Oxford University Press, 1998. Print.

Open Library of Liberty. Mill and Liberty and the Cardinal Moral Virtue. APP, 2009. Web.

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Philosophical Connections. Rousseau. PhiloSophos, 2009. Web.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques and Donald Cress (translator). The Basic political writings. Hackett Publishing, 1987. Print.

Science. Liberty – Contemporary Conceptions. JRANK, 2009. Web.

Wilson, Fred. John Stuart Mill. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2007. Web.

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