From the desk calendar version of Schott’s Original Miscellany (25th of January, in case you were wondering) comes a quote from the 19th century British philosopher John Stuart Mill on that most divisive of subjects, war:
War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things: the decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks nothing worth a war, is worse.
Not surprisingly, it’s a popular one on right-wing/neo-conservative websites (a quick search on Google throws up a whole slew of them) where it is oft accompanied by the following, which serves to hammer home the message:
The individual who has nothing for which he is willing to fight, whose only concern is for his own personal safety, is a miserable creature who has no chance of being free unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself.
Now I’d like to rain on everyone’s parade and ask the question: is this really how Mill should be interpreted? Because from the way I see it, Mill could have been saying the exact opposite of what the right-wingers assume.
Take the first sentence. Mill doesn’t make any bones about it: “War is an ugly thing”; it is not some glorious spectacle, as many right-wing ‘patriots’ have romanticised. Yet Mill explains that in his view there is something even worse than war, that being “the decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks nothing worth a war.” The far right has taken this to be a criticism of anyone who should oppose military action on the part of their country — in other words, that those who think nothing is worth fighting a war over are fools at best, cowards at worst.
But what if Mill is actually saying the opposite — that believing nothing could be worth quite the same as the ‘glory’ of war is worse than the act of war itself? Obviously war, though ugly, is sometimes necessary, but that is no reason to glorify it. If we do, like the proprietors of those right-wing websites appear to, then we shall become all the uglier for it.
The second quote can be interpreted similarly. The individual “whose only concern is for his own personal safety” — doesn’t that sound a lot like a personification of American foreign policy to you? That whole ‘don’t give a darn about the rest of the world as long as they’re not threatening my turf’ attitude? There’s a slogan that encapsulates this mindset: “Don’t tread on me.” (‘Me’ being, sadly, the operative word.)
According to Mill, this individual is “a miserable creature who has no chance of being free unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself”; or, the individual is imprisoned by his own ignorance of the world around him, his ignorance of the condition of those who exist beyond his limited horizons, and only by the intellectual toil and activistic perspiration of the liberal-minded can he be freed from this self-imposed oppression.
Now of course, I’m likely completely wrong about Mill — he was, remember, one of the main proponents of utilitarianism — however he was a philosopher, and like all philosophers there’s a lot more going on under the surface as might appear at first glance.
Then again, I could be double-bluffing you right now, and this whole piece has just been an exercise in bullshit, riddled with innaccuracies. But maybe, just maybe, that’s the whole point. After all, what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, right?
I’ll leave the final word to another formidable 19th century mind, Henry David Thoreau; a man who truly understood what freedom means. I doubt that this brief quote — from Walden; 1854 — is open to any misinterpretation:
What is called eloquence in the forum is commonly found to be rhetoric in the study.