What do you think great thinkers 150 years ago would have considered, in the words of their contemporary, John Stuart Mill, “the vital question of the future” (that’s NOW !) ? For some it might be how far we would have advanced beyond the Industrial Revolution, and whether we would be able to cope with expected progress in engineering and science. For others, realizing the implications of Charles Darwin’s copernican revolution concerning the Origin of Species, the question might have been whether religion could possibly survive in the 21st century. For John Stuart Mill himself, a rare combination of philosopher and politician, the question that most worried him was whether a democratic majority might force its will on a minority. Even in 1859 this idea was considered controversial and dangerous. Today it would be heresy in some Western countries where many consider it their God-given mission to offer, and to impose if necessary, their values on the nations of the world, just as Islamists are dedicated to imposing charia worldwide. For Mill, freedom of thought, freedom of action and freedom to join together with other like-minded individuals, are necessary to avoid society itself becoming a tyrant, “a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression”.
The subject is close to the very essence of this Blog. The Catholic Church, for centuries, succeeded in silencing dissenters. Today it is powerless to do so. (Our very own Catholic spokesman, Jim, has said in this Blog that he and his friends have decided “to starve” me “of oxygen” (see his comment on “Rise and Shine”, August 18). If this were to be taken literally, it would be a threat to murder. Of course it isn’t. It’s just an expression of frustration that they cannot silence me. Before and since Galileo, the Church has tried and often succeeded in silencing dissenters, depriving, for example, Giordano Bruno at the stake not only of Mill’s three freedoms but of … oxygen.)
Roman Catholicism would prefer that we forget its fascist, fanatical, terrorist past and appreciate its new-found ecumenism and “tolerance”. Thanks to Mill and other defenders of the hard-won right to dissent, minorities are free to express their opinions. Voltaire may or may not have said : “I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”. Mill did express the lapidary principle which must govern the discussion of different opinions : “If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind”. 150 years from now, and for as long as humans inhabit this world, the principle remains a self-evident truth we must never again forget.
(A handy summary of Mill’s thought, including the right to self-protection as well as the right and duty to prevent or punish action that causes harm, can be found in Andrew Taylor’s “Books That Changed the World”, Quercus, London, 2014.)