J.S. Mill. A Liberal Enchanted by Plato
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Gertrude Himmelfarb found 'another' Mill while comparing the idea of liberty in his seminal essay on this subject with his other writings, where the absoluteness of liberty is denied and painstakingly put together with other values such as justice, virtue, tradition, community and so on. The other Mill is more a conservative liberal than a radical liberal of 'On Liberty'. In the article the significance of classical culture, particularly of philosophy of Socrates and Plato, for Mill's education, and then for his philosophical anthropology and ethics, is emphasised. His fascination with Socrates, Plato, and to some extent with Aristotle is not confined to their method of dialectics and the search for clarity and precision of philosophical analysis. Mill admired also their virtue ethics and interpreted them, anachronistically as common sense utilitarians. While reading into ancient ethics of virtue his own ethical theory he absorbed their major ideas. In effect there is a fundamental inconsistency in his notion of man, who is both an open-ended product of self-development of his own natural resources and an end-state, teleologically defined by his two-tier self: higher and lower desires and needs together with educational ideals - an agent dependent in his moral ennoblement on community and tradition. Two Mills: a liberal and a conservative one, are products of unfinished and mostly failed efforts to square modernity with classical ideas and ideals. This makes his work so fascinating.
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