For a great number of people, freedom is defined as independence or freedom from the norms or restrictions of the society. It can also be defined as the will to get away from the shackles of the society and be one’s own person. One of the most famous and most read works of John Stuart Mill on this topic is ‘On Liberty’. Through this book, Mill voices the idea of individual freedom in the light of his concepts of history and the evolution of the idea of freedom.
With the passage of time, the basic concept of freedom or liberty has evolved a lot. In ancient times, liberty was taken as the freedom from the tyranny of a corrupt or unjust ruler. But as democracy prevailed, the ruler became the servant of the nation and society became the one thing everyone needed liberty from. For example, the minorities in a society always get their voices suppressed from the majorities, either ethnically or ethically. For example, the oppression of black people because of their skin color. Similarly, in a broader setting of things, we can say that society is the tyrant which has imposed its wills and customs upon the individuals.
With the progress of time, every individual was given his/her basic rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), composed of several articles, has given the basic human rights to every human being on the face of earth. Article 19 of UDHR labeled as ‘Freedom of Expression’ also tells us that every individual has a right to voice his opinions without the indulgence of the people around him and this right cannot be restricted in any situation. However, is this actually being practiced or not is a very striking question. Since the independence of USA, the domain of individualism has been discussed by a lot of people but it has never been implemented as such.
J.S Mill says that a limit must be implemented on the power or hold of society on an individual. This is the only way that an individual can gain civil liberty. Ralph Waldo Emerson, also an individualist, dictates in his essay ‘Self-Reliance’ that the individual perception is more important than the real world as it can make a huge difference. Every great person in history has been critiqued upon by the people of his time but later on, his name remained in the world as an irreplaceable person. When Galileo gave the concept of round earth and sun being the center of universe, he was banished and killed by the people of his time. Similarly, Socrates was given hemlock due to his take on democracy but later on, the foundations of great classes of astronomy and politics were founded on their works. Moreover, Plato and Milton, the writers of the greatest fictions ever written wrote what their heart told them to, not what the society dictated and that’s what made them different and well known in all times.
Liberty can be divided in three groups: liberty of thoughts and opinion, liberty of tastes and pursuits which is the freedom to plan one’s own life and the liberty of joining other like-minded people without hurting anyone else. Each one of these types reject the ‘do what you are told to do’ policies of the society. One must be open to share his viewpoint about anything and should never feel ashamed to do so. It helps to preserve the truth and similarly, no one should suppress anyone else’s viewpoint about anything as it is morally wrong to do so. The general popularity of an opinion does not necessarily make it right or vice versa. However, the question remains whether the people holding the unpopular views be allowed to act on them without being outcasts from the society or facing a legal penalty.
Although the society is evil, being a part of it is considered as safe. Howbeit, Mill and Emerson argue that a person should voice his own opinions and get away from the norms of the society as much as possible. One should believe that his dormant assurance is right for him and the people around him. Every individual must start saying what they believe in or else, someone else will step up and say the same thing and get the credit for it, and there will be no benefit in repenting over it then.
To be utterly successful, in views of J.S Mill, one must be a non-conformist. He should not consider anything good or bad because it is expected of him to do that. He should experiment and explore it himself because these are just the individual perceptions and interpretations. The concept of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is an objective interpretation. What is good for one person could be bad for another. The only right is what is after the constitution of a person and the only bad is what is against it. Similarly, society has set many traps for the people in it. For example, it makes everyone feel ashamed of his own achievements by making a spectacle out of them. Emerson believes that a person should never need any secondary assurance of others around him and just need their own testimony to be truly happy. Conformity only makes a person weak and wastes his time by making him lose his identity. A great person is the one who sustains his individuality while living in a society.
For non-conformity, the world usually whips the person with its discountenance. Hence a man must always know how to detect a sour face. If a person learns how to keep away from the sour faces of the people around him, he will learn the key to the true happiness because like the sweet faces of the multitude, the sour faces have no deep cause, but are put on as the trend goes on and the wind blows. If one learns to detect these, he will be able to counter the rage of the cultivated classes. Another terror that haunts us is the judgements of the society shacking our confidence and self-trust. That’s why people tend to be more consistent, reverent to their past acts and words, because the eyes of the society have no other source to judge us than our past actions and sayings.
But why should one live with his past regrets and opinions? Why not evolve with time and progress as the world goes? Suppose a person contradicts himself, what then? It is a very foolish act to live with the memory of one’s past and repeat the same thing again and again. One must evolve with time, contradict himself and learn new things by exploring himself. One should never feel ashamed in contradicting himself and should speak his own thoughts because consistency is just a matter of perception. Peak what you think in hard words now and tomorrow speak what you think tomorrow without any regrets, though it contradicts everything you say today. To be great is to be misunderstood. Every great person including Newton, Pythagoras, Luther, Galileo, Copernicus and Jesus were misunderstood in their own times but are now considered as the milestones of the greatest achievements ever made.