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Book Notes: "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity" by James Fitzjames Stephen

Sir James Fitzjames Stephen, 1st Baronet, KCSI (3 March 1829 – 11 March 1894). Photos via Wikimedia [Public Domain]


Liberty, Equality, FraternityLiberty, Equality, Fraternity by James Fitzjames Stephen

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


I discovered this book while reading something about Mill. It was a critique of Mill's On Liberty and it presents a number of arguments that are hard to fault, but also a number of arguments that, if spoken today, would require endless apologies and may even require a politician to step down from office. Nevertheless, Stephen was a lawyer (and later a notable judge) and at times he could be verbose, at other times insightful, at still others rather strange. Yet his critique of Mill leaves me with plenty of food for thought. He argues in the same way I have listened to conservatives argue against a Bill of Rights for Australia. There is a modicum of liberalism in the English sense of the word, and I might be presumptuous and say in a similar vein to Edmund Burke. When I read Mill, I felt like I was reading my own education in summary. When I read Stephen, I feel like I am getting an education. Some suggest that Liberty, Equality, Fraternity was James Fitzjames Stephen's masterpiece, and apparently Oxford is reproducing his works in several volumes. Stephen didn't disagree with utilitarianism nor liberalism, but he did disagree with the extremes of liberalism that Mill advocated, and especially against the emancipation of women as outlined in Mill's On the Subjection of Women. Stephen's arguments were deeply rooted in his conception of the evidence observed in nature, rather than an idealism as characterised by Mill. Yet Stephen's conclusion displays another form of idealism, and I couldn't help thinking that it was a rather weak way of summing up, rather like an undergraduate essay that lost its argument and tries to finish in an upbeat fashion. Yet there were many lessons to be gleaned from Stephen, and the Liberty Fund's inclusion of this work as an important contribution is well-founded, despite history's favouring Mill. I must admit that it took me a while to get through this, and the combination of wordy ideas and arguments, along with rather fine print, made this somewhat of an exercise in discipline rather than enlightenment. And I am all the wiser for doing so.



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