A Rhetorical Analysis of “On Liberty” by John Stuart Mill
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John Stuart Mill, an English philosopher and a political economist, had an important part in forming liberal thought in the 19th century. Mill published his best-known work, _On Liberty,_ in 1859. This foundational book discusses the concept of liberty. It talks about the nature and the limits of the power performed by society over an individual. The book also deals with the freedom of people to engage in whatever they wish as long as it does not harm other persons.
In _On Liberty,_ Mill employs a combination of formal and informal tones by developing complex ideas through many levels of meanings in form of clear expressions. Mill’s use of contrasting metaphors in the paragraphs about the way human beings should develop shows both kinds of tone. The author also employs the figurative language to appeal to his intended audience, both the specialists and non-specialists in philosophy.
Mill writes this argument to appeal to the audience who entirely agrees with him. He approaches his thesis by attacking the conservatives as well as the misguided progressives. He refutes any possible opposite idea to his thesis. Mill uses the phrases such as “no one’s idea,” “no one should assert,” “it would be absurd,” “nobody denies” in order to confirm the accuracy of what he talks about and show that no other way of thinking can be accurate. Mill purposely uses these literary techniques because he writes for people who agree with him, otherwise, he would make his audience feel uneasy, or even angry.
Mill’s intended audience can be specialists or non-specialists in the study of liberty. This can be proved by the author’s use of parenthetical phrases and asides in many parts of his essay to clarify and build up the ideas. “Among the works of man, which human life is rightly employed in perfecting and beautifying,” Mill states, “[T]he first in importance surely is man himself” (Mill 87). Perfecting and beautifying the works requires knowledge, personal experience, and skill, which a machine never has. By showing that a machine cannot replace a man, Mill infers the comparative worth of human beings and the difference between a man and a machine.
From this, Mill demonstrates the precision in his argument. Other parenthetical asides in the essay, such as “the privilege and proper condition of a human being, arrived at the maturity of his faculties, to use and interpret experience…” (Mill 86), or “a tree, which requires to grow and develop itself on all sides” (Mill 87), show Mill’s intention to help his audience, especially the non-specialists, to clearly understand the essay. By doing this, he also strengthens the academic tone of the essay to appeal to the specialists in his field.
Mill’s figurative language in _On Liberty_ appeals to the imagination of the audience. His metaphors provide common ground for his audience to catalyze comprehension of the topic.
“Human nature is not a machine to be built after a model, and set to do exactly the work prescribed for it, but a tree, which requires growing and developing itself on all sides, according to the tendency of the inward forces which make it a living thing” (Mill 87).
The tree, in order to grow well, must go through various processes of nature. It grows by itself under sufficient environmental conditions, while a machine comes to exist as a man-made product and its work absolutely depends on a user. It has no inward forces and normally requires an outward force from some energy sources to perform. Besides, a tree exists as a complex and continuously growing creature in comparison to a machine, which remains steady and even gets worn out when used. The metaphors show that an individual differs from a machine; he acts like a tree, because of his complexity and his self-development to achieve a higher state of worth as a human being. By living in particular circumstances, or under specific outward forces, an individual, using inward forces to find out the way of developing most suitable to him, will grow into a unique character.
And if an environmental factor changes during the growth, a change in development will take place. The ways of reply to a change of an individual, a tree, and a machine have a common point. If the environment changes in good way, the development may occur better and easier. Otherwise, the change may damage their growth. However, when this happens, an individual and a tree, with freedom to act, may make an adaptation in order not to deviate too much from proper development; but a machine cannot make any adjustment because of its impassiveness. In that sense, although the growth of all the subjects depend on various factors, the growth of a man and a tree differ from that of a machine because of their ability to act freely and cannot be suppressed by anything. The use of these metaphors helps the audience to draw analogies from prior knowledge to the arguments of Mill. Also, the prior knowledge aids the essay in being accessible to the non-specialists.
The tree metaphor also refers to the role of customs in the growth of an individual. Mill gives three reasons why customs may not be adequate to be employed by an individual: first, the interpretation of the customs may not be right; second, his circumstances may be “uncustomary” to the customs; and third, the customs may not have any role in educating him about the qualities of being human. Therefore, under different circumstances, the customs may or may not be adequate to be learnt, like the circumstances and nutrients may or may not be sufficient for a tree to fully develop. By listing the three reasons Mill shows not only the precision in stating his ideas but also the way he makes his essay clear to the audience. In this way, Mill proves to the specialists that he carefully develops the essay _On Liberty_ and helps the non-specialists in figuring out all the ins and outs of the argument.
Other metaphors can be found in _On Liberty_. The author states that, “he who lets the world, or his own portion of it, choose his plan of life for him, has no need of any other faculty other than the ape-like one of imitation” (Mill 86). The metaphor of an ape serves as a symbol of the primitive state. The ape does not have control over its life. In other words, it cannot choose what kind of ape it wants to be. Human beings should not be like that. An individual must have control over his life, and be independent in making decisions; otherwise, he does not worth as a human-being. In another paragraph, Mill shows that a person “whose desires and impulses are not his own, has no character, no more than a steam-engine has character” (Mill 88). A steam-engine, a man-made machine, has impulses and inward forces to perform its work. However, it still needs outward forces to activate its impulse function. By comparing a person to a steam-engine, Mill shows that a person without his own desires and impulses does not differ from an inanimate object. These two metaphors contrast with the tree metaphor by representing the initiative of self-motivating and self-developing human beings.
Mill reasonably uses the machine, the ape, and the steam-engine metaphor, on one hand, and the tree metaphor, on the other, to illustrate the two kinds of development. The machine, the ape, and the steam-engine stand in for the impassiveness and indolence in development. The metaphors perfectly show that these objects have the ability to operate, but they do not hold the initiative. If Mill used the metaphor of another object, such as a table, he could not unfold the state of being able to function dynamically when activated by outward forces; but stays in passive state when experiences no forces. The tree metaphor shows an object holding the initiative in its development. Human beings’ growth and development derives from the same idea. An individual can passively copy the process of development of others, with no judgment or self-control to hold his own decisions; or he can interpret his experience in his own way, employ it and self-develop in all aspects, sufficiently to the environmental circumstances.
The use of all the metaphors is pertinent to the audience in Mill’s time. The audience can easily understand the ape and the tree metaphors by employing common knowledge. The use of the machine and steam-engine metaphors successfully works in the historical context. Mill published this essay in a period of significant development in industry. Mass production prospered and people used more machines in manufacturing. During the 19th century, a time of highly scientific and industrial development, the steam engine had an important role, especially in railroads and coal mines. Therefore, Mill’s use of these metaphors successfully appeals to the contemporary audience.
In short, the contrasting metaphors in paragraphs analyzed in _On Liberty_ clarify the way human beings should develop. Mill successfully uses figurative language to develop his argument on the basis of common knowledge, which both non-specialists and specialists in philosophy can understand. Mill does a good job of expressing the many levels of meanings and his complex ideas in a clear and simple way by using parenthetical phrases and asides in many parts of the argument. In general, Mill accurately uses language to appeal to his intended audience and interpret a difficult aspect of liberty.
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