This collects two of John Stuart Mill's best-known and most influential essays: On Liberty and The Subjection of Women. The main topics are different, but the essays fit to a greater or lesser extent the ambitious philosophical system outlined in Mill's A System of Logic. His life project was essentially to adapt the utilitarian moral/political philosophy inherited from Jeremy Bentham via his father James Mill to mid-Victorian social problems. This involved significant changes and substantial liberalizing, making Mill a classical liberalism exponent and strong forerunner of all subsequent liberal ideals and practices. Together and individually, the essays have had an immense impact on political, moral, philosophical, and economic thought. Reading them together is instructive and interesting. The writings are also held together by Mill's consistently lucid, smooth, and articulate style. This is a pleasant surprise given his fearsomely learned reputation. He relies almost exclusively on words the average reader understands, and his prose is remarkably readable a century and a half later, lacking the overblown floweriness and excessive stiltedness that now make much Victorian writing, especially non-fiction, insufferably dull.
On Liberty is a profound and engaging philosophical and practical defense of personal liberty, epitomized by the famous Harm Principle that all are free to do as they wish provided it does not harm others. It is the state's job to ensure the former right is upheld and the latter transgression punished. Mill's argument is very strong - convincing not only as an inherent right but also as a practical advantage to individuals and society. This is probably now his most famous work, and it is very easy to see why; his argument is not only compelling philosophically but widely applicable and, at about 140 pages, easily read by nearly all. Everyone from pure philosophers to political theorists to practical politicians to general readers can find something to like and learn.
The Subjection deals exclusively with a subject Mill had often raised before - female oppression. This classic essay is the culmination of an issue Mill had been passionately involved in since youth, when he was arrested for distributing literature about contraception. It is the most important, famous, and influential feminist text between Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Woman and Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, coming about halfway between them. That it was written by a man, one born to a substantial amount of privilege and who was around very few women until adulthood at that, is of course all the more incredible. Going well beyond his prior suffrage call, it pushes for nothing less than full equality, not even stopping at legal equality but valiantly trying to change thought and custom. Mill's suffrage arguments are numerous and near-irrefutable. He has the noble distinction of being the first MP to propose female suffrage - in the 1860s! He would surely be glad to know the substantial progress since made, however disappointed - if not surprised - he may have been to know it would take sixty years to be realized.
However, the vast majority of the essay deals with the rest of female oppression, a far more formidable barrier - one that, indeed, has sadly still not been fully crossed. The arguments are again very strong. Following a short historical overview of female oppression and a blunt survey of its then current forms, Mill proceeds to demolish its basis. In perhaps the most brilliant and admirable application of utilitarianism ever, he convincingly shows that female oppression is not only a great evil to women but also to men and all of society. He uses many examples and arguments to show that ending it is both a moral necessity and a prescription for many social ills. The many later advances have proven much of what he said, even if he was perhaps too optimistic in some respects. It is a sad comment on human progress that several of the ideals he passionately and articulately argued for, such as equality of intellect in marriage, are still uncommon and even scorned.
Though Subjection is admitted even by Mill's many detractors to be his argumentative tour de force, it has a few limitations. First, one of his main arguments is that Victorian - nay, all historical - assumptions about inherent differences between men and women, as well as the latter's inferiority, are premature because women had never existed in a state of social equality with men. This is certainly true as far as it goes - indeed, irrefutable at the time. Though he argues forcefully for equality in any situation, he does not even address the substantial question of what, if anything, should or must be done if inherent differences are found. This defect was then nothing more than abstract and, in fact, very subservient to the cause of advancing female rights. However, the near-equality women now have in developed countries means we must look at the issue somewhat differently. The question of inherent differences, much less relative superiority, is still far from answered - may indeed be even less clear. Even so, many of the issues Mill left unaddressed because moot are now very real, even pressing. They may leave his central arguments untouched - one would in fact be very hard-pressed to find a better argument for female equality anywhere -, but the essay is certainly more incomplete now, though still substantially valuable. Finally, though Mill's liberalism on the question is almost unbelievable for a man of his time and place, some of his statements and suggestions, not least his claim that the arrangement of man as breadwinner/woman as domestic engineer - to use the (I believe) currently politically correct term - probably is best after all, will rankle current feminists. To be fair, he does not say it prescriptively - indeed refrains from ruling anything out for women in any respect -, but Victorianism's ugly specter sneaking in even here is bound to disturb some. This of course hardly negates the rest, and The Subjection is still - and surely always will be - essential for anyone even remotely interested in women's struggle.
Anyone curious about Mill or any of these issues must read these essays.