Sounds a bit like a self-help book, doesn’t it?
It's another one of those parts of On Liberty that no one reads when they’re introduced to Mill in university classrooms. The third chapter is full of ideas that don't fit easily into the standard definition of Mill – utilitarianism, liberalism, freedom of opinion, “shouting fire in a crowded theatre.”
|We have a history of saviour and hero stories all over our mythology,
images of ourselves brought to a higher intensity – less petty, more
noble. Or at least stories about how to become more noble. I'm not sure
what, if any, significance there might be to the fact that a lot of these
characters in our contemporary popular cinema are played by
He describes humanity as a creature capable of greatness in understanding, science, morality, and character. We have the potential for utopian civilization. Our potential is grounded in our drives and our mind – our desires and our power of thought.
When we bring our desires to their highest intensity, we can achieve incredible power. When we train our mind to become the most enlightened, we can achieve incredible intelligence. When we develop our conscience to its greatest moral sensitivity, we can achieve incredible ethical balance.
When such an intelligent mind guides powerful forces of desire, we can achieve real, comprehensive greatness as individuals and as a society. A mind and body acting at their highest powers, in harmony with each other – the elegant creativity of explosive power with self-disciplined mind and conscience.
Our political leaders in these reactionary times clearly never learned that lesson.
In this conception of humanity as potentially perfectible, Mill has become something of a transhumanist. Human knowledge can perfect us, rise us above the filth we all too often drag ourselves into when we think our greed and violence makes us great.
Again, this is something that most of us – especially our political leaders – need to learn. Humanity can become angels if we perfect our knowledge and our moral conscience.
It’s incredible how typing a single sentence can make you feel so pessimistic. I wonder if you felt pessimistic reading it.
But that pessimism only comes from how terribly unlikely that kind of scientific and moral enlightenment appears to us today. Human society may change, but the highest potentials of human existence are always present in each of us.
The really hard part of all this is, looking around at the chaos, oppression, and war of modern politics and society, how on Earth do we get humanity on track for perfection?
When I wrote Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity, I ended with a chapter that discussed how to cause epic, significant political change in your society. The only way it could be effective – a revolutionary transformation that would not only upend and reorient all traditional values and ways of life, but actually stick – is changing people’s character.
Utopias is a follow-up book in that it's fundamentally about what the most noble human character would be – from personal and political perspectives. I may follow Utopias with a book exploring the highest human nobility from a divine perspective. But that's a 2030s project.
Perfection is the long, difficult, slogging process of actually challenging people in whatever media will most open up their self-skepticism* and changing minds. You reach out to people in the most effective way possible with words that will nudge them toward their higher, more noble possibilities.
* If they’re still capable of such a thing as doubting themselves, or considering that they might be making a mistake. Hardly a universal aspect of human nature these days, if ever.
But we have to believe it’s possible. Otherwise, no one will ever even try.