Tag Archives: liberty

Isaac Newton’s Funeral

Throughout history, most societies have been based on status. King, noble, and peasant. Brahmin and untouchable. Mandarin and coolie. One of liberalism’s crowning achievements is tearing down those old status societies and replacing them with contract societies. In a liberal society, all people have equal rights, and must deal with each other as equals. No man is forced to grovel before a duke or a king. He may look him in the eye now.

Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are far richer than I am. But if one of them wrongs me, I get my day in court. They might have better lawyers with shinier suits than me. But we are still equals before the law.

This was a novel phenomenon in the 18th century, mainly confined to England and the Netherlands, and even far more imperfectly than today. Here’s how Isaac Newton’s funeral looked through French eyes:

Having come from a nation where aristocracy and clergy held a monopoly on power and privilege, Voltaire marveled at a society where a scientist was buried with the honors of a king.

Robert Zaresky and John T. Scott, The Philosophers’ Quarrel: Rousseau, Hume, and the Limits of Human Understanding, location 877 in the Kindle version.

Isaac Newton’s life was a landmark event in the history of science. His funeral was, unknowingly, a landmark event in the history of human freedom.

Hayek on Freedom

Think for a minute about how progress is made. It doesn’t follow a constant, linear path. It is unpredictable. It comes in violent fits and starts. It happens at the whim and fancy of genius.

Everyday life is much the same. Life is what you make of it. You have to be free to find what’s best for you. That means making wrong choices sometimes. It means not just trial, but error. Or, as Hayek put it:

“If we knew how freedom would be used, the case for it would largely disappear… It is therefore no argument against individual freedom that it is frequently abused.”

-F.A. Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty, p. 31.

Happy 203rd Birthday, John Stuart Mill

John Stuart Mill was born on this day in 1806. He is best known for classical liberal writings like On Liberty and The Subjection of Women. College students today also learn about his philosophy of utilitarianism, inherited from father James Mill and family friend Jeremy Bentham.

Mill had an unusual life story, told in one of the most compelling autobiographies in literature. John’s father gave him an intensive education that, for example, had him reading ancient Greek at age three. John never had any formal schooling, and the only children with whom he was allowed contact were his siblings.

His father’s pedagogical experiment worked in that it gave John one of the most formidable intellects of his age. But it failed in other ways. His strict upbringing resulted in a nervous breakdown at age 20 that set him back years. He was always socially awkward, and didn’t marry until age 45 — itself an interesting story.

Mill made important contributions to economics, political science, and philosophy. A deep love of liberty runs through them all. I don’t personally agree with everything he wrote (utilitarianism leads to absurd conclusions when taken too far), but he remains one of brightest lights in the classical liberal pantheon. Happy birthday, John Stuart Mill.

(Cross-posted at Open Market)