The Dreary Icon

Linda Raeder’s study of John Stuart Mill as a critic of religion and, more specifically, of Christian beliefs and morals is heavily researched and densely composed.  Although carefully and gracefully framed, it is too conceptually demanding to please dull-witted movement conservatives or politically correct academics.  Those who disregard this study, however, are missing a devastating assault on an influential thinker whose time is not yet fully gone.  Raeder gives no quarter in going after her stodgy Victorian subject, revered by libertarians (most famously, Friedrich Hayek) as well as by others for his alleged promotion of intellectual freedom.  Raeder shows that this praise is mostly undeserved and trains her sights on Mill’s disdainful view of a deadening past, his fevered hope for a new religion of humanity, and his plans for social reconstruction.  She correctly infers that, by looking at Mill’s evolutionary notion of traditional religion (largely borrowed from his contemporary, French sociologist Auguste Comte), you can catch the drift of Mill’s speculations about the purpose and limits of liberty.  

Raeder’s investigation builds on earlier attempts to penetrate beneath the dreary icon Mill has become, especially among democratic ideologues, and to reveal his persistent unattractive side.  Such unmasking can be seen in the painfully subtle strictures of German...

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