On Compromise (John Morley)

“According to the doctrine of Liberty, we are to devote ourselves to prevention, as the surest and most wholesome mode of extirpation. Persuade; argue; cherish virtuous example; bring up the young in habits of right opinion and right motive; shape your social arrangements so as to stimulate the best parts of character.”

So writes John Morley in defending the doctrine of his great mentor, John Stuart Mill. Mill never held that for human progress to be achieved, people and their social institutions had simply to be let alone. “It is well with men, Mr. Mill said, moreover, in proportion as they respect truth,” continues Morley. In On Compromise (1874), Mill’s chief disciple speaks of his own search for truth and contemplates modern issues of compromise and conformity, the right of thinking freely, and the need to tolerate dissent.

Morley was born in Blackburn, educated at oxford, and was called to the bar. He took up journalism, however, and after a slow start his talent was recognized. He became editor of the Fortnightly Review in 1867 and made it the leading literary journal of the day. Later, he was the editor of the respected book series English Men of Letters. Some of the best of those volumes he wrote himself.

A statesman as well as a writer, Morley was Chief Secretary for Ireland under Gladstone (his Life of Gladstone is of great interest), and, thought opposed to imperialism, later served as Secretary of State for India. He was known as first viscount Morley of Blackburn for the second half of his life. Perhaps an even greater honor came his way in 1902, the gift of the late Lord Acton’s library, which he in turn gave to Cambridge University. In 1915, he resigned as Lord President of the Council to protest Britain’s declaration of war on Germany.

Morley knew many of the outstanding people of his time. Mill and Gladstone were his friends, as were Leslie Stephen, George Meredith, George Eliot, Herbert Spencer, and F. W. Hirst. as one account has it, Morley was “possibly the most important political and literary influence” in England at the end of the nineteenth century.

On Compromise¬†is the most philosophical of his work. In it, Morley promotes “the right thinking freely and acting independently, of using our minds without excessive awe of authority, and shaping our lives without unquestioning obedience to custom.” Like Mill, he extended his encouragement of reasoning to women, stating:

“So long as any class of adults are effectually discouraged in the free use of their minds upon the most important subjects, we are warranted in saying that the era of free thought, which naturally precedes the era of free speech, is still imperfectly developed.”

On Compromise — “a classic of Victorian letters,” to quote a recent critic– was influential and continues to attract readers. It ends with a long note on the doctrine of liberty that shows how well Morley assimilated the lessons of Mill and what a gifted disciple he was.


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