Book: Liberalism: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)

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Thomas Hill Green (1836‒82)

The new currents that were beginning to flow through liberalism got an unexpected boost through the often obscure and difficult writings of T.H. Green, a philosophy tutor at Balliol College, who was a prominent member of the British school of Idealism. Many of those who attended his lectures found them abstract and hard to follow, and his prose would certainly not seem an obvious choice through which to disseminate ideological innovation. Yet Green articulated crucially important insights and displayed occasional flashes of rhetorical brilliance, which go to show that the incisive rendering of an idea can be picked up by larger political publics. Idealism, as the name indicates, accorded a fundamental and pre-eminent status to the ideas, values, and obligations that underpinned social life. While Mill recognized the social component of human existence, Green extended the idea of sociability, insisting that individual thought and conduct could not be detached from the community of cooperating fellow individuals in which a person was always located. Indeed, Green contended that if individuals carried out their moral duties while valuing and recognizing others for possessing the same potential, they were at their freest. To be free was none other than to be rational and ethical, to will what was true and good, unencumbered by clouded judgement. For Green that was an eternal truth, reflecting God’s will, and it guided people towards their ultimate perfection. For later liberals, that morality could just as successfully be retained in secular form.

Green demonstrates one long-standing tendency in liberal thinking—the assumption that there are independent and immutable standards of good behaviour, both for an individual on his or her own and for the interactions among individuals. Decency, respect, tolerance, and moderation were some of the features of that good conduct. That struck a chord among many thoughtful late-Victorians who had become increasingly uneasy with the harsh and selfish bargains that economic and commercial life appeared to dictate. In a rare foray into popular language, Green explained himself more clearly, delivering in 1881 a famous public lecture called ‘Liberal Legislation and Freedom of Contract’. It set the tone for the subsequent belief of left-liberals that personal development and mutual interdependence were complementary rather than contradictory aspects of a common good. Here also lies Green’s important contribution to the idea of freedom, which was ultimately reflected in modern welfare state thinking. Rising to the occasion in a spirited rhetorical flourish, Green asserted that freedom was not just being left alone but a positive ability to act, together with others:

We shall probably all agree that freedom, rightly understood, is the greatest of blessings—that its attainment is the true end of all our effort as citizens. But when we thus speak of freedom, we should consider carefully what we mean by it. We do not mean merely freedom from restraint or compulsion. We do not mean merely freedom to do as we like irrespectively of what it is that we like. We do not mean a freedom that can be enjoyed by one man or one set of men at the cost of a loss of freedom to others. When we speak of freedom as something to be so highly prized, we mean a positive power or capacity of doing or enjoying something worth doing or enjoying, and that, too, something that we do or enjoy in common with others.

We have seen that the precise meaning of liberty, or freedom, as is the case with all political concepts, is essentially contested. As one of the first to suggest a distinction between positive and negative liberty, Green contributed to the fundamental disagreement among liberals as to the implications of liberty. Even in his cautious and considered language, Green was sounding a radical note that challenged existing social arrangements and assessed individual conduct by the personal improvement and the social benefits freedom brought in its wake. The growth of freedom was measured by the greater power of the body of citizens to make ‘the most and best of themselves’—a view embodying the tail end of the optimistic enlightenment belief in human perfectibility. But Green’s was not the extreme version of positive liberty later excoriated by Isaiah Berlin, one in which the rational self-mastery associated with a higher nature or ‘true’ self would be taken up by an oppressive social grouping, bent on coercing individuals to conform to its uniform interpretation of what was good for its members. The voices of individuals could not be usurped by a manipulator speaking on their behalf and ‘forcing them to be free’, in Rousseau’s famous phrase.

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Next: Leonard Trelawny Hobhouse (1864‒1929)