John Stuart Mill on Calvinism
Philosophy & Theology

John Stuart Mill on Calvinism

John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, published just 9 years after The Scarlet Letter, added itself to the slew of mid-19th Century works associating Puritanism with intolerance and a preoccupation with the sin of others. Their Calvinist doctrine, Mill would have us believe, is not only intolerant but totally inimical to liberty. He explains:

According to [Calvinistic theory], the one great offence of man is self-will. All the good of which humanity is capable is comprised in obedience. You have no choice; thus you must do, and no otherwise: “whatever is not a duty, is a sin.” Human nature being radically corrupt, there is no redemption for any one until human nature is killed within him. To one holding this theory of life, crushing out any of the human faculties, capacities, and susceptibilities, is no evil: man needs no capacity, but that of surrendering himself to the will of God: and if he uses any of his faculties for any other purpose but to do that supposed will more effectually, he is better without them. This is the theory of Calvinism; and it is held, in a mitigated form, by many who do not consider themselves Calvinists; the mitigation consisting in giving a less ascetic interpretation to the alleged will of God; asserting it to be his will that mankind should gratify some of their inclinations; of course not in the manner they themselves prefer, but in the way of obedience, that is, in a way prescribed to them by authority; and, therefore, by the necessary condition of the case, the same for all.

No doubt Mill’s conception of liberty expounded in the treatise, though imperfect, has much to commend itself. And his description of Calvinism could certainly be interpreted to be a fair description. Must Christian submission necessarily oppose itself to liberty, or at least be supplemented with “pagan self-assertion”?

Human Nature

There is a different type of human excellence from the Calvinistic: a conception of humanity as having its nature bestowed on it for other purposes than merely to be abnegated. “Pagan self-assertion” is one of the elements of human worth, as well as “Christian self-denial.”

Liberty serves human nature; Calvinism opposes it. How can the two but oppose one another?

Mill uses “human nature” here in two radically different ways, and then by making the Calvinists out to equate them creates a false opposition between two doctrines. Mill argues as if human excellence and eternal virtue – the “Calvinistic human excellence” – were opposites of the same type: one assisting human nature, the other abnegating it. But human nature is not so simple as to be simply abnegated or assisted. Both Christian doctrine and liberty, as Mill understands the latter, oppose themselves to human nature as it currently exists. For example, human nature, as all things, has a certain inertia: all else equal it will prefer rest over toil, and the familiar over the unfamiliar. Mill, however, celebrates the discomfort brought on by variety of circumstance.

The “Calvinistic theory” of human nature, however, refers to a distinct aspect of human nature. Human nature can achieve human excellence – temperance, energy, nobility of character, etc. – and Mill makes a strong argument that liberty is the surest path to these. But Christianity is not concerned with these, at least not as ultimate ends. Christianity, and by extension Calvinism, is concerned with eternal virtue, which liberty (and likewise oppression) is powerless to produce. Human excellence can flows from eternal virtue, but no eternal virtue can flow from human excellence.

More on the Augustinian and Calvinist conceptions of human nature

Interestingly enough, Mill’s usage of “human nature” is closer to the Augustinian/Platonic usage than is Calvin’s. Augustine means by it “the thing without which we would not be human” – hence, human nature is good, and we are most human when we are most holy. Mill, in this vein, sees human nature as something to be cultivated. Calvin, on the other hand (whose usage is followed by most Evangelicals today), means by human nature “the wellspring of the natural man”. In this sense human nature is corrupted by the fall, and we become holy by the denial and regeneration of our human nature.

It should be obvious then that the disagreement is merely semantic, as is often the case in the argument over whether human nature is “inherently good” or “inherently bad”. Calvinism and Mill’s liberty, far from being opposed on the question of human nature, are simply asking different questions using the same word. As Mill describes in chapter two, these two opinions holding half-truths come into conflict having set up their respective halves to be the whole.

Submission and Authority

But there still remains the question of certain differences in what constitutes human virtue. Mill sets up a certain willfulness in the face of authority as a virtue, and construes Calvinism as holding obedience to instead be virtue. Painted with such broad strokes, how could the two not be opposed?

The error here is certainly more forgivable from the sheer prevalence of it. No doubt many Calvinists have argued in this way. But it is not an error peculiar to Calvinists. Catholics, Lutherans, and even Atheists have all partaken of it both in defense and offense: it is the error of assuming the authority of God is essentially a political authority, predicated on the imposition of punishment.

That assumption entails conversely that submission to God is essentially the same disposition as submission to the state. Having established that the authority of each is essentially different, the disposition of submission to each cannot be the same.

The authority of God, working through natural consequences, is submitted to only by his Spirit. The authority of the state, working through imposed punishment, is submitted to through fear. Godly submission is internal; stately submission external. To submit to God in the same way one would submit to the state is no faith at all. “Even the demons believe, and tremble.” Fear of punishment is not adequate to salvation: the Spirit of God must engage the affections. Conversely, to submit to the state in the same way one would submit to God is servility and idolatry, akin to Winston coming to love Big Brother at the end of 1984.

It is indeed rare that these distinct mindsets are properly separated. Perhaps it is true that one sort of submission conditions the same in other contexts. A skeptical mind is more likely to be both irreligious and unpatriotic, and there are many devout Christians whose love of country is equally devout. I will not deny that a single mindset likely abets both tendencies – but that correlation is faithful neither to the essence of Christianity nor liberalism. It is no more fair to hold servility against Christianity than it is to hold irreligion against Liberalism.

One of the great marring flaws of Mill’s treatise is his equivalence of social pressure with legal force. Though he does distinguish them explicitly at certain points, far more often “society” exercises pressure on an individual, making it unclear which force is actually operating. This error, his aside on Calvinism suggests, stems from a muddy idea of authority. The essential distinctions between the authority of God and the state, and between that of society and the state, are for the most part ignored, leading to the antinomian spirit and tyranny of tolerance so prevalent among Mill’s leftist heirs.


Calvinism, Augustine, John Calvin, John Stuart Mill


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Hi, I'm C. Harwick, an economics PhD candidate in Virginia with an interest in monetary theory, institutional evolution, and folk music.

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