Let us begin with a quote on which to base our thoughts:

“But I deny the right of the people to exercise such coercion, either by themselves or by their government. The power itself is illegitimate. The best government has no more title to it than the worst. It is as noxious, or more noxious, when exerted in accordance with public opinion, than when in or opposition to it. If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.” (John Stuart Mill On Liberty Ch. 2 Pp. 30-31 https://www.gutenberg.org/files/34901/34901-h/34901-h.htm)

John Stuart Mill opens our discussion by suggesting that one has the freedom to express thoughts, feelings, and opinions in a democracy, and in particular, the American democracy. He asserts that silencing one man is no better than silencing all mankind in what he represents. How does this then relate to a seminar discussion? Building on yesterday’s topic (https://thehistoryofwesternthought.wordpress.com/2015/06/09/what-is-the-theory-behind-the-seminar-or-is-the-seminar-by-nature-a-tool-of-democracy/ ), today we are considering why seminars are not only the privilege of free-democratic citizens, but part of the fabric which binds and holds democracies together.

John Stuart Mill continues:

“Were an opinion a personal possession of no value except to the owner; if to be obstructed in the enjoyment of it were simply a private injury, it would make some difference whether the injury was inflicted only on a few persons or on many. But the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.” (Ibid. Pp. 30-31)

What, then, is the value of an opinion, and how does it relate to what seminar is and wishes to accomplish? An opinion, at least according to Mill above, seems to be a sort of thought (rational or otherwise) which has not only personal value, but social value in of itself. Therefore, if a person is silenced, said person is rendered incapable of performing his or her social duty by expressing his or her own personal opinion, regardless of its veracity. But surely in America one is capable of expressing one’s opinion in manifold ways–social media, personal journals, at the water-cooler, et alia. Certainly it is true that one’s opinion is far from silenced in the American democracy, but in a sea of voices, how does one come to feel that one’s voice may be heard above the clamor of the waves surrounding one, especially if one has never been trained in how to speak? How, then, does one fulfill his or her duty to share his or her opinions–his or her thoughts?

One is not, by necessity, required to have an opinion as part of a democracy, but part of the basic framework of a democracy seems to be that one will have an opinion on issues great and small, and that one ought to feel free to voice these sorts of opinion in an open and free space. Where seminar enters into this equation is that it provides a free and open space where participants are encouraged and allowed to discuss issues great and small through the medium of a text. Because such a text is generally removed to some degree by space and time (Plato’s Republic from 4th century BCE Athens, for example), disagreement and agreement over the perennial issues discussed is generally less volatile and heated than is discussion about issues more directly proximate to one’s location and time. This creates the ideal situation for one learning to pay attention to one’s and others’ thoughts; to express and listen to the opinion of another person in relation to a text which one may agree or disagree with; and for one to feel a direct part of an extraordinarily democratic process–the process of sharing what one is and thinks with other agents afforded the same right and privilege–without the threat of a silencing authority (though, of course seminars will often have leaders as guides).

How is it then that sharing one’s opinion and listening to others in seminar supports and promotes democracy?

We turn again to Mill for insight:

“No one can be a great thinker who does not recognise, that as a thinker it is his first duty to follow his intellect to whatever conclusions it may lead. Truth gains more even by the errors of one who, with due study and preparation, thinks for himself, than by the true opinions of those who only hold them because they do not suffer themselves to think. Not that it is solely, or chiefly, to form great thinkers, that freedom of thinking is required. On the contrary, it is as much, and even more indispensable, to enable average human beings to attain the mental stature which they are capable of. There have been, and may again be, great individual thinkers, in a general atmosphere of mental slavery. But there never has been, nor ever will be, in that atmosphere, an intellectually active people.” (Ibid. Pp. 62-63)

Mill suggests that it is not the thinker per se, and especially not the great thinker, to whom society is indebted for its attitudes of liberality and the maintenance of its values and free-thoughts. No, Mill places the duty for thinking and acting squarely on the shoulders of the average person–a person who is capable of thinking, reasoning, and conversing with another similar person. And in engaging in such civil, rational, and benevolent ways with one another, citizens express their intellects in necessarily varying degrees of capacity, and in so doing, each and every person who comprises the public raises the level of the public: (1) from indolent to active, and (2) from ignorant to thinking. The highest ignorance and offense, therefore, is refusing to think at all, not in thinking or expressing one’s self poorly. It is therefore not simply the duty of the thinkers–the intellectual elites–to think, but of each and every person who holds an opinion, each citizen. Is this not liberating? Is this not liberty? Is this not the material from which a Democracy is made?


One thought on “Do Seminar Discussions Promote Liberty and Fight Tyranny?

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