John Stuart Mill, and His Liberalism, Were Not as Secular as Often Assumed

While the 19th-century English philosopher John Stuart Mill is remembered by both admirers and detractors alike as the epitome of rationalist, secular, utilitarian liberalism, Timothy Larsen argues in a new book that the author of On Liberty had a complex spiritual life and, even if not a believer in the strict sense, was openminded about religion in general and Christianity in particular. Larsen, writes James K.A. Smith in his review, also makes “a wider argument about the alleged incompatibility of liberalism and religion.”

Mill’s legacy was effectively “edited” by his philosophical and political disciples, excising any hint of religious life. One would never know from the canon in our philosophy departments, for example, that Mill wrote an appreciative essay on “Theism.” Nor would many realize that his closest friend at the end of his life was the Protestant pastor in Avignon who buried him with prayer. Nor would these heirs know what to do with the inscription on the tomb of his beloved [wife and collaborator] Harriet Taylor that pines for “the hoped-for heaven.”

The selective inheritance of Mill crammed him into a particular cultural mythology—one that proclaims political liberalism as the devotion we adopt when we’ve outgrown the backward pieties of religion. And this is a story told both by liberals and conservatives, who both seem to have a stake in a supposed antithesis between Christianity and liberalism. . . .

Mill, Larsen shows us, “was the kind of ‘secular’ figure who read theological treatises appreciatively.” For his entire adult life, when the introverted, isolated Mill gave himself over to relationships and friendships, they were often with devout individuals—the Anglican theologian F.D. Maurice, a treasured friend, for example, as were intimate circles of Quakers and Unitarians. . . . Mill’s A System of Logic was published by the house now known as SPCK—the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge—and Mill was always delightfully surprised by how enthusiastically his books were received by religious leaders.

Most significantly, Larsen offers the first close reading of Mill’s “Theism” essay that this philosopher has encountered—which says more about our philosophical curricula than it does about Mill. In this late text, published posthumously, Mill arrives at a position that philosophers today would call “probabilist theism.” After assessing the evidence, Mill judged that there was “a large balance of probability in favor of their being a Creator.”

Read more at Los Angeles Review of Books

More about: History & Ideas, John Stuart Mill, Religion and politics, Secularism

The Possible Death of Mohammad Deif, and What It Means

On Saturday, Israeli jets destroyed a building in southern Gaza, killing a Hamas brigade commander named Rafa Salameh. Salameh is one of the most important figures in the Hamas hierarchy, but he was not the primary target. Rather it was Mohammad Deif, who is Yahya Sinwar’s number-two and is thought to be the architect and planner of numerous terrorist attacks, of Hamas’s tunnel network, and of the October 7 invasion itself. Deif has survived at least five Israeli attempts on his life, and the IDF has consequently been especially reluctant to confirm that he had been killed. Yet it seems that it is possible, and perhaps likely, that he was.

Kobi Michael notes that Deif’s demise would have major symbolic value and, moreover, deprive Hamas of important operational know-how. But he also has some words of caution:

The elimination of Deif becomes even more significant given the current reality of severe damage to Hamas’s military wing and its transition to terrorism and guerrilla warfare. However, it is important to remember that organizations such as Hamas and Hizballah are more than the sum of their components or commanders. Israel has previously eliminated the leaders of these organizations and other very senior military figures, and yet the organizations continued to grow, develop, and become more significant security threats to Israel, while establishing their status as political players in the Palestinian and Lebanese arenas.

As for the possibility that Deif’s death will harden Hamas’s position in the hostage negotiations, Tamir Hayman writes:

In my opinion, even if there is a bump in the road now, it is not a strategic one. The reasons that Hamas decided to compromise its demands in the [hostage] deal stem from the operational pressure it is under [and] the fear that the pressure exerted by the IDF will increase.

Read more at Institute for National Security Studies

More about: Gaza War 2023, Hamas