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Thomas Hill Green (1836-1882)
by Terence Green
A state of freedom
Live the ideal
Thomas Hill Green was an absolute idealist. For ordinary folk this makes him sound like he was a dreamer aiming for some lofty goal; but since he was a philosopher, it means he thought that reality was ultimately constituted by minds and their contents. So he was a dreamer, really. He was also, however, a pivotal figure in the history of liberalism. Before Green, the sort of freedom liberals were worried about was the freedom to act as you wished: you were free if you could run and jump and skip and play; but if there were chains around you, literally or metaphorically, you weren’t free. Green’s seminal insight was to say that although such freedom is important, it’s not sufficient to enable you to live a meaningful life. As the much-maligned Herbert Spencer pointed out, for many people this sort of freedom just means that they’re free to starve. Meaningful freedom requires that we can consciously will and execute our actions in a way that most effectively promotes the fullest development of the potential latent within us. What’s more, we can only achieve this blossoming of our individuality within the cosy bosom of society. Just as individuals constitute society, society constitutes individuals.
All of this in turn has implications for the role of the state. For earlier liberals, the state just had to do basic things like keep the peace so all good citizens could freely go about their business. That’s not enough for people to achieve complete freedom, that is, their self-realisation, said Green. Instead, the state will need to intervene from time to time to make sure everyone gets all they need to be all they can be: a little free health care here, a touch of education there, perhaps a pinch of welfare over there. And because we’re all in this together – society is an organism and we constitute its parts – there should be no complaints about paying taxes to help those less fortunate (or perhaps just too lazy) to get a job. Sounds absolutely ideal!
© Terence Green 2018
Terence is a writer, historian, and lecturer, and lives with his wife and their dog in Paekakariki, NZ. hardlysurprised.blogspot.co.nz