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That said, the essay does provide an impassioned defense of nonconformity as a positive good for society, and an equally impassioned reminder that no one can be completely sure that his or her way of life is the best or the only way to live.THE subject of this Essay is not the so-called Liberty of the Will, so unfortunately opposed to the misnamed doctrine of Philosophical Necessity; but Civil, or Social Liberty: the nature and limits of the power which can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual.In particular, Mill links liberty to the ability to progress and to avoid social stagnation.
The aim, therefore, of patriots, was to set limits to the power which the ruler should be suffered to exercise over the community; and this limitation was what they meant by liberty. First, by obtaining a recognition of certain immunities, called political liberties or rights, which it was to be regarded as a breach of duty in the ruler to infringe, and which, if he did infringe, specific resistance, or general rebellion, was held to be justifiable.
A second, and generally a later expedient, was the establishment of constitutional checks; by which the consent of the community, or of a body of some sort supposed to represent its interests, was made a necessary condition to some of the more important acts of the governing power.
By degrees, this new demand for elective and temporary rulers became the prominent object of the exertions of the popular party, wherever any such party existed; and superseded, to a considerable extent, the previous efforts to limit the power of rulers.
As the struggle proceeded for making the ruling power emanate from the periodical choice of the ruled, some persons began to think that too much importance had been attached to the limitation of the power itself.
A question seldom stated, and hardly ever discussed, in general terms, but which profoundly influences the practical controversies of the age by its latent presence, and is likely soon to make itself recognized as the vital question of the future.
It is so far from being new, that, in a certain sense, it has divided mankind, almost from the remotest ages, but in the stage of progress into which the more civilized portions of the species have now entered, it presents itself under new conditions, and requires a different and more fundamental treatment.
Additionally, these nonconformists challenge social complacency, and keep society from stagnating. In his first chapter, Mill provides a brief overview of the meaning of liberty.
He also introduces his basic argument in favor of respecting liberty, to the degree it does not harm anybody else.
Mill's mission in writing On Liberty can perhaps be best understood by looking at how he discussed his work in his Autobiography.
Mill wrote that he believed On Liberty to be about "the importance, to man and society, of a large variety in types of character, and of giving full freedom to human nature to expand itself in innumerable and conflicting directions." This celebration of individuality and disdain for conformity runs throughout On Liberty.