John Stuart Mill discusses the importance of individualism in his essay “On Liberty.” His ideas are, ironically, widely accepted today, but in 1859, this essay was revolutionary. He argues that individualism (in thought and in action) is crucial for the advancement of the human race. The individual must stand in opposition or debate with the majority. Mill claims that the people who think and act as individuals are in the minority, in the sense not only that they do not conform to custom, but also that the majority of people are not capable of such independent and rigorous thinking: “exceptional individuals” (67). They are the exception. They, “instead of being deterred, should be encouraged in acting different from the mass” (67). Mill believes that it is the responsibility of the unexceptional to promote such independent thought.
People can promote “genius [to grow and]… breathe freely in an atmosphere of freedom” (65). Mill means that being different must not be stigmatized or oppressed; individuals need to feel at liberty to voice their opinions and argue with the opinions of others: “The greatest harm done is to those… whose whole mental development is cramped, and their reason cowed, by the fear of heresy. Who can compute what the world loses in the multitude of promising intellects combined with timid characters, who dare not follow out any bold, vigorous, independent train of thought” (35)? In an oppressive atmosphere, only the bold intellectuals will share their thoughts and knowledge openly; those who may have been great thinkers are quelled for fear of consequences.
The majority, however, does not always silence individuals intentionally. According to Mill, “originality is the one thing which unoriginal minds cannot feel the use of” (65). However, this does not negate the fact that, “the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race” (20). The “world loses” (35) the benefit of many novel and possibly correct ideas due to the “tyranny of the majority” (8): “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” (20). Basically, if the majority is wrong then they may learn the truth (or at least part of it), and if the majority is right, then they have nothing to fear from dissenters except becoming more certain of the truth. A person ought to continually seek truth and prove it against any and all counterarguments—adjusting and reconsidering his own theory as he goes.