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From the perspective of a century it is not difficult to cite the more salient ideas of Mill’s political thinking. Along with his theory of liberty he is deeply anxious to elicit and develop in every phase of government man’s rational faculty. This endeavour is a consistent strand in his discussions on representative institutions. He wants to see men governed by reasoned purpose to a far greater extent than they have ever been in the past, and to this end institutions must be designed. The paradox in Mill’s position is clear enough. He believes that a majority should rule, but thinks that only a minority is likely to have the requisite wisdom. As a reluctant democrat he seeks to select for public service those few with a cultivated and eminent intelligence. All his discussions on representation and the franchise are intended to protect individual and minority interests and ensure the maximum recognition for educated minds. He assumes that respect for intellectual distinction is unnatural to the democratic spirit, but in the interest of democracy everything possible must quickly be done to cultivate it. The act of voting should be emphasized as a rational decision made by people determined that reason has to prevail.

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In the first place, then, I would suggest that they might possibly learn something from them. It will not be denied by anybody, that originality is a valuable element in human affairs. There is always need of persons not only to discover new truths, and point out when what were once truths are true no longer, but also to commence new practices, and set the example of more enlightened conduct, and better taste and sense in human life. This cannot well be gainsaid by anybody who does not believe that the world has already attained perfection in all its ways and practices. It is true that this benefit is not capable of being rendered by everybody alike: there are but few persons, in comparison with the whole of mankind, whose experiments, if adopted by others, would be likely to be any improvement on established practice. But these few are the salt of the earth; without them, human life would become a stagnant pool. Not only is it they who introduce good things which did not before exist; it is they who keep the life in those which already existed. If there were nothing new to be done, would human intellect cease to be necessary? Would it be a reason why those who do the old things should forget why they are done, and do them like cattle, not like human beings? There is only too great a tendency in the best beliefs and practices to degenerate into the mechanical; and unless there were a succession of persons whose ever-recurring originality prevents the grounds of those beliefs and practices from becoming merely traditional, such dead matter would not resist the smallest shock from anything really alive, and there would be no reason why civilization should not die out, as in the Byzantine Empire. Persons of genius, it is true, are, and are always likely to be, a small minority; but in order to have them, it is necessary to preserve the soil in which they grow. Genius can only breathe freely in an of freedom. Persons of genius are, individual than any other people—less capable, consequently, of fitting themselves, without hurtful compression, into any of the small number of moulds which society provides in order to save its members the trouble of forming their own character. If from timidity they consent to be forced into one of these moulds, and to let all that part of themselves which cannot expand under the pressure remain unexpanded, society will be little the better for their genius. If they are of a strong character, and break their fetters, they become a mark for the society which has not succeeded in reducing them to commonplace, to point at with solemn warning as “wild,” “erratic,” and the like; much as if one should complain of the Niagara river for not flowing smoothly between its banks like a Dutch canal.


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Mill readily accepts Odilon Barrot’s criticism of despotic structures and policies in the Second Empire. To him the elaborate citadel of centralized power in Paris is repellant. In his review, however, he deals principally with the wide-ranging discussions of Dupont-White on individual, state, and centralism.


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Mill, however, makes the reservation that men must never undervalue human tradition and experience: “it would be absurd to pretend that people ought to live as if nothing whatever had been known in the world before they came into it; as if experience had as yet done nothing towards showing that one mode of existence, or of conduct, is preferable to another” (262). Yet it was imperative that they should be free to interpret experience in their own way and according to their own circumstances.

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When he describes human development as strictly synonymous with the cultivation of individuality he reflects Humboldt’s spirit. The potential aggregate of qualities in the individual must be fostered as an antidote to the ills of a drab social uniformity, whereby people are cast in the same mould. As an innovative force individuality is assumed to express itself in a ready originality, in differences of conduct and practice, in diverse displays of spontaneity and energy, and in distinct styles of living. Indeed, Mill believes that eccentricity in itself is significant in helping to destroy the yoke of mass attitudes and opinions. He assumes that “Eccentricity has always abounded when and where strength of character has abounded; and the amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigour, and moral courage which it contained” (269). The inventor and innovator, he thinks, are likely to be regarded by others as eccentric. In all this Mill fails to admit what Leslie Stephen later recognized, that eccentricity is not invariably a virtue: it may be positively bad when it wastes individual energy and expends itself on trifles. A modern critic remarks that Mill “looked to liberty as a means of achieving the highest reaches of the human spirit; he did not take seriously enough the possibility that men would also be free to explore the depths of depravity. He saw individuality as a welcome release of energy and ingenuity, as if individuals cannot be as energetic and ingenious in pursuing ignoble ends as noble ones.”