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What does "if they can once get their creed taught from authority" in this passage mean?

Does it mean that they receive the authority's creed and consider it their own creed, or that they manage to get their creed accepted by authority and disseminated as authoritative information?

There is a class of persons (happily not quite so numerous as formerly) who think it enough if a person assents undoubtingly to what they think true, though he has no knowledge whatever of the grounds of the opinion, and could not make a tenable defence of it against the most superficial objections. Such persons, if they can once get their creed taught from authority, naturally think that no good, and some harm, comes of its being allowed to be questioned. Where their influence prevails, they make it nearly impossible for the received opinion to be rejected wisely and considerately, though it may still be rejected rashly and ignorantly; for to shut out discussion entirely is seldom possible, and when it once gets in, beliefs not grounded on conviction are apt to give way before the slightest semblance of an argument. Waiving, however, this possibility—assuming that the true opinion abides in the mind, but abides as a prejudice, a belief independent of, and proof against, argument—this is not the way in which truth ought to be held by a rational being. This is not knowing the truth. Truth, thus held, is but one superstition the more, accidentally clinging to the words which enunciate a truth.

-- J.S. Mill from "On Liberty"

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    It means the second of your options. Commented Jul 17, 2023 at 8:36
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    He seems to be talking about a 'class of persons' who believe that people should unthinkingly accept their point of view. I take the sentence to mean "If they can get (this point of view) accepted as true by people in authority and taught to people in general, they naturally think that the teaching should not be questioned." Commented Jul 17, 2023 at 10:58
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    By 'they', do you still mean 'the class of persons'? If so, it is the authorities who (I think) are accepting the 'persons'' creed, not the other way round. Commented Jul 17, 2023 at 12:10
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    It isn't impossible - I was just explaining the way I read the passage. But I don't know what sort of 'creed' Mill was referring to, or exactly what he meant. Commented Jul 17, 2023 at 15:22
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    The person who supplied an answer on the Philosophy forum seems to agree with my interpretation, anyway! Commented Jul 17, 2023 at 16:02

2 Answers 2

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This is archaic language, and not how English is used today, so a modern English speaker would understand it differently than someone would have in 1859.

That sentence means roughly, "Those people, if they can get those in authority to spread their beliefs, think that no good, and some harm, comes from allowing it to be questioned."

The overall meaning of the paragraph is criticizing people who have strong beliefs about things, and spread those beliefs through powerful people, but never see the need to think about these beliefs critically. The opinion is that this doesn't result in knowing truth, but in believing nonsense.

The sentence you're asking about refers to how these people get those with power and/or authority --probably politicians, business leaders, journalists, thought leaders-- to spread their beliefs, and once that's happening, these people don't accept any criticism of it.

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  • Thank you. Is there any reason why the other interpretation doesn't work?
    – noolodig
    Commented Jul 17, 2023 at 20:29
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    @noolodig Other interpretations of those words are possible without context, but in that context, the others suggested here just don't make sense. I had to rely a lot on the context to figure out what the intent was. For instance, Old Brixtonian's guess doesn't work because the sentence following it is about "where their influence prevails", and that doesn't come because someone in authority taught you, but because people in authority are teaching everyone else. James K's answer is also plausible.
    – gotube
    Commented Jul 17, 2023 at 20:44
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    @noolodig It could work, but (a) that's far-fetched, and (b) Mill wasn't talking about presidents of companies or others with great influence. He's talking about simple-minded people who dogmatically follow whatever opinion they happen to have.
    – gotube
    Commented Jul 18, 2023 at 1:06
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    @noolodig Random people walking down the street who gather in numbers and spread certain opinions are the ones the people in power follow. Wise people in power spout whatever ideology the average person on the street believes to get their vote, and if a belief becomes popular enough, businesses will be forced to at least pretend they share that belief as well. This creates the illusion that everyone of sound mind believes the dogma, even though nobody has critically assessed it.
    – gotube
    Commented Jul 18, 2023 at 5:34
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    @noolodig Because Mill didn't describe their class, I strongly infer that their class is irrelevant, which can only mean he's talking about the masses generally.
    – gotube
    Commented Jul 19, 2023 at 2:46
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Your first idea seems more likely, or perhaps, "If the creed is taught them by someone in authority." Today we might say, 'learn their creed from' rather than, 'get their creed taught from' in such a context.

The KJV has,

Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom: and with all thy getting get understanding. [Proverbs 4:7]

We no longer use 'get' and 'getting' in quite that way.

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  • Ah, so in the past, 'get' was used in the sense of 'learn'. That explanation makes a lot of sense. Thank you.
    – noolodig
    Commented Jul 17, 2023 at 10:00

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