Yesterday: Beowulf Monday or Tuesday: Discourse on Democratic Governance
Book: The Bubble Boys: How Mistaken Educational Ideals and Practices are Causing a Warped Social Fabric
I spoke yesterday of the great Anglo-Saxon epic and its distaste for monarchy; there is of course another great English epic, Paradise Lost, and its author, too, was not a fan. John Milton was a strong proponent of all forms of liberty–civil liberty, domestic liberty, religious liberty–too strong, as it turns out, because he would be an anarchist if followed literally, and a society built on his ideas would simply await its next dictator. But here I write not to focus on Milton’s epic–which I can do at another time–but instead to note his tract on freedom of speech, Areopagitica.
To begin with I should probably give some background on the times. When it was published in 1644, England was in the midst of a brutal civil war which resulted in the execution of its monarch, Charles I. The origins of the war are numerous, but two elements of its background are particularly notable: 1) Charles’ claim to the throne was bolstered by the theory of the “divine right of kings”–that they were put on the throne by God–which led him to attempt to impose absolute power. There were other reasons for absolutism–namely that at this time England, France, Spain, and The Netherlands were all of about equal military strength and all in conflict, so the word of the king as military commander needed to be absolute–and absolutism is not totalitarianism, nowhere near as destructive–but when Charles attempted to resurrect a dormant tax without the consent of his Parliament he met heavy opposition. 2) Charles’ religious motivations were dubious, and his wife was a French Catholic princess. To the staunchly Protestant Scots–his own dynasty was primarily Scottish–his marriage and some of his religious policies were dubious and distasteful. They rebelled. The English followed suit. The Archbishop William Laud, who supported Charles, fostered this mutual distaste. Laud was beheaded in 1645, and Charles in 1649. Milton, a Parliamentarian, was opposed to both of them on both fronts.
In 1644, then, in the midst of the English Civil War (1642-49), when Parliament declared a “licensing act” to approve texts prior to publication, Milton saw it as intrusive on liberty. To Milton, who had visited an aged Galileo, then under house arrest, in 1638, censorship was bound to interfere with the production and acceptance of the best ideas. Milton believed and argued in Areopagitica that while there are both good and bad works, it is really by comparing the one with the other that we can figure out which are which. To be learned means to have read all kinds of works, not simply ones you agree with, and to figure out which ones you disagree with and why you disagree with them. Censorship does not allow that.
Milton argues that in ancient Greece and Rome bad authors and books were punished or burnt, but not until after the reception of their works. To stifle works prior to their reception thus does not have the precedent of ancient history–which the English Parliament was in part trying to resurrect in ousting the monarch–but instead has only the precedent of the very religious body that they so feared Charles’ wife would re-impose on them, namely the Roman Catholic Church. Furthermore censorship will not protect the ignorant from access to terrible ideas, since they wouldn’t encounter them anyways. Beyond this, censorship will not be objective–it will be placed in the hands of a subjective, arbitrary censor, who might suppress good works for bad reasons.
Milton is, of course, 100% correct. And here he does not take the anarchical stance that anything and everything may be written and published. He prefers the existing law, which said that works must have the author’s and printer’s (or publisher’s) name on them. This ensures that scandalous or libelous works will be suppressed and/or punished.
What’s even better is that Milton published it in defiance of the Licensing Act against which he was arguing. He did not issue it as a speech, but instead as a pamphlet. Two cheers for a man with some nuts!!
I think that of all the great, short classics I’ve read, Areopagitica had the most immediate and awe-inspiring impact on me. At 33 pages it took little time and little effort to read, but a little more to process. In any course on political theory I would put it in, and I find it highly relevant and highly informative, especially in an age where we supposedly value freedom of speech, but if asked almost nobody could give you the reasons why that right is important. And political theory is one of the things I would most like to teach, because there is such fascinating material, like this one.
Sayonara, and I will see you on Monday or Tuesday!