Book review of Areopagitica by John Milton.
Freedom of speech has rarely been popular anywhere. Only a small minority of any population has been wise enough to see the advantage in allowing their ideological enemies to speak freely and disseminate their views.
Among this minority was one John Milton, best known for Paradise Lost, who delivered his famous Areopagitica to the British Parliament in response to a proposal to require all books to be approved by a censor prior to publication.
Here we find some of the classic and foundational arguments in favor of freedom of speech – the nuance and abstract nature of which makes them sadly incomprehensible to the dribbling rabble.
As Milton sees it, banning a good book is worse than killing a person:
Who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God’s image; but he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself, kills the image of God, as it were in the eye. Many a man lives a burden to the earth; but a good book is the precious life-blood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life.
We can see this in the inadvertent loss of many manuscripts at the end of the classical era: Europe plunged into the dark ages, largely ignorant of Greek logic and Roman engineering. They even misplaced the recipe for concrete. The loss of this learning was surely far greater than the loss of many lives in terms of the adverse impact it had upon the continent, and the achievements that occurred after its rediscovery during the Crusades (leading directly to the Renaissance) further underscore the value of old books.
Judging his audience well, Milton couches his arguments in the language of enlightened Protestantism. On the topic of nasty books, he refers to the early Christian rejection of Jewish dietary laws:
TO THE PURE, ALL THINGS ARE PURE; not only meats and drinks, but all kind of knowledge whether of good or evil; the knowledge cannot defile, nor consequently the books, if the will and conscience not be defiled.
For books are as meats and viands are; some of good, some of evil substance; and yet God, in that unapocryphal vision, said without exception, RISE, PETER, KILL AND EAT, leaving the choice to each man’s discretion.
In other words, a good person can safely read a bad book without fear of pollution. For example, one might read Mein Kamph out of historical curiosity and finish it without feeling a burning need to invade Poland. On the other hand, a good book is unlikely to help a bad person. They hand out Bibles freely in prisons, but how many rapists read Luke and suddenly see the error of their ways? Somewhere between bugger all and none, I suspect.
And I bet nobody expected this: Milton further persuades his audience through reference to a similar policy instituted by the Inquisition in Catholic countries:
. . . a forbidden writing is thought to be certain spark of truth that flies up in the faces of them who seek to tread it out.
Further, Milton condemns correct belief bereft of understanding:
A man may be a heretic in the truth; and if he believe things only because is pastor says so, or the Assembly so determines, without knowing other reason, though his belief be true, yet the very truth he holds becomes his heresy.
Milton urges us to have more faith in the power of truth, freely stated, to overcome lies that are just as freely stated:
. . . so Truth be in the field, we do injuriously, by licensing and prohibiting, to misdoubt her strength. Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter? Her confuting is the best and surest suppressing . . . For who knows not that Truth is strong, next to the Almighty? She needs no policies, nor stratagems, nor licensings to make her victorious; those are the shifts and the defenses that error uses against her power.
In other words, only falsehood can benefit from repression of publication. Truth is big enough and ugly enough to look after itself without the state or church needing to babysit it with censorship from the mean kids on the block. Also on this point:
. . . if it come to prohibiting, there is not aught more likely to be prohibited than truth itself; whose first appearance to our eyes, bleared and dimmed without prejudice and custom, is more unsightly and unplausible than many errors.
The prescient fellow said this centuries before Darwin, Nietzsche and Roissy, though I suppose he had the examples of Luther and Galileo before him.
Old Milton lost the battle that time, but in coming centuries his thinking would influence future principles governance, especially the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. Modern liberal democracies all claim to support freedom of expression but few actually do so consistently. You can spout safe, vanilla opinion all you like but if you say anything ‘offensive’ or ‘hateful’ or ‘defamatory’ you can expect to cop the rough end of the legal pineapple.
In modern times we face a fascinating clash of freedom vs. repression driven by the tide of technological progress. On one hand, the internet seemingly enables free exchange of ideas upon an instantaneous, global and decentralized basis that would have given Milton a massive stiffy. Blogs, Wikileaks and YouTube often smear hatefacts that old media won’t dare to touch. On the other hand, enormous tech companies now act as unofficial gatekeepers. While not the state or church, they find themselves with extraordinary powers that the Ayatollah would have given his left ball to have.
Google, Facebook, Twitter, WordPress et al are not Papists or Communists or Fascists as such, but any human possessing that amount of power will feel a natural, moral urge to use it for good (as they see it), and their moral framework is Cultural Marxism. So far only WordPress has acted with consistent enlightenment and good faith.
Here we run into freedom of speech vs. freedom of association, i.e. the claim that tech companies don’t have to do business with anyone they don’t like. Then come the various arguments about how carrier services like the Post can’t censor, that the free market will provide alternatives like Gab, etc., etc.
I find the various arguments about what should be the case far less interesting than what actually will happen, and how ordinary blogsters might help to make it so. Because plenty of things should have happened and didn’t. The Fat Kims have not been overthrown in North Korea, only one scientist was ever sent to the moon, and I’m still waiting for Megan Fox to return my calls. So spare me your ‘shoulds’, and instead share your ideas for how we can maintain and extend this brief blip of radio freedom on the intermanet.