On the Areopagitica: Why Milton’s Defence of Free Speech Remains Almost Unsurpassed but Not Secular

by Tauriq Moosa

As per various stories emerging concerning censorship, I thought it a good time to consider one of the greatest documents defending free speech.

ScreenHunter_10 Jan. 16 12.17In 1643, the English Parliament instituted the Licensing Order. This meant pre-publication censorship on all printed writings, including and aiming mostly at newspapers. This followed the abolishing, two years earlier, of the Star Chamber, which according to Kevin Marsh, “had been the monarchy's most potent tool of repression for centuries: a court that held secret sessions, without juries, and produced arbitrary judgments… all to please the king.” This blanket censorship, however, disappeared, requiring Parliament to take some action, thus the Licensing Order. But the next quilt of authority was simply knitted from the frayed threads of the previous.

Arrests, search and seizure of books, book burnings and all other classical depictions of authoritarian hatred were the outcome of this Order. The Stationer’s Company, a guild of booksellers, printers and so on, and established by Queen Mary in 1557, was put in charge of dealing out this Order. Hindsight makes those fires brighter and stupidity greater and fear lesser; curled pages to us invite anger at oppression, but in the eyes of the moralisers, it meant something called order.

The great poet, John Milton, delivered a speech in 1644, called Areopagitica (or, its full title Areopagitica: A speech of Mr. John Milton for the liberty of unlicensed printing to the Parliament of England). In it, he made an impassioned plea that rings out today, calling for free thought, speech and reason, for “when complaints are freely heard, deeply considered and speedily reformed, then is the utmost bound of civil liberty attained, that wise men look for.”

His most powerful argument is encapsulated in what is surely one of the most beautiful sentences ever written:

A man may be a heretic in the truth, and if he believe things only because his 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.

Here, Milton cut to the heart of the problem.

Belief is not knowledge, it is merely a belief or a formation of viewpoints on a particular subject. Belief backed by evidence, reason, engagement, self-criticism is the ideal of any thinking person – but we cannot expect all our beliefs to follow suit, though we ought, as much possible, to be testing our beliefs against these forms of self-engagement, since we could be wrong.

Milton highlights that even if a belief be absolutely true – “the planet is not on the back of a tortoise” – it is the basis of that belief that highlights whether one is a heretic or not. If your basis of belief is because some pastor or assembly dictates the belief, then anything can be believed. A pastor could claim that condoms increase the spread/danger of AIDs, an assembly could determine that public spending on stem cells is wrong – but no one should accept that just because the pastor or assembly has so determined.

If a group of people decide that a particular piece of writing violates what they consider appropriate morals, attitudes or views, they will then censor that piece of writing, whether through complete obliteration or, worse, modification tailored to the tastes of the mindful moralisers; its existence is one aspect but it is also the idea’s distribution that concerns censors. An idea or viewpoint’s contrarian view will be locked inside its author’s head, forced to rot, since it is denied the sustenance of fellow minds. This is the goal, in any case, of every form of censorship.

But it doesn't work.

The “heresy” that Milton refers to is not Biblical antagonism; it’s not defying the orders of the ruling religious authority (though obviously that’s the definition we assume). Milton’s heresy is about complete domination of thought.

Truth and understanding are not such wares as to be monopolized and traded in by tickets and statutes and standards. We must not think to make a staple commodity of all the knowledge in the land, to mark and license it like our broadcloth and our woolpacks.

Milton, however, must not be viewed as a secularist, fighting to untangle religion's root in political decision-making. He was not against the status quo and indeed was simply advocating that if a view or opinion truly is against the status quo, then so be it. This blasphemy however can be discovered afterwards and the books can be done away with then: blasphemy will reveal itself, so should not concern us before since we might end up lumping in legitimate, albeit controversial, inquiries which could benefit us all, among the things we ought not to see or to have been produced in the first place. The Areopagitica is filled with justifications based upon Bibilical mandates to seek out “God’s work”, in order to understand him. His suggestion was that works should not be censored before publication. There will be many failures and offences, he said, “ere the house of God can be built.”

It is this that makes Milton's argument seem strange. After all, Milton has just indicated that one ought not to believe based on an appeal to authority – but is defending free speech because God has said so. However, Milton can overcome this by indicating that the purpose of life is to discover his god’s purpose, which can only be found by constantly engaging with ideas, forcing them apart, seeking what is true. Indeed, the idea of knowledge leading to proper engagement also made it easier to separate good from evil, since, as Milton says, “good and evil… grow up together almost inseparably.” Milton claims that to fight Adam’s curse, humans require better knowledge overall, despite knowledge being the basis of the curse. In order to know good, Milton says, we must know evil.

Therefore the state of man now is, what wisdom can there be to choose, what continence to forbear, without the knowledge of evil? He that can apprehend and consider vice with all her baits and seeming pleasures, yet abstain, and yet distinguish, and yet prefer what which is truly better, he is the true warfaring Christian.

There is little wonder then that Milton’s most famous character is his Satan, in the celebrated long poem Paradise Lost. Satan and what he embodied is so potent, Alasdair MacIntyre says, that this character alone “brought Blake over to the devil’s party, and has been seen as the first Whig.” Satan’s motto is, after all, Non Serviam, which, continues MacIntyre, is “not merely a personal revolt against God, but a revolt against the concept of an ordained and unchangeable hierarchy.”

The point being that the fight for individual liberty means the distancing from the security of larger dominance. Security does not necessarily mean safety though: it only means one is not in danger of intrusion – like having one’s views, opinions and therefore life upended by radical alternatives (that, possibly, might be better). The point being that overarching infringement on individuals was done for the purposes of maintaining, as we have seen, “order” (for the common folk – also known as “power” for the rulers). Satan upset this order as set by god by “rebelling” – though this is in itself quite a complicated matter – but forever served as the catalyst for thought against overarching domination – even if, as all domination claims, it is for the individual’s own good because he is part of a larger group. Milton was evidently in two minds about it, but saw the necessity in both areas.

The beauty of the Areopagitica is that it eloquently outlined and began a conversation from the lips of one of our greatest word-users. Even if, as I’ve highlighted, Milton only began a conversation for free thought – and did so within the narrow confines of religious thought – Milton was spurned on not by anti-religious sentiments but by what he perceived to be a twisting of the very religious sentiments which should make humanity curious, knowledgeable and able to engage with varying and new concepts. Milton feared that due to our inherent ignorance, which can only decrease (or increase if we want to take a Socratic stance, given our awareness of our ignorance) with more knowledge, we are not even in the right position to know whether something should be banned or censored:

He who thinks we are to pitch our tent here, and have attained the utmost prospect of reformation that the mortal glass wherein we contemplate can show us, till we come to beatific vision, that man by this very opinion declares that he is yet far short of truth.

How does someone know that we need not attain more knowledge, simply because the idea appears heretical? Milton’s worry, though apt, was driven by the desire to learn more so that humanity could be closer to God. Milton thought therefore opposing knowledge acquisition was to, essentially, oppose humanity's most important mission, since“he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself, kills the image of God, as it were in the eye.”

Only God is so infallible, Milton could claim, as to know what is and is not allowed to be considered. Humans, being infallible and ignorant and full of sin, would be going against their very nature and design to deny knowledge, since they would be claiming to have that knowledge anyway: how can we know if it is good or bad unless we know what it is!

The irony should be obvious now: Humanity’s fall was supposedly through its acquisition of knowledge in the Garden. For Milton, the fruit of our failure becomes the seeds of our salvation.

The reason for highlighting Milton’s motivations and justifications is to not allow us to paint a secular portrait of this religious man. This does not discredit his brilliance, talent and genius, nor should it lessen the power of the Areopagitica. But in order to know our history of fighting for freedom of thought and speech, we should consider one of the most important documents to be the Areopagitica. But in so doing, we should be as fully aware of its origin and justifications as possible. As Milton himself tried to do, knowing an origin can help clarify a path for the future.

The Areopagitica remains one of the best documents for freedom ever conceived. But, one that remains central to me, will have to be a little book by another John, published in the same year as Darwin’s Origin of Species, called On Liberty.