Free Speech Fundamentals: Milton

This one's for you, Milo.

I have a theory: people get anxious when they don't know where the ideas that they are asked to live by come from. Certainly, I get anxious, and I am a professionally trained historian. What must it be like for those presented with a concept like "freedom of speech" who have no idea why this should be a Good Thing except because their teachers tell them so--especially when their teachers are at the same time insisting such contradictory things as, "We all need to be respectful of each other's opinions," even as they model shutting those opinions down? Happily, Professor Fencing Bear is here to help.

Or, at least, to provide a few notes. Freedom of speech is one of those concepts that come to us (by which I mean, those of us living in the present) out of the tradition that many of my colleagues have spent the past several decades teaching their students to be suspicious of. The shorthand labels tend to be things like "the Enlightenment" or "the English-speaking tradition," but all most people hear nowadays is "dead white European males who didn't want me to have a voice." Well. Given that it was dead white Europeans, granted, most of them male who articulated the concept that you should have a voice, perhaps it will help to have a few markers for how they came up with this concept in the first place.

The Setting

The first thing everyone needs know is that it didn't start with the American Revolution. I know, I know, we all point to the First Amendment as the place in which this idea is enshrined:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
We tend to talk about the first two clauses of this amendment as if they are two separate concepts: "freedom of religion" and "freedom of speech," but--and this is vital to appreciate--in their origins, they were one.

Freedom of religion was freedom of speech, more particularly, freedom of the press, because what concerned the English in the middle of the seventeenth century, when these ideas were first taking off (see graph), was not people's freedom (as Milo so dangerously puts it) to "read what you want, watch what you want, play what you want, think what you, say what you want," but rather their freedom to worship God in the way that they thought most likely to lead to salvation. If you think the stakes are high today (which, to be fair, I agree with Milo, I think they are), they were even higher in the seventeenth century when you could still be sent quite literally to the stake for reading, thinking, and saying what you wanted about God.

Well, okay, perhaps not in the mid-seventeenth century to the stake (I'm a medievalist, these modern centuries tend to blur), but you probably had ancestors in the sixteenth century who could have been, and then, thanks to the efforts of King Charles I to get everyone, including the Scots, to worship from a common prayer book, if you hadn't already left England in disgust and settled in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, you would have found yourself forced to take sides in the Civil War. No, not that one, the original one, the one fought between the Roundheads and the Cavaliers. You haven't heard of this war? If you are a redneck, you should have; it's the reason there are rednecks, a.k.a. Covenanters, Scots Presbyterians who banded together in 1638 to resist the king's imposition of the prayer book. It's complicated, but basically, it was the Covenanters who started the war, or series of wars, which led eventually to Charles's having his head cut off in 1649 (I told you the stakes were high). In the meantime, the Puritans (those who hadn't left for Massachusetts) and the Presbyterians gained the upper hand in Parliament and started trying to clamp down on their opponents, most particularly those riotous Royalists (like "Deplorables," "Cavaliers" was originally meant to be an insult) who supported Charles and his efforts at enforcing religious conformity under Archbishop William Laud. (Laud got his head cut off even before the king. Like I said, the stakes were high.)

As if things were not already tense enough, in June 1643, the by-then Roundhead Parliament promulgated an Order for the Regulation of the Press, specifically intended to clamp down on the kinds of speech that they themselves had engaged in (I know, the irony). This was not the first such order "for suppressing the great late abuses and frequent disorders in Printing many, false forged, scandalous, seditious, libelous, and unlicensed Papers, Pamphlets, and Books to the great defamation of Religion and government" that Parliament had promulgated but, as the Long Parliament lamented, these previous orders ("notwithstanding the diligence of the Company of Stationers to put them in full execution") had had "little or no effect." Printers were still printing and selling all kinds of troublesome stuff (gasp!) without license of the government-approved Stationers. Accordingly, the Roundheads wanted to make sure that the Stationers did their job, so they authorized regular searches for "unlicensed Printing Presses," which, if found, were to be seized and destroyed, along with all unlicensed books, papers, and pamphlets. "And all Justices of the Peace, Captaines, Constables and other officers, are hereby ordered and required to be aiding, to the foresaid persons in the due execution of all, and singular and assisting the premisses and in the apprehension of all Offenders against the same. And in case of opposition to break open the Doores and Locks."

The Parliamentarian John Milton, not yet the author of Paradise Lost, was not amused and published a pamphlet (today it would be a blog post) lambasting Parliament for the Order and championing "the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing."

The argument

"I deny not," Milton acknowledged,
but that it is of greatest concernment in the church and commonwealth, to have vigilant eye how books demean themselves as well as men; and thereafter to confine, imprison, and do sharpest justice on them as malefactors: for books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul whose progeny they are; nay they do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them. (Whew! It makes one at once proud and humble to be an author! Such power! Such life! Such efficacy!) 
I know they are as lively, and as vigorously productive, as those fabulous dragons teeth; and being sown up and down, may chance to spring up armed men. (So, okay, books can be dangerous, they can lead to armed conflict.) 
And yet on the other hand unless wariness be used, as good almost kill a man as kill a good book; 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. (Stakes high enough now?
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. It is true, no age can restore a life, whereof perhaps there is no great loss; and revolutions of ages do not oft recover the loss of a rejected truth, for the want of which whole nations fare the worse. We should be wary therefore what persecution we raise against the living labors of public men, how we spill that seasoned life of man preserved and stored up in books; since we see a kind of homicide may be thus committed, sometimes a martyrdom, and if it extend to the whole impression, a kind of massacre, whereof the execution ends not in the slaying of an elemental life, but strikes at that ethereal and fifth essence, the breath of reason itself, slays an immortality rather than a life. (Oh, my! Killing a book a kind of homicide? Wiping out a whole print-run a massacre? Destroying books as an attack on the quintessence, reason? And you thought our current use of metaphor was overwrought! But what if the book raises up armed men? What if its ideas deserve to be killed? Ah, there's the rub: who decides?)
Milton goes on to narrate a long line of previous attempts to murder books in this way, from the ancient Greeks and Romans down to the contemporary popes, albeit pausing, commendably, to note how in the Middle Ages under the Christian emperors books at least had the chance to be examined in council before they were prohibited and burned. Under the popes of Milton's day, however, the restrictions of the Imprimatur and the Index of Forbidden Books were fully in force, such that "no book, pamphlet, or paper" might be printed "unless it were approved and licensed under the hands of two or three glutton friars." (Anti-Catholicism, like the suppression of the press, has a venerable lineage.) "Are we," Milton is here challenging his fellow Protestants, "to be as bad as the popes? Well," he continues, "what exactly is it that we want to achieve?" Here is where the argument gets really interesting.
How great a virtue is temperance, how much of moment through the whole life of man? Yet God commits the managing so great a trust, without particular law or prescription, wholly to the demeanor of every grown man.... (Here Milton has been talking about how even the Scriptures contain quotations by heathen writers, and Christians have long depended on the learning of the Greeks. If even God does not step in, by way of the Scriptures, to prevent grown men from reading bad books, who is Parliament to make this decision for them?) 
If we think to regulate printing, thereby to rectify manners, we must regulate all recreations and pastimes, all that is delightful to such matters as these, when all licensing will be easily eluded. Impunity and remissness, for certain are the bane of a Commonwealth, but here the great art lies to discern in what the law is to bid restraint and punishment, and in what things persuasion only is to work. If every action which is good, or evil in man at ripe years, were to be put under pittance, and prescription, and compulsion, what were virtue but a name, what praise could be then due to well-doing, what grammercy to be sober, just, or continent? Many there be that complain of divine providence for suffering Adam to transgress, foolish tongues! (Milton would have more to say about this in his great epic.) When God gave him reason, he gave him freedom to choose, for reason is but choosing; he had been else a mere artificial Adam, such an Adam as he is in the motions. (I.e. an automaton or robot.) We ourselves esteem not of that obedience, or love, or gift, which is of force; God therefore left him free, set before him a provoking object, ever almost in his eyes herein consisted his merit, herein the right of his reward, the praise of his abstinence. Wherefore did he create passions within us, pleasures round about us, but that these rightly tempered are the very ingredients of virtue? They are not skillful considerers of human things, who imagine to remove sin by removing the matter of sin... (Got all that? We'll come back to this in a moment.)
The argument goes on: how, exactly, does Parliament think the licensers are going to be able to judge whether the works of authors more learned than they merit publication? How does Parliament propose to create a monopoly on truth and understanding? More to the point, is it not worse to in effect force men to believe even the truth without understanding, as must happen if men are no longer required to test their religion in argument? And what is Truth?
Truth is compared in Scripture to a streaming fountain; if her waters flow not in perpetual progression, they sicken into a muddy pool of conformity and tradition. A man may be a heretic in the truth; and if he believes 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. There is not any burden that some would gladder post off to another, than the charge and care of their religion.... 
Truth indeed came once into the world with her divine master, and was a perfect shape most glorious to look on (i.e. Jesus): but when he ascended, and his apostles after him were laid asleep, then straight arose a wicked race of deceivers, who as that story goes of the Egyptian Typhon with his conspirators, how they dealt with the god Osiris, took the virgin Truth, hewed her lovely form into a thousand pieces, and scattered them to the four winds. From that time ever since, the sad friends of Truth, such as dare appear, imitating the careful search that Isis made for the mangled body of Osiris, went up and down gathering up limb by limb still as they could find them. We have not yet found them all, Lords and Commons, nor ever shall do, till her Master's second coming; he shall bring together every joint and member, and shall mold them into an immortal feature of loveliness and perfection. Suffer not these licensing prohibitions to stand at every place of opportunity forbidding and disturbing them that continue seeking, that continue to do our obsequies to the torn body of our martyred saint. We boast our light; but if we look not wisely on the sun itself, it smites us into darkness.... There be who perpetually complain of schisms and sects, and make it such a calamity that any man dissents from their maxims. 'Tis their own pride and ignorance which causes the disturbing, who neither will hear with meekness, nor can convince, yet all must be suppressed which is not found in their Syntagma. They are the troublers, they are the dividers of unity, who neglect and permit not others to unite those dissevered pieces which are yet wanting to the body of Truth. To be still searching what we know not, by what we know, still closing up truth to truth as we find it (for all her body is homogeneal, and proportional) this is the golden rule in theology as well as in arithmetic, and makes up the best harmony in a church; not the forced and outward union of cold, and neutral, and inwardly divided minds... (Not as fun as thinking free speech means you can play whatever video games you like, chant whatever political slogans you like, listen to whatever dangerous speakers you like, however fabulous they may be? Are you sure?)
The stakes

There's more, but that's enough to chew on for the moment. Suffice it to say, Parliament was not immediately impressed and went on with its licensing ways. According to Wikipedia (I told you: I'm a medievalist, I'm learning some of this for the first time now myself!), it took until 1695 to achieve true freedom of the press, by which time England had changed kings several times and was under the rule of a Dutchman. (The Dutch are really important in this story; they're the reason New York, née New Amsterdam, became a bastion of tolerance, cosmopolitanism, and free trade.) But doesn't Milton's argument take your breath away? Okay, I get it, maybe not. He writes in even longer sentences than I do. But let's give it a go. This is the survival of civilization we're talking about here.

Why, according to Milton, was it wrong for Parliament to try to suppress the publication of "scandalous, seditious, libelous, and unlicensed Papers, Pamphlets, and Books"? To judge from the way in which we talk about freedom of the press and freedom of speech today, we would expect Milton's argument to be primarily political. Which, in a fashion, it was: he was writing to Parliament. But not about government, per se. Not about whether Parliament should restrict the publication of papers, pamphlets, and books calling for the overthrow of the government (they had already done that in going to war with the king) or for the reorganization of the economy (although Milton does warn them about restrictions on trade). Rather, Milton's arguments are all, as Milo might put it, following Andrew Breitbart, at the level of culture. What matters is what people think, not just how they vote. (Of course, very few Englishmen could vote in those days, although the Levellers were doing their best to try to change things.) Milton is worried not about sedition and treason, but about recreations and pastimes and the search for Truth. Even more to the point, Milton is worried about virtue.

Think about it. Wouldn't it be better if the government could force everyone to be good? There would be no theft, no rape, no adultery, no murder. Nobody would ever say anything hurtful or mean. Nobody would do or say anything that might cause anybody harm, everybody would be kind and thoughtful and generous. Like robots, programmed never to offend. Oh, wait. Isn't that what God is supposed to do? Make sure that nothing bad ever happens? And yet, as Milton would remind us, for some reason God made human beings with free will: "When God gave Adam reason, he gave him freedom to choose, for reason is but choosing: he had been else a mere artificial Adam, such an Adam as he is in the motions." Why on earth would God do that, knowing as he did (because, after all, God is omniscient) that human beings would fall into sin, do, say, and make things that would hurt each other or, at the very least, make each other feel uncomfortable day after day after day? Milton's response: "We ourselves esteem not of that obedience, or love, or gift, which is of force; God therefore left him free, set before him a provoking object [the apple or Eve, depending on your mood], ever almost in his eyes herein considered his merit, herein the right of his reward, the praise of his abstinence. Wherefore did he create passions within us, pleasures round about us, but that these rightly tempered are the very ingredients of virtue?" There is no such thing as virtue if it is coerced. If, as Milton puts it, Parliament imagines that it can obliterate vice (for such was their ambition, particularly among the Puritans), they are deluding themselves. All they would be doing is regulating behavior, not making human beings more virtuous. But so what? Wouldn't everybody be better off if they could? For some reason, God didn't think so, and neither did Milton.

Nor did Milton think it a good idea to coerce people's thoughts. "A man may be a heretic in the truth": that is, all of his thoughts might be doctrinally (or politically) entirely correct, and yet, according to Milton, if he believes these things only because his pastor (or professor) or the Assembly (or political party) says he should, "without knowing other reason, though his belief be true, yet the very truth he holds, becomes his heresy." It was not enough for Milton that people believe the right things about God or creation; they should put them to the test so that they know why they are right. Nor should they be so presumptuous as to believe that they had full access to the truth, dismembered as she had been since the ascension of Christ. It is not those engaged in the search for Truth that are "the troublers...[and] dividers of unity," but rather those who "neither will hear with meekness, nor can convince" and yet who would suppress everything "which is not found in their Syntagma," that is, their summary of their doctrine. (Ring any bells yet?) "To be still searching what we know not, by what we know, still closing up truth to truth as we find it...this is the golden rule in theology as well as in arithmetic, and makes up the best harmony in a church; not the forced and outward union of cold, and neutral, and inwardly divided minds." (Maybe now? What if this were likewise the golden rule in academia? Or politics? I'll let you think about it a bit more. Back to Milton.)

As Milton would have it, the whole point of publishing anything is to make the "living intellect" of their authors, the very image and likeness of God, and the exercise of their reason available to others. It was the height of presumption on the part of Parliament to imagine that its licensers would be equipped to pass judgment on the merits of the arguments they were ordered to declare worthy (or not) of publication. Did they truly believe that Truth was so feeble that she could not defend herself in the open? "Let her and falsehood grapple; who ever knew things. Yet if all can not be of one mind, as who looks they should be? This doubtless is more wholesome, more prudent, and more Christian that they may be tolerated, rather than all compelled." This was as difficult a concept in Milton's day as it is in our own: tolerate people saying things that we know not just in our minds, but in our hearts are dangerous and wrong? (According to Milton, there was popery, which should not be tolerated, nor open superstition; even the greats find it hard to champion absolute freedom of speech.) Horror of horrors! What if the weak stumbled upon such arguments to the very damnation of their souls? Not a sufficiently serious concern? What about arguments about their national history? Or the relationship between the sexes? Or the importance of social pressure in changing self-destructive behaviors? Or even about the reliability of revelation as opposed to prophecy? Oho! Now I have your attention. Certainly, to judge from the media response to his talks, Milo does.


Monkey Falconer
London, British Library, Additional MS 42130, fol. 38r

Perhaps the greatest hubris that the living always have is the conviction that the pressures and anxieties of the present outweigh in magnitude those of the past. Never in human history have people faced the dangers that we do! Never in human history has there been such a threat to the very existence of our species! Never has society been more oppressive, people more vicious and hateful, the world more poised on the brink of destruction! Milton, at least, would beg to disagree. The fall has been with us since Lucifer seduced Eve (in Milton's version, she was the harder sell, which is why Lucifer went after her first) and Adam took a bite of the apple out of love for his wife. Truth has been hewed into a thousand pieces, "and we have not yet found them all...nor ever shall do, till her Master's second coming." And yet, even with the Fall, Adam and Eve retained the power of choice; their reason impaired, God nevertheless left them free to make more mistakes, fall yet again into sin. Not because God enjoys his creatures' sinning, but because he loves freedom more. God could have shouted Eve down; forced her not to eat the apple; compelled her to be virtuous. And yet, for some reason, he didn't. Nor, even more to the point, did Milton think he should, dead, white, European, and male as he might be.

Next up: Bills of Rights

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