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The Liberty to Know, to Utter, and to Argue

Lord Acton, the great historian of freedom, understood that “liberty is the delicate fruit of a mature civilization.” The liberty of which he spoke embraced a broad scope of human freedom, including dimensions political, intellectual, economic, and, especially, religious. The civilization of which he spoke was the West, whose heritage of Greek philosophy, Roman law, and Christian faith indelibly marked it and inexorably pushed it toward the full panoply of liberties we enjoy today and to which the rest of the world looks. And the history he sought to express was the unfolding witness to the expansion, refinement, and richer application of the principles of liberty.

In celebration of the Acton Institute’s tenth anniversary and in the spirit of Lord Acton, Religion & Liberty is publishing a series of essays tracing the history of, as Edmund Burke put it, “this fierce spirit of liberty.” We shall look at several watershed documents from the past thousand years (continuing this issue with John Milton’s Areopagitica), each of which displays one facet of the nature of liberty. We do so to remember our origins and to know our aim. And we do so because, in the words of Winston Churchill, “We must never cease to proclaim in fearless tones the great principles of freedom.” – the Editor

Milton’s teaching on freedom of the press lies between Plato’s rigorous censorship and John Stuart Mill’s unlimited freedom; Areopagitica argues for freedom with conditions and limits. Further, for Milton, the issue of the scope of freedom in publication falls within his wider concern for the purity of the Christian religion. Milton’s view of the liberty and responsibilities proper to authors and their publishers is inseparable from and subordinate to his understanding of the liberties and responsibilities proper to a Christian. Consequently, to understand Areopagitica, one should see this writing as an episode in Milton’s lifelong effort to grasp for himself and to make known to others the nature and implications of that volatile blessing of Christian liberty.

The Liberty of the Christian

The freedom won for humankind by Christ fulfills the liberty that God bestowed on man at the Creation. Human beings join angels as creatures unique for their ability to accept or reject divine commands. The God of Paradise Lost says he created man “sufficient to stand though free to fall.” This original freedom we might think of as natural liberty, innate to the nature of the species as it comes from the hands of God. Milton identifies three other species of liberty: freedom from coercion in domestic life (especially in marriage), freedom of conscience in belief and worship, and freedom in political life. Christian liberty is not another species but a reorientation, by perfection, of all the species. Christian liberty makes possible obedience to God, rendered in a radically voluntary act of love.

In the political realm, Milton detected the chief opponent to Christian liberty in tyrants, especially autocrats. Early on, he inveighed against monarchs who falsely claimed to rule by divine right. Subsequently, toward the end of his career, he came to identify despotism with monarchs of almost any sort, pretenders to divine right or otherwise. Milton located the means of advancing Christian liberation in the progress of the Protestant Reformation and in the defeat of divine-right monarchy by republicanism, accompanied by the rise of congregational church government replacing rule by bishops. Further, England appeared to Milton to be a nation providentially placed in the van of this general blessing of light and grace.

Under the leadership of Oliver Cromwell, Milton’s Parliamentary party of the 1640s had prevailed against the Royalists in the Civil War, and at the time of the publication of Areopagitica, the victorious republicans were deliberating how far they should go in remodeling national life. Milton intended to influence their counsels by urging changes in the regulation of the press, but the changes he had in mind were carefully selected to be those policies, and only those policies, that would encourage a continued reformation. Freedom of the press or, more generally, of speech, for Milton was by no means an end in itself but was an important expedient for enlarging a yet more important liberty. He considered freedom of the press an instrumental good, the application and scope of which had to be determined by the one decisive goal of realizing the independence that Christ had made available to all. Keeping that end in mind positions a reader to understand the arguments of Areopagitica, their metaphysical and theological basis, and their perhaps unexpected curtailments.

Milton’s Argument

Unlike his previously published divorce tracts (Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce in 1643, The Judgment of Martin Bucer in 1644), writings that had subjected Milton to some notoriety, Areopagitica provoked little response. An unconvinced Parliament went forward with its restraints upon what it deemed offensive publication. The interest of Milton’s essay lies, therefore, not in its effects–evidently it had none–but in its intrinsic merits of reasoning upon the scope and limits of political speech.

Milton conducts operations on several fronts. To his Protestant audience he seeks to undermine censorship by claiming to discover its origins in the Inquisition. Parliament, Milton contends, should shun this association and choose instead for its model the ancient Athenian senate, the Areopagus, a liberal aristocratic institution that allowed wide freedom with regard to political discussion and theological speculation. Plato’s support of censorship in the Republic and Laws Milton dismisses, attributing this illiberalism to the improbable utopian assumptions entertained in those two dialogues. In any event, Parliament ought to display more magnanimity than the pagan philosopher because Englishmen must respond to God’s invitation that they assume leadership of the Reformation. What animates Protestantism, Milton asks, if not the Reformers’ trust in the capacity of individual readers to interpret Scripture without monitors interposed between God’s Word and his people?

Milton itemizes the costs to freedom of prior restraints upon publications by arguing that censorship offends the dignity of thought by subjecting authors to humiliating treks between licenser and proofreader. Under such constraints, no man of learning can make his public appearance except in the company of a governmental official imposing his imprimatur. Censorship is equally insulting to the reading public. In particular, it insults an English populace that has earned the right to choose for itself by resisting the paternalism of kings and episcopacy. Besides, one should weigh the impracticality of the new ordinance. If the purpose is to suppress licentiousness and sedition, censoring publications will not suffice unless one goes on to suppress offending songs, dances, puppet shows, and other public amusements–indeed any and every form of communication down to the food Englishmen eat and the clothes they wear. Universal supervision of manners would be intolerable, but anything less would be ineffectual. Add to these reductions to absurdity the likelihood of inadvertently kindling enthusiasm for forbidden writings, and the unwisdom of screening the press becomes manifest, so Milton maintains.

The strongest argument against censors, however, lies in a consideration of the precedent set by God himself. Scripture teaches us the difficulty of separating the wholesome grain from the tares. What holds for souls holds also for their works. God has given us an earnest of his providence in his way with Adam, setting before the first man abundant variety of pleasures to test his judgment and temperance. Adam’s integrity lay not in being cloistered away from temptation but in having been left free to prove himself against temptation. Before, at, and after the first fall, human existence continually presents us with trial by what is “contrary.” Christ, too, had to encounter temptation and, although his death purchased our salvation, it did not remove us from the necessity of having our virtue tried by Satan’s as well as nature’s various baits. We should not be more protective of innocence than the Father who permitted temptation, trial, and, ultimately, the death of his Son. Sheltered innocence has little merit and remains more vulnerable to evil than frequently tested experience. “Try all things,” Saint Paul commands. Strength and purification, Milton adds, come by trial.

Finally, the career iconoclast appeals to the example set by image-breaking prophets. Truth must come by siftings applied to contending claimants. The myth of Isis searching the world for the scattered remains of Osiris expresses poignantly the human predicament. In his original Edenic condition, Adam had the truth before him and had it whole. Yet he fell nonetheless, and his ever-fallible descendants must work out their salvation, employing intellects more feeble than Adam’s. They suffer, moreover, from bad institutions that have interposed between the Christian and the light of Scripture. For the heirs of Christ’s redemptive effort, then, Milton sees no better way to truth than by discussion and controversy. Only by a wide ventilation of debate can they overcome their ignorance and reassemble the whole of now-fragmented truth. Protestant Europe benefits from its great freedom to recover the light earned by Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Melancthon, and Knox. Their efforts reopened the Scriptures. But as access to Scripture has made possible the stand these reformers took against the fallacies sustained by Rome, a larger liberty to read all sorts of books will permit continuation of their work. A free press affords the chief engine of continued reform. To raise themselves to this height, Englishmen must continue the task of purifying church belief, government, and worship. And to prepare the national mind, England must ensure a press liberated from prior restraints.

Milton’s Ambiguities

The last point–removal from prior restraint–alerts us to one difference distinguishing Milton’s position on freedom of publication from that of subsequent proponents (such as Mill) of a still wider liberty. Milton does not believe that authors should be unaccountable for their published views, only that they should not be subject to state approval as a prior condition of seeing their work in print. After their writings have found their way to publication, authors may find themselves liable to scrutiny by civil authorities. Consequently, Milton recommends authors, or at least printers, be required to register their names. He would allow sanctions of some sort (what, precisely, he does not specify) against libellous, scandalous, and, evidently, even seditious publications. It is not clear whether punishment will lie in the hands of Parliament or with courts administering the common law in response to suits, or whether chastisement may be invested in persons outside government altogether, say, in adverse public opinion registering local disapproval by extralegal means. Whatever means he intends, Milton conveys in at least three passages his acknowledgment of society’s right to enforce limits upon speech, provided these restraints apply subsequent to publication, not before. Milton’s argument has provoked interesting speculation: What benefits would result by removing restraints before publication that would not also require relaxing censorship after publication? Additionally, one may wonder why summoning offensive books to account would not eventually exert the same repression as prior supervision.

A further impediment to viewing Areopagitica as a charter for an open society comes to sight when we note Milton’s reservations regarding Roman Catholicism and paganism. He expressly excludes papist and heathen publications from even such conditional toleration as he wants to see promoted by a freer political discussion. One misunderstands Areopagitica if one does not perceive why Milton makes a special case of Catholicism. Milton can maintain this position without contradicting his appeal to remove all impediments to discussion in matters of religion because he denies that Catholicism is a religion at all. He argues that Catholicism is actually a political entity surviving an unholy alliance between priests and rulers perpetuated on the vestiges of the Roman Empire. Rome seeks to defy the liberty achieved by Christ through exploiting arrangements attributed to the fourth-century emperor Constantine–arrangements that are supposed to endow the Catholic ecclesiastical hierarchy with political power. Because the officers of the Roman church seek to compel conscience, it is not right to treat Catholics as though they constitute merely one among many Christian denominations. It would not be just, Milton thinks, to extend liberty of press to those who, by their preferred principles and manifest conduct, deny that and every other liberty to their Christian brethren. His reservation applies not only to Catholics but also to Anglicans and, indeed, to any national church establishment.

Present-day advocates of a less limited freedom of the press will judge Milton’s effort incomplete, especially given his ambiguities with regard to censorship after publication and his refusal of freedom to Roman Catholics and pagans. Such judgments risk overlooking the lasting significance of Areopagitica, the cogency and importance of its arguments in favor of freedom in its several dimensions. For Milton, liberty of the press is an enabling act for other freedoms; it opens the way to an enlargement of opportunities for enjoying that freedom of thought and action won for all men by Christ.