I am sure many of you know me as the man behind Paradise Lost (1667), an epic poem which proved, so later critics have led me to believe, that the devil has all the best blank verse. But although I had spent the 1630s soaring on the wings of poesy, for much of the 1640s and 1650s, my poetical life was often eclipsed by my political life. The small matter of what some of you insist on calling a civil war, others a revolution, had intervened.
During this period, I found myself firmly on the side of parliament, and dedicated my energies to attacking the monarchy and defending the English Commonwealth. It was certainly a time of great tumult. But it was exhilarating, too, especially after 1640, when parliament abolished the Court of the Star Chamber, that lightless forum in which the king snuffed out the voices of political opponents, religious dissenters, and those who defied crown-granted monopolies of the printing trade. For the first time in years, one could print what one wanted, express oneself in public as one saw fit, and one could do so without having to worry about having a licence or, in other words, approval from the monarch.
As a result, ideas flourished. Concepts of liberty, of freedom, for so long suppressed at the margins of English life, were filled out, given substance. My thought, caught up in this riotous intellectual ferment, buffeted from all sides by radical pamphleteers and religious dissenters, was no exception. I came to believe, and still do despite its acute unpopularity today, in ‘the whole freedom of man’, as I put it in my 1660 tract, The Ready and Easy Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth. This means that we ought to be free to choose to act as we wish, free of prohibition. And we must never be compelled to act against our will.
There are two essential elements to bear in mind when ensuring the whole freedom of man is given room to develop. The first is what I call ‘spiritual liberty’, which means we must be allowed to follow the promptings of our conscience, free from pressure to do otherwise, be that pressure from either church or state. I make this clear in my 1659 work, A Treatise of Civil Power in Ecclesiastical Causes: ‘[F]or belief or practice in religion according to [...] conscientious persuasion, no man ought to be punished or molested by any outward force on earth whatsoever.’ And the second component is ‘civil liberty’. That is, we should be able to say what we think, and pursue our objectives, free of unnecessary restraint or coercion by the state.
Given this, indeed, given my developing belief in the whole freedom of man, not to mention the palpable experience of England’s intellectual bloom after the Court of the Star Chamber was scrapped, you can imagine how profoundly disappointed I was when parliament - my side! - decided in 1643 that printing should be licensed once more. There were reasons, largely related to the struggles against the monarchy. But these were bad reasons. In practice, the new licensing laws would mean that everything that was to be printed would have to pass under the easily irritated noses of state censors.