‘Let Truth and Falsehood grapple’
John Milton on why a free and open public sphere is the best way to the truth.
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.
It was in response to this regressive move that I wrote my 1644 speech, Areopagitica. (For those interested, the title is a nod to Areopagitikos, a speech written by the fifth-century BC Athenian orator Isokrates.)
Here I point out the absurdity and futility of trying to coerce men, through prohibitions, bans and naked force, on to the path of virtue. After all, for an action to be virtuous, it has to be freely chosen. The existence of temptation is the condition for the possibility of the ethical life, not its confutation. ‘They are not skilful considerers of human things, who imagine to remove sin by removing the matter of sin… Though ye take from a covetous man all his treasure, he has yet one jewel left: ye cannot bereave him of his covetousness. Banish all objects of lust, shut up all youth into the severest discipline that can be exercised in any hermitage, ye cannot make them chaste that came not thither so: such great care and wisdom is required to the right managing of this point.’
Freedom of thought, freedom to pursue knowledge, and freedom of speech is a societal good, I argue, not a threat. We need to embrace the battle of ideas, not seek its regulation in new-fangled licensing laws, the like of which I had hoped were going the same way as monarchy. ‘Where there is much desire to learn, there of necessity will be much arguing, much writing, many opinions’, I wrote. ‘For opinion in good men is but knowledge in the making.’ And further on, ‘Let [truth] and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?’ You see, a free and open public sphere, in which people are able to say what they think, and print what they believe, is the best way to get at the truth of the matter. This is because the people, as free and reasoning individuals, will be able to judge for themselves the merits of opposing arguments. A bad argument is best corrected, in public, by a good argument.
If someone prints something we find disagreeable, if someone writes something in defence of monarchy, even, then surely we ought to be confident enough in our own republican arguments to refute them in the open, rather than censor them behind closed doors. As I wrote at the time, ‘If the men be erroneous who appear to be the leading schismatics, what withholds us but our sloth, our self-will, and distrust in the right cause, that we do not give them gentle meetings and gentle dismissions, that we debate not and examine the matter thoroughly with liberal and frequent audience; if not for their sakes, yet for our own?’
There is just something so cowardly about regulating what people can and can’t write, express and disseminate. ‘When a man hath been labouring the hardest labour in the deep mines of knowledge, hath furnished out his findings in all their equipage, drawn forth his reasons as it were a battle ranged, scattered and defeated all objections in his way, calls out his adversary into the plain, offers him the advantage of wind and sun, if he please, only that he may try the matter by dint of argument; for his opponents then to skulk, to lay ambushments, to keep a narrow bridge of licensing where the challenger should pass, though it be valour enough in soldiership, is but weakness and cowardice in the wars of Truth.’
Given your rulers’ current fondness for prohibiting so-called ‘hate speech’, given the wider cultural propensity to censure speech you deem ‘inappropriate’, and incredibly, given the political popularity of something you call Leveson, which sounds like licensing to me, I do wonder if I shouldst be living at this hour. I certainly think England has more need of me today than William Blake’s Albion did. So take these final words of mine, and start to cherish them once more: ‘Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties… This is that which hath rarefied and enlightened our spirits like the influence of heaven; this is that which hath enfranchised, enlarged and lifted up our apprehensions degrees above themselves.’
As told to Tim Black.