“Fundamental rights” or “human rights” are bandied about with great frequency: the idea that certain concepts or permissions are the intrinsic entitlements of humankind. Intriguingly, few pieces or persons who invoke such rights enumerate what those rights ought to be, nor define from whence those rights are derived, instead leaving these salient questions unanswered and their meaning nebulous. Perhaps this is an intentional omission, for as I have wrestled with the concept of rights in designing governments for my fictional worlds, or in my pursuit of armchair philosophy and a better understanding of the underpinnings and reasons for the liberties which I hold dear, I have found that even identifying what constitutes a fundamental right is no simple or implicit matter, and far from self-evident, and further that to identify a derivation for those rights becomes a matter requiring great mental exertion.

With this desire to determine the origin of “fundamental” rights, I sought to derive for myself how the rights with which we are familiar came to be so established and ingrained as to be considered fundamental, and in this quest I began with an examination of that first right enumerated in my preferred listing of such freedoms (the US Bill of Rights), and that which happens to be of the most relevance to those of us engaging in reading and writing activities: the freedom of speech. It was in this pursuit that I came across John Milton’s Areopagitica, which is considered by many amongst the first, cogent defenses of the right to freedom of speech.

Before we continue, I should like to note that this is not intended as a review for Milton’s Areopagitica, although I will be posting portions of it in that guise on GoodReads, nor do I intend to pen a separate review, as I consider Areopagitica a long essay, rather than a book to be reviewed. Rather, this post is intended, as the title implies, to share some of my thoughts on Milton’s lengthy piece of prose defending the freedom of speech. To keep this to some reasonable length (and not an eighteen-thousand-word polemic), we will not be covering my own defense of the freedom of speech (although you can find some of my defense of the subject in the post “Dear Zookeepers…“), nor will we be launching a full-scale explication of the derivations of fundamental rights which I discussed in the introduction to this post (though that may come in future posts). Also, yes, this was apparently intended as a speech, although it was never presented as such, which according to one source would have taken over three hours.

One last thing before we get into the meat of Milton’s essay. If you would like to read the full text of Areopagitica, you can find Project Gutenberg’s version at Areopagitica, by John Milton, A Speech for the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing to the Parliament of England. Alternatively, a full text with footnotes can be found courtesy of Dartmouth’s John Milton Reading Room, but unlike in some pieces I’ve read, I did not find these footnotes to be of much additional insight.

To begin, some historical context is helpful. Milton wrote Areopagitica in response to a move by the English Parliament to require licensing on all printed materials, from books, to pamphlets, to newspapers, to playing cards. For those students of American history, this may be evocative of the infamous Stamp Act, and indeed there are resonances, but these licensing regulations were not intended for revenue generation. Instead, they were aimed at preventing the publication of materials which would be, in modern terms, contrary to the public interest. At the time, the debate revolved primarily around religious matters, although all forms of learning were included and affected. To be clear, neither Areopagitica, nor other defenses of free speech at the time, were sufficient to deter enactment of the licensing measures.

Milton lays out his arguments very clearly:

“I shall now attend with such a homily, as shall lay before ye, first the inventors of it to be those whom ye will be loath to own; next what is to be thought in general of reading, whatever sort the books be; and that this Order avails nothing to the suppressing of scandalous, seditious, and libellous books, which were mainly intended to be suppressed. Last, that it will be primely to the discouragement of all learning, and the stop of truth, not only by disexercising and blunting our abilities in what we know already, but by hindering and cropping the discovery that might be yet further made both in religious and civil wisdom.”

Areopagitica, John Milton

May I mention here that I love this style of writing, and wish to some extent that we still wrote and spoke in such a becoming manner? Perhaps we would do well to have a post discussing the merits and flaws in the employment of lengthy and nonconformist sentence structures. Anyway, Milton is true to his word, and the remainder of his essay does indeed cover the origin of speech suppressions, a discussion of why reading any sorts of books can be of benefit, why the licensing efforts would be unsuccessful in achieving their intended effects, and the benefits to society, civilization, and humankind as a whole that are derivative of the freedom of speech, and hampered by its absence.

What most stood out to me, as you may expect from the introduction I gave this post, is that nowhere does Milton assert that a freedom of speech is in some way fundamental. He does assert that freedom of speech is a natural tendency, which governments and other coercive forces may seek to abridge (and will likely fail to repress entirely), but his argument against the licensing measures does not assume a positive morality intrinsic to the freedom of speech. The closest he comes to such an assertion is that the pursuit of Truth, and especially religious truth, in the form (for him) of the furtherance of the Reformation, is best facilitated by encouraging a freedom of speech and intellectual and philosophical inquiry.

Rather, the majority of the essay is given over to enumerating the numerous practical benefits for individuals, states, societies, civilizations, and humankind as a whole that are derivative of the freedom of speech. With my eye on how one might go about deriving those which we now call fundamental rights, this was compelling, especially when he notes that a wise man will derive an increase in wisdom from both a “good” book and a “bad” book, while the ignorant man will derive nothing from either of them. Thus, whether or not the “right” messages are garnered from a given piece has more to do with the properties of the reader than any intrinsic qualities of the work in question.

“The worthy man, loath to give offence, fell into a new debate with himself what was to be thought; when suddenly a vision sent from God (it is his own epistle that so avers it) confirmed him in these words: READ ANY BOOKS WHATEVER COME TO THY HANDS, FOR THOU ART SUFFICIENT BOTH TO JUDGE ARIGHT AND TO EXAMINE EACH MATTER.”

Areopagitica, John Milton

Milton also observed that, in the absence of “bad” books and ideas, never will there be trials by which to test, temper, and improve the quality and righteousness of the people. As I struggled with some philosophy of the self in our recent post about revising memories, I came to the conclusion that the essence of who we are is the product of our experiences as implemented in our memories. When Milton asserts that he “cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary,” I perceive that it is only through experience with those ideas which might be considered malignant that we can come to any greater wisdom and temperance in knowing what is good and what is evil.

While anything that seems resonant with a concept of Original Sin may seem antithetical to many modern mores, I found Milton’s claim that we “bring not innocence into the world, we bring impurity much rather; that which purifies us is trial” resonant. Perhaps it would be better to say that when we come into the world we are as a blank slate, and empty canvas, an unmarked page, and the trials that we undergo and how we fare in and response to those challenges are how we come to a state of either virtue or vice, of good or evil, of malignance of benevolence.

“Since therefore the knowledge and survey of vice is in this world so necessary to the constituting of human virtue, and the scanning of error to the confirmation of truth, how can we more safely, and with less danger, scout into the regions of sin and falsity than by reading all manner of tractates and hearing all manner of reason? And this is the benefit which may be had of books promiscuously read.”

Areopagitica, John Milton

What has become clear to me in both my reading of Areopagitica, and of other pieces of philosophy and of history, is that rights are in no way fundamental, nor intrinsically human. To say otherwise is to presuppose both a common morality which has yet to be rigorously defined, and that governments, which are by their natures necessarily coercive, can bestow or restrict some fundamental aspects of human nature as if by divine edict. Instead, I propose that there are natural freedoms, which are those which humans will exhibit in the course of their existences if uninterrupted. These can all too readily be curtailed by the work of coercive forces, be they natural threats to life and limb, or the civilization-created threat of state-monopolized violence. This is because there is nothing intrinsic about a right to speech or expression – no less a thinker than Plato proposed draconian limits upon all forms of human expression and activity in his concept of the ideal state, as detailed in The Republic – but there is something intrinsic about the natural freedom of speech and expression. It is in defense of the right to speech and expression that Milton wrote his essay, not in defense of freedom of speech. He writes himself that no amount of licensing will curtail the behaviors and printings which the Parliament finds objectionable.

In the US, that enclave which long has defended these natural freedoms which are enumerated in the Bill of Rights, the right to the freedom of expression is under threat of curtailment from both sides of the political debate. Unfortunately, I don’t think that anyone is likely to stand up in the Capitol building and read the full text of Areopagitica, although I would love to see such a thing, if only to witness the plethora of confused, bemused, and snoozed expressions. Instead of the full eighteen thousand words, therefore, I will close with Milton’s closing, which is a potent reminder for any institution possessed of the arrogance to think that it knows better than the individual what expression ought to be permitted and what expression ought to be impermissable:

“This I know, that errors in a good government and in a bad are equally almost incident; for what magistrate may not be misinformed, and much the sooner, if liberty of printing be reduced into the power of a few?”

Areopagitica, John Milton

2 thoughts on “Thoughts on John Milton’s Areopagitica

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