John Milton: smug liberal and free-speech warrior
Brexit protests. Credit: Jack Taylor / Getty   

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John Milton was a snob and a narcissist; a kind of 17th-century prototype for the metropolitan liberal elite. When an anonymous pamphlet was published disagreeing with him on divorce, the best insult he could conjure was to decry its author as a “serving man”. When the Cromwell regime faltered in public support, Milton was first and loudest to denounce the populace as a “credulous and hapless herd, begotten to servility”.

Forced into retirement by the Restoration, Milton lost not one jot of his self-importance, and decided to write Paradise Lost to “justify the ways of God to men”. Not many would appoint themselves emissary to a deity without invitation.

And yet I love him.

He loathed tyranny and made the case for meritocratic replacement of authoritarian kings and magistrates. He believed that intellect, rigour and reasonable debate could defeat evil. He stood up for the right of miserable married couples to divorce in pursuit of happiness – a principle we are only now enacting into law. And when critics silenced him through censorship, he fought back, writing one of history’s most compelling defences of free speech.

In Areopagitica, Milton describes himself as having “natural endowments” for “studious labours”, alongside a robust constitution that allows him to exercise this intellect even in Britain’s miserable climate. But he wasn’t an isolated thinker locked away from the world: he was a kind of jobbing philosopher who brought his intellect to bear on practical problems that came into his path.

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He wrote about divorce after his wife left him. He wrote about censorship after his divorce pamphlets were banned. He wrote The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates and Eikonoklastes to justify the execution of Charles I on behalf of the new regime, for which he worked. His best sonnets, too, are about trying to figure out the meaning in something that has happened in real life: losing his sight, dreaming about his wife, even turning 23 while still looking like a teenager.

We should admire that purposive approach: he made a decision, he figured out how to make the case, and then he made it. He made it with all the fervour and conviction he could muster. And he made it to everyone who he could persuade to listen. He may have been smug about the general populace, but he didn’t give up the fight because it was difficult.

It isn’t just that ‘lean in’ approach that we can learn from, but the works themselves, and in particular the Areopagitica. This 30-page diatribe against censorship offers us a helpful way to think through one of the greatest challenges of our age: how we defend freedom of speech and thought without surrendering our grip on authority, truth, or civility.

It’s not surprising that Milton’s thoughts are useful today. Many people have made the case that the early to mid-17th century is the best historical precendent for the explosion of information and argumentation in our digital age. Pamphlets were everywhere, offering a platform for a far wider range of voices to speak on matters of politics, philosophy and religion. Pamphlet wars broke out, with intemperate and vituperative denunciations of political opponents the norm rather than the exception.

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Of course the scale and speed of the pamphlet presses were nothing in comparison to social media. But the scale of change was unprecedented and unsettling  and the intemperate nature of political discourse through those 20 years was part of the pathway to the Civil War.

I don’t predict another civil war. But I don’t believe a country can go on being as angry as Britain is today, in the age of outrage. The question that haunts me is how to restrain outrage without losing the freedom of speech and thought that enables progress. Who knows which opinion, controversial today, will seem as justified in the future as Milton’s ideas on divorce do now.

Milton’s case for free speech is cogent and well-argued. He starts by defending the right of the citizen to let Parliament know his grievances, and says Parliament should have the confidence to repeal any act it passes, rather than get stuck with a mistake (a lesson our own Parliament might want to remember when it comes to Brexit). And then the prose takes flight, with all the quotes that are often used to justify absolute freedom of speech. He makes the case that argument and truth will triumph in the end.

“He who destroys a good book, kills reason itself.”

“I fear yet this iron yoke of outward conformity hath left a slavish print upon our necks.”

“Let Truth and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?”

But quotes never do justice to the detailed writing of philosophers. Liberty is not simple, for Milton. He is not making the case for what he calls licence – the absolute freedom to do whatever you want. He is making the case for intellectual freedom, and only in the service of the betterment of humankind. It has limits.

It must be acknowledged that one of those limits is grotesque. The biggest carve-out Milton wants from the free press is for “Popery”. Only an intellectual pygmy would try to make that case today: freedom for everyone but Catholics.

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But it is worth making the effort to understand why (alongside religious intolerance) Milton included it. He had visited Galileo in Italy, and for him, the censorship instituted by the Roman church was an egregious example of intellectual tyranny. He wanted liberty to offer no quarter to those advocating for a regime that would destroy England’s new-found freedom. That principle is one we should cleave to today, and be confident in silencing the voices of those who would overthrow our democracy.

Areopagitica also makes the basic case for traceability of speech – something we have lost today. Every book, Milton argues, should have a printer’s and author’s name. There must be a means by which both authors and publishers remain culpable for “mischievous” or “libellous” work (though he suggests the fire and the executioner to be appropriate remedies, which doesn’t feel quite appropriate for our times).

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Fundamentally, Milton defends the freedom of the press because he believes that in the exercise of reason lies the true purpose and meaning of human existence. For him, self-control in the presence of temptation was the very definition of virtue. Remove temptation and there is no virtue.

There is a deep responsibility for all of us to bear when we accept freedom of speech and thought. It is a responsibility to strain every sinew to exercise our virtue. To respond to provocation with restraint; to face stupidity with patience; aggression with calm. Freedom of speech – in Milton’s terms – does not come with a licence to offend, but an obligation to be thoughtful. Milton teaches us to take up the hard work of persuading, engaging, and changing minds.

If it feels like a big job, console yourself. At least it’s not as difficult as justifying the ways of God to men.