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John Milton’s free speech crusade His vision of liberty is more potent than ever

'Paradise Lost: The Rebel Angels', by Doré (Culture Club/Getty Images)

'Paradise Lost: The Rebel Angels', by Doré (Culture Club/Getty Images)


November 11, 2022   6 mins

For John Milton, death was not the end of his troubles. He spent his final years blind and disgraced, in continual fear of execution by the state. As a fervent republican who had written tracts defending regicide, the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 left his legacy in a precarious position. Denied a place in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey, he was instead interred in the humbler environs of St. Giles Cripplegate. Then, to make matters worse, a little over a century later his corpse was exhumed and mutilated.

Likely inspired by the anti-republican wave that followed the French Revolution, Milton’s resurrectionists tore away pieces of his jawbone, his teeth, and his remaining locks of hair, possibly selling them on as souvenirs. The poet William Cowper was so outraged that he wrote “Stanzas on the late indecent liberties taken with the remains of the great Milton”. To say that these vandals were “taking liberties” is something of an understatement.

St Giles Cripplegate is a small gothic church, one of the few medieval churches lucky enough to survive both the Great Fire of London and the Blitz. It is located at the heart of the Barbican, whose charmless brutalist architecture makes for quite the incongruous backdrop. Few people visit the church today, even though John Bunyan was a parishioner, Oliver Cromwell was married here, and Shakespeare lived just around the corner. It is one of the city’s many overlooked gems.

When I was teaching English Literature at the City of London School for Girls, one of the key texts was Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667). Given its author was buried less than 30 metres from my classroom, I would take my students to the church as part of their course. They would be able to see the nondescript plaque on the floor by the altar which simply reads: “Near this spot was buried John Milton author of Paradise Lost born 1608 — died 1674”. This is quite the contrast to the elaborate marble memorial in Westminster Abbey erected in 1737, with a likeness of the poet sculpted by John Michael Rysbrack.

That the author of the most significant epic poem in the English language should have been condemned to such an ignominious end is a reminder that the fate of heretics is rarely pleasant. Milton was a free-thinker whose worldview was grounded in reason. At a time when the divine right of kings was rarely contested, Milton considered it unreasonable that a man should be king on the basis of an accident of birth. He believed in meritocracy, which is partly what drew him to Cromwell.

Milton had his inconsistencies. He was a profoundly religious man, but nonetheless wrote extensively about the right to divorce. Most remarkably, his puritanical strain was at odds with his eschewal of the Calvinist notion of predestination. For Milton, free will was an essential aspect of our humanity. The fall of man depicted in Paradise Lost is meaningless unless Adam and Eve have chosen freely to partake of the forbidden fruit.

But Milton’s commitment to individual liberty is most keenly expressed in his Areopagitica (1644), a counterblast to the Licensing Order of June 1643, which decreed that all printed texts be passed before a censor in advance of publication. Often cited as a defence of press freedom, the text carries resonance for us at a time when liberalism and free speech is increasingly under threat. Rarely has the case been made with greater elegance and clarity. “Give me the liberty,” he writes, “to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties”.

Of course, Milton’s conceptualisation of “liberty” differs significantly from ours. His was a specifically Christian notion of liberty, predicated on this idea of virtuous self-regulation. He was at pains to distinguish between what he called “licence”, the freedom to do whatever one desires, and “liberty”, by which the faithful man is called to purge those passions and temptations that enslave the soul. “Licence”, Milton contends, is no freedom at all, but an indulgence that amounts to a form of self-imposed tyranny.

Amid all this, Milton is adamant that we are not the merest marionettes, guided by divine providence, but individual agents with responsibility and choice. The act of censorship, he argues, deprives us of our right to determine for ourselves how best to conduct our lives. He makes the case that censorship might begin with good intentions, but that subjective judgement will always blur the line between the heretical and the distasteful. As he puts it in Areopagitica, censors do not “stay in matters heretical” but “any subject that is not to their palate”.

We see evidence of this in today’s “hate speech” laws, which vary markedly from country to country. In 2012, the European Court of Human Rights concluded that there “is no universally accepted definition of the expression ‘hate speech’” and a manual published by Unesco in 2015 accepted that “the possibility of reaching a universally shared definition seems unlikely”. With the concept of “hate” remaining forever nebulous, how can any government possibly hope to legislate against it?

Last week, the Irish government passed the Incitement to Violence or Hatred and Hate Offences Bill, with the minister for justice Helen McEntee uttering the usual shibboleth that “hate speech is not about free speech”. The Government claims that the Bill will “protect genuine freedom of expression”, a justification reminiscent of Scotland’s former justice secretary Humza Yousaf, who asserted that the SNP’s recent Hate Crime and Public Order Bill “does not undermine free speech”, but rather “protects it”. It’s anyone’s guess how a Bill that could see those guilty of “insulting” behaviour imprisoned for seven years, and criminalises statements uttered in the privacy of citizens’ own homes, could in any way be considered a “protection” of civil liberties.

Those responsible for such misguided legislation ought to read their Milton. Their intentions may be compassionate, but the dangers of limiting the scope of individual conscience ought to be clear by now. In any case, isn’t hate an inevitable human feeling, and should law enforcement agencies really be attempting to audit our emotions? And what if the person making the decision about what constitutes “hate” is wrong? As Juvenal has it, quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

History does not look fondly on the hubris of those who appoint themselves as arbiters of permissible speech and thought; their authority is only ever contingent on the wisdom of their time. “How shall the licencers themselves be confided in,” writes Milton, “unless we can confer upon them, or they assume to themselves above all others in the land, the grace of infallibility and uncorruptedness?” John Stuart Mill made a similar point in On Liberty (1859). “All silencing of discussion,” he wrote, “is an assumption of infallibility”.

Milton reminds us to retain our trust in humanity’s capacity for reason. We have convinced ourselves that we exist in an age of “fake news”, but the concept is hardly unprecedented. Milton saw the struggle between Truth and Falsehood as perpetual, and envisaged them as antagonists on a battlefield. “Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?” It isn’t so much that “fake news” is unique to the digital age, but rather that we appear to have lost our faith in our ability to make the stronger case.

It is Milton’s contention that we are far better placed to know and overcome evil if we are acquainted with its essence, and censorship deprives us of this opportunity. Censorship, he maintains, is tantamount to a repudiation of the human spirit. This is why he reserves particular scorn for the destruction of books. We have learnt to laugh off the antics of activists who burn copies of J.K. Rowling’s novels and post the footage online, but, to Milton, this is akin to a form of homicide, “whereof the execution ends not in the slaying of an elemental life, but strikes at that ethereal and fifth essence, the breath of reason itself”. The man who burns a book, he tells us, “slays an immortality rather than a life”.

And yet, Milton leaves himself wide open to accusations of hypocrisy. Areopagitica is a polemic against licensers and the way in which they stymie the possibility of individual choice, but he was to become a censor for the Commonwealth five years after its publication. He was an elitist whose emphasis on liberty certainly did not extend to Catholics. His final written work, the polemical tract Of True Religion (1673), railed against the “growth of popery” and exhorted the public to “beware the growth of this Romish weed”.

While this may strike us inconsistent, to Milton it was the logical progression of his principles. Milton perceived the Catholic Church to be a weapon against freedom, a belief that was surely consolidated by his tour of Europe in the late 1630s. Milton claimed to have met the ageing Galileo in Florence, who at the time was under house arrest by the Inquisition; he had fallen foul of the “hate speech” laws of the Holy See.

I recently spoke on Milton at Gonville and Caius College in Cambridge, where only the week before protesters had attempted to silence the journalist Helen Joyce. The master of the college had hardly helped matters, by emailing all students and staff in advance to smear her work as “offensive, insulting and hateful”. This seems very much at odds with the college’s statement on freedom of speech: “An active speaker programme is fundamental to the academic and other activities of the College and Fellows, staff and students are encouraged to invite a wide range of speakers and to engage critically but courteously with them.”

Of course, disparities between an institution’s official statements and its actual behaviour are nothing new, particularly when there has been a degree of ideological capture. Nonetheless, there is cause for optimism. The treatment of Helen Joyce has backfired, with a number of influential college alumni now considering withdrawing donations. Professor Arif Ahmed, who organised the talks by Helen Joyce and myself, has no intention of surrendering to pressure from above. And next week, the Cambridge Union will be hosting UnHerd‘s Kathleen Stock, whose gender-critical views saw her subjected to a campaign of harassment at Sussex.

For all these little victories, culture warriors will no doubt persist in their efforts to see the Overton Window narrowed to the dimensions of a porthole. This is why the sentiments of Milton strike us as more potent than ever. His defence of free speech will always retain its power where the free exchange of ideas is assailed by increasingly shrill demands to conform.


Andrew Doyle is a comedian and creator of the Twitter persona Titania McGrath

andrewdoyle_com

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Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
1 year ago

A splendid and relevant essay by Andrew Doyle highlighting his scholarly credentials in contrast to the narrow and bigoted views of the Master of the College.
Of course those who wish to suppress views contrary to their own as hateful forget that to do so is to set themselves up as an infallible Pope rather than an enquiring academic.

Arkadian X
Arkadian X
1 year ago
Reply to  Jeremy Bray

Reading your comment at first I thought you were referring to the Pope of the Alexander variety. 😀 Need more coffee, methinks.

michael stanwick
michael stanwick
1 year ago
Reply to  Arkadian X

Yes. I only begin reading once I have downed my 1st cup of Saicaf espresso.

It is Milton’s contention that we are far better placed to know and overcome evil if we are acquainted with its essence, and censorship deprives us of this opportunity. Censorship, he maintains, is tantamount to a repudiation of the human spirit.

Ah. For me, in this issue, evil is censorship. Being acquainted with the essence of evil is to be acquainted with a repudiation of the human spirit.

Last edited 1 year ago by michael stanwick
Mark M Breza
Mark M Breza
1 year ago
Reply to  Arkadian X

Oh have they censored ‘The Rape of the Lock’ ?

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago
Reply to  Jeremy Bray

Agreed, an excellent polemic, perhaps the best thing on UnHerd this week. Milton, who spent his last 22 years blind, is one of the unsung heroes of England. Who can forget his splendid opening to Sonnet 16 “Cromwell our chief for men”?

For someone of my advanced years, it is simply astonishing that ‘we’ are studiously destroying the inalienable and hard fought right of any Englishman to say what he likes, when he likes, and to whom he likes. Once lost this right will be impossible to regain.

One can forgive the supine Irish for slavishly following their malignant Scotch ,’cousins’, but for ‘the other place’* to be lauding this pernicious nonsense is nothing short of a national disgrace.
O for those happy days!:-

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ujrE4H5mpwI

(*Cambridge for US readers.)

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
1 year ago

My husband is a Gonville and Caius alumnus, they are now out of his will.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago

Frankly it is terrible it has come to this!

Graeme Kemp
Graeme Kemp
1 year ago

Absolutely..defund censorship !

Will Will
Will Will
1 year ago

I haven’t read it but isn’t it “Chief of men”. I only knew the line from Antonia Fraser’s book.

Last edited 1 year ago by Will Will
CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago
Reply to  Will Will

Spot on and absolutely correct. Slovenly typing (again), must do better!

NB : Impossible to edit now for some reason?

Last edited 1 year ago by CHARLES STANHOPE
Will Will
Will Will
1 year ago

No worries. I didn’t know it was from Milton at all.

Gordon Black
Gordon Black
1 year ago

Inverted commas in the wrong place, should be … ‘Scotch’ cousins … and … diaspora would be a better word that cousins.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago
Reply to  Gordon Black

I thought emphasising cousins might prove more controversial.
Diaspora sounds a bit too biblical for me.

Last edited 1 year ago by CHARLES STANHOPE
Bret Larson
Bret Larson
1 year ago
Reply to  Jeremy Bray

The main issue for me is that “those who wish to suppress views contrary to their own” isnt even the reason for why they do such things.

Pretty sure most members of government voting for these bills would have a different discussion down at the pub after a couple beers.

Which leads me to believe that better governance could be achieved in such a local. If you had to do a shot every time somebody “on your side” got up and said the same thing, they might actually make alot more sense.

Claire D
Claire D
1 year ago

What a pleasure to read this essay, thank you Andrew Doyle.

Milton Gibbon
Milton Gibbon
1 year ago

More of this please Unherd.

Excellent article by someone who knows what they are talking about.

Not sure the quotes about the “Romish weed” and are the best ones to highlight his contradictions – actions he carried out (commonly against more extreme Puritanism) while censor would have been better. Surely vehement and forthright speech should be applauded, especially in the anti-republican repression of the restoration.

His writings on divorce were not a departure from religiosity but an aspect of it – biblically sourced and with the aim of creating happier (and therefore more christian) people. It also came with the caveat, already expounded upon by the author, of liberty being upheld over licence.

William Freed
William Freed
1 year ago

“[Milton] was at pains to distinguish between what he called “licence”, the freedom to do whatever one desires, and “liberty”, by which the faithful man is called to purge those passions and temptations that enslave the soul. “Licence”, Milton contends, is no freedom at all, but an indulgence that amounts to a form of self-imposed tyranny.”
This speaks so forcefully to our age, where Jefferson’s claim that all human beings have a right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” has been contorted into a strange belief that all have the right to BE happy, and that anything preventing that happiness is necessarily an act of oppression. It’s sad that Milton’s political, religious, and social ideas, so central to the founding of America, are lost to self-obsession, ignorance, and willfulness.

Gordon Black
Gordon Black
1 year ago
Reply to  William Freed

The key word is ‘pursuit‘, a chase in which there is no guarantee of catching up.

Mark Vernon
Mark Vernon
1 year ago

“We appear to have lost our faith in our ability to make the stronger case.”

Isn’t Milton’s Christianity key here, not just a passing detail of his personal life? Free speech is free for something, truth, which is not secured by faith in humanity but in God. I suspect Milton would today be saying, lose faith in the source of truth, lose faith in the possibility of truth.

Free speech, yes. Free will, yes. But free speech freed, free will freed, to know true freedom.

Last edited 1 year ago by Mark Vernon
Will Will
Will Will
1 year ago
Reply to  Mark Vernon

I am not being pedantic, do you mean loose or lose as either could make sense.

Mark Vernon
Mark Vernon
1 year ago
Reply to  Will Will

Thank you – lose! I’ll change it.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
1 year ago
Reply to  Mark Vernon

No. Neither faith in humanity or in whichever god one’s particular upbringing might try to induce faith in. Rather more akin to scientific method, which is to establish temporary “proofs” until proven otherwise. Hence, free speech is the means to determine what is good and right rather than faith, which is demonstrably unreliable. Free speech can then adjust what is deemed to be good and right ad infinitum, and the world would be a much better place if this replaced religiosity.
It’s telling that those who claim to know what is good and right in the transgender wars are the ones who seek to deny free speech. I wonder why?

Vivienne Smith
Vivienne Smith
1 year ago

Thank you for such a well argued and relevant essay – most definitely, more of this please! The problem is: though, whilst so many of us probably applaud such sentiments as Andrew’s, and fear the consequences of present trends, we feel powerless. Analysis of a threat is the first step, but what can we do about it? What action can we take when those with political power seem unwilling to recognise the threat, or even to be complicit in perpetuating it?

Will Will
Will Will
1 year ago

An interesting piece; I wish we had had someone like the author teaching us at my school.

Arkadian X
Arkadian X
1 year ago

That was an excellent read. Thank you very much. I did Milton in school, but I had no memory of what his writing was about.
One quotation I did not understand:

““How shall the licencers themselves be confided in,” writes Milton, “unless we can confer upon them, or they assume to themselves above all others in the land, the grace of infallibility and uncorruptedness?””

One last thing, my money is for the master of Caius (the lovely Pippa) and her acolytes to be made mincemeat by the same people they are trying to “safeguard and protect”, and that in the end they *will* lose their job that they are trying at *all* costs to protect. It is just a matter time (just ask Kate Clancy).

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago
Reply to  Arkadian X

“the lovely Pippa”? Have you gone blind like Milton?

Jeff Butcher
Jeff Butcher
1 year ago

Thanks for an interesting article – I never knew the mob had desecrated the great poet’s grave.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
1 year ago
Reply to  Jeff Butcher

Indeed. I’ve benchmarked St. Giles Cripplegate for visiting during my next trip to the capital. (This historic building not being at odds with my anti-religiosity!!)

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

Don’t leave it too long, it’s adjacent to the Museum of London which closes permanently on the 4th December next!

Jane Thynne
Jane Thynne
1 year ago

A timely and insightful piece. Thank you Andrew Doyle!

Richard 0
Richard 0
1 year ago

Excellent article. Thank you AD.

Alpine Flower
Alpine Flower
1 year ago

Brilliant, inspiring article!

Nell Clover
Nell Clover
1 year ago

Those responsible for such misguided legislation do not have compassionate intentions. To a man and woman, the people who pass this legislation are doing so either to virtue signal or because the very idea that other people think differently scares them.

Jason Plessas
Jason Plessas
1 year ago

Excellent piece and the first time I’ve seen a true Milton admirer address his Cromwellian hypocrisy.

Mark Gourley
Mark Gourley
1 year ago

And what about this Sonnet – splendid verse but would now be charged as anti-Catholic hate speech ?
https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44747/sonnet-18-avenge-o-lord-thy-slaughterd-saints-whose-bones

Mark Gourley
Mark Gourley
1 year ago

And what about this Sonnet – splendid verse but would now be charged as anti-Catholic hate speech ?
https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44747/sonnet-18-avenge-o-lord-thy-slaughterd-saints-whose-bones

Andrew McDonald
Andrew McDonald
1 year ago

Before I finish reading this, just a splenetic question – why do otherwise reasonably talented and fluent writers fall for this modern inelegance of ‘quite the
’ rather than the standard ‘quite a
’? Disappointing.

Arkadian X
Arkadian X
1 year ago

Interesting, I never noticed.
Had a quick search and found this interesting conversation:
https://forum.wordreference.com/threads/quite-a-quite-the.3152403/

Andrew McDonald
Andrew McDonald
1 year ago
Reply to  Arkadian X

Very helpful, thank you. The thread eventually gets round to the two things I was looking for – first the slightly arch affectation usage from around a century ago which is where I recognise this form from (‘He’s quite the dandy, eh, old man?’ Ă  la Scott Fitzgerald); and second the desire of the youth, quite reasonably, to use a new phrase to push the elderly out of the conversation. It still makes my teeth hurt, though – and just as I was getting over the replacement of ‘Well
’ by ‘So..’ at the beginning of every remark.

Andrew McDonald
Andrew McDonald
1 year ago


and don’t start me on ‘If I’m honest..’ for ‘To be honest
’. Well, are you???

Arkadian X
Arkadian X
1 year ago

Hahahahahaha 😀

Will Will
Will Will
1 year ago

“So” is ghastly, as is “I am a good” in response to “How are you”. I went to an excellent grammar school decades ago but I am sad to say I think English was the worst taught subject with very little grammar (largely because most of us were reasonably good at it in any event, and we all had to do at least two if not three foreign languages so their teachers taught us grammar).

Wilfred Davis
Wilfred Davis
1 year ago

I am usually prey, as you seem to be, to anguish about inelegant, careless or plain wrong usage.

But in this instance, I think there is a good case for ‘quite the’, as it allows the introduction of a particular tone of voice.

‘My cousin is quite an expert in …’ probably means what it appears to say. (Allowing always for English usage of ‘quite’ to mean anything on a sliding scale of ‘very slightly’ to ‘extremely’).

Whereas

‘My cousin is quite the expert in …’ suggests that perhaps the cousin has that view of himself, but the speaker wishes to hint at a slight hesitance to agree.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
1 year ago
Reply to  Wilfred Davis

Precisely! And elegantly expressed. (Hope my beginning of a sentence with “And” is permissable!)

Ian McKinney
Ian McKinney
1 year ago

Nice piece, shame about the hypocrisy from the greatest blocker on twitter!

Graeme Kemp
Graeme Kemp
1 year ago

The Barbican has a “charmless” brutalism ? It’s a lovely, fantastic building! I think of it as like a medieval fortress. I used to love visiting it in the 1990s…..Very good article on free speech though….as one one expect from Andrew Doyle. His book on free speech is great.

Will Will
Will Will
1 year ago
Reply to  Graeme Kemp

Chacun a son gout.

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
1 year ago

Very good article indeed; but I must leap to defend the Barbican, an architectural gem even if one must reflect a little before seeing that way; but really a romantic townscape engirdled in classical form

Arkadian X
Arkadian X
1 year ago
Reply to  JR Stoker

And again the downvotes. Even if you don’t like the Barbican, a downvote is most certainly unwarranted here.