On the Areopagitica: Why Milton’s Defence of Free Speech Remains Almost Unsurpassed but Not Secular

by Tauriq Moosa

As per various stories emerging concerning censorship, I thought it a good time to consider one of the greatest documents defending free speech.

ScreenHunter_10 Jan. 16 12.17In 1643, the English Parliament instituted the Licensing Order. This meant pre-publication censorship on all printed writings, including and aiming mostly at newspapers. This followed the abolishing, two years earlier, of the Star Chamber, which according to Kevin Marsh, “had been the monarchy's most potent tool of repression for centuries: a court that held secret sessions, without juries, and produced arbitrary judgments… all to please the king.” This blanket censorship, however, disappeared, requiring Parliament to take some action, thus the Licensing Order. But the next quilt of authority was simply knitted from the frayed threads of the previous.

Arrests, search and seizure of books, book burnings and all other classical depictions of authoritarian hatred were the outcome of this Order. The Stationer’s Company, a guild of booksellers, printers and so on, and established by Queen Mary in 1557, was put in charge of dealing out this Order. Hindsight makes those fires brighter and stupidity greater and fear lesser; curled pages to us invite anger at oppression, but in the eyes of the moralisers, it meant something called order.

The great poet, John Milton, delivered a speech in 1644, called Areopagitica (or, its full title Areopagitica: A speech of Mr. John Milton for the liberty of unlicensed printing to the Parliament of England). In it, he made an impassioned plea that rings out today, calling for free thought, speech and reason, for “when complaints are freely heard, deeply considered and speedily reformed, then is the utmost bound of civil liberty attained, that wise men look for.”

His most powerful argument is encapsulated in what is surely one of the most beautiful sentences ever written:

A man may be a heretic in the truth, and if he believe things only because his pastor says so, or the assembly so determines, without knowing other reason, though his belief be true, yet the very truth he holds becomes his heresy.

Here, Milton cut to the heart of the problem.

Read more »

Let’s Keep God out of Ethics

ScreenHunter_03 May. 10 12.24 When a television network has a porn channel in the pipe-lines voices of outrage sound. When a television-series mocks a dead religious figure, knives are being sharpened and fingers are being shaken. Picketing outside abortion clinics, fighting against end-of-life alleviation, marching against free expression (do they never see the irony?) – we can usually count on the faithful to raise an outcry, on our behalf apparently, for things they consider to be sinful and, therefore, immoral. But what is sinful is not necessarily immoral. They appear to have some insight we do not about morality and ethical deliberation. But upon critical scrutiny, we soon discover that all the noise is a mask for shallow deliberation.

When did we hand over our moral autonomy – that is our ability to look critically for ourselves at moral dilemmas – to the lecherous hands and myopic vision of religious leaders? When did we say that we wanted guardians stationed in moral outposts, peering into the world with outrage-telescopes and hysterical megaphones? I certainly did not and I hope, regardless of your belief in god, you didn’t either. Ethical deliberation is something we all must face as part of our epistemic duty in this world, filled as it is with problems and a continuum of moral actions. To ask simply whether something is good or evil is often to trivialise ethical dilemmas: they are often not simply about choosing between right and wrong, but between two conflicting attitudes which are both apparently the right thing to do. Do we kill the fat man to save the lives of five others? Are we obligated to each sacrifice one kidney, which we don’t need, to save others who do? Do we give up eating meat, which we do not need for survival, to end the suffering of other animals?

These dilemmas are secular, in that anyone can come to them regardless of religious belief, and find in them a moral problem. However, with the blurring between morality and religion in today’s world, some “moral” problems become problems merely because of the arrogant bullying by religious groups who claim to “know”, better than the rest of us, what is moral. Homosexuality, women’s rights and abortion would most likely not be such hysterical moral dilemmas if not for tawdry metaphysical beliefs on the part of the believer. A good case can be made for any of these being moral dilemmas in purely secular terms, but it is unlikely that death or violence would ensue because of disagreement. The ferocity and vernacular of the dilemma would not be one spurred on by self-righteous believers who are defending god’s laws; or defending “babies” from evil, pincer-wielding doctors; or trying to maintain “family values” because of the “moral decline” in society. A lot of these dilemmas could be carefully deliberated upon in a safe, public platform, using the weapons of words and the shield of a podium, rather than bullets and knives to make one’s point felt. We have given into the worst reasoning to justify moral decisions, that is: raising your voice and making the loudest noise. And best of all if you can use god as a backing – since this still has moral force today, though it should not. Just because so many people are outraged by gay-marriage does not make it immoral anymore than everyone believing the earth flat would alter our planet’s shape. Turning something immoral merely because the majority view it as such is part of John Stuart Mill’s notion of 'tyranny of the majority'.
Read more »