Monday, September 10, 2012

"..he who destroys a good Book, kills reason itself..."

From September 1 to October 31, 2012, Armacost Library is holding an Intellectual Freedom Blogathon featuring posts on topics concerning censorship, the freedom to read, view, and express, and the connection these various freedoms have to individual life experiences and the state of society. The following essay is part of the Armacost Library Intellectual Freedom (ALIF) Blogathon.

Oliver Cromwell and John Milton
Source: Bridgeman Art Library

How can ideas flourish if they are never tested? The English poet John Milton passionately defended this core principle of intellectual freedom over three hundred and fifty years ago in one of his most enduring essays.

Milton in his thirties was still decades away from realizing his dream of an English epic poem to rival the Greek poetry he idolized from his youth, yet rhetorically mature, thanks to his formal education at Cambridge, followed by travel throughout Europe and self-directed studies. As a man of learning he considered it his responsibility to add his voice to the great political issues of his day: what variations of religious beliefs are to be tolerated? Does the church have the right to use the structures of political power to support itself? How should government strike a balance between the king's right to govern and the people's faculties of rational choice? Milton expressed his views by writing and publishing pamphlets rich with classical allusions and figurative language; opposing writers would answer back in their own pamphlets. Milton and his critics were equally quick to resort to biting humor and personal attacks.

In 1643, Milton drew controversy with his Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, in which he argued that divorce laws should be expanded to allow divorces on the basis of personal incompatibility. The English Parliament ordered that his book be censored under a recently passed law that gave it the right to inspect books for offensive content prior to publication. Milton responded by addressing his next pamphlet, Aeropagitica, directly to Parliament the following year. Under the guise of advising Parliament how best to govern, Milton argued, in one scholar's summary,
that only reading of all kinds, forcing the continuous, free, and active choice between good and evil, will allow the good to advance in virtue and truth to conquer error, thereby producing radical citizens with a developed Protestant conscience and a classical sense of civic duty. Milton may be the first to address directly the issue of how to construct a liberty-loving republican citizenry who will support radical reform. (Lewalski 191) 
Milton saw nothing less than the life and death of the English nation at stake in the abridgment of intellectual freedom. As he put it, "as good almost kill a man as kill a good book; who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God's image, but he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself." For Milton, society could only progress on the basis of healthy ideas tested through public debate.

Book censorship also did injustice to the individual's right to learn and refine their individual values through encounters with competing beliefs. "I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue," Milton wrote, "unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race..." The concept of conflict between innocence and (potentially corrupting) experience, between good and evil would recur famously in Milton's epic Paradise Lost, in which he dramatizes the fall of Adam and Eve as an unfortunate consequence of their God-given capacity for rationality and choice.

Milton experienced consequences of his own for his controversial positions. In the first years after the English Civil Wars, when dissident leaders led an overthrow of King Charles, ultimately executing him in 1649, Milton enthusiastically supported the new Parliament and was rewarded with an official position as a diplomat. Amid his new duties, he found time to continue his writing, defending the new government against criticism by supporters of the monarchy and their allies abroad. This left him in a vulnerable position when the Parliament finally crumbled in 1660 and royalists proclaimed Charles II King of England. High-profile leaders    who had brought about the death of Charles I were executed, and Milton himself was briefly imprisoned and spared further punishment only by the appeal of others.

What does the story of Aeropagitica have to say to us, living centuries later under a different form of government halfway around the world? One way to see this work is as a product of the back-and-forth interchange of ideas necessary for government by free individuals. We could also look at it as a reminder of the costs that often come with taking a stand on an issue we care about. And it is one of the most enduring expressions of the value of the individual's right to take responsibility for their own learning.

Sanjeet Mann
Arts & Electronic Resources Librarian, Armacost Library

Further Reading

"Cromwell and Milton" (2008). In The Bridgeman Art Library Archive. Retrieved from http://0-
Festa, Thomas (2006). "John Milton." Oxford Encyclopedia of British Literature, ed. David Scott
        Kastan. Oxford: Oxford University Press. REF PR 19.O95 2006
Lewalski, Barbara (2002). The Life of John Milton. Oxford: Blackwell. PR 3581.L45 2002
Milton, John (1959 [1643]). Complete Prose Works. New Haven: Yale University Press. PR 3569.W6

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