John Milton – “Areopagitica” (the end)

Milton imagines England as a giant waking up, or an eagle learning (according to the popular belief) to look at the sun, while all the other scared night birds flutter about. why does the Parliament want to suppress this new light? And in the final excerpt he argues that we should let Truth and falsehood grapple, because Truth is always going to win.Introducing censorship is like laying an ambush when your opponent has already challenged you to a fair battle and even has given you the advantage of wind and sun. Truth doesn’t have to be bound, like the Greek god Proteus who could tell you everything you wanted to know, but only if you held him tight; Truth, when constrained, will just keep on distorting its shape, just like Proteus. Besides, so many things people argue about are really immaterial and could be tolerated; the insistence on keeping artificial uniformity is really un-Christian. Then Milton makes some important reservations: he does not mean that popery should be tolerated and it should be extirpated, adding charitably that first all compassionate means should be used to convert “the weak and the misled”; his reasons are that Catholics, by their allegiance to the Pope, are by definition a threat to any native political and religious authorities. He also says that of course evil and impious things should not be tolerated either. But all the people who honestly want to contribute to this search for truth, should be allowed to do so. Coining a verb I love, Milton asks, “who hath so bejesuited us” that we should trouble these honest people? There’s nothing more likely that we are going to prohibit truth itself, because when she appears “to our eyes bleared and dimmed with prejudice and custom” we are not going to like it at the beginning, either. “When God shakes a kingdom”, it’s true that many sectaries and schismatics are going to appear, but he is going to help the true opinions win.

I’m sure it would take a much more detailed study for me to analyse Milton’s text properly. First, I would like to point out that all the eulogies of Milton as the great champion of the freedom of speech seem to be a bit exaggerated: Milton makes clear he means only the unlimited publication of various theological and moral treatises, not tha  freedom to, say, publish porn. And where he draws a line between “evil” and “just a different opinion” is not very clear; he should have learnt from his own experience about his divorce tracts that what for him was a reasonable opinion (people who do not get on with each other should be allowed to divorce) was for many of his contemporaries as disgusting and evil as for modern readers a text praising necrophilia. And his view on truth always winning seems in this era of “post-truth” much too optimistic. He argues the best argument will always win, but what about people who won’t listen to arguments and stick to the memes confirming their prejudices? Where would he stand on such controversial matters as Holocaust deniers? There are laws in many European countries forbidding it, and even if we stick to Milton’s argument “truth will always win”, we see that no amount of truth will win bigots (except in some very rare cases, usually those of of people who were taught as kids to believe everything their parents said, and then learnt better).  So I end this reading having a lot of doubts both about Milton being this champion of free speech for all, and about the validity of his points, even though he argues very well.

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