Saturday, July 3, 2010

American Ideals: Aeropagitica and Freedom of Expression

In honor of the Fourth of July I am reposting something I first put up on December 10, 2007. It is a summary of the arguments contained in John Milton's Aeropagitica. This small book contains definitive and inescapable arguments against censorship. In this short post I summarized, often in Milton's own language, all of the major arguments contained in his classic work. And these ideas are important foundations of the spirit of America.


Monday, December 10, 2007

John Milton's Arguments Against Censorship
I had meant to summarize Milton’s Aeropagitica. But I no longer want to do that. I have set myself a more narrow goal. I intend to give summaries of Milton’s arguments defending freedom of expression. Often I have adjusted Milton’s arguments since his focus was on arguing against prior censorship.
ARGUMENT ONE Without freedom of expression our ability to think clearly is diminished by the lack of exercise imposed by the constraints of censorship. And our chance of acquiring new knowledge can only be limited by this lack of freedom. And sometimes the recovery of lost truth is nearly impossible.
ARGUMENT TWO If you are forbidden to hear your opponent’s beliefs and arguments this gives them advantage since they know both yours and theirs.
ARGUMENT THREE “Bad meats will scarce breed good
nourishment in the healthiest concoction; but herein the difference is
of bad books, that they to a discreet and judicious reader serve in
many respects to discover, to confute, to forewarn, and to illustrate . . .
how can we more safely, and with
less danger, scout into the regions of sin and falsity than by reading
all manner of tractates and hearing all manner of reason? And this is
the benefit which may be had of books promiscuously read.”
ARGUMENT FOUR How will it be decided who will be trusted to choose what speech will not be allowed? If some speech is disallowed because it is dangerous, how will the censors be safe?
(I would also ask if we would need overseers to make sure the censors act properly and if,  then we need overseer overseers creating an infinite regression.)
ARGUMENT FIVE “that this order of licensing conduces nothing to the end for which it was framed . . . See the ingenuity of Truth, who, when she gets a free and willing hand, opens herself faster than the pace of method and discourse can overtake her.”
ARGUMENT SIX “And how can a man teach with authority, which is the life of teaching;
how can he be a doctor in his book as he ought to be, or else had better be silent, whenas all he teaches, all he delivers, is but under the tuition, under the correction of his patriarchal licenser to blot or alter “
ARGUMENT SEVEN Some feel that making a book forbidden is just a sign something in the work is important, otherwise no trouble would have been expended over it.
ARGUMENT EIGHT When truth is first seen it is different enough from the truth we have known for a long time that this difference might lead us to think it a lie and censor it. “that if it come to prohibiting,
there is not aught more likely to be prohibited than truth itself; whose
first appearance to our eyes, bleared and dimmed with prejudice and
custom, is more unsightly and unplausible than many errors, even as the
person is of many a great man slight and contemptuous to see to. “
ARGUMENT NINE “For who knows not that Truth is strong, next to the Almighty? She needs
no policies, nor stratagems, nor licensings to make her victorious;
those are the shifts and the defences that error uses against her power.
Give her but room, and do not bind her when she sleeps . . . “
ARGUMENT TEN “ . . . we in the haste of a precipitant zeal shall make no
distinction, but resolve to stop their mouths, because we fear they come
with new and dangerous opinions, as we commonly forejudge them ere we
understand them; no less than woe to us, while, thinking thus to defend
the Gospel, we are found the persecutors”

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