Who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God's image; but he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself...
--John Milton, Aeropagitica
On this day in 1644, John Milton released one of the most important tracts ever published in defense of freedom of the press, the Aeropagitica. His work paved the way for later English thinkers, such as John Locke and John Stuart Mill, to codify freedom of expression as a cornerstone of human rights. For this reason, today we honor Milton and the virtue of Voice.
The tale of Milton’s Aeropagitica makes the most “irony-fortified” story I think I have yet posted to TTV; see if you agree...
Most remember Milton as the poet who penned Paradise Lost. Later, though, he also served as a civil servant under Oliver Cromwell, leader of the Parliamentarians in their battle against the English monarchy (a war they eventually won, with the execution of Charles I and elevation of Cromwell from general to Lord Protector of Britain). The Parliament had just banished the Star Chamber, a sort of secret court that had been used unjustly by the monarchy against its enemies.
First taste of irony: On the heels of eliminating a tool of the Royalists’ abuse of power, the Parliamentarians then passed their own abusive law, the Licensing Order of 1643, which would allow the government to block the publishing of any book they wished (and was intended to prevent pro-monarchy pamphlets from being printed and circulated). Despite being on the side of the Parliamentarians, Milton dreaded the prospect of such censorship, and he spoke up about it in Aeropagitica. (Note, second nibble of irony.) (Third dose: Milton named his pamphlet after a similar text written in ancient Athens by Isocrates, who was defending the existence of Athens’ own version of the Star Chamber as a pro-democratic institution. That court met on the “Hill of Ares,” or Aeropagus.)
After writing the Aeropagitica, Milton later became a chief propagandist for the Parliamentarians, and even censored pro-Royalist and Catholic works. (Fourth ironic dollop.) He apparently justified this since the Parliamentarians, in theory, supported a more representative form of government, a republic, in contrast to the absolutism of a monarchy. (That Cromwell as “Lord Protector” abused power as much as any monarch that preceded him fuels the irony. Serving number five, by the way...)
Dose six: Although we now see freedom of the press as an anchor of a modern, secular world order, Milton cited Divine authority as expressed in the Christian Gospel of John (8:32: “...the truth shall set you free”) as justification for his views. (We have now exceeded the USDA recommended daily allowance of irony. We hope that you enjoyed your meal and will dine with us again at TTV.)
So, in Aeropagitica we have a proclamation of the importance of a free press penned by someone whose own support of such freedom varied depending on exactly whose book we were pressing. This reminds me of the discussion back at Zoongide’ewin, and the observation that the complicated human personages who serve as roosts for the virtues do not need to be perfect vessels--in fact, cannot be.
We may find variability in Milton’s own support of the freedom of Voice--an aggregate of the virtues of Open-Mindedness, Leadership, and Bravery, themselves tracing to the root virtues of Wisdom, Justice, and Courage. Yet this in no way diminishes the Worth of this virtue. As a basic principle of virtue ethics, we regard their Light as having Independence from the lamps through which they shine.
Take a moment to consider a few of the books whose ideas have informed your personal development, be they spritual texts, academic tomes, or even just entertainment. Savor the freedom that allowed the ideas that shaped you to have Voice in those documents. And recall the moments when your own commitment to freedom of the press has wavered. (Fox News, anyone?)
Meanwhile, TTV will offer free bloodletting to anyone suffering from irony-overload after reading this essay.
May we see the gates of Voice, and perhaps make a home there.