Milton vs the echo chamber

Thought centuries apart, John Milton and George Orwell offer complementary arguments for free speech and a free society.

Lithograph of John Milton, English poet. Credit: GRANGER - Historical Picture Archvie / Alamy Stock Photo

Milton would have been very active on Twitter. In 1644 – at the height of the English Civil War – he wrote Areopagitica: a polemic prose treatise against the Presbyterian Parliament’s 1643 Ordinance for the Regulating of Printing. It purports to be a speech to Parliament, but Milton was never an MP. Its form is akin to that of the modern-day open letter: it was intended to have a much greater audience than those to whom it is notionally addressed. In 1641, censorship through the Star Chamber – a royal court – was abolished. The act that replaced it instituted many of the same restrictions on publication but, rather than texts being licensed by the King or Privy Councillors, placed this power in the hands of twenty men called the Committee of Examiners.

For Milton, this prohibition of any ‘Book, Pamphlet, or paper’ being ‘printed, bound, stitched or put to sale’ without the express permission of ‘two or three glutton Friers’ was anathema to everything he believed. His text is an ardent defence of the importance of expression. He proclaims that ‘books are not absolutely dead things, but doe contain a potencie of life in them to be as active as that soule was whose progeny they are’. For a devout Christian, this recognition of a ‘potencie of life’ in a page of text is a non-metaphorical recognition that words, writings, and arguments are, like man, made ‘in His own image’. It is ‘as good almost kill a Man as kill a good Book’, as to kill a book ‘kills reason it selfe’. Milton doesn’t establish this parity between text and human life lightly; he is not simply using the language of murder to intensify his argument in favour of intellectual freedom. Rather, Milton’s conception of God-given humanity – to kill a man is to kill ‘Gods Image’ – depends upon man’s intellectual freedom: to murder reason is to undermine God’s conception of rational, intelligent, questioning, knowledgeable man.

And Milton is in favour of the debate and friction that different published ideas can inspire. In the morally stringent world of a Puritan England, Milton argues that ‘to the pure, all things are pure’. Seemingly unsullied purity is a warning-bell in our current age, but Milton is not advocating that Christians only read unquestionably Christian works – only that ‘the knowledge cannot defile’. In a prescient echo of many of the debates raging today, Milton declares he ‘cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary.’ And, in my favourite moment of the text – and a sentence that warrants a far greater readership than its position half-way through a dense-17th century prose work often affords it – Milton declares:

That vertue therefore which is but a youngling in the contemplation of evill, and knows not the utmost that vice promises to her followers, and rejects it, is but a blank vertue, not a pure; her whitenesse is but an excrementall whitenesse.

The sheer brilliance of calling untested, untried, and perhaps unthought virtue ‘excrementall whitenesse’ never fails to astound and amuse me.

And yet, in arguing that Milton is the original defender of free speech, I can feel the academically-scarifying eyes of the tutor with whom I first read Areopagitica reaching me through my laptop-screen. ‘Is he really, Cesca …?’

Arguably, Areopagitica is not a treatise in favour of unbridled, unchallenged expression – or even the joyful publication of all books. Rather, in praising an ancient time when books were ‘freely admitted into the world as any birth’ and ‘the issue of the brain was no more stifled than the issue of the womb’, Milton shows that he is not opposed to any sort of furious debate that may come after publication. He lauds the fact that ‘if it [the book] proved a monster, who denies, but that it was justly burnt, or sunk into the sea’. And indeed, in his impassioned statement ‘as good almost kill a man as kill a good book’, it is notable that Milton emphasises that it is a good book. Milton has no problems with the individual – and even institutional – censorship of bad books after they have been published, read, and debated. His problem is with pre-publication licensing rather than post-publication debate and decision.

This is free speech – the freedom to write, argue, and expound what one believes, but also to be disagreed with and debated. And it is this value that many believe is under threat.

As a result of an open letter published in Harper’s Magazine titled ‘A Letter on Justice and Open Debate‘ and signed by leading writers, much has been made over the past couple of weeks of George Orwell’s essay ‘The Freedom of the Press’. Originally intended as an introduction to Animal Farm, it was not published until 1972. Orwell notes how ‘the chief danger to freedom of thought and speech at this moment is not the direct interference of the MOI [Ministry of Information] or any official body’ but rather editors and publishers who are not ‘frightened of prosecution’ but of ‘public opinion’. A tacit awareness of what ‘it wouldn’t do’ to say, according to Orwell, kept stories out of the news and books unpublished. In Orwell’s case, the public opinion to be frightened of was an unquestioning reverence for the USSR, an opinion that made publication of Animal Farm very difficult. Orwell is eloquent on the tides of public opinion, saying:

To exchange one orthodoxy for another is not necessarily an advance. The enemy is the gramophone mind, whether or not one agrees with the record that is being played at the moment.

Whereas, for Milton, the enemy of expression was institutionalised pre-publication licensing, Orwell’s enemy is a much more diffuse sense of what would be too different, too provocative to say. In Orwell’s case, an awareness of this public ‘gramophone mind’ prevents works being written in the first place: licensing has moved from before publication, to before writing, and even before thinking.

Many commentators seem to believe we are living in Orwell’s vision of public discourse rather than Milton’s – and they may well be right. But, we should not strive to return to an age where all ‘monsters’ of ideas and books could survive without being ‘sunk into the sea’. And I can’t help but think Milton would believe that – apart from a few areas of ‘excrementall vertue’ – we are allowed to read, and think, a lot more freely than his contemporaries in Civil War England.


Francesca Peacock