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Andreas Whittam Smith: Life, liberty and the lesson of Milton

We can all learn from the sheer majesty of his depth of learning and sublety in debate

The celebrations this month of the 400th anniversary of the birth of John Milton remind us that, in his magnificent pamphlet "The Liberty of Unlicensed Printing to the Parliament of England", which he called Areopagitica, he provided a text for the defence of freedom of expression from which we can still draw bountiful inspiration.

A committee of MPs, for instance, is said to be about to recommend that news organisations be prohibited from revealing certain details of terrorist and counter-terrorist activity. I immediately thought how ridiculous this would be when governments have no sure way of controlling the internet. But in Areopagitica Milton puts the matter much more succinctly: referring to "vain and impossible attempts", he compared the particular form of censorship about which he was concerned, book licensing, "to the exploit of that gallant man who thought to pound up the crows by shutting his Parkgate".

Milton wrote his pamphlet during the English civil war at a moment when the front line was not far from his native London. Likewise in our own day, the front line in the struggle against terrorist outrage is never very distant.

We can all learn from and be inspired by the sheer majesty of Milton's depth of learning and subtlety in argument. I felt this when participating recently in BBC Radio 3's Milton season, which ends on 2 January. Take the most famous passage. Milton writes: "For 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; nay they do preserve as in a violl the purest efficacie and extraction of that living intellect that bred them. I know they are as lively, and as vigorously productive, as those fabulous Dragons teeth; and being sown up and down, may chance to spring up armed men. And yet on the other hand, unlesse warinesse be us'd, as good almost kill a Man as kill a good Book; who kills a Man kills a reasonable creature, Gods Image; but hee who destroyes a good Booke, kills reason it selfe, kills the Image of God, as it were in the eye."

Now some will suppose that Milton is here referring only to books of the highest quality. That is not so. He meant pretty well all books. As he wrote: "To the pure, all things are pure, not only meats and drinks, but all kinde of knowledge whether of good or evill; the knowledge cannot defile, nor consequently the books, if the will and conscience be not defil'd. For books are as meats and viands are; some of good, some of evill substance."

So I take his words broadly and go far beyond books to include the whole range of what is published or broadcast today, including blogs. The other day, for instance, Le Monde published a fine article on the plight of a young single mother living in Paris who was continually on the move from one temporary resting place to another. Le Monde's attention had been drawn to this sad case because the young woman had started writing a daily blog. Her most recent post generated over 200 comments. In this context, what I take Milton to be saying is that this French newspaper and this blog do also "contain a potency of life in them" and that they both can be "as lively, and as vigorously productive, as those fabulous Dragons teeth".

You may think I am here stating the obvious, but I don't think that I am. For professionals in any walk of life tend to undervalue and treat with disrespect what it is they manage on a daily basis. Watch antique dealers when they are examining goods in the auction room. They handle the valuable objects quite roughly, although they generally avoid breaking them. The same goes for editors, journalists and writers. They sometimes act as if the words in front of them were indeed dead things without any potency of life. As a corrective to this, Milton is saying to us – don't forget that you are dealing in very precious goods. Indeed I should have said this to myself when I was film censor – "if this film has something to say, whether you agree with the sentiment or not, it is a priceless thing. Be very careful how you treat it."

Milton also understood how knowledge and ideas move from person to person without ever touching the conventional channels of communication. The governments of his day were as concerned with religious sects as we are with terrorist networks. Who has not heard, he asked, of many sects "refusing books as a hindrance, and preserving their doctrine unmixt for many ages, only by unwritt'*traditions. The Christian faith, for that was once a schism, is not unknown to have spread all over Asia, ere any Gospel or Epistle was seen in writing." And I hope that I won't be accused of unduly stretching Milton's meaning if I say that his phrase "refusing books as a hindrance" reminds me of the way terrorists are said to change their mobile phone numbers and email addresses every few days in order to escape detection.

As a matter of fact, Parliament was unmoved by Milton's great attack on its order to regulate printing. But not only did Areopagitica demolish the case for licensing books, albeit without persuading the Government, it also recommended a way forward. First, Milton says, God intends us freely to choose between good and evil. For "when God gave him (Adam) reason, he gave him freedom to choose, for reason is but choosing; he had bin else a meer artificiall Adam." Second, in discharging this task, we will have, or should have, the unwritten laws of "vertuous education, religious and civill nurture". These are the "sustainers of every writt'*Statute". And it will be these "which will bear chief sway in such matters as these, when all licencing will be easily eluded."

Third, we shouldn't underestimate the strength of truth itself. "Truth is strong next to the Almighty; she needs no policies, nor stratagems, nor licencings to make her victorious, those are the shifts and the defences that error uses against her power: give her but room, & do not bind her when she sleeps." Which leads in turn to Milton's conclusion: "The great art lyes to discern in what the law is to bid restraint and punishment, and in what things perswasion only is to work."

If we get this right, then we shall have that "liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience" that Milton wrote he would have over all other liberties.

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