John Milton Explains Freedom of Speech

By: Gary Galles

Recently, I told my wife that the 2020 election follies made me think of John Milton. She commented that I may have been the only one in America to make that connection to the second most important author in the English language, after Shakespeare, best known for his poetry. After all, very little of this year’s politics has been poetic (though it could be argued to fit somewhere in Paradise Lost). I was thinking of Milton’s prose.

The primary reason is that well before America was founded, Milton famously argued for freedoms of speech and the press, and against censorship in England. His defense of freedom of conscience and religious toleration later powerfully resonated with America’s founders, as is most evident in the First Amendment to the US Constitution.

In contrast, we have of late been experiencing a widespread attack of censorship, which has not just limited citizens’ freedom of expression, but undermined Americans’ ability to inform themselves before voting for who will represent them. Because it originated with private actors rather than government, even though the intent was to dictate the government chosen, it was not a violation of the First Amendment. But the consequences of multiple powerful actors putting all of their thumbs on the same side of the scales they intended voters to use was, and remains, a serious threat to America. So it is worth remembering John Milton’s words on behalf of freedom of belief and expression, and their connection to our ability to discover truth.

  • Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.
  • Truth….Let her and falsehood grapple.
  • Who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?
  • Truth…needs no policies or stratagems…to make her victorious. These are the shifts and the defenses that error uses against her power.
  • There is no learned man but will confess he hath much profited by reading controversies—his senses awakened, his judgment sharpened, and the truth which he holds firmly established. If then it be profitable for him to read, why should it not at least be tolerable and free for his adversary to write…it follows then, that all controversy being permitted, falsehood will appear more false, and truth the more true; which must needs conduce much to the general confirmation of an implicit truth.
  • If it come to prohibiting, there is aught more likely to be prohibited than truth itself.
  • No institution which does not continually test its ideals, techniques and measure of accomplishment can claim real vitality.
  • When complaints are freely heard, deeply considered, and speedily reformed, then is the utmost bound of civil liberty obtained that wise men look for.
  • Knowledge forbidden? Suspicious, reasonless. Why…?
  • Truth and understanding are not such wares as to be monopolized.
  • When language in common use in any country becomes irregular and depraved, it is followed by their ruin and degradation. For what do terms…which are at once corrupt and misapplied, denote but a people listless, supine, and ripe for servitude?
  • How oft [have] nations gone corrupt…by their own devices brought down to servitude.
  • Discern…in what things persuasion only is to work.

Not only was Milton an important advocate for freedom to discover truth without artificial constraint, he was an influential defender of other liberties whose defense relies upon that discovery. America’s founding generation echoed him in several ways. In fact, one could say that is best reflected in the Declaration of Independence’s assertion of unalienable rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” which, while more famously connected to the thought of John Locke, can also be collapsed into the word liberty, as Milton used it, as our right to life is part of our liberty and our ability to pursue happiness is the result of liberty.

In contrast, much of what has been proposed by politicians this year has involved widespread invasions of our liberties, disguised by focusing only on those promises to give, without much mention of the corresponding unavoidable promises to take from others to do so. His words sharpen our ability to judge that deviation from the ideas that created America.

  • No man…can be so stupid to deny that all men naturally were born free, being the image and resemblance of God himself.
  • The whole freedom of man consists either in spiritual or civil liberty.
  • [God] created them free and free they must remain.
  • Liberty…who loves that, must first be wise and good.
  • None can love freedom but good men; the rest love not freedom, but license, which never hath more scope than under tyrants.
  • Nations grow corrupt, love bondage more than liberty.
  • [Those] with their freedom lost, all virtue lose.
  • Liberty of conscience…above all other things ought to be to all men dearest and most precious.
  • Liberty hath a sharp and double edge, fit only to be handled by just and virtuous men; to bad and dissolute, it becomes a mischief unwieldy in their own hands: neither is it completely given, but by them who have the happy skill to know what is grievance and unjust to a people, and how to remove it wisely; what good laws are wanting, and how to frame them substantially, that good men may enjoy the freedom which they merit, and the bad the curb which they need.
  • Love Virtue, she alone is free.
  • Is it just or reasonable, that…voices against the main end of government should enslave [those] that would be free? 
  • They who seek nothing but their own just liberty, have always right to win it and to keep it, whenever they have power, be the voices ever so numerous that oppose it.
  • Who can in reason then or right assume monarchy over such as live by right his equals, if in power or splendor less, in freedom equal?
  • The power of Kings and Magistrates is nothing else, but what is only derivative, transferred and committed to them in trust from the People, to the Common good of them all, in whom the power yet remains fundamentally, and cannot be taken from them, without a violation of their natural birthright.
  • It is lawful…for anyone who have the power to call to account a tyrant.

Americans have been major beneficiaries of John Milton’s literary blows for liberty against tyranny through his political impact on our founders. But this year’s dramatic violations of our freedom to seek the truth and express our views to one another, and its widespread proposals to violate other core liberties, show that heritage to be at serious risk. Revisiting Milton’s arguments in these areas is a good way to recognize the risks we have already been exposed to and their ominous implications for the future and a good source of reinforcement for the principles our country was founded upon. And at their heart is his conclusion that free we must remain.

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