Rethinking Liberal Theory 4: John Milton and the many shapes of truth

John Milton dictating Paradise Lost to his daughters.
by John MacBeath Watkins

Our last couple posts have been about property, and my opinion that Locke was wrong to think that was the defining characteristic of human society. The basic notion of liberalism is to have a society that is suited to human nature instead of imposed upon it, so the issue is extremely important.

If the creation of meaning is, as I maintain, the defining characteristic of human society, then discourse must be central as well. The English Civil War gave us the greatest of the liberal thinkers in this, as well

John Milton is today mainly remembered as a poet, but he was also a political actor in the English Civil War, writing many tracts in support of the Puritan and parliamentary cause, eventually serving as the Secretary of Foreign Tongues for the Council of State. Under this remarkable title, he handled most of the council's correspondence in, you guessed it, foreign tongues, but also wrote pamphlets in defense of popular government and the regicide of Charles I. His clear and powerful Latin prose made him a reputation in Europe.

He also wrote one of the founding documents of liberalism, Areopagitica, the definitive (to my way of thinking) defense of free speech.

In 1644, when he wrote the Areopagitica, the war was going badly for the parliamentary forces, and their ultimate victory would only be achieved after their army was completely reorganized in 1645. In such times, rulers typically worry about what gets said and written, not just in terms of military secrets, but in terms of propaganda and morale. Parliament had the power to censor, and Milton urged them not to use it.

He had personal reasons for this. In 1643 Milton married, at the age of 35, 16-year-old Mary Powell. After only a month of living with a difficult older man, she left him and returned home. Milton wrote a series of pamphlets saying that divorce should be legal, which got him in a bit of trouble, which seems to have prompted him to write in defense of free speech. Not, mind you, that he only wanted to be allowed to continue agitating for a policy that he at the time he thought he wanted (Mary returned to him in 1645 and they had three children together, she dying in childbirth with the third.) Milton seems to have firmly believed that there should be no prior censorship for people, no matter what their views, with one exception.

We all have our limits, right? The "no censorship" rule sounds fine until some child pornographer comes along and tries to use this freedom. For Milton, there were limits as well. Anyone should be able to voice their opinions, he believed, except Catholics.

Remember, there was a war on, and it was very much about religion. The Catholic Church was so opposed to the Bible being translated into English that at one point the Bishop of London bought up as many copies as he could of William Tyndale's English translation of the Bible and burned them (Tyndale used the money to print a new edition with some correction he had wanted to make.) They hunted William Tyndale until he could be strangled, and had his remains burned so that he could not be resurrected on Judgment Day. A more forgiving man than Milton could take a dim view of that. Tyndale's translation of the Bible was the basis for what is now called the King James Bible, because the scholars who followed recognized his genius. And Milton saw the argument that censorship was a Popish import as one that would resonate with parliament.

As it happens, in my misspent youth I studied the fashionable theorists of that time, among them Jürgen Habermas, one of the leading theorists on the subject of discourse. It struck me at the time that Harbermas (whose work has been criticized by Marxists for being bourgeois) had a theory that was in many ways like Milton's, but not as well written and far less radical. Habermas, by the way, is at this writing still alive, and one of the most influential philosophers around, bridging the gap between Anglo-American and Continental philosophy, and I will say that his philosophy is far more complete than Milton's. It should be, he packs a lot into every sentence and The Theory of Communicative Action runs to two volumes that seem to weigh more with every word one reads. And that's just one of his books.

Habermas claims that if you could achieve undominated discourse, the result of such a dialogue would always produce the same answer, which would be the truth. This always struck me as a dubious proposition. What if no one present thinks of the right answer? What, we may ask, if everyone present is stupid, or at least not clever in the right way? I have a Manx named Bunny who is brilliant at being a cat, but faced with a logical argument her only response is to bring my attention the feather-on-a-string toy. In short, she is helpless before my logic. I tell her that the feather-on-a-string  toy argument is so far beside the point that she's not even wrong, but we end up playing her game in the end. I will admit that Habermas is worth any ten other theorists of the Critical School, but his logic and Bunny's steely resolve about the toy would not produce the same result as a conversation between him and Jacques Derrida. No doubt, the result would be better.

Milton had greater faith than Habermas in the truth:

And though all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play upon the earth, so Truth be in the field, we do injuriously by licensing and prohibiting to misdoubt her strength. Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?...
...For who knows not that 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, for then she speaks not true, as the old Proteus did, who spake oracles only when he was caught & bound, but then rather she turns herself into all shapes, except her own, and perhaps tunes her voice according to the time, as Micaiah did before Ahab, untill she be adjur'd into her own likenes. Yet is it not impossible that she may have more shapes then one. What else is all that rank of things indifferent, wherein Truth may be on this side, or on the other, without being unlike her self.

Unlike Habermas, Milton was willing to accept the notion that truth "may have more shapes than one." England and Europe as a whole were rent by religious strife.  If each sect insisted that only its truth was acceptable, the strife would continue. The notion that ones countrymen could profess a different faith and not be persecuted as apostates was a path to peace, just as Hobbes' effort to find a secular path to the legitimacy of government was.

The method Milton proposed, allowing publication without prior censorship, is the basic method adopted by liberal democracies everywhere. Sure, you can be sued, fined, even jailed for saying some things, but there is a very high bar the state must achieve to justify censorship prior to publication.

The value system involved was about truth, not property. Parliament was planning to reinstate licensing laws for publishers, and you were not "the press" unless you owned one, so property rights were involved, but for Milton the search for truth was not about property at all. He even urged parliament to recognize that bad ideas must be published. In the section on the value of wrong ideas, he uses the Biblical story of Adam and Eve's fall in a way I find reminiscent of Prometheus.

Good and evill we know in the field of this World grow up together almost inseparably; and the knowledge of good is so involv'd and interwoven with the knowledge of evill, and in so many cunning resemblances hardly to be discern'd, that those confused seeds which were impos'd on Psyche as an incessant labour to cull out, and sort asunder, were not more intermixt. It was from out the rinde of one apple tasted, that the knowledge of good and evill as two twins cleaving together leapt forth into the World. And perhaps this is that doom which Adam fell into of knowing good and evill, that is to say of knowing good by evill. As therefore the state of man now is; what wisdome can there be to choose, what continence to forbeare without the knowledge of evill?

Wisdom, then, is having the knowledge of good and evil that Adam and Eve gained from the apple. What had been, in the Catholic Church, evidence of man's sinful nature, became in the Areopagitica the source of essential knowledge. The church had an entire economy of sin, of which indulgences were one small part. But in the mind of this liberal thinker, the lesson to be learned was that God wanted Adam, Eve, and all mankind to make choices, not to be denied them.

We have several intertwined sources of authority and value in our culture. The law is a system of value about who is responsible for what, one might even say, it is about who is to blame. Property is about the rights and obligations between people and the things they possess and use, one might say the meaning of things. Speech, discourse, scholarship, are all about truth, one of the most difficult and important concepts in any culture.

I like to think that truth is a word we use to describe that which we believe without question. We are not free to choose what we believe, because belief is an emotion akin to love (no wonder truth and beauty are so often seen together.) I may wish to believe my lover is faithful, but if the truth whispers through each door I close on it, seeps under the window sash when I try to close it out, I must in the end believe what I do not wish or choose to. Milton maintained that we should never close truth out.

Milton, by the way, lost his vision as he got older, probably from glaucoma. He had to dictate his later works to assistants, as portrayed in the 1826 picture above. He did not attend any religious services near the end of his life, having become alienated from the Anglican Church and objecting to the intolerance of the Dissenters (churchmen who did not accept the Book of Common Prayer.)  He was exactly the sort of person he said should be tolerated.

Links for this series:

Rethinking liberal theory 1: Thomas Hobbes, blasphemer and patriot
Rethinking liberal theory 2: The outlaw John Locke, terrorist, liberal, and advocate of freedom
Rethinking liberal theory 3: A compact to protect property, or a conspiracy to create meaning?
Rethinking Liberal Theory 4: John Milton and the many shapes of truth
Rethinking Liberal Theory 5: Adam Smith, moral philosopher of the marketplace
Rethinking Liberal Theory 6: Mythmaking and manufacturing
Rethinking liberal theory 7: Hegel, the end of history, and the triumph of the liberal idea
Rethinking liberal theory 8: Liberalism and individualism: The invention of the Util and the way west
Rethinking liberal theory 9 Property and freedom: Why language is the basis for the social contract 
Rethinking Liberal theory 10: Physiocrats & mercantilists: The economic philosophies of the founding fathers
Rethinking Liberal Theory 11:Stateless income, global capital, and the death of empires
Rethinking Liberal Theory 12:Capitalism:So much more than market
Rethinking liberalism 13: What is money? 
Rethinking Liberalism 14: Tribalism and the emerging new world order
Rethinking liberalism 15: The poverty of neoconservative philosophy
Rethinking Liberalism 16: More on the poverty of neoconservative philosophy


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