Milton Was Wrong


John MiltonIn 1644, the English poet and pamphleteer John Milton wrote an impassioned defence of free speech (or, more factually, against censorship of print and in favour of restriction-free publication) called the Areopagitica. It was subtitled A speech of Mr. John Milton for the Liberty of Unlicenc’d Printing, to the Parlament of England. In it, Milton argued that, given the choice between truth and lies, people were wise enough to see what was true. And that people’s character grew stronger when presented with a wide variety of viewpoints, even if those included lies and falsifications.

It’s a bit of a dense read today, but you can find many versions of the Areopagitica online, including the Gutenberg online version here. I recommend you also look at William Altoft’s rendition into modern English, including his useful side-by-side version for comparison.

Milton wasn’t wrong about free speech, mind you. It was his reasons for believing free speech was important that I find fault with. Milton believed humans were smart enough to see the truth for themselves when presented with different ideas and views. That was both optimistic and naive. Milton never knew the terms “confirmation bias,” “dog-whistle,” “gaslighting,” or “echo chamber” — all of which are commonly used today in conversations about social media and propaganda.

Milton’s essay was published centuries before the massive propaganda and disinformation engines like Russian TV (RT), Fox “news,” and QAnon; long before social media gave an open platform for cranks, grifters, and con artists; long before YouTube channels from anti-science flat-earthers, creationists, and self-described psychics. Milton never imagined the modern, obsessive celebrity culture, fad diets, fraudulent health treatments, “reality” TV, fake news or Photoshopped-images being passed off as real. How could he? These are all modern ailments.

(You may skim the history below, but I recommend you don’t. It explains when and why Milton penned his essay.)

First, a little history*: prior to the English Civil War (1642-51), all printing in England (and in most of Europe) had to be approved and licensed by an authority — sometimes secular but often religious — appointed by the crown or its council. Printing presses could only be owned and operated by members of approved guilds. That didn’t stop unlicensed printers from operating clandestinely, or licensed printers from finding ways around the restrictions, but these and other laws curtailed the spread of news and opinion. Authorities raided presses, arrested and fined wrongdoers, sometimes condemning them to death for breaking the laws.

In fact, it was for many decades illegal in England to publish news about the debates or activities of Parliament. Anything printed — including plays, poetry, and religious texts — had to adhere strictly to the official (usually royal) narrative and anything that dissented was prohibited or censored (a bit like in my hometown Collingwood after Coun. Berman’s Stalinist motion to censor public comments was passed).

As the outliers kept printing unlicensed material, authorities increasingly tightened the rules, and also increased the punishments. Censorship and control reached their height in England in the 1630s, when the religiously conservative Archbishop of Canterbury was appointed to oversee compliance with the laws, and he used his office to be particularly tough on the Puritans. (There’s a bit of irony in that: today the word “puritan” is used disparagingly to describe religious conservatives.)

But the English government could not control handwritten manuscripts, and copies of speeches, poems, essays, ballads and the ilk, often laced with news, gossip, and commentary, were being passed hand-to-hand, recopied and shared, especially among the well-to-do. These were so in demand that’s several writers made a living through paid subscriptions to their “letters of news.”

Since printing foreign news was permitted, in the early 17th century printers started producing “corantos” or “corrants” — single sheets with letters and reports of battles and events from the Thirty Years War, ongoing in mainland Europe. Because this was also a battle between Protestant and Catholic faiths, English readers were keen to learn what was happening on the continent, so corantos proliferated. The growing spread of news and opinion worried Charles I enough that he had his Star Chamber ban them entirely in 1632. Around the same time, he abolished Parliament, ruling without it by decree from 1629-40.

Ah, but Charles was soon in trouble. His attempts to enforce religious conformity resulted in a Scottish rebellion in 1637. Since he needed money to pay his soldiers to quell it, he reluctantly recalled Parliament in 1640. When it reconvened, Parliament also abolished his Star Chamber, and with it went the means to regulate and censor printing.

With no controls over the presses, printers went wild. They published news, political satires, speeches, opinions, religious tracts… anything the public would buy. , “Newsbooks” — forerunners of modern newspapers — were published on a weekly schedule. A Royalist newsbook was quickly put into print to offer official news and views. Charles himself got into the act, publishing a pamphlet in response to another, critical pamphlet called the “Grand Remonstrance.” Both pieces prompted others to write in support or opposition of the stated views.

In the 1630s, while the Star Chamber controlled the presses, there were 624 licensed titles published per year. After it was abolished, that went to more than 2,000 in 1641, more than 4,000 in 1642, and by 1660 about 40,000 pieces had been published (about 22,000 of which are in the British Library). And as might be expected, there were also the first complaints about fake news: “scurrilous and fictitious pamphlets…rumours mixt with falsity and scandalism.”

As a result of this uncontrolled explosion of expressed opinions, ideas, and views, in 1643 Parliament passed a law to again license and control printing. But it was ineffective while the Civil War raged. And into this fight over censorship waded John Milton and his Areopagitica.

Milton wrote that London was full of people who had new ideas that deserved to be in print and that readers deserved to be able to discuss, argue, dispute, and comment on them, that reading and thinking and arguing made a wider, more knowing nation:

…this vast city: a city of refuge, the mansion house of liberty, encompassed and surrounded with his protection; the shop of war hath not there more anvils and hammers waking, to fashion out the plates and instruments of armed justice in defence of beleaguered truth, than there be pens and heads there, sitting by their studious lamps, musing, searching, revolving new notions and ideas wherewith to present, as with their homage and their fealty, the approaching Reformation: others as fast reading, trying all things, assenting to the force of reason and convincement. What could a man require more from a nation so pliant and so prone to seek after knowledge? What wants there to such a towardly and pregnant soil, but wise and faithful labourers, to make a knowing people, a nation of prophets, of sages, and of worthies? We reckon more than five months yet to harvest; there need not be five weeks; had we but eyes to lift up, the fields are white already.

He added that such disputes and debates were also good for religion and would strengthen the public’s faith,

Where there is much desire to learn, there of necessity will be much arguing, much writing, many opinions; for opinion in good men is but knowledge in the making. Under these fantastic terrors of sect and schism, we wrong the earnest and zealous thirst after knowledge and understanding which God hath stirred up in this city. What some lament of, we rather should rejoice at, should rather praise this pious forwardness among men, to reassume the ill-deputed care of their religion into their own hands again. A little generous prudence, a little forbearance of one another, and some grain of charity might win all these diligences to join, and unite in one general and brotherly search after truth; could we but forgo this prelatical tradition of crowding free consciences and Christian liberties into canons and precepts of men. I doubt not, if some great and worthy stranger should come among us, wise to discern the mould and temper of a people, and how to govern it, observing the high hopes and aims, the diligent alacrity of our extended thoughts and reasonings in the pursuance of truth and freedom, but that he would cry out as Pyrrhus did, admiring the Roman docility and courage: If such were my Epirots, I would not despair the greatest design that could be attempted, to make a Church or kingdom happy.

Milton never imagined a “great and worthy stranger” who, instead of admiring the nation’s docility, would mould it to his own ends, make use of people’s willingness to listen to his message (and gullible enough to believe it), exploit the tools of communication to spread his own agenda into the hearts and minds of the populace. He didn’t imagine Donald Trump or Vladimir Putin.

In fact, Milton thought that an enlightened populace could never be returned to ignorance. Once the door of knowledge was opened, it was impossible to close:

Ye cannot make us now less capable, less knowing, less eagerly pursuing of the truth, unless ye first make yourselves, that made us so, less the lovers, less the founders of our true liberty. We can grow ignorant again, brutish, formal and slavish, as ye found us; but you then must first become that which ye cannot be, oppressive, arbitrary and tyrannous, as they were from whom ye have freed us. That our hearts are now more capacious, our thoughts more erected to the search and expectation of greatest and exactest things, is the issue of your own virtue propagated in us; ye cannot suppress that, unless ye reinforce an abrogated and merciless law, that fathers may dispatch at will their own children. And who shall then stick closest to ye, and excite others? not he who takes up arms for coat and conduct, and his four nobles of Danegelt. Although I dispraise not the defence of just immunities, yet love my peace better, if that were all. Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.

I wonder what he would have thought about the flat-earthers, the anti-vaxxers, the chemtrail and fake-moon-landing conspiracists, the Trump-won-MAGA-hatters, the insurrectionists in the US capitol and in the truckers’ convoys. Knowledge, facts, science, even common sense are easily denied by the conspiracy holders.

Milton’s words still ring true in the arguments for free speech today: “Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.” But Milton was naive to believe that people would be responsible and wise about their use of that liberty, or that others would not try to exploit it for more sinister ends.

Not so others.** In 1895, French sociologist Gustave Le Bon wrote a groundbreaking work titled, The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind. In it, he wrote that,

Crowds have always undergone the influence of illusions. Whoever can supply them with illusions is easily their master. Whoever attempts to destroy their illusions is always their victim.

Supply the crowd with illusion… does that sound familiar? Does Donald Trump come to mind again? Or perhaps Pierre Polievre? The alt-right is a cauldron of illusion.

In his 1916 book, The Instincts of the Herd in Peace and War, British psychologist Wilfred Trotter wrote that the individual,

…is more sensitive to the voice of the herd than to any other influence… it is the source of his moral codes, of the sanctions of his ethics and philosophy. It can endow him with energy, courage, and endurance, and can as easily take these away.

And then came journalist Walter Lippmann, whose 1922 book, Public Opinion, remains influential a century later. Lippman believed people’s sense of reality was shaped by “pseudo-environments,” guided by “pictures in their heads,” and by a “repertory of fixed impressions.” He wrote that preconceptions governed “the whole process of perception” that “mark out certain objects as familiar or strange, emphasizing the difference, so that slightly familiar is seen as very familiar, and the somewhat strange is sharply alien.” (emphasis added)

This certainly applies to conspiracy theory believers, cult members, the pseudo-religious Talingelists, MAGA-hat-wearers, Fox-TV-watchers, and many others today. As political essayist Eric Alterman wrote:

Lippmann famously compared the average citizen to a deaf spectator sitting in the back row. He does not know what is happening, why it is happening, what ought to happen. “He lives in a world he cannot see, does not understand and is unable to direct.” Journalism, with its weakness for sensationalism, made things worse. Governance was better left to a “specialized class of men” with inside information. No one expects a steel-worker to understand physics, so why should he be expected to understand politics?

The ordinary citizen, Lippmann wrote, depended on stereotypes to make sense of the real issues and events in the world. And that these could be manipulated by the elites to allow the people to see the “larger political environment” the elites controlled. Lippman felt managing mass perception this way would avoid the descent from democracy into authoritarianism, but the same techniques have long been employed to accelerate that move (e.g., Goebbels, Lenin, Stalin, and Mussolini were all masters at propaganda).

Propaganda was not unknown to Milton; the Catholic Church had practiced it for centuries, and Protestants were no slouches in responding with their own. Martin Luther basically built the Reformation on a concentrated, well-managed PR and publication campaign. Both Royalists and Parliamentarians used propaganda to promote their views during the Civil War. Once the technology was available to reach a wide (mass) audience, propaganda has never let up. Its spread has only accelerated with each new technology.

Milton was right in that you cannot suppress ideas, be they good or bad. You cannot for long control the expression of beliefs and opinions. And he was right that no government can be really effective in controlling the means to communicate.

Sadly, however, Milton’s optimism that truth would win in the battle with falsehood was misplaced. As we’ve seen, especially in the past decade as the use of social media platforms grew and spread, truth is far too often the loser in the battle for hearts and minds. And equally unfortunate, Milton’s faith in the wisdom of the crowd to distinguish between the two has proven risibly naive.


* The figures are taken from Tom Standage’s book, Writing on the Wall: Social Media, the First 2,000 Years, chapter 5 (Bloomsbury, NY, 2013). I highly recommend his book as both entertaining and informative.

** The quotes from early 20th century writers are taken from Stuart Ewen’s introduction to the reprint of Edward Bernay’s book, Crystallizing Public Opinion (Ig Publishing, Brooklyn, NY, 2011; originally published in 1923)

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One comment

  1. When the parliamentarians won the Civil War, censorship returned to England under Oliver Crowell (as it usually does under tyrants; look at Putin’s Russia, Iraq, North Korea, and conservative Islamic states for modern examples) It lapsed after his death, was restored under Charles II, and finally lapsed in 1695 after Parliament spent too much time arguing over picayune details in the bill to renew it. After that, freedom of the press was more or less guaranteed in England.

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