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Milton On Free Speech

February 17, 2007

Litlove’s superb post in defense of free speech reminded me of words of John Milton, from his Areopagitica — to this day the best consideration of the necessity of free speech I have read.

Good and evil we know in the field of this world grow up together almost inseparably; and the knowledge of good is so involved and interwoven with the knowledge of evil, and in so many cunning resemblances hardly to be discerned, that those confused seeds which were imposed upon Psyche as an incessant labour to cull out, and sort asunder, were not more intermixed. It was from out the rind of one apple tasted, that the knowledge of good and evil, as two twins cleaving together, leaped forth into the world. And perhaps this is that doom which Adam fell into of knowing good and evil, that is to say of knowing good by evil. As therefore the state of man now is; what wisdom can there be to choose, what continence to forbear without the knowledge of evil? He that can apprehend and consider vice with all her baits and seeming pleasures, and yet abstain, and yet distinguish, and yet prefer that which is truly better, he is the true wayfaring Christian.

I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary but slinks out of the race, where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat. Assuredly we bring not innocence into the world, we bring impurity much rather; that which purifies us is trial, and trial is by what is contrary. That virtue therefore which is but a youngling in the contemplation of evil, and knows not the utmost that vice promises to her followers, and rejects it, is but a blank virtue, not a pure; her whiteness is but an excremental whiteness. […] Since therefore the knowledge and survey of vice is in this world so necessary to the constituting of human virtue, and the scanning of error to the confirmation of truth, how can we more safely, and with less danger, scout into the regions of sin and falsity than by reading all manner of tractates and hearing all manner of reason? And this is the benefit which may be had of books promiscuously read. [emphasis mine]

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One comment

  1. I read this last Sunday morning, but didn’t have time to comment then. I remember struggling through Paradise Lost in college and then dreading having been assigned to read Areopagitica. But, I was blown away by Milton’s reasoning. This is one of the few pieces from the time period that I remember. In the years since college, I have, from time to time, mentioned this piece when involved in discussions about free speech. Almost without exception I have found such mentions falling upon blank faces totally unfamiliar (and uninterested) in reading Milton’s great argument. Thank you for providing the link. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it again after many years. It was an usual Sunday morning of reading for me — this piece and a long passage from Emerson.



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