LaBreche, Ben “Areopagitica and the Limits of Pluralism.” In Milton Studies. Volume 54. Edited by Laura L. Knoppers. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 2013.
A number of competing views of Milton’s Areopagitica exist. Some see Milton as arguing for liberalism or as playing a role in its development. Others disagree and sever Milton from liberalism. Still others view the work as political work that makes various concessions to bring various factions on board—but at the cost of logical coherence.
LaBreche argues “that Milton’s pamphlet does possess and underling logic.” But the conflict is there “because it reflects Milton’s twofold argument for both religious and discursive freedom.” As a result arguments for religious freedom get qualified lest religious freedom limit freedom of discourse. Likewise, arguments for freedom of speech get qualified lest religious freedom be limited.
For instance, emphasis on freedom of religion could give Catholicism the space to grow powerful enough to limit freedom of speech. Or an emphasis on rational discourse could lead to limitation of religion on the grounds that certain religions are unreasonable and therefore untrue.
LaBreche then surveys parallel writes from the 1640s and finds that they share the same concerns and the same tensions found in Milton. LaBreche also concludes that the same tensions appear “in discussions of religion and politics” by thinkers such as Jürgen Hambermas and Charles Taylor.
This leads LaBreche to conclude that unqualified freedom of discourse and unqualified freedom of religion are not possible. This is particularly the case, he observes, “for beleivers whose worldviews emphasize aboslute methaphysical truths, divine punishments and rewards, apocalyptic eschatology, and restirctions on contact with outsiders,” He notes that one thinker, José Casanova suggests that “‘religion may enter the public sphere and assume a public form only if it accepts the inviolable right to privacy and the sanctity of the principle of freedom of conscience’ and if it defends ‘all modern freedoms and rights.'” LaBreceh observes that by this position “he has excluded all traditional religion and many forms of contemporary religion.” And yet this is the position that La Breche comes around to: “I would thus suggest that our task does not lie in bringing an ever greater variety of religious voicse to bear in discursive politics, but rather in grappling ethically with our inability to include all religious perspectives in the policy making of liberal democracies: this, ultimately, is the lesson of the conflicted tracts of the 1640s.”
As one who believes in absolute metaphysical truths and divine punishments and rewards, this isn’t a comforting conclusion. It’s a statement that I’m not welcome in liberal democracy. And yet, I think LaBreche has hit on a truth. It really isn’t possible for all perspectives to be included in the policy-making of liberal democracy. (LaBreche critiques William Connolly by noting he “can preserve his theoretical commitment to pluralism only by unrealistically imagining politics as an endless debate unbounded by the progressive narrowing of rational discussion, voting, and decision making.”) Lockean toleration worked as long as it did because the various tolerated religions (Protestant denominations, Roman Catholicism, Judaism) basically shared the same practical morality. As the shared moral consensus has frayed pluralism becomes both more desirable and more elusive. To this LaBreche has no real answer. Who determines which religious (and why not include non-religious?) perspectives will be included and which will be excluded. What will prevent inclusion and exclusion from being a mere power play? What prevents reverting back to the kind of situation that led to the seventeenth-century toleration tracts being written in the first place? I’m not sure ayone has an answer to those questions.
Illo, John. “The Misreading of Milton.” In Radical Perspectives in the Arts. Edited by Lee Baxandall. Baltimore: Penguin, 1972.
John Illo, writing from the left, rejects the idea that Milton’s Areopagitica is a liberal (in the classical sense of term) tract about freedom of the press. He notes that on the liberal reading the very title, Areopagitica is a mystery, for the Areopagus had the “power to examine and regulate public and private morality and behaviour” (180). Illo calims that “the Areopagus’ regulation of public and private morality is not alien to Milton’s plan for a commonwealth of saints, either in the earlier Reason of Church Government or in the more enlightened Areopagitica” (182).
Illo observes that what Milton opposes in Areopagitica is “the censorship-before-publication of Protestant authors” (181). He approved, however, “subsequent censorship of authors of ‘erroneous things and scandalous to honest life'” (181). Milton was also willing for a continuing prior censorship of Roman Catholic materials. In essence, Milton is arguing for the toleration of Presbyterians, Independents and other Protestant writings, which he saw as necessary for the success of Protestantism in England.
Illo sees little difference between Milton’s Areopagitica and the Westminster Confession’s statements both affirming freedom of conscience and the responsibility of the magistrate to suppress “all blasphemies and heresies.”
Kendall, Willmoore. “How to Read Milton’s Areopagitica,” The Journal of Politics 22, vol. 3 (Aug. 1960): 439-473.
Willmoore Kendall, writing from the right, rejects the idea that the Areopagitica is arguing for freedom of thought and speech. Kendall argues that too often readers have taken Milton’s narrow argument against prior censorship and read it as if he is arguing, like John Stuart Mill, for an entirely open society. Kendall notes, however, that Milton, in the course of the Areopagitica, “reveals for us and praises the major characteristics of the kind of society of which he approves” (463). Kendall enumerates these in four points: “(1) It is a society that regards itself as founded upon religious truth … and as having in consequence an obligation to protect and propagate a certain corpus of religious doctrine…. (2) It is a homogeneous society” with regards to the fundamentals of religion, even if there are differences on indifferent matters. “(3) It is a structured, that is, hierarchical, society … where the ‘common people’ know their place over against their intellectual and moral betters. (4) It is a society that thinks of itself as both entitled and obligated to see to it that both ‘church and commonwealth … have a vigilant eye how books demean themselves as well as men'” (463-65).
In making his argument Kendall has to reckon with what he calls “libertarian” passages in the Areopagitica. He notes that these passages support a John Stuart Mill approach to liberty only when they are taken out of context. For instance, at one point Milton argues that instead of being content with the old truths, gazing “at the ‘blaze’ of Calvin and Zwingli,” the discovery of new truths should be encouraged. However, Milton is not claiming, as Mill would, that it is possible that “our whole present corpus of knowledge may well turn out to be erroneous.” Or to stick with Milton’s metaphor, “there is no wiff of a suggestion that the blaze may turn out to have been an optical illusion, the light to have been darkness” (452). The freedom of conscience and the liberties that Milton is arguing for are constrained within the bounds of existing Protestant truth. In addition, Milton has an aristocratic (in the Aristotelian rather than ancestral sense), not a democratic, view of who should be exercising this liberty to seek out new truths. This is indicated by the opening quotation from Euripides. There are certain men who are more able to deal in these matters than others. Thus the libertarian passages in Areopagitica operate within certain bounds.
Kendall next turns to passages that seem to indicate that truth will inevitably win out over error. He again argues that these passages not be abstracted from the overall argument of the Areopagitica, noting, “Milton can write: ‘…it is not possible for men to sever the wheat from the tares, the good fish from the other fry; that must be the angels’ ministry at the end of mortal things. Yet if all cannot be of one mind—as who looks they should be?—this doubtless is more wholesome, more prudent, that all should be tolerated rather than all compelled.’ And go on to say in the same paragraph: “I mean not tolerated popery and open superstition, [etc.].’ To speak of ‘contradiction’ or ‘inconsistency’ here obviously will not do, unless we go further and assume we are dealing with a writer who is feeble-minded. We have learned to read the Areopagitica only when we can read this passage and not find in it any inconsistency” (461, n. 58). Thus when Milton says things like “Let…[Truth] and Falsehood grapple?” and “[Who] ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter,” it is important to remember that Truth is something Milton believes they know—not something that is merely being sought for (462, brackets and ellipses Kendall’s). Further, it does not follow that a “free and open” encounter is one in which there is no public policy to ensure that the encounter is “free and open.”
So what is Milton’s argument in Areopagitica? Kendall summarizes it thus:
There are good books and there are bad books, books that teach good and books that teach evil, books that teach truth and books that teach error. A society that denies these distinctions, which are correlative to the distinctions between good and evil and truth and falsehood themselves, or that, while recognizing them, denies itself the capacity to intervene when and how it sees fit to prevent the harm that bad books can on occasion do, is no society. Now: we start out from the fact that Milton asserts the book-burning principle, deems it axiomatic (“who denies?”), and puts it forward as an integral part of his teaching; but he in effect adds (by mentioning no machinery, and, as we have just seen, by arguing plainly that there must be none, if by machinery we mean a censorship), to our great surprise: But no book-burners! To which we reply, out of our superior wisdom: Either book-burners, or no book-burning principle: you must choose. To which Milton rejoins: I refuse to choose; I shall have the book-burning principle, and no book-burners; the connection between the two exists only in your own minds. If we have book-burners, then our society loses the benefits that bad books, properly used, can confer. If we do not have the book-burning principle, we place ourselves at the mercy of the harm that bad books, improperly used, and good ones, too, can on occasion do. Society can afford neither of these luxuries.” [468-69]
Kendall thinks that Milton envisages a society, not in which government intervenes not at all in censorship (sometimes it may be necessary), but in which the society as a whole recognizes the distinction between good and bad books and in which such books are used properly by the proper persons. In other words, Milton maintains a distinction between good and bad books, desires that the bad books not be widely spread or do mischief, but is not convinced that prior censorship is the solution. Rather, the solution is by have society itself recognize the distinction to be morally formed to make the right responses.
Fish Stanley, “Driving from the Letter: Truth and Indeterminacy in Milton’s Areopagitica.” In How Milton Works. Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2001.
Fish begins his essay by contrasting the readings of Illo and Kendall with the popular understanding that Areopagitica is an argument for free speech. Fish states his purpose explicitly: “In what follows, I would like to continue in the direction indicated by the work of Illo and Kendall and advance a series of theses even more radical (at least in terms of received opinion) than theirs. Specifically, I will argue that Milton is finally, and in a profound way, not against licensing, and that he has almost no interest at all in the ‘freedom of the press’ as an abstract or absolute good (and, indeed, does not unambiguously value freedom at all)” (189).
At one point Fish summarizes the argument of Areopagitica and his method of tracing it:
“That strategy is one we have been tracking from the beginning of this chapter: it involves encouraging the reader to a premature act of concluding or understanding, which is then undone or upset by the introduction of a new and complicating perspective. As we have seen, this happens not once but repeatedly, as the reader is first allowed to assume that the point at issue is the purity or impurity to be found in books, and then is told that the content of books (or any other object) is a thing indifferent relative to the purity or impurity already in persons, and finally (or is it finally?) is reminded that all persons are congenitally impure (‘we bring impurity much rather’) and that therefore the problem must be entirely rethought. The result is, of course, disorienting, but it is also salutary, for in the process of being disoriented the reader is provoked to just the kind of labor and exercise that is necessary to the constitution of his or her own virtue. Thus, by continually defaulting on its promise—the promise of separating the true from the false—the Areopagitica offers itself as a means by which its readers can realize that promise in their very activities. In this way, the tract becomes at once an emblem and a casualty of the lesson it teaches: the lesson that truth is not the property of any external form, even of a form that proclaims this very truth…. It is a strategy supremely pedagogical, and one that Milton both describes and names within the year in Tetrachordon, as he turns his attention to the manner of Christ’s teaching. Milton is particularly struck by Christ’s habit of breaking the external, written law in order to fulfill the law of charity; and he compares Christ’s actions with the gnomic form of his precepts, and finds that both have the advantage of preventing his followers from too easily identifying the way of virtue with a portable and mechanical rule. [204-5].
Fish does, in the end, however express plainly what he takes to be Milton’s point:
The moral, then, is not ‘Seek and ye shall find,’ but ‘Seek and ye shall become.’ And what we shall become, in a curious Miltonic way, is a licenser, someone who is continually exercising a censorious judgment of the kind that Milton displays when he casually stigmatizes much of Greek and Roman literature as loose or impious or scurrilous. This is the judgment not of one who is free of constraints but of one whose inner constraints are so powerful that they issue immediately and without reflection in acts of discrimination and censure. Ironically it is only by permitting what licensing would banish—the continual flow of opinions, arguments, reasons, agendas—that the end of licensing—the fostering of truth—can be accomplished; accomplished not by the external means that licensing would provide, but by making ourselves into the repository of the very values that licensing misidentifies when it finds them in a world free of defiling books. Books are no more the subject of Areopagitica than is free speech; both are subordinate to the process they make possible, the process of endless and proliferating interpretations whose goal is not the clarification of truth, but making us into members of her incorporate body so that we can be finally what the Christ of Paradise Regained is said already to be. [211-12]