Reflections on Milton & Censorship
March 03rd, 2009
[When former UBC professor Jan de Bruyn was living in Sechelt, there was a public outcry by a few vocal parents about a book of contemporary poetry that had found its way to the school library. The occasion prompted his consideration of the subject and resulted in the following remarks which were delivered by him at St. Helen’s Church Hall on Sunday, September 17, 1995 as the Second Annual Helen Dawe Lecture. “I had founded the series of lectures the year before,” says de Bruyn, “as a fundraiser for the local library. Howie White was the first speaker; I did numbers two and three. Whether the series survived, I do not know.” Here are de Bruyn’s remarks regarding censorship.]
We in the Western World treasure our democratic institutions. We have a large measure of political freedom; we have religious freedom and freedom of movement. We have a free press; we have a system of education which provides equally to all the opportunity to acquire the basic necessities for maintaining these freedoms. Without this education, it is important to remember, we would all be in shackles. The struggle of civilized people to achieve these freedoms has been hard, arduous and often bloody. None of the freedoms we have could have been achieved, nor can they be maintained, without the basic freedom – freedom of expression.
“Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties,” said John Milton, one of the greatest and certainly one of the earliest protagonists of freedom in our literature and our history, whose Areopagitica, published in 1644, has never been superceded as the most significant utterance on the subject of freedom of expression.
In Milton’s time political and religious freedom had not yet been won in England. When Mary was on the throne she imposed Roman Catholicism upon the country; her sister, Elizabeth outlawed the Catholic Church and all the various manifestations of Puritanism, and made the newly-invented Anglicanism the religion of the state. Dissent, either Catholic or Puritan, was punishable by law. When Milton wrote the Areopagitica, the puritans were in the ascendant; in the struggle for political and religious freedom, they had won political power and were actually waging war against their King. Milton had supported the movement with his pen and was enthusiastically sympathetic to their cause. When his Presbyterian brethren in Parliament attempted to stifle opposition by imposing censorship upon the nation through a system of licensing all publications (or refusing to license them), he spoke out valiantly and forcefully. His utterances on the subject set the ideal before his readers and assumed an intelligence and tolerance in them equal to his own. This, of course, is the only way to proceed if advances are to be achieved. Without ideals we become mired in custom, convention and various bad habits. But even Milton’s ideal of freedom of expression was limited by his exclusion of “popery and open superstition, which, as it extirpates all religious and civil supremacies, so itself should be extirpate.”
It is necessary to recognize that in the real (as opposed to the ideal) world, the freedoms enjoyed by any society cannot be absolute. The reason that that is so is the fact that we are not all created equal. We are not all endowed with the same quality of intelligence, the same degree of sensitivity, the same judgmental capacity, the same aesthetic sensibility and consequently, such freedoms as we have are inhibited by our own limitations. Fortunately, every generation has its Miltons, though not all of them reach the stature of the original, but there are always people who will ably and effectively champion good causes which may be under attack from those who govern, the Philistines in our society, or fanatical factions in our society motivated by a variety of rigid and unreasoned attitudes. Consequently, although our basic freedoms sometimes come under attack, the ideal Milton espoused is reiterated by those who counter-attack.
But at the same time as we recognize the ideal as the desirable end, we must also accept the fact that now as in Milton’s time, reality must perforce fall short. Social attitudes and conventions impose a kind of silent censorship; the current morality of a culture has a similar effect and the very nature of democracy results in much of that cultural climate being legislated, by those who represent us, into laws and regulations which create restraints upon our freedoms. Nevertheless, though we fall short of perfection, we do have a very generous range in which to express ourselves without fear of prosecution, either social or political. And if we are perfectly honest and true to ourselves, we would probably all recognize within ourselves a little censor figure who is ready ‘to draw the line’ somewhere.
As citizens of a democratic country, one indeed which is by many, and certainly by me, considered to be the best country in the world to live in, it is our duty to protect the freedoms that we have and to prevent their erosion by the ever-present social, moral, religious and political forces which may, in the pursuit of their self-interests, seek to restrict our freedom of expression. Any stifling of expression, be it in language, in art, or in behaviour, is censorship
But let us be clear. As I have said, no freedom is absolute. There is a kind of accepted censorship to which we have all agreed. Insofar as we live in a democratic society. Our elected representatives who govern us with our consent have codified this censorship as laws and other regulations within the framework of which we carry on our daily lives without complaint. There are always some for whom fre3edom and order are not enough; they prefer license and chaos. Some time ago, for example, there was a court case in Nova Scotia in which a family sought to establish that they had the constitutional right to engage in incest. The law censors this type of behaviour with the consent of society at large which does not consider the prohibition of incest to be an infringement on freedom of expression.
While the politicians we elect legislate a certain degree of censorship in order to provide an orderly, safe and acceptable way of life for those they govern and to whom they are responsible, society itself also imposes a sort of censorship by developing a certain cultural climate in which a network of conventions, beliefs and moral attitudes creates an unwritten, but well understood code according to which its members are expected to conduct themselves. This cultural climate is subject to modification; it is not carved in stone like the Ten Commandments. The mores of any living, vital culture fluctuate like fashions. People, for example, of my generation, were brought up to think of marriage as the centerpiece of family life, the sine qua non of social existence. Extra-marital sex, both pre and post, was absolutely taboo. Children born out of wedlock were designated as illegitimate, and their mothers were social outcasts. All this has changed and as our children were growing up into the new climate, we had to remove our censorious strictures from behaviour we had been taught to abhor. As society adopts new attitudes, expression changes to reflect the new ideas and the new morality which consequently begin to appear in literature and art, whereas in previous times the expression of these ideas and attitudes had been considered unfit for those media.
As a consequence of this state of flux, there will always be some who are unable to accept the new fashion; as a result they will attempt to prevent the publication or distribution of books, magazines, works of art which reflect the new intellectual or moral climate. We will have an outcry from such persons if a poem in a collection of contemporary verse offends their sensibilities by its too explicit references to sexual activity, or by its use of diction once considered blasphemous, or wicked, or obscene, but in the current moral weather, entirely inoffensive. Schoolboards are attacked for allowing certain books to appear on the curriculum or on the shelves of school libraries; art galleries are exhorted to refuse to display the works of certain artists because they are ‘obscene’ or deal with subject matter that the public ought not to be permitted to see. To repress any work of art or literature in response to such objections by the few is to impose censorship, because it restricts the freedom of the many. If, however, the complaint is practically universal, that is, if the many object, then the suppression of the material is legitimate. That is how democracy works. For example, if hate literature, rife with falsehoods of the kind produced by the Zundels among us, were to appear on the shelves of our school libraries, I am sure there would be a massive public outcry to which the responsible bureaucrats would have to respond.
This sort of societal deliberation on the subject of censorship is a not infrequent occurrence; it is not necessarily to be deplored. Its appearance is the natural consequence of our democratic organization and gives us the opportunity to flex our political muscles, to muster our defensive intellectual forces, to bring to the forefront of our minds the rational elements that form the basis of our freedoms. “I cannot praise,” says Milton, “a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies forth and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat.”
The principle of freedom of expression which is one of our most prized possessions does often, then, come under attack and requires of society that it come to its defense. If this freedom means that we sometimes have to contemplate wickedness, obscenity or sheer bad taste, these do not necessarily contaminate or defile us unless we allow them to do so. “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 war-faring Christian,” says Milton. The rejection, rather than the banning of ideas which are in some way offensive is what is required of us.
The major difficulty about censorship is its judgmental constituent. Someone must decide what is to be repressed and on what grounds. And who among us is infallible? Who knows for a certainty the exact boundary between art and deception, between eroticism and prurience, between fantasy and falsehood? If we sanction censorship in any but its total social context, we must confer on someone, as Milton points out, “the grace of infallibility and uncorruptedness.” And he goes on, “if it be true that a wise man like a good refiner, can gather gold out of the drossiest volume, and that a fool will be a fool with the best book, yea, or without book, there is no reason why we should deprive a wise man of any advantage to his wisdom, while we seek to restrain from a fool that which being restrained will be no hindrance to his folly.”
Society seems able to maintain its prized possession of freedom of expression in spite of the recurring occasional storms that interrupt the even flow of our cultural life. However, there are forms of censorship over which society has less or no control. There are subtle forces at work of which we are entirely unaware: political expediency, corporate self interest and economic pressures may create situations in which free expression is stifled. We are all familiar with the scenario of customs officers seizing magazines or books at the border because they bare considered in some way disruptive.; we hear, sometimes years later of reports prepared at great cost to the public purse, having been filed away without their substance being made public or their recommendations aired and acted upon. The reasons for such repression are almost always political; the information is perhaps damaging to a section of the electorate sympathetic to the party in power; or the action recommended is contrary to the party’s basic policy, although perhaps of significant benefit to the public at large.
Our rather ambling survey of our subject so far suggests that although we prize our freedom of expression and although it is very free and liberal, a degree of censorship exists, some of which we condone, although we are in principle, and as citizens of a democratic nation, opposed to censorship; and some of which we oppose as an encroachment on the legitimate areas of the freedom. How can we explain this apparent inconsistency?
I have already pointed to the impossibilities of achieving absolutes in the realm of freedom because of the great variety of capacities and opinions among us and the consequent necessity to protect society as a whole from the danger posed by those who confuse freedom with license. For the same reason, it is virtually impossible to define the abstractions which identify censorable substance – pornography, obscenity, blasphemy, hatred and so forth – with the result that the lines, drawn where it is assumed society approves, will always be in the wrong place in the minds of some, usually those who are either ultra-conservative or ultra radical in their attitude to freedom of expression.
Censorship, of course, is not a cure for wrongheadedness, sickmindedness, stupidity, hatred, anti-social attitudes or any other deplorable baseness that finds its way into books, magazines, art galleries and the mysterious realms of the Internet, or onto walls, fences and windows. And censorship, while powerless to prevent the basest elements of human nature from finding some way to reach an audience of like-minded individuals, often creates so much interest in the banned material that what little audience there might have been originally grows larger rather than smaller.. Not only is this negative result a frequent consequence, but also censorship may prevent something worthy and valuable from becoming available to the general public. Milton points out the danger by reminding us that “God and evil we know in the field of the world grow up together almost inseparably.” As a result, the suppression of some form of expression on the grounds that it has something of evil in it is a dangerous practice that might well deprive us of something of value. It is an act of murder, even worse than murder, in Milton’s eyes. In what are perhaps the most memorable phrases in Areopagitica, Milton give freedom of expression the most exalted humanistic definition. “For books”, he says “are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul whose progeny they are;” “… as good almost as kill a man, as kill a good book; who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God’s image; but he who destroys a good book kills reason itself; kills the image of God as it were in the eye. Many a man lives a burden to the earth, but a good book is the precious life blood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life … a kind of homicide may be thus committed, sometimes a martyrdom, and if it extend to the whole impression, a kind of massacre, whereof the execution ends not in the slaying of an elemental life, but strikes at that ethereal and fifth essence, the breath of reason itself, slays an immortality rather than a life.”
I intend now to complete this discourse by trying to reach some firm conclusions on the basis of what we have discovered in our discursive journey across the surface of the rather complicated subject of censorship.
First of all, we realize that censorship is inimical to democracy. Without freedom of expression, democracy will falter and die; witness Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, the Soviet Union, Franco’s Spain. In each of these the press was controlled by the government; opposition parties were outlawed and brutally persecuted. Freedom of expression is basis to democracy.
Secondly, even in a democratic state, freedom off speech (or any of our prized freedoms) cannot be absolute. Some measure of censorship (or other sorts of restraints) within the framework of the law and other democratically created legislation is necessary to ensure an orderly society in which the welfare of and other democratically created legislation is necessary to ensure an orderly society in which the welfare of the vast majority is the guiding principle. Always allowing for the exception of those on the extreme fringes of the moral, intellectual and political spectrum, we approve and accept as normal the degree of censorship so instituted. It is merely a reflection of the nature of the society in general.
Thirdly, no condition of legal or other socially accepted censorship can be static. Since society changes its religious, moral and ethical concepts just as it modifies its fashions in dress and hairstyle, so there will be constant need to change the formulas which shape our behaviour.
Fourthly, given this state of flux, there will be constant demand from the minority who object to these changes to revert to earlier restrictions or to extend tolerance to what society as yet regards as reprehensible. The majority must resist such pressures if the democratic principles we espouse are to be preserved.
Fifthly, although admittedly the most liberal amongst us will often find that freedom of expression means that distasteful material, falsehood, and rubbish often confront us on the pages of books or magazines, or on the walls of art galleries, or among the sculptures in our public areas, we must remember that our job is not to suppress the offensive, but to create rational arguments to reveal the shortcomings of such material. Build good taste, expound the truth, and reveal the desirable qualities of good writing and good art. It is better to reform the audience for such deficient stuff than to attempt to destroy it by imposing censorship.
Finally, in the presence of literature, art, the products of the human intellect and imagination, it is prudent for us laymen to be humble rather than arrogant, tolerant rather than dismissive, receptive rather than resistant. Even the greatest artists now universally acknowledged suffered antagonistic criticism; consider Thomas Hardy, John Keats, John Milton; consider Beethoven, now acclaimed by all. He was in his day “widely criticized for his lack of elegance and measure, for his wildness. Even his Fifth Symphony – today the most popular of all symphonies – was held up by music teachers as an example of how not to start a symphony.” Writers and artists are frequently somewhat ahead of their times; we need, therefore, to make allowances for that and to be respectfully receptive. The discriminating will not find it difficult to divide the wheat from the chaff.
The pedagogue in me urges me to conclude with an exhortation. Freedom is often a demanding burden. Because we are free and live in a free society, we tend to take the benefits for granted, forgetting the responsibilities imposed upon us. These responsibilities – contributing to an intellectual and moral climate in which good literature, art, music and goodness can and will flourish, and defending the seedlings from the rude hands of those who would pluck them out as weeds – if adequately fulfilled, will preserve our freedom of expression and ensure that censorship does not exceed its proper function, which is to express the will of the majority for the welfare of all.
Essay Date: 1995