Ep.1: Areopagitica Today (Transcript)

Heya hey, welcome back my fellow Rebel Angels, this is The Milton Underground, where we analyze and deconstruct John Milton without the BS. In this episode, we are going to look at Milton’s political-theological tract Areopagitica. Over the course of the next hour, you and I are going to take a journey into the mind of this great piece and understand why most modern takes on it are full of brimstone. So, let’s begin…

[Cue theme music]

So… what is this thing that we are studying today, this “Areopagitica”? Besides having a strange— but badass! — name, it is a piece that Milton wrote in 1644. In it, Milton advocated that parliament shouldn’t censor books before they were published; at the time of writing Areopagitica, the English parliament had passed a bill the year before giving government censors the ability to edit and ban texts considered against the public good.

Now, later in this episode, I will talk a bit about the modern political uses of Areopagitica and how those uses often lead people astray into reactionary and usually idealist directions. But, for now, I want to briefly mention the concrete content of Areopagitica and then introduce you to an intriguing scholarly piece by Islam Issa extrapolating the situation Milton faced onto the Arab world.

So, what is vitally important to remember about Areopagitica? Well, firstly, it is that it is a theological text—meaning, it is concerned with religious practice and how that practice relates to society. Milton was not only a radical Puritan but embraced fringe views such as Dualism—or the idea that the soul and body were somehow separate yet joined. Milton wrote Areopagitica primarily for his own views to not be censored: after all, as all too many modern readers of Areopagitica miss, it was Milton who wrote in this famous tract that censorship would miss those books which ought to already be censored and instead censor innocent authors. Being censored was a reality which Milton himself had encountered even among those who otherwise had, in the past, supported his radical views; obviously, then, Milton needed an appeal which would return him to the mainstream. Indeed, as James Rovira, one such scholar of Areopagitica remarked, Milton is only nominally concerned about freedom of expression in general.

Why I wanted to dwell on that for just a tad was because, as we shall see, the historical situation of 17th century England is nearer to us today than we might initially think…

But, let’s take a canto break and regroup in a bit. When we come back, the Arabic Areopagitica

[Canto Break]

Welcome back: so, when we last left off, we had touched on a specific fact: namely, that Milton’s tract against licensing was more concerned with Milton’s own Protestant expression than the general expression of ideas. Ultimately, Milton contested the pre-publication censorship standards because, yes, they made it harder for him to express his own views; but, like any good polemic, Areopagitica’s worth is in its ability to find additional meaning through its actual argument against censorship: forget for a moment that the text is selfish, focus on that censorship, for whatever reasons it is employed, foreclose any effort at finding Truth by the reader—something which we might consider the thesis of Areopagitica (even if it is a bit of a jaded thesis in light of Milton’s own concerns).

We see similar notions about Truth expressed today in the Arab world. Islam Issa’s paper “Milton’s Areopagitica in the Arab World Today,” published during 2014 in the journal English Studies, Issa walks the reader through the multi-layered controversies of publishing a Christian text in a predominately Islamic society. Issa’s paper, then, helps open new ways for us to acknowledge the complicated legacy of Areopagitica.

As Issa states, their [and I quote] “paper will argue that, that there are numerous similarities between a number of Milton’s main arguments in Areopagitica and various aspects of Islamic belief and tradition.” [End quote] Issa, then, is concerned with freedom of speech in an inter-faith context—they want to know not just what Milton’s position on religious freedom of speech is but what it means when his seminal text is taken into an entirely new time and place. They continue, [and I quote] “It will also show that placing Milton’s on censorship into the context of the Arab world today, particularly Egypt, provides some provocative and useful parallels and insights” (84) [End quote].

And indeed, Issa is correct: throughout their paper, they point out to the reader several factoids that the average joe is likely not to know. Facts such as no censorship of Milton’s works have taken place in the Arab world, a reality which might be due to the translators religious self-censorship; hence, readers are confronted with a reality that Milton would not have had much concern over—censoring one’s self in advance of any government censor due to fear of offending religious sensibilities (84). Milton’s notions of censorship, then, become problematized: what was before a simple case of having the full content of books be recognized as part of a deeper engagement to know truth and purity, now becomes estranged as the censors themselves struggle with representing the word (of God).

It is here that Issa begins their engagement with Milton’s concept of a “trial of virtue,” where free will must choose goodness over evil after knowledge of evil has been acquired. Ergo and I quote, “Milton’s argument proposes that the avoidance of outwardly inappropriate texts results in the sidestepping of inevitable tests of purity” (87) [End quote]. If one sidesteps tests, then one might imagine that, as Milton wrote, a whole nation is too stupid to engage with thoughtful writings; Issa connects this concept to the Egyptian comedian Bassem Youssef, whose critical comedy both pre-and-post regime life has often left him between a rock and a hard-place while the [and I quote] “censorship [itself] often serves to show the insecurity of those [governmental figures] imposing it” (88). Issa connects hostility to Youssef’s performances to music and the heavenly spheres, which Milton compares with the pro-censoring populace as being dumb in the sense that they are deaf to the higher calling of those purity tests (89); it is an interesting comparison especially since Issa notes, and I quote, “Milton deems conformity to be ‘outward’, which implies that there is actually an element of superficiality associated with coherence to authority.” This makes sense since the act of conformity is usually an outward expression coerced onto the populace—as noted by Issa (and many other scholars of censorship and text banning) banning a text—a book, a film, a video game—usually makes them rabidly more popular than they would have otherwise been and so it is not surprising when Issa notes that censorship in Egypt—as is with the case of two films—The Square and the other The Beauty of the Soul—have been viewed millions of times in Egypt alone (90).

And yet, the truth may be, to a degree, subjective. So, if truth is guarded behind censorship, then it is a dualism (comprised one of objectivity and another of subjectivity). This was what led Milton to believe that one could be a “heretic” is one only listened to one’s pastor without listening to one’s heart—again, we encounter free will, which is required to find that truth sequestered away in books and allegedly protected by censors. Thus, we see a dialectic unfold between censoring texts to protect the(ir) truth and allowing those masses seeking truth to find their truths through means of purity tests.

In the Arabic translation of Areopagitica, this dialectic is upset. “Pastor” is translated as to something meaning “Shepard of the church” while “assembly” is translated to mean “majority” (91-2). Thus, and as we saw during the social unrest following the passing of Morsi’s regime to the military dictatorship, the majority—yes, as Issa remarks, is somewhat victim to choosing what their religious leaders say over what their personal conscience calls on them to do—but is able to upset this standoff through personal understanding.

Instead of jabbering myself over what this means, I will instead read you a lengthy quote from Issa’s paper. They write

 

 

This discussion of conviction points towards a further proposal made in Areopagitica; namely, the importance of understanding one’s beliefs, as opposed to just possessing them. This argument encompasses understanding doctrine; after all, in his tract, Milton was challenging the censorship of “heterodox” religious works specifically.60 As mentioned, the Islamic faith values knowledge, evident through its emphases on reading, as well as the story of Adam and the angels in which the human is given a unique ability to learn. Muhammad also states: “Knowledge is but by learning”,61 showing that knowledge requires active action. In Areopagitica, Milton notes that “our faith and knowledge thrives by exercise”,62 so rather than merely believing, one must question common belief and search for a personal truth. Similarly, Islamic teachings stress the importance of exercising the mind and body on matters of both faith and daily life. (92)

 

When Issa quotes Milton’s classic line on truth being like a fountain in that it must perpetually flow or otherwise sicken into a puddle, the quotation takes on extra oomph. In the Islamic tradition, after all, there are different signs for those who know, understand, and believe: again, to quote Issa, “it is evident that knowledge comes first, but that this must be followed by comprehension in order for belief to be fulfilled” (93). Therefore, when one talks of subjectivity and objectivity in truth-searching procedures, it is a three-folded dialectic between the personal, one’s state of knowledge (and whether it is fulfilled), as well as society.

Issa goes on to write that when Milton wrote of truth and knowledge, it was in situations of sectarianism (95). They observe that the contemporary Arab world is rife with sectarian divides just as it was in Milton’s time with Protestant sects. Indeed, often, this was what empowered governmental censorship in the first place, to police religious theological disputes, what Milton would call ‘leaders taking ill-care of their religions,’ just as numerous factions within Egypt—such as the Muslim Brotherhood—[and I quote], “[have] accused the past and present regimes of doing, and something which the Brotherhood themselves are accused heavily” (95). In order to overturn this status-quo, Milton recommended unity embellished with tolerance; something which, as Issa notes, could be seen as idealistic, especially in the context of the modern Middle East and Egypt, but has a plausible reality of happening since the Arab Spring [and I quote], “did create a sense of idealism, and showed temporarily that sectarian differences may indeed have been ‘fantastic terrors’, magnified and incited by governments and media in order to keep power” (96). But, when the people are united through an enlightened, if not idealistic, toleration, and free to think critically in their own understanding of belief motivated by practical exercise, great spaces are allowed to breathe, spaces such as great reforms and revolutions.

Okay, so that was Islam Issa’s thought-provoking paper and take on the Egyptian situation. Let’s end this canto with that and when we come back, we will unpack it some before finishing tonight’s program with an extrapolation onto today. And, as always, be sure to check out the companion website hosted over on wordpress—themiltonunderground.wordpress.com—for more ways to connect with literary history.

[Canto break]

And—we’re back!

So, what does Issa’s paper mean? What does it do for us living in the bosom of history’s foremost imperialist power?

In its most basic sense, Issa’s paper shows us that Milton’s writing has a transhistorical concern; a concern not only with press freedom but with how religion interacts within the social and literary establishment far beyond the Anglo-American world.

As we saw in Issa’s paper, Milton’s purpose in writing Areopagitica is for his own self-benefit; Milton’s views (militant Puritanism) couldn’t be propagated if his materials were suppressed (just try building any kind of mass organization without handing out propaganda materials): this was partly the point of Issa’s paper in that the conditions of the Egyptian press were often opportunistically used by the vying factions to gain influence. Likewise, Milton’s fundamental goal—though not one directly stated in Areopagitica— is to attack Catholicism and, obviously, one cannot do that if one’s theologically dissent materials are suppressed—a freedom of expression must be allowed for beliefs to circulate and gain currency with the masses; Areopagitica is a text that makes pragmatic demands against censorship in order for Milton to further his own anti-Catholic agenda—even if his same demands allows for Catholics to freely promote their views. (And all though we could make a protracted piece exploring this seemingly hypocritical dichotomy as it relates to Milton, that is another episode entirely.)

Now, I do not want to overstate this self-invested nature of Areopagitica—since, let us be honest, all written texts hold an ideological impetus to benefit their author. Instead, I mention the benefit it has to Milton because in recent times, for the past couple hundred years or so, Areopagitica has become reified: certain notions expressed in Milton’s pamphlet have become twisted from their historical context and somehow animated to signify ideas alien to Milton’s thesis.

There are many misinterpretations of Milton’s ideas. Some come from the academy while others come from misbegotten political groups (especially libertarians!). Today, I will briefly touch on a misinterpretation that originates from the politicized academic sphere, but could, and usually does, also dwell in the margins of everyday society.

Today’s example comes from a YouTube lecture published by professor Scott Masson. I found while I was browsing YouTube for enlightening—one might even say “Forbidden Fruit” material— on Areopagitica (alas, the search will continue). Masson talks about Milton’s Areopagitica and like any half-decent instructor relates the ideas of the Renaissance to Today while situating Areopagitica—as many interpretations do—as a defense of free speech. However, where Masson goes awry is in his polarizing, and quite frankly condescending take on “trigger warnings” and “Fake News.” Relating Areopagitica as a defense of free speech par excellence vis-à-vis John Stewart Mill, and indeed, even going as far to say that Areopagitica was the first defense of free expression in the history of Man (!), Masson insinuates that had Milton been alive today, he would be a defender of “triggering” content as well as all news fake.

Masson begins his lecture with an odd claim, that globalization is a threat to free speech: since he doesn’t elaborate on how globalization is a threat to free speech, I had to piece together his watered-down Rightist views from a video interview he did on so-called “Cultural Marxism,” an asinine conspiracy theory stating—among other things—that Marxists use culture to enact a slow erasure of Christian identity politics. Masson, then, seems to believe in conspiracy-ridden globalization, perhaps one even riddled with anti-Semitic connotations (though perhaps not). Whatever he exactly believes, though, it is clear that to him that globalization is a threat to free speech because of its ability to thread together the many cultures of the world that then erases the imagined identity of White middle-class Christian (men).

What underpins views like this is the notion that when the many cultures of the world come together, the White “race” will be erased; ergo, countering this erasure requires remaining firmly planted in the mire of White conservative Identity Politics (i.e., Reaganism, Trumpism, Christian Identitarianism, etc.). Since many people today—rightly—understand such mono-ethnic, theocratic views to be either hate-speech supporting or outright hate speech, it is taboo to speak of defending the White ruling class since Leftist logic has deemed such concepts as evil. To the conservative, then, their basic views on the world become hate speech and therefore is censored.

This is why Masson states in his lecture that globalization erodes free speech (and why he mistakes Areopagitica to be the first foundational defense of free speech), because globalization underscores the folly of White-centric politics. And it is also why he speaks of censorship being a thing that the masses clamor for in an age of Anglo-decline: because without a White-based identity, people become lost in the illogic of leftist thought, the very same leftist thought that supposedly seeks to “overturn” culture; when this happens, people become easily triggered and offended, and demand that the offending content be taken out of the limelight which is its media exposure.

I take Masson’s lecture as an example because it is the complete opposite of Issa’s paper on Areopagitica in the Arab world. Where Issa makes a compelling case, Masson makes a jaded remark. Even though Masson’s off-handed remark was, of course, just a simple comparison meant to illustrate what Masson believed the core values of Areopagitica to be, it missed its mark: Masson was aiming for the bullseye and he hit the helper-kid instead.

So, let’s forget the fact that Milton was opportunistic with his pamphlet, and let’s also forget that—as John Peters writes in Courting the Abyss: Free Speech and the Liberal Tradition—that writers aside from Milton often published tracts in defense of free expression, and that absolute freedom of expression is truly a 20th-century idea (one which began to earn currency with John Stuart Mill), I still do not see how Milton would have any role to play in the current “debate” on trigger warnings and Fake News.

Sure, we can never know for sure what Milton would do had he been alive today, but I feel it is a bridge too far to believe even for a second that Milton would look at things like “trigger warnings” and “fake news” and have a strong opinion on it. For one, as we have outlined in this lecture, Milton was far from some absolute supporter of free speech and he did, in fact, advocate for censoring—just not censoring that took place before publication (and to his credit, Masson at least acknowledges this). However, neither of Masson’s targets make sense: trigger warnings are just that, a warning about what is to come (no censorship here!), while Fake News is allowed to be published, it is just more often than not, downplayed or banned from certain content sharing sites (such as Facebook). In other words, it has not been censored in any way; and, if we really wanted to get in to it, I, for what it’s worth, believe that Milton would take a hardline stance against Fake News since misinformation numbed people to finding that literary-philosophical Truth that Milton so-called about. Said again, Milton would likely have been in favor of “censoring” Fake News.

If it seems like Masson’s idea of Milton is far more reactionary than what you read about Milton previously, that’s because it is true. Masson locates Milton as a Faux News conservative because he misallocates Milton: meaning, he buys in to Mill’s idea of the Marketplace of Ideas building this ‘economy of Truth;’ such is ahistorical blubber, however, since, as John Peters reminds us, “in interpreting Milton what is at stake is the specification of what is honorable and dangerous about markets as normative frameworks of communication. Call him radical, call him Puritan, call him republican, but do not call Milton (neo-)liberal” (72).

In the end, when literary giants like Milton are brought in to defend the worst kind of reactionary provocation, we see a kind of austerity thinking, an apparatus aimed at destroying critical thought in favor of conspiracy theory and edgelord fantasicism. Figures like Milton are captured, and revised—resignified— to mean an ideology alien to their own philosophical conjectures. If this project’s goal is anything, it is to fight back against such corruption and relocate Milton somewhere other than in the layer of the fascist creep. But I am getting ahead of myself.

Areopagitica is a text concerned with many things—with freedom of expression, censorship, religion, and the search for Truth. But it is not the foundational liberal ship that so many are enamored with much less the messiah of our current troubles with Free Speech Fundamentalism. Milton’s tract was simply a text that advocated, among and alongside many other pieces by numerous and diverse authors, for a public sphere robust enough to accommodate dissent without the author being persecuted by the monarch. That is it.

But, enough is enough for today. We are far from done with Areopagitica but what I want you to take away from this lecture is that, like Issa’s essay, Areopagitica is a complex text whose purpose in modern society is accordingly complicated; it is not black and white, it is grey and mediated by many factors. If we want to find an honest expression for this complexity, then we have to be willing to truly understand what Milton was getting at when he wrote the piece and find places of synthesis with our own time without becoming blind to the many area of divergence. Thankfully, however, with you, my fellow rebel angels, we will find those many ruptures and articulate what they mean to us without losing our divinity. Until next time, this has been The Host.

Lal Salaam


Footnotes

name: the title of Areopagitica is taken from “Areopagus” (‘Hill of Ares’), the name of the site from which the high court of Athens administered its jurisdiction and imposed a general censorship.” (Source)

James Rovira: a scholar currently working with Bright Futures Educational Consultants, he is the author of numerous pieces on literature, including, but not limited to John Milton, Jane Austen, and Soren Kierkegaard. The essay I draw upon here is his piece titled “Gathering the Sacred Body of Areopagitica.” (Google Scholar Page) (Rovira’s Homepage)

world: & sensibilities: Issa writes of how self-censorship is always a factor one must take into consideration when reading translated texts. Issa remarks how Mohamed Enani, an Egyptian professor, moderates references to Adam and Eve’s sexual intercourse in the fourth book of Paradise Lost, while at other times, he projects a Qur’anic diction during the translation process (84). In 2008, he faced censorship from a non-governmental source when a member of his publisher’s staff said that the material was not aligned with Islamic law. Enani defended his position by saying that as a Christian author exploring Christian ideas, Milton’s works didn’t need to be in-line with Islamic law and that militant political Islamists wouldn’t even know it existed.

The Square & Beauty of the Soul: in Issa’s paper, she spends a while speaking about Egyptian filmmaking and the difficulties of representing holy figures. Often, challenging films of this nature are censored and so to illustrate the difficulties of censoring films, Issa notes that The Square had been nominated for an Oscar while The Beauty of the Soul was allowed to be released before being banned for allegedly depicting immoral situations better suited to Western cinema (90).

Protestant sects: in a YouTube lecture, Havard professor John Rogers speaks how in Milton’s time, there were many Protestant factions: to name some, there were the Quakers and Baptists (who are, of course, still around today), but there was also the Ranters, Familists, and the Muggotonians (factions which no longer exist today). Such factions eroded the Church of England’s authority and contributed to the theologic complexity of the English Revolution. (Source)

just try building any kind of mass organization without handing out propaganda materials: this is a reference to contemporary Trotskyist party-building tactics. For those of you unaware, Trotskyism is an ideology in the Revolutionary anti-capitalist Left that supported Leon Trotsky in the line-struggle over Joesph Stalin. I won’t get into the details because now isn’t the place or time, but, it suffices to say that many modern Trotskyist groups are centered around Undergraduate college reading groups; often, organizational Praxis revolves around selling the party’s newspaper or Praxis. Even though I am using the bolded phrase here a little spuriously, any political organization that seeks power must have a propagandistic base.

reified: a philosophical term to describe the process of a subject becoming alienated from the product of their labors. In a capitalist society, this translates to workers becoming estranged from the surplus-value they generate for the capitalists. This term has since been adapted to a wide number of fields for study and helps explain many aspects of estrangement under the bourgeois dictatorship

especially Libertarians!: in recent years, there has been a phenomenon called the “Libertarian-to-Fascism Pipeline.” This is when a Libertarian gradually realizes that the market machinations they desire under libertarianism is impossible to realize within a liberal democracy and so embraces a radical fascist orientation to achieve an absolute neoliberal doctrine; it is not surprising that many far-right groups in Europe, for example, have neo-liberalism explicitly outlined as their economic doctrine. See the articles in parenthesis for more (National Review article) (Mother Jones article)

Cultural Marxism: don’t be misled into believing that Cultural Marxism is anything other than a rabid conspiracy theory. Boiled down to its basic essence, it ascribes heavy influence to The Frankfurt School of Critical Theory and blames things like feminism and Queer studies– but also a wide range of other progressive causes– to the subtle play of Marxists who have penetrated academia. As a Vice article talked about, “The idiocy of the cultural Marxism conspiracy is demonstrated by the way the neo-nationalist, anti-globalist new right ascribes the dynamics of the idea to the left, identifying and conflating cultural Marxism with late-capitalist globalization.” So, when we hear Scott Masson speak of “globalization” in the sense of it eroding free speech, we now have a pretty good idea of what he means. The Vice article continues, and correctly states that “This is a fairly major misunderstanding of the Marxist worldview. Likewise, positing as the principal organ through which cultural Marxism propagates itself in pop culture, that the Frankfurt School so explicitly denounced, would strike them as the saltiest of ironies. And colossally stupid.” (Source)

Faux News: a satirical take on “Fox News,” here the ‘Faux” is meant to indicate the sheer propagandistic nature of Fox’s programming and how they spin the news in favor of their increasingly neo-conservative agenda.

fascist creep: here, I am referring to Alexander Reid Ross’s conception of historical fascism as a force which has drawn on the left and right for its own ultra-nationalist, xenophobic agenda. In his writings on fascism, Ross mentions that a characteristic of fascism is that it “creeps” into daily life in part through broad coalitions which they then usurp or subvert. (Source)

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2 thoughts on “Ep.1: Areopagitica Today (Transcript)

  1. Thanks so much for the citation — and you present a very interesting discussion of Milton’s Areopagitica from a perspective not often represented in Milton scholarship. I would agree that Milton is certainly self-invested in his argument, but that he’s also motivated by principle (he’s okay with burning only the worst sort of books only after they have been read and considered), and I would say his anti-Papalism (not necessary anti-Catholicism) wasn’t just theological in-fighting on matters such as transubstantiation and the authority of the Pope. In Milton’s time, Catholic countries represented a very serious threat to England and could potentially pin England down on three fronts: France, the Scottish Highlands, and Ireland. So he is in part engaging with a military threat, and within his argument, one that to him represented a threat to freedom of speech. My most recent scholarship on Areopagitica is unpublished at the moment, but it’s a conference paper that uses Robert Brandom to grapple with some of the difficulties of Milton’s text. I suggest, via Brandom, that Milton wasn’t compromising the principle of freedom of speech, but only extending it to entities who engaged in a relationship with Milton, and with England, predicated on freedom of speech. In other words, he only supports freedom of speech for people with whom it is relationally reciprocal, and he does so to protect freedom of speech.

    Like

    1. Thank you for commenting on my post! It is nice to know that in the void of the internet, some shouting can still be heard!

      Your recent research sounds interesting and I will have to give it a read when time permits. I am still engaging Areopagitica and have more content planned as I wrestle with this difficult but rewarding text. If after reading your forthcoming material I find myself electrified with new ideas, I will be sure to use it in future episodes. Do stick around, share, and comment. It would be nice to have a disciplined Milton scholar poking in from time to time.

      Regardless, thanks for your comment, and sorry it took so long for me to approve it!

      Liked by 1 person

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