The Heterodox

The Heterodox

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The Moral Necessity of Free Inquiry

November 23, 2010 , , , , , , , ,


Here in the United States, too many of our fellow citizens exhibit little if any appreciation for the freedoms we enjoy. Even fewer people know of to any extent about the history of the political philosophy of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries whose epitome was and is our republic. Within this historic caisson of freedom, I feel that the most affecting and least valued achievement of our progenitors is our First Amendment. Whenever one is in contemplation of this democratic achievement it is useful to be aware of the fact that on this day in 1644, a seminal polemic which proffered forth some of the key ideals of 1776 was published by the English writer John Milton; this pamphlet was his Areopagitica. This defense of free speech, expression, and the freedom of the press is rightly regarded with esteem for its powerful and elegant prose which advocates for unfettered and free inquiry, but it is not as libertarian as is often touted or supposed.

It was while going over this work for today’s article that I immediately realized that a discussion of the Areopagitica necessitated a corollary discussion of JS Mill’s Essay On Liberty (1859). Seeing the latter of these two works as a perfection of the ideals of the former, this dual examination made more sense to write about. So to begin this inquiry we should start by analyzing a sampling of the virtuous and demurrable leitmotifs of Milton’s work.

As with any other critique of past intimations, it is extremely vital that one is fully aware of the historical integument in which contested ideas were actualized. In the case of the Areopagitica, it is impossible to ignore the fact that its impetus and publication was in reaction to the English Civil War and the Cromwellian Revolution. Just like Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan (published in 1651 towards the end of the conflict), Milton’s polemic was extremely partisan in its rhetorical stance and in its ideas towards the proper and ideal relationship between the individual and the State. Where Hobbes was a ardent Royalist, Milton was most definitely a Parliamentarian. Nonetheless, the probity of Milton’s ideals were by no means inherently demotic. The contradiction in Milton’s thoughts on freedom stemmed from the fact that his very notions of autonomy were rooted in his protestant theology. Let us not forget we are dealing with the author of Paradise Lost here.

In Milton’s view, any heuristic form of free speech and inquiry was to be allowed as long as its ultimate aim was to further a greater understanding of god. He also was firmly against the royal utility of censorship. But any free speech that tended towards blasphemy, Milton vehemently felt that Parliament should have the power to destroy or limit such works in order to maintain the rule of status quo ante. So even though he justly negated the legitimacy of the Licensing Order of 1643 (any writer of note would have done and did do the same at that time), it was under the corruptive influence of religion that he failed to see the exigent need for humans to have universal freedom of thought and inquiry, most especially if the ideas question and criticize a populist consensus and/or the sacred.

Mill is rightly remembered as being the man who fully fleshed out the concepts of Utilitarianism which were first postulated as a mature system by Jeremy Bentham along with Mill’s father, James. But when one is reflecting on the beauty and simplicity of our First Amendment, it is in Mill’s Essay On Liberty in which we find its greatest defender as well as a perfection of Milton’s ideals of freedom. So what is it that makes On Liberty so preeminent when discussing issues of freedom, particularly freedom of speech and inquiry? I feel that the first quality of this essay that has to be singled out is its erudite and accessible prose. Its clarity and efficacious use of philosophic patois is what imbues the essay with more legitimacy in its call for Egalitarianism and Libertarianism. It was Mill who gave us our modern understanding of Libertarianism and its intrinsic relationship with free pluralist and secular societies. The best way to exemplify this assertion is to let Mill speak for himself. In On Liberty when discussing the State’s application of Libertarianism he says, “…The only part of the conduct of anyone, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part that merely concerns him, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.”

Mill perfectly understood a basic human verity that so many today still fail to perceive or acknowledge. The need for freedom is an existential reality of not only our species but of all forms of life. Yet when analyzing the human animal, it has to be noticed that we are an acutely social and cognitive species, so it is imperative that we arbitrate the freedoms of all along with all of our multifarious interrelations—we accomplish this through our socio political constructs. Mill understood that everyone has their own intrinsic right and need for freedom along with being able to pursue their own version of happiness in life. But as soon as one person’s freedom infringes on another’s right to freedom and pursuit of their happiness, then the State should be available for appeal in solving this social quandary. A quandary that is inevitable and axiomatic to human existence as we all have our own subjective standard for happiness along with our own subjective goals and meanings for our existences. A vital component to this basic human imperative for freedom is to be found in our need for free speech, self-expression and inquiry and it is here where Mill’s essay is most rhetorically resplendent.

Where Mill’s sagacity is most apparent is in his idea that for freedom to exist and be available for all, there can not be any area of inquiry deemed verboten or off limits to criticism. There also can not be any form of speech or thought that is prevented from being uttered in print or in public. It is these ideals of freedom and liberty that our secular republic is based and must forever be defended against the forces of reaction. This is why we must never be indolent towards these freedoms as they can be abolished at any time and in a completely capricious manner. Though when we consider how far our species has evolved its notions of liberty and their essential socio-political application, we quickly see that this freedom has always had a persistent enemy and that this foe has been clawing at the back of liberty since the beginning of civilization; this enemy is theism along with the benighted realm of the human mind from which it issues.

Any educated citizen of a pluralist and secular free society understands that no thought or speech, no matter how mendacious, insipient, or prevaricating should be censored or nullified. And it is not just about protecting the freedom of the dissident or the crackpot but it is also about protecting our freedom to hear all ideas. With out this protection we all are denied the ability to test our assumptions and prove the veracity of our own epistemology as well as being denied our right to think for ourselves and speak our own minds. And probably the most deleterious aspect of this kind of freedom denial is that we run the risk of becoming prisoners of our own notions.

So no matter how nauseated one feels in having to listen to the semious screeds of racists, homophobes, Holocaust deniers and most conspicuously, theocrats, they all must be allowed to speak and put forth their poison while not being oppilated. But just as we must listen to their bullshit, they must also endure all thoughts and speech that they deem blasphemous until they finally get it in their primate brains that Nothing is Sacred. No theocratic fascist (or fascist in general) can be allowed to enervate this freedom, for they must always be reminded that it is only within a secular society in which not only religious freedom can exist but all freedoms. If we wish to maintain and further the effect of democracy, pluralism, and secular humanism, then we must ever stay vigilant against the inevitable attempts at denying any form of free speech or inquiry. If we as a society ever lapse in this fight, then we all shall be implicated in our elided freedoms and we will have no excuse for being surprised in finding ourselves rendered chattel.

You will do me the justice to remember, that I have always strenuously supported the Right of every Man to his own opinion, however different that opinion might be to mine. He who denies to another this right, makes a slave of himself to his present opinion, because he precludes himself the right of changing it. The most formidable weapon against errors of every kind is Reason. I have never used any other, and I trust I never shall.

Thomas Paine
Dedication to The Age of Reason

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