Friday, May 10, 2013

Reverse Nationalism: Milton's Presupposition Of Censorship

Empires have historically thrown a smokescreen of innocence over forms of censorship that's purpose is to disingenuously control a population. One of the earliest manifestations of censorship comes from England around 1530 & continues until the 1660's. The lack of a public forums during this time translated into information that was easy for the Monarch to control; whenever a public forum gained to much popularity (usually through theater and the arts) England was quick to assign a Master of Revels, a group that pre-censors all content not from the crown . While laws are altered after the English Revolution the most substantial change had its catalyst with the publication of John Milton's Areopagitica in 1664. In this appeal, which originally circulated as an illegally printed pamphlet, is a challenge to the states position on censorship and an attempt by Milton to redefine an English citizens silent presuppositions to knowledge. 

Silent presupposition is that which “teaches us what we have to know without knowing it in order to function” (Zizek). At the time of Areopagitica's publication the state was censoring the press for the the apparent good of the people for so many generations it had changed the instinctual responses citizens had to censorship. The public was told there was no right for a place of philosophical discourse. This is an early example of shock doctrine; by creating a situation of increasingly reduced agency parliament would justify it's actions as being better than the alternative when it's actions would only diminish the source. The real reason for the early days of censorship of the press was to create a form of control for state benefit at the cost of the unknowing people. 

By radically rearranging the qualities of what defines knowledge Milton uses the emerging state tools of nationalism to change parliament's opinion to the side of the public. He starts his theory by analyzing the human condition through a biblical lens when he writes that those “who imagine to remove sin by removing the matter of sin” are hopeless. Even if one were to “banish all objects of lust, shut up all youth into the severest discipline that can be exercised in any hermitage, ye cannot make them chaste that come thither...” (Longman p1719), Milton argued that sin is a constant temptation for humankind and always present, removing it would be like trying to remove every grain of sand from the ocean. Furthermore to do so would go against the design of temptation & choice in nature (or god's design). To those that would feel reading itself goes against the human condition or that knowledge is “evil” Milton argues that “though some part of it (sin) may for a time be withdrawn from some persons, it cannot from all, in such a universal thing as books are; and when this is done, yet the sin remain entire“ (Longman p1719). To put it in other words if a form of press has sinful information on its pages its still up to interpretation by the individual and that interpretation would be impossible without both good and evil existing. This gives agency back to the public and away from groups like the Master of Revels by putting control of source material in the hands of everyone.

Parliament would cite one reason of censorship is to prevent dangerous ideas and schisms from developing. Milton argues that if “the men be erroneous who appear to be leading the schismatics” the way to correct this is by debating with “distrust in the right cause”, if “not for their sakes, yet for our own” (Longman p1723)? Milton further defends his theory by describing public debate as a positive thing for the country: “opinion in good men is but knowledge in the making” & argues that major characters in biblical history were educated like Moses and David. Even more spectacular is how Milton defends the value of flawed opinions when he writes that “the knowledge of good is so involved and interwoven with the knowledge of evil” Even wrong opinions are important for Milton when he writes that good & evil, in its “many cunning resemblances hardly to be discerned”, are necessary because “that is to say of knowing good by evil” (Longman p1717), There is no way to have good without evil & god has given every person the ability to reason since Adam. 

Milton brings agency back to the people by carefully placing power in their hands. Instead of asking the commoner to conform to the laws of parliament, Milton argues that the English should “be more considerate builders, more wise in spiritual architecture, when great reformation is expected.” (Longman, p1724) This line turns every reader into an active creator of their national identity.
Milton uses a more recognizable form of nationalism when he personifies the nation: “Methinks I see in my mind a noble and puissant nation, rousing herself like a strong man after sleep, and shaking her invincible locks” (Longman 1724). While in modern times this reads like zealous patriotism or that Milton is making a compliment, it's also a prophecy of the outcome to his theory and further proof that that no one should “suppress all this flowery crop of knowledge” from “springing daily” (Longman 1724). Milton has carefully maneuvered himself, by analyzing the morality of free opinion through a biblical lens, into position where he feels he can attack censorship directly with public support. Milton goes even further with relating to his religious audience when he makes opinion holy. In a clever fashion Milton writes that “For who knows not that truth is strong, next to the almighty.” (Longman 1725) Milton uses language that suggest truth being godly is common sense, re-defining a part of English silent presuppositions in medias res. 

Areopagitica is a radical text at a time when text itself is a radical possession but still manages to promote some form of censorship. At one hand Milton argues that books are useful and that licensing is “a dishonor and derogation to the author, to the book, to the privilege of dignity or Learning” and that if “we think to regulate printing” then “we must regulate all recreations and pastimes...” (Longman 1719). The author attacks licensing laws directly when he argues that regulations claims its role is to prevent the “infection” of bad ideas but that this is inefficient because to licensing can never stop social corruption. Milton goes further when he points that censorship could slow down divine plans which would cause more corruption.

On the other hand Milton shows he would censor, even pull from the root, certain text: “I mean not tolerated popery and open superstition, which, as it extirpates all religions and civil supremacies, so itself should be extirpate, provided first that all charitable and compassionate means be used to win the weak and misled...” (Longman 1726). Milton still has elements of control in his definition of English silent presuppositions; while it is just, good and holy not to censor any author or idea it is equally unjust, evil and pagan to “interrupt the unity of spirit”. Essentially Milton is setting up a fail safe against heretical ideas based on his writing in Areopagitica. If anyone disagrees with his theory Milton can easily point them out as an interrupter of unity & have their work destroyed, an active form of censorship and seemingly unnecessary when Milton himself argues the usefulness of bad ideas and sinful books. It's also a direct contradiction considering Milton's opinion that “he who destroys a good book kills reason itself, kills the image of God, as it were in the eye” (HumanitiesWeb). 
Miltons greatest success in his theory on censorship is found in the prose itself. The writer masterfully appeals to every sensibility of every major demographic with sentiment triumphing over sentimentality while carefully selecting which aspects of government to critique & only after blows have been softened. Milton will typically begin with a brief defense of an idea and then finish with a furious volley of opinion. Consider that the beginning of Areopagitica is a defense of Areopagitica itself, with Milton calling up the ancestral images of Spenser before stating “the knowledge and survey of vice is in this world so necessary to the constitution of human virtue, and the scanning of error to the confirmation of truth (Longman 1717).” Milton easily defines knowledge as a positive human virtue by playing on the idea of silent presupposition; the author defines knowledge as good because it is, one should just know it. According to Milton, every human should have an instinctual response that public knowledge is a virtue because knowledge can help identify good and evil. Milton compares this identification to the story of Adam and the apple when he writes that Adam was “knowing of good by evil” (Longman 1717), as being a necessity. In two paragraphs, under the filter of academic and papal nostalgia, Milton has laid a logical foundation for the justification of his illegal printing to both the scientist and the priest. 
Nationalism is still the same idea since its not-so-long-ago inception; turning the abstract idea of a nation into a real power. Writers of today should still be looking to Milton's Areopagitica, which shows the successful passive/aggressive style that Milton camouflages in his writing with nostalgia, history and invoking virtues onto ideas through presupposition. Eventually these presuppositions become silent in the reverse; instead of citizens of the 17th century instinctively assuming that knowledge is evil because the state told them so for many generations, they instinctively & accurately assume censorship removes agency because of the work of people like John Milton staying relevant through generations.

Works Cited

Zizek, Slavoj. "We Need Thinking." Lavan. N.p.. Web. 10 May 2013. <>.

"Areopagitica by John Milton." HumanitiesWeb. N.p.. Web. 10 May 2013. <>.

The Longman Anthology

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