Two cheers for John Mil­ton

The Saline Courier - - OPINION - David M. Shrib­man is the for­mer ex­ec­u­tive edi­tor of the Pitts­burgh Post-gazette. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at Shrib­manpg.

Just when we need it the most, fresh in­spi­ra­tion about the value and virtue of a free press is here. It’s from the year 1644.

The 375th an­niver­sary of John Mil­ton’s “Are­opagit­ica” is oc­cur­ring at a time when the press is un­der siege -- from the White House, from purists at both ends of the political spec­trum, from re­morse­less eco­nomic forces that have re­placed profits with losses and de­pleted re­port­ing staffs at all but a hand­ful of news out­lets.

And yet this an­niver­sary is cause for two cheers -- not three, as we will see -- for Mil­ton and for his fa­mous tract.

Th­ese two cheers, more­over, come with an im­por­tant aca­demic find­ing, the iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of the Lon­don prin­ters Matthew Sim­mons, Thomas Paine, and per­haps Gre­gory Dex­ter as the fig­ures be­hind the brave act of bring­ing Mil­ton’s words to the page. This is sig­nif­i­cant be­cause the courage that fired Mil­ton would have es­caped no­tice had it not been for the courage of the prin­ters who brought his ideas to the pub­lic.

Of­ten cited in law school First

Amend­ment classes as a foun­da­tional tract for the no­tion of press free­dom,

“Are­opagit­ica” is a man­i­festo for in­tel­lec­tual ex­change, un­fet­tered ex­pres­sion and vig­or­ous pub­lic de­bate. In its pages, Mil­ton de­mands “lib­erty to know, to ut­ter, and to ar­gue freely ac­cord­ing to con­science, above all lib­er­ties.” He em­braces “Much ar­gu­ing, much writ­ing, many opin­ions.” He en­dorses the strug­gle of ideas and ideals, urg­ing, “Let [Truth] and False­hood grap­ple; who ever knew Truth put to the [worse], in a free and open en­counter?”

Mil­ton’s pam­phlet be­gins with a fron­tispiece quote from Euripi­des ar­gu­ing, “This is true Lib­erty when free born men / Hav­ing to ad­vise the pub­lic may speak free.” Above all, “Are­opagit­ica” is an ar­gu­ment against pre-pub­li­ca­tion cen­sor­ship, a po­si­tion the Supreme Court gen­er­ally has sup­ported, most sig­nif­i­cantly in the Pen­tagon Pa­pers case in 1971.

For nearly four cen­turies, the pam­phlet has been cited, de­bated and some­times de­rided. Its au­thor was known from the start, but how it came to be printed has been a lin­ger­ing mys­tery that a team of Carnegie Mel­lon schol­ars and re­searchers, us­ing high-tech means to discover the ori­gins of a work writ­ten in a low-tech era, have solved.

“This is sig­nif­i­cant be­cause we have spent a lot of time think­ing about the free­dom of the press with­out think­ing too much about the in­di­vid­u­als who are re­spon­si­ble for the ma­te­ri­als in which those ideas were ex­pressed,” said Christo­pher N. War­ren, who teaches 17th-cen­tury literature at Carnegie Mel­lon. “There are real flesh-and-blood hu­mans who were mak­ing books and mak­ing ar­gu­ments, risk­ing their lives so they could give this idea at­ten­tion.”

Us­ing com­puter soft­ware that is sen­si­tive to sub­tle dif­fer­ences in the pe­cu­liar­i­ties of let­ter­press print­ing, the CMU team ex­am­ined pieces of dam­aged type, eval­u­ated dif­fer­ing fonts and, with an eye to the me­chan­ics of early mod­ern print, at­tacked the mys­tery of a pam­phlet de­lib­er­ately de­signed to cloak the iden­tity of its printer. “In early mod­ern lit­er­ary stud­ies, we of­ten say we value new ways of look­ing at old texts,” they wrote, “but here we mean that lit­er­ally.” For ex­am­ple:

Each page of “Are­opagit­ica” used an av­er­age of 240 low­er­case e’s and 3.7 up­per­case C’s.

War­ren, along with Pierce Wil­liams, Shruti Ri­jh­wani and

Max G’sell, har­nessed com­puter tech­nol­ogy that takes into ac­count vari­a­tions in ink­ing lev­els and char­ac­ter ap­pear­ances, among other el­e­ments, and their work led them to iden­tify what they call “a so­phis­ti­cated ide­o­log­i­cal pro­gram of clan­des­tine print­ing” that in 1644 and 1645 in­cluded not only “Are­opagit­ica” but also Roger Wil­liams’ “The Bloudy Te­nent of Per­sec­tion” and Henry Robin­son’s “Lib­erty of Con­science,” both con­sid­ered im­por­tant tracts in the bat­tle for free ex­pres­sion.

Th­ese works were part of a net­work that a cen­tury and a half later would lead to the pas­sage of the First Amend­ment, which com­bined free­dom of the press with free­dom of re­li­gion -- and it is that com­bi­na­tion that sets mod­ern Amer­i­can views of fun­da­men­tal rights of ex­pres­sion apart from the views that pre­vailed in Mil­ton’s time.

“It is a tract that gets mis­read,” said David Scott Kas­tan, a Yale scholar spe­cial­iz­ing in the re­la­tion­ship be­tween literature and his­tory in early mod­ern Eng­land. “Ev­ery­one wants to read ‘Are­opagit­ica’ as an ar­gu­ment against cen­sor­ship. But there are some things that in Mil­ton’s mind are so far be­yond the pale that they have to be cen­sored. Mil­ton rises to his best when he ar­gues that there should never be any pre-pub­li­ca­tion cen­sor­ship. But at the same time, he’s all for burn­ing Catholic books.”

That’s why “Are­opagit­ica,” de­spite its ex­alted place in the West­ern canon, rates only two cheers.

For Mil­ton, though not for those who quote “Are­opagit­ica” as the fi­nal word on press free­dom rather than as a first draft, com­pletely free ex­pres­sion is off the ta­ble:

“I mean not tol­er­ated Pop­ery and open su­per­sti­tion, which as it ex­tir­pats [i.e., de­stroys] all re­li­gions and civil suprema­cies, so it self should be ex­tir­pat.” For th­ese, Mil­ton says: “the fire and the ex­e­cu­tioner will be found the timeli­est and most ef­fec­tual rem­edy.”

So in the end, we must rec­og­nize that “Are­opagit­ica” is not so much a political doc­u­ment as a re­li­gious doc­u­ment, and as such is not an un­com­pro­mis­ing and un­com­pro­mised ex­pres­sion of the great faith of free ex­pres­sion. Like much in our own time of con­tro­versy, con­tention and com­plex­ity, it is the nu­ances that mat­ter -- and it is the nu­ances that are blunted if not buried as our civic con­ver­sa­tion veers into in­ci­vil­ity.

“We want our great writ­ers to guar­an­tee our best selves, but they never quite do that,” said Kas­tan. “They never can fully es­cape the lim­i­ta­tions of their own mo­ment or tell us what we should think. They do, how­ever, tell us what we should think about -- and the contradict­ions of their think­ing alert us, if we read well, to the gen­uine dif­fi­cul­ties of the is­sues, and per­haps pro­voke us, as Beck­ett says, to ‘fail bet­ter.’”

In our own mo­ment -- with an ex­plo­sion of in­for­ma­tion that can­not be cu­rated -- we must un­der­stand that even John Mil­ton can’t sim­plify our task. He, and “Are­opagit­ica,” can only present us with our own chal­lenge, in th­ese pages and in pix­els across the in­ter­net. So two cheers for Mil­ton. And a chal­lenge to all of us 375 years after “Are­opagit­ica,” which sets for us an ideal, and the hard work ahead.

DAVID SHRIB­MAN NA­TIONAL PER­SPEC­TIVE

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