Milton versus the Daily Mail

This year is John Milton’s Quatercentenary. There are a number of celebrations and events to commemorate the 400th anniversary of his birth. But nothing could really mark him better than some evidence of his relevance today. And for that, the easiest place to look is in the Areopagitica, his defence of freedom of speech.

Milton would certainly have been appalled by the grotesque foppery of the likes of Jonathan Ross or Russell Brand. And if he had been a better shot, might have accounted for a few of their kind on the battlefields of the Civil War, but nevertheless, he defends their right to foppery on both moral and practical grounds.

“If we think to regulate printing, thereby to rectify manners, we must regulate all recreation and pastimes, all that is delightful to man. No music must be heard, no song be set or sung, but what is grave and Doric. There must be licensing dancers, that no gesture, motion, or deportment be taught our youth but what by their allowance shall be thought honest; for such Plato was provided of. It will ask more than the work of twenty licensers to examine all the lutes, the violins, and the guitars in every house; they must not be suffered to prattle as they do, but must be licensed what they may say. And who shall silence all the airs and madrigals that whisper softness in chambers? The windows also, and the balconies must be thought on; there are shrewd books, with dangerous frontispieces, set to sale; who shall prohibit them, shall twenty licensers? The villages also must have their visitors to inquire what lectures the bagpipe and the rebeck reads, even to the ballatry and the gamut of every municipal fiddler, for these are the countryman’s Arcadias, and his Monte Mayors.”

Russ’n’Ross may not be the Daily Mail’s idea of ‘Arcadias and Monte Mayors‘, but they are ‘the countryman’s‘, or enough of them that matter. And the suppression of them and by implication all spontaneous humour would certainly ask ‘more than the work of twenty licensers‘ to examine all the outpourings of every TV and radio broadcast and remove every heresy.
It is ironic that the media which Milton defends in his famous pamphlet are using that liberty to suppress the words of others. It believes we are too stupid and infantile to be able to cope with adult language heard on every street corner. Or as Milton puts it:

Nor is it [censorship] to the common people less than a reproach; for if we be so jealous over them, as that we dare not trust them with an English pamphlet, what do we but censure them for a giddy, vicious, and ungrounded people; in such a sick and weak state of faith and discretion, as to be able to take nothing down but through the pipe of a licenser?

Do the readers of the Daily Mail really trust it to be their Ministry Of Fun? Tragically, they might just. and Milton will weep for them. But one thing he will celebrate, and be dancing with Ray Charles round the celestial piano about, is the ability of almost anyone now to publish pamphlets to the world. Milton would have been a blogger, and The Areopagitica would have been first published online – not in the the Daily Mail.

Milton has a warning for Ross’n’Russ, too. It has to be quoted in full :

When I consider how my light is spent
E’re half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one Talent which is death to hide,
Lodg’d with me useless, though my Soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide,
Doth God exact day-labour, light deny’d,
I fondly ask; But patience to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts, who best
Bear his milde yoak, they serve him best, his State
Is Kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
And post o’re Land and Ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and waite.

A little modesty goes a long way.

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