Dec. 9 was the 400th anniversary of the birth of poet John Milton, and we American lawyers who value freedom of the mind should remember it. For it was Milton who, in addition to his undying poetry, wrote one of the greatest and most eloquent defenses of free speech. That defense took the form of a pamphlet written in 1644 in opposition to a law passed by Parliament restricting what the press could print.
Milton called his pamphlet “Areopagitica.” He took the title from the hill in ancient Athens, Areopagus, where the democratically elected supreme court of that city-state met. Milton thought the title appropriate because in the pamphlet he was comparing Parliament, to whom he was appealing, to the ancient Greek court.
Milton’s famous pamphlet is like many classics and coffee table books. It is often cited and put on display, but rarely read. That is a shame. Just as we ought to reread the Gettysburg Address on Lincoln’s birthday and the Declaration of Independence on July 4, we should look at the actual text of Areopagitica on Milton’s quadricentennial. We will surely be inspired.
Milton’s words themselves, written almost 150 years before our First Amendment, are powerful and still ring loudly in our mind’s ear. Those of us who like to read will be moved, even overjoyed. “For books are not absolutely dead things,” wrote Milton, “but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul whose progeny they are; nay, they do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them.”
As for censorship, Milton called it a “kind of homicide.” This is so, he explained, because, “who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God’s image; but he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself.”
How can government decide what we should or should not read? “Read any books whatever come to thy hands,” wrote Milton, “for thou art sufficient both to judge aright and to examine each matter.”
But then Milton surpassed himself with language and thoughts that thrilled me when I first read them four decades ago in college. He may have been writing about freedom of thought but he was really advocating a vigorous, fearless philosophy of life. “I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and seeks her adversary, but slinks out of the race, where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat.”
Milton wasn’t done. “That which purifies is trial,” he added, “and trial is by what is contrary.” A motto for litigators, if there ever was one.
He is bold and unafraid. “What some lament of, we rather should rejoice at.” Disagreement is acceptable, even welcome. “Where there is much desire to learn, there of necessity will be much arguing, much writing, many opinions; for opinion in good men is but knowledge in the making.”
With the majestic language one might expect from the author of “Paradise Lost,” Milton endowed truth with invincibility. “And though all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play upon the earth, so Truth be in the field, we do injuriously, by licensing and prohibiting, to misdoubt her strength. Let her and falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?” Now, 465 years later, some of us litigators might recall a few instances where truth lost, at least temporarily, a battle with falsehood. But Milton’s thought and expression make us feel good.
Milton anticipated the core of First Amendment theory. “Give me the liberty,” Milton proclaimed, in cadences foreshadowing Patrick Henry, “to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.” This is the soaring essence of the preferred freedoms doctrine, which holds that freedom of speech is, as that other master of the English language Benjamin Cardozo wrote, “the matrix, the indispensable condition, of nearly every other form of freedom.”
So let us American lawyers take a moment to think about John Milton, the blind poet whose stirring words in “Areopagitica” about freedom of speech echo so resonantly four centuries after his birth. His powerful and forceful imagery, and his piercing and vivid expression, appeal to the best within us.
Daniel J. Kornstein is a partner in Kornstein Veisz Wexler & Pollard.