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Fellow Seminar

23 November 2017

Dr. Martin Ossikovski will present his research proposal on the topic: "Pre-Miltonian Flashes of the Liberty ‘to Know, to Utter, and to Argue Freely'" on 23 November 2017 (Thursday) at 16:30h at CAS Conference Hall.

Abstract:

John Milton's quest against state censorship in the Areopagitica has long been stretched between the passionate extremes of liberal and non-liberal interpretations. On the former end, there is a long line of scholars-such as the Irish historian and classicist John Bagnell Bury, who once wrote that the medieval ‘imprisonment' of human reason ended with ‘Milton, the most illustrious advocate of religious toleration, the poet, who was in favour of the severance of Church from state'. For decades, various authors have been developing this point of view along the momentum of studying, like Bury, the history of freedom of thought and expression. Within this perspective, some saw Milton as an early defender of ‘progressive comprehension, progressive interpretation' where ‘free discussion can minister to the discovery of the truth'; to others, the completion of Areopagitica duly qualified Milton as a true ‘liberal of the seventeenth century'; and there were many who approached this milestone opus as ‘a founding and canonical text of modern liberalism,' the root apex ‘of liberal epistemology,' a revolutionary defence of ‘the right to express one's opinion in public, to practice the religion of one's choice, or to practice none, the right to education and to information.' Overwhelmingly, conventional modern textbooks in media history and political theory hence take on Areopagitica as the primary foundation of today's edifice of freedom of speech.

But then, there was also the back side of this perhaps overly liberalising spherical mirror. In this regard, it would suffice to recall Skinner's very sobering thesis that ‘in his vision of a free commonwealth, Milton combines a classical conception [...] of freedom and slavery with a "monarchomach" understanding of lawful government'; or, more specifically, the observation that ‘Milton's position on free speech is far from liberal [...]. Milton's defence of liberty of expression is limited to the liberty of expressing certain reasonable and decent opinions [...].' In that sense, finally, a very thorough recent critique of Milton's alleged ‘liberalism' rightfully noted the ‘fundamental differences between Milton's writings and those by people we now call ‘liberals,' ones which render untenable the view that liberalism is the result of a natural or inevitable development of his ideas [...].'

This apparent historiographical contrast may well be rooted in the ambivalent dynamics of Areopagitica's own arguments. While moving against the tide of the Licensing Order of 1643, and thus inevitably resonating ideas common to later liberal thinkers, Milton fortified his stance in retrospection, by relying heavily on plentiful Biblical, patristic, and church historical evidence. Hence, depending on the reader's personal taste and aspirations, Areopagitica may conveniently look both ways-very modern or very traditional, very ‘liberal' or somewhat ‘illiberal'. The proposed study aims to elaborate on this ambivalence by comparing Milton's position to that of several earlier thinkers who appear to radiate ‘flashes,' as it were, of his defence of the ‘liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely' of 1644. In essence, the study hopes to show that Milton's arguments here were not entirely new to the intellectual scene of the pre-1640s period-and hence to moderate the tone of the liberalising interpretations quoted above.

 

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