• Daniel Ethan Finneran

Freedom of Speech: From Voltaire to Mill

May 2019


Recently neglected, if not fully forgotten, is the beautiful line by which our beautifully liberal society once lived: “While I might disapprove of what you have to say”, the immediately recognizable quote begins, “I will defend to the death your right to say it”.


Indeed, without your knowing it, you may have spoken to yourself that subsequent and ultimately defiant line by which it’s deservedly known. In my own thinking and philosophy, this quote is extraordinarily deeply ingrained and, as such, every time I hear its beginning, it elicits in me a nearly autonomic response. To me, when composed and uttered in full, it reads like a secular biblical verse. It’s like a piece of political scripture to which every liberal republic in this congregation of the world must respond. It’s a veritable paean to free speech, an ultimatum of decorum, a full-breasted defense of intercourse—however coarse that may be.


Ultimately, it’s a declaration to the untrammeled right of expression and thought. It’s the very foundation upon which our modern world of ideas is built. It’s the liberty and justice due to all to express their points of view—irrespective of how transgressive or indecorous they may be to a sensitive or a brutish ear.


However well we once knew and passionately we’d once regarded this reverberative and noble line, the author by whom it was conceived remains largely hidden from us today. If asked for its attribution—a probing inquiry into its etymology—you’d surely be surprised at what you’d learn. One would expect, as one was conditioned to think, that the answer would be the preeminently epigrammatic patron saint of sapience—the unceasingly fresh and vibrant Voltaire. He’s the man, after all, from whom all bon mots and happy sayings originate and derive their vital force. But he’s far from the only thinker to which such delectable and enduring aphorisms can be ascribed. Shakespeare, Franklin, and Twain are the others—Emerson, to round out this unexpected list of Americans, might be as well—but this greatest of lines in defense of free speech was the product of Evelyn Beatrice Hall—a biographer of Voltaire of a relatively minor order.


So Voltairean is Hall’s statement, however, that most believe it to have been uttered by the sage himself. History and the increasingly overlooked eloquence of Hall have largely failed in disabusing us of this misbegotten belief, but we can’t help not to congratulate and further to celebrate Voltaire for what you might call his indirect creation. At the very least, we tip our hats to him, as did Hall, for his inspiration.


Our society needs to recapture this line—inspired by Voltaire and inscribed by Hall. And at the risk of sounding out my feelings on this matter in too peremptory a tone, we ought to stir ourselves to do so rather quickly. The reason that I think so alacritous a response is necessary is that, as it stands, free speech is in a bad way. As if injured, it presents itself before us with a crutch and a limp. It certainly isn’t the sanguine color of its youth, but an acquired black and blue, and should we retreat henceforth from tending to its care with solicitude and tact, it may prove permanently damaged. It’s suffering at the moment from a sort of neo-Puritanism and prudishness that’s hampering the free commerce of ideas and the sometimes lucrative, though often impoverished exchange of thought. But the value isn’t always in what is said, but that it’s said at all.


Though perhaps he didn’t utter the above quoted line, Voltaire was nevertheless perpetually concerned about the status of free speech. Being a speaker and a writer of a provocatively free bent, one can understand the acuity of his interest in so weighty and consequential a matter. His bread and his income (so short in supply at century’s end during the age of revolutionary France—for whose instigation Voltaire is said to have played no small role) was dependent on his unfettered ability to speak. Yet this ability, considered by the censorious legislators of Paris an illegality, caused him twice to be locked away in prison. He spread ribald rumors about the regent and his buxom daughter—intimating an incestuous relationship between the two—and was in possession of so sharp a tongue that it nearly brought him head-on into a duel. It was at this time, exasperated with the stifling prudishness and hypocrisy of the Parisian ruling class, that he set his eyes and his heart upon England.

Bacon he loved best and Newton was—in his seldom humble opinion—a veritable god amongst men. Yet the man in whose writings he may have found the greatest source of comfort and encouragement was the most potent and polemical of all Protestants, the inimitable John Milton. Doubtless, Voltaire was aware of Milton’s earlier work. Indeed, all of the continent must have been, as his contribution to the Western canon was singularly vital from the very start. No work on theodicy, no literary exploration of the wretched plight of humans and demons and the damned was of higher estimation than was his Paradise Lost. The man to whom we look for this astonishing piece of work’s closest competition was an Italian who went by the mononym Dante—a man exiled, disillusioned, and filled with unrequited love. That said, he lived three centuries before the emergence of Milton and the canon expanded now to include two.


Fancying himself something of a devil in his own right, Voltaire likely enjoyed the presence of Milton’s fallen protagonist—a figure with whom he doubtless had sympathy. But had he read Milton’s Areopagitica, he surely would’ve been more than a little bit moved. Composed in the middle of the seventeenth-century when the English Civil War as at its fullest tilt, Areopagitica is a literary man’s most ardently and eloquently liberal appeal. He crafted it in opposition to England’s newfangled licensing and censorship laws, introduced toward the sanguinary and premature culmination of Charles I’s reign. The aptly-named Rump and Long and Short Parliaments had come to their collective end and the Stuart interregnum was about to begin. An understated Whig by the name of Oliver Cromwell was on the rise, yet the cause for free speech was still being laid low. Parliament, ecstatic no longer to be so embarrassingly impotent in the face of a tyrannical king, set forth a rule that required every author to have a license in order to publish his thoughts. Insistent that this oversight come from above, Parliament rendered unto itself the right to distribute or rescind its imprimatur.

However happy he may have been that his side had won the country and the day (and that his erstwhile king’s head no longer held congress with its formerly regal neck), Milton was upset about Parliament’s oppressive censorship laws. Named in memory of the ancient Greek Areopagus—the rock upon whose jagged and wild surface criminal trials were held (in that city of chryselephantine statues, ornate columns, and shaded porticoes)—Milton’s argument was executed as if a master stroke.


The expression of sentiments and ideas, he exclaimed, should not be fettered. On this point, Milton stood athwart the censorious inclinations of those conservative Parliamentarians with whom he’d once worked. More than that, he was unconditional in his determination to see speech liberated in every way. If, he said, “we think to regulate printing, thereby to rectify manners, we must regulate all recreations and pastimes—all that is delightful to man”. And what to man could be more delightful and more stimulating than the unrestricted annunciation and exchange of his ideas? Further, Milton exhorted the purportedly more broad-minded government under which he now lived to “give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties”. I might here add that the italics inserted are of my own placement and choosing. Speech, you see, was the apotheosis of liberties—the liberty to which all other freedoms merely aspired. It is the liberty most jealously to be protected.


But what if, as some of his more moderate detractors responded, this radical liberation of conversation invited more bad words than good? Would the situation not be unlike that described by the mid-nineteenth-century economist Thomas Gresham, to whom we bow in thanks for his clever and eponymous law? If everyone was given an unchecked say, wouldn’t truthful statements eventually be corrupted—or worse—replaced by false claims? Would not veracity fall prey to its sinister partner falsity—ever on the prowl to gain an advantage?

Would we not then begin to exchange in false rather than true ideas and would not the essence of speech become completely vitiated, worthless, and open to mindless abuse?

Milton scoffed at so pessimistic and cowardly a view. He thought better of the robustness and the staying-power of truth. Instead of censoring falsehood in behalf of the truth, Milton tossed out the following challenge: “Let her (the truth) and falsehood grapple; who ever knew truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?” Yes, let them duke it out. I couldn’t have said it better, nor has anyone since. Unlike those Parliamentarians overly zealously legislating in his day, I share in Milton’s optimistic bent as it pertains to the resilience of truth; it’s a combatant in the battle of ideas, a fighter in the ring of open discourse, and it simply can’t and won’t lose.


The tradition of free speech in England was the one attribute of that peculiar island of which Voltaire was always so boyishly enamored. We moderns, so complacent with our access to YouTube comments and our surfeit of blogs posts, can only smile at this noble adoration. For all the inveterate hostilities between the country of his birth and that of his highest esteem, he wanted nothing more than to import this uniquely Anglican liberty back to the house of his mother—to his home of France. He, along with such later philosophes as Diderot, Condorcet, and D’Alembert, largely but incompletely succeeded in doing just that. Yet still, if you wanted to express yourself without fear of the guillotine’s blade and an unnaturally premature end, England was the place to do it, not France.


And it was done over and again, perhaps reaching its highest and most lucid expression in the words of John Stuart Mill. Unfortunately, Voltaire missed by a quarter-century the birth of the eminent Mill—a man in whom the wit would’ve found a profound depth of insight and richness. The prosaic Mill was of course much drier than the poetic Voltaire, but both would’ve agreed in the primacy of pleasure. The precocious Mill and the audacious Voltaire, I think, would’ve gotten along famously. Hedonistic chasers were they both—Mill in philosophy, Voltaire in debauchery—and this shared reverence of the ultimate good would’ve ensured their fraternity and mutual good-will.


But Mill, while best known for his promulgation of the principle of utility in contrast to Kant, was a figure of immense import in the struggle for free speech. You might imagine him following in the line of Milton, picking up where the national poet left off. Mill, whose very name seems a derivative of the incomparable Milton’s, writes on the freedom of speech in his quintessential essay, On Liberty.


The verbiage, deviating mercifully from the old-style language by which Milton crafted his Areopagitica, is perhaps more accessible to us today, but it reads with all the same erudite force. Consistent with his treatise’s title, Mill demanded an unconditional liberty of “thought and feeling, of absolute freedom of opinion and sentiment on all subjects, practical or speculative, scientific, moral, or theological”. To deal in “absolutes” is to deal rather seriously, but one can be sure that Mill wasn’t being loose with his words when he demanded what he did. Freedom, so far as it concerns thoughts, feelings, and opinion, must be absolute.

No thinker before Mill had articulated with so adroit a style nor with so compelling an approach exactly why it is that the freedom of opinion ought not to be encumbered. What’s more, he linked as an extension of the formation of an opinion the action of speech. Speech, he said, was “almost of as much importance as the liberty of thought itself” and, as such, “is practically inseparable from it”. Toward the conclusion of the essay, Mill iterates this one last time: “this one branch is the liberty of thought, from which it is impossible to separate the cognate liberty of speaking and of writing”.


The foregoing line could be no better said. The very movement of free speech hinges upon it. As such, it’s proven itself a ready fulcrum of mighty and persuasive strength. Mill’s is the consummate statement in the defense of free speech. He is the archetypal apologist and the most enlightened of advocates. Yet he continues in the tradition of Voltaire and of Milton and undoubtedly of innumerable others who were silenced before they could make their positions and arguments known. These, of course, are the men to whom we and he owe an immense and often unmentioned debt.


But we must ultimately acknowledge this debt. This freedom for which our predecessors so passionately and, as evidenced above, eloquently fought has become a kind of banality by which we’d rather not be bothered. And when the freedom of speech is infringed or impeded (as has been the case on such sundry and ubiquitous platforms as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and a disquietingly large number of elite and public university campuses) we must arouse ourselves to the implications. Working backward from the syllogism of Mill, to stifle expression is to oppress the very thought from which the words spring. And no matter how bad those words may be, and no matter how loudly they might yearn for my disapprobation, and no matter how vehemently I might disagree with them, I will defend to the death your right to say them. Will you do the same for me?

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