Foucault, John Milton, and Euripides, on Liberty

Another lightly edited long extract from work in progress.


Foucault in his work on parrhesia and tragedy, presumably unconsciously, connects with one of the major seventeenth century republican thinkers, and someone who has often been regarded as a major part of the pre-history of liberalism, John Milton.  Nineteenth century English liberals gave great importance to Milton as a forerunner.  The Whig-Liberal  historian, politician and civil servant Thomas Macaulay, a definitive figure in the liberalism of that time, even elevated Milton to the status of ‘martyr of English liberty’ (Macaulay 1895, 7) (Macaulay, Thomas (1895) Macaulay’s Essay on Milton. Edited by James Greenleaf Croswell. New York NY: Longman.).

Like Foucault, Milton takes Euripides as a source of ideas about liberty in antiquity. His best known work was in epic literature rather than political prose, but Paradise Lost, contains republican themes, while his life and work as a whole add up to a major contribution to political republicanism (Armitage, Himy and Skinner, 1995) (Armitage, David, Armand Himy and Quentin Skinner (1995) Milton and Republicanism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.).   Milton himself was a republican supporter of the English Commonwealth, arguing for the Commonwealth on the basis of  a form of popular sovereignty argument inThe Tenure of Kings and Magistrates  of 1649 (in Milton 1974) (Milton, John (1974) John Milton: Selected Prose. Edited by C.A. Patrides. London: Penguin.)  He worked for Oliver Cromwell as Secretary of Foreign Tongues., and while Cromwell can as much be regarded as the great traitor to English republicanism as its hero, he did have republican supporters like Milton  The major essay by Milton on liberty is his defence of a free press in Areopagitica of 1644, the title of which refers to the Athenian court of Areopagus.  Sophoclean tragedy links the Areopagus Hill with the transition from revenge to law, as it is the location of the trial of Oestes in the Eumides, in which the Furies becomes the Kindly Ones.  As St Paul famously spoke there (Acts 17: 24), the court, and the geographical location, conveniently pulls together antique law and political institutions, together with the beginnings of Christianity.  This is very favourable to Milton’s interest in Christian religion and antique literature, and parallels Foucault’s concern with the continuity between Greek parrhesia, Latin libertas, and the Christian confessional.

Milton quotes the following lines from Suppliant Women (II 436-441) in his own translation.


This is true Liberty where free born men

Having to advise the public may speak free,

Which he who can, and will, deserv’s high praise,

Who neither can nor will, may hold his peace;

What be juster in a State than this?

(Milton 1974, 196)


Milton provides a bridge between Mill and Reformation thought about truth and himself refers back to the Ancient world, quoting Euripides and referring to Cicero in his account of  the value of printing freed from licensing (202), though as his reference to Cicero shows, there was no liberty to deny all religion.  Milton supported that limitation, and we cannot therefore see him as the complete precursor of Foucault, or of recent defenders of free speech in more absolute ways.  However, Milton’s vision of the purpose of free speech, of liberty of the press, is close to Foucault and to the best reasons for defending free speech.  It connects more with classical liberal arguments than is often understood, and that adds to the picture of Foucault as close to classical liberalism in at least some forms.

In Areopagitica,  Milton is addressing parliament at the height of the English Civil War, to appeal against the pre-censorship of books, which he refers to as licensing.  Maybe three pillars of his argument emerge: antique pagan precedent, the nature of Reformation, the means of establishing truth.  Milton’s argument is certainly dominated by the idea of finding theological truth, his biggest goal is the establishment of the best possible interpretation of the Bible and the best possible theology.  This requires argument, and Milton gives strong recognition to the value of contesting truth.  Truth emerges stronger for being challenged and then arguing for it, the act of persuasion towards truth is part of the formation of truth.  And we can never be sure that we have found the highest truth, so we are bound to entertain counter-arguments to whatever we think is the highest truth we have.

Milton makes it very clear that he excludes atheism and Catholicism from the range of  thought which can be freely expressed.  In mitigation of the prohibition, Milton’s opposition to licensing means that atheistical and ‘Papist’ works can be published, but maybe subject to state prosecution after publication, which would bring their printing and distribution to an end.  What Milton refers to as atheism might strike us as agnosticism rather than atheism strictly speaking.  The Sophist Protagoras is one of those he identifies in antiquity as subject to penalties against his writings because he expressed doubts about the existence of gods, though not denial of the possibility (202).  As noted above, Milton partly explains the limitations of antique tolerance with regard to Cicero, without noting that Cicero’s attitude towards ancient gods was like that of Protagoras.

Milton’s position refers to Graeco-Roman antiquity and to the Hebraic-Christian Bible, and might be summarised as an attempted union of Athens and Jerusalem.  God gave Adam reason, and that means free will, and so God intended us to be free.  The consequences of Adam’s use of his reason might be considered an argument against liberty, but that would be a Papist view for Milton.  He condemns the Catholic Church for keeping the Bible away from the laity for fear of misinterpretation, referring to the Catholic policy lasting up to the Reformation of preventing translation of the Bible into languages other than Latin.

Apart from Atheism and ‘Papism’, Milton argues for libel as a limit to freedom in publishing, and again refers to antique precedents  That is a limitation accepted by free speech advocates since Mill, though that still leaves room for a broad variety of views about what constitutes libel.  It is the freedom of books in Athens that Milton refers to as a model in antiquity, and this extends to a suggestion that England is a particularly free nation, implicitly like ancient Athens, so we see the role of classicism, of nostalgia for ancient republics in modern ideas about liberty.

5 thoughts on “Foucault, John Milton, and Euripides, on Liberty

  1. Pingback: Mill and Freedom of Speech Today « Triptychon

  2. Can you help me see the limitations on freedom that result in the exclusion of papist and atheist/agnostic literature? Thanks for your post. I was writing and thinking about the knowledge economy and Foucault, wound up rereading Part 1 of the Areopagitica and went hunting for commentaries on overlap between Milton and Foucault. Yours is a winner, but I didn’t get the limitations you describe, at least not as theoretical limitations. I read Milton’s anti-popery as a matter of preference and an example of choosing the good, but you argue that censorship of papist and atheist literature is consistent with Milton’s position. Thanks! George

    • Hello George
      From Milton’s point of view freedom of speech must be constrained by basic truths about the universe, and the role God gives to humans. Milton is using constants that seem too much for us now, but I think we can start by considering that free speech is always going to operate within constraints, though we hope they won’t harm the essentials of free speech. Libel laws and laws regarding threatening behaviour are accepted by just about everyone now, but do also provide a constraint. From Milton’s point, it is such an important and basic truth that there is God, and that God and humanity’s relation with God is only properly expressed through Protestantism, that is just seems as obvious to him that restricting Catholic and Atheist views is necessary as it seems obvious to us that libel and threatening behaviour are constraining considerations now. Other considerations for Milton are that the Catholic Church heavily restricts freedom of speech within it sown community, and in ways that undermine Christianity because they regard the Church as guiding people to Christ rather than the conscience of an individual reading the Bible. Milton, like most people at that time, presumes that people without religious belief are not people deserving of any trust, or of standard civil rights because only fear of God and fear of punishment from that high authority can lead to someone being morally reliable. From Milton’s point of view there is no attack on free speech properly speaking in denying free speech to those who must undermine all moral relations. Freedom can only exist within a society of effective moral constraints, on what we do with freedom.

    • 1. I don’t know, if you have any relevant information I would be grateful if you could share it.
      2. The biggest issue is not whether Foucault read this or that text, but how his own texts exist in relation to earlier texts, regardless of acquaintance with texts or conscious intention to refer to them. I like to think this approach is in the spirit of Foucault’s own work

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