Michel Foucault and John Milton on Liberty

(From work in progress on Foucault and Liberty)

Foucault in his work on parrhēsia and tragedy, presumably unconsciously, connects with one of the major seventeenth century republican thinkers, John Milton. Nineteenth century English liberals regarded 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’.

Like Foucault, Milton takes Euripides as a source of ideas about liberty in antiquity. His most widely read work now is in epic and lyric poetry, 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. At least oen authority discusses the political, religious and epistemological aspects of Milton’s Areopagitica in relation to current liberalism, confirming that Milton is part of the history of liberalism. Milton himself was a republican supporter of the English Commonwealth, arguing for it on the basis of  a form of popular sovereignty argument inThe Tenure of Kings and Magistrates  of 1649 . He worked for Oliver Cromwell, the commander of Parliament’s army against the king, and the strong man of the Commonwealth of 1649 to 1658,  as Secretary of Foreign Tongues.  Cromwell should probably be regarded as the great traitor to English republicanism rather than its hero (even oppressing one the intellectual heroes of English republicanism, James Harrington), but he did have republican supporters like Milton, even after 1653 when he adopted the position of Lord Protector, bringing the ‘free state‘ definition of the English Commonwealth to an end

The major essay by Milton on liberty precedes the Commonwealth and is his defence of a free press in Areopagitica of 1644, the title of which refers to the Athenian court of Areopagus. Aeschylus’ tragedy links the Areopagus Hill with the transition from revenge to law, as it is the location of the trial of Oestes in the Eumenides, in which the Furies becomes the Kindly Ones.  As St Paul famously spoke there (Acts 17: 24), the court, conveniently pulls antique law and political institutions together with the beginnings of Christianity.  This is very favourable to Milton’s advocacy of both Protestant Christianity, and the value of antique Greek and Roman literature, and the republicanism of that era.

Milton quotes the following lines from Suppliant Women (II 436-441), one of the Euripides texts invoked by Foucault in the discussion of parrhēsia, 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 quotes Euripides and refers to Cicero in his account of  the value of printing freed from licensing, 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 John Stuart Mill or of any other defenders of free speech in more absolute ways. Those more encompassing defences of free speech come from the Enlightenment, and we can see Milton as pushing free speech to something close to the known limit of previous discussion.  Milton’s vision of the purpose of free speech, of liberty of the press, can be seen as close to arguments Foucault has about the merits of free speaking, even if Foucault is much more libertarian than Milton, in various ways .

In Areopagitica, Milton is addressing Parliament two years into the English Civil War, to appeal against the pre-censorship of books, which he refers to as licensing. Three pillars are apparent in his argument: antique pagan precedent, the nature of Protestant 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 what has been taken for 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 are 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 of gods.  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.


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