John Milton of Areopagitica fame | Daily News

John Milton of Areopagitica fame

Just the other day, a Ceylon University friend, an encyclopedist, phoned and asked whether the government, whom he knows, despite the stumbles, have my support, intends to introduce some form of press censorship. I replied this may be a dead rope of an agent provocateur, given the classical background of both the President and the Prime Minister and not give much credence to rumor. Nevertheless I thought, since the subject of censorship was raised, it is prudent to give John Milton's views on censorship, even though l am on the horns of a dilemma not knowing how to tame shadowy, scurrilous, scumbags, addicted to bombast, slander and hogwash, when they mount attacks on the innocent.

In 1644 Milton published the Areopagitica, an appeal to Parliament to revoke their Licensing Order of June 16, 1643.This order was meant to bring publishing under government control by creating a number of official censors to whom authors would submit their work for approval prior to having them published. Milton's argument was censorship is little more than an excuse for state control of thought. Recognizing that some means of accountability was necessary to ensure that libellious or other illegal statements were kept under check(noteworthy examples are the recent lament in Parliament by a member complaining about some erroneous, mischievous and irresponsible garbage thrown at him at the Bond Commission hearings, when charges he argued, must rest on evidence not to be invalidated by any argument which human wit can devise or by information found in old cabin trunks and under weather beaten mattresses and the other a citizen traveling to Hulftsdorp, seeking redress for being humiliated by mockery, billingsgate, intimidation by black coated brethren, seated in high cushioned revolving chairs, at the office of the AG).

As the essayist Edward Gunawardene, reputed for his biting wit, recently pointed out in the Daily News, these petty, black coated, money changers shock the senses of the decent and referred to the coup case where the 3 court bench of MC Sansoni, LB de Silwa and HNG Fernando received much respect from the Silks, even though the latter were fighting a rearguard action against the evidence. Evidence, if not for the grace of God, would have placed me also in the dock.

Stifling an opinion is an ugly evil. If the opinion is right we are robbed of an opportunity of exchanging error for truth. If it is wrong we are deprived of a deeper understanding of the truth, in its collision with error.

But what is different today is the strength given to the printed word to disperse widely at the speed of light. These powerful means not only express they modify, change and distort. Nourished by the underlying skepticism, gross ignorance and ineptitude that pervade modern society, often seen, ad nauseam, in monopolizers of newspaper opinion columns, they employ the old sophist tricks to weaken the stronger argument and color the implausible. Thanks to the new found power they rule the world more than they did when Milton wrote the Areopagitica. Then, reason constituted as it were the solar system, within which truths like epicycles, moved.

Milton was admired by his peers. In 1802 Wordsworth wrote.

Milton, thou shouldst be living at this hour

Thou hadst a voice whose sound was like the sea

England hath need of thee

She is now a fen of stagnant water


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