Milton abhorred censorship
NUS professor Rajeev Patke, a part of the team of academics planning the curriculum and hiring the new faculty for Yale-NUS, defended Singapore’s practice of censorship as an instance of “how a nation wishes to protect its citizens” (“More than banned books,” March 30). Books by Salman Rushdie and the Marquis de Sade may be banned in Singapore itself, Patke notes, but there are instances in which a book such as Rushdie’s Satanic Verses can be made available for study within the safe, cordoned-off space of Singapore’s university classrooms.
Patke is disconcertingly sanguine about the firewall that prevents certain forms of book-inspired knowledge to cross the boundary from the NUS campus to the larger Singaporean society. And he urges all of us at Yale to celebrate the partnership with NUS by citing one of the most famous passages from the poet John Milton’s monumental treatise of 1644, Areopagitica: “I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race, where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat.” Turning for support to seventeenth-century England’s greatest poet, Patke suggests that Yale needs to “sally out” and engage the adversary of Singaporean authoritarianism with the arsenal of Ivy League liberalism.
Unfortunately for Patke, the sentence he has extracted from Milton’s sublime treatise can in no meaningful way be repurposed to support Yale’s partnership with NUS. The “cloistered virtue” of which Milton wrote was the falsely virtuous space that England’s authoritarian monarchy attempted to create when it employed censorship to “protect” its citizens from the dangerous ideas that can be found in dangerous books.
We must leave the safe zone of the censorious church or university and “sally out” and meet with all the ideas and books we can, Milton insisted, if we are ever to perform the hard but unavoidable labor of creating knowledge and finding truth. Perhaps the earliest and greatest defense of the freedom of the press, Areopagitica argued passionately for the dependence of the pursuit of truth on a freedom of expression extended as broadly as possible.
Five years after writing Areopagitica, John Milton would write and publish two bold and learned treatises in favor of the regicide that would bring England’s authoritarian monarchy crashing down; those and many others of his intellectually and politically daring works would help prepare him to write Paradise Lost. He could never have countenanced any suggestion that the knowledge that arises from the liberal arts can flourish in an illiberal society.
The writer is a professor of English.