If even the greats of the Western Canon such as John Milton can’t convince those defending “good speech” over free speech, can anyone?
I have always marveled at a time where Christianity is on the wane in America that the very same public which declares itself either agnostic or atheistic — the “nones” — has such a troublesome preoccupation with the diabolic and supernatural.
One might point towards the rise in horror films as evidence. God is dead, yet the demonic survives in our obsession in the supernatural and dystopian. One would think that one would die without the other in some sort of scientifically driven 1970s utopia.
Yet I would rather point towards more mundane examples.
Gone were the Greek and Roman pagan gods, and just at the moment when society took its Nietzschean turn, we replaced them with Marvel and DC superheroes. We have reacquired all the old pagan tastes for orgies, bacchanalia, even gladiatorial combat in the midst of a writer’s strike — all televised.
Worse still is our turn away from education in favor of something that isn’t even close to the Western conception. Even in the debate over library books, we aren’t precisely talking about the restoration of the Great Books, but rather the omission of that which we believe to be objectionable.
On the left, the objection extends to anything falling under the unforgivable sin of problematic. Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn? All things Ernest Hemingway? Even Dr. Seuss is — wait for it — problematic and requires the editing of baser souls.
Yet on the right, the objection is directed towards the sexualization of our youth aged kindergarten to seventeen-plus-364 days old. Some of the books targeted by today’s censors — books such as It’s Perfectly Normal — aren’t literature at all but just pure smut in book form.
Other writers seem to be finding themselves on the funeral pyre all the same: Dante, Aeschylus’ Orestia, Homer’s Odyssey, Vergil’s Aenied, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales — even the Book of Genesis and the Song of Songs are too risqué for childlike audiences according to these criteria.
Milton: “He that can apprehend and consider… is the true warfaring Christian.”
Most new readers of the Great Books find themselves shocked against just how ribald the ancients were, much less their medieval and renaissance champions. The Victorian era with its Augustan-like emphasis on good morals and good marriages curtailed much of the public availability of such smut, but never quite extinguished the public taste for forbidden fruits.
John Milton’s Aeropagitica was written during a time in Britain where the Puritans continued to restrict free speech at the high water mark of the English Civil War — where Puritanical roundheads known for the helmets of the New Model Army squared off against the Cavaliers loyal to the Stuart kings. Milton’s previous works defending the practice of divorce were suppressed by the Calvinists in the 1640s, thus driving Milton to press further in defense of free speech and religious liberty — though it should be mentioned, not for those rascally, superstitious, and close-minded papists:
I mean not tolerated Popery, and open superstition, which as it extirpats all religions and civill supremacies, so itself should be extirpate, provided first that all charitable and compassionate means be used to win and regain the weak and the misled.
Milton argues that the pursuit of virtue is not the method of uprooting vice so that virtue may thrive, but rather in the Aristotelian definition of proairesis as defined in the Nicomachean Ethics — discerning between what is vicious and what is virtuous. One can hear echoes of Thomas Jefferson in Milton’s observation that:
When God gave him [mankind] reason, he gave him freedom to choose, for reason is but choosing; he had been else a mere artificial Adam, such an Adam as he is in the motions.
This Miltonian twist on the idea of porairesis would be borrowed by Jefferson and others as they hammered home the triumph of reason over what they termed priestcraft — that dogmatic sense where things are known by faith alone rather than by either reason or faith informed with reason. For this, Milton argues that there is no means by which we can plow up the weeds from the wheat:
Good and evil we know in the field of this world grow up together almost inseparably; and the knowledge of good is so involved and interwoven with the knowledge of evil, and in so many cunning resemblances hardly to be discerned, that those confused seeds which were imposed upon Psyche as an incessant labour to cull out, and sort asunder, were not intermixed. It was from out the rind of one apple tasted, that the knowledge of good and evil, as two twins cleaving together, leaped forth into the world. And perhaps this is that doom which Adam fell into of knowing good and evil, that is to say of knowing good by evil. As therefore the state of man now is; what wisdom can there be to choose, what continence to forbear without the knowledge of evil? He that can apprehend and consider vice with all her baits and seeming pleasures, and yet abstain, and yet distinguish, and yet prefer that which is truly better, he is the true warfaring Christian. (emphasis added)
So it seems that Milton’s twist on heresy is not the pursuit of the highest good, but rather ensuring that each person has the ability both discern between that which is good and evil and choose the virtuous over the vicious.
Can Virtue Survive in Postmodern America?
Yet those of us who see the prevalence of smut and pornography in society today cannot help but point out that it is more pervasive than ever before.
Forget books — technology puts such temptations to our baser desires in our phones, on our billboards, on commercials selling us beer and cars, with virtually everything psychologically manipulating and hardwiring us to become dopamine and endorphin addicts.
Hedonism matches with nihilism in a time where our place in the world is sapped of both identity and meaning. Huxleyite efforts to mindlessly entertain ourselves until we die replaces Thoreau’s quip about each of us living quiet lives of desperation. Why not return to the amusements of the past? Why not allow individuals to fully express themselves in a meaningless orgy of pleasure in an effort to avoid the Nietzschean reality that our lives are meaningless in a world of 8 billion souls on a rock floating on a sunbeam surrounded by 400 billion stars in a universe which doesn’t care?
Thus the sexualization of everything is a telltale indicating our retrogression to a pagan ethos, where pleasure becomes the highest good, pain the worst evil, and the stoic development of discipline cares nothing about the worthiness of our goals — merely that we achieve them.
I suspect that those of us who remain attuned to the divine — Christians, Muslims, Jews, etc. — see the problem in a way our children and grandchildren might not, much less those who have given up on the question entirely in pursuit of things felt and seen.
Yet the wider challenge to those who are simply looking to mindlessly entertain themselves to death remains. We are not ends unto ourselves. In fact, we are meant to do more than seek pleasure and avoid pain. Our reason instructs us to forego immediate pleasures in pursuit of greater joys — the preservation of the good, beautiful, and true being the hallmark of the conservative tradition. These things are good, beautiful, and true — not because we say that they are — but because they are indeed intrinsically good, intrinsically beautiful, and intrinsically true. This is the reason why we don’t go around using people for our pleasure and discarding them when they become difficult. Personal autonomy isn’t the highest good; it isn’t even a common good. What is good is that we exist, and more than this, that we exist for a purpose higher and more common than ourselves.
Now this does not mean that we all get this thing greater than ourselves right. Yet it does mean that there are 8 billion different perspectives on what that thing might be — and they are not always going to get it right. In fact, we are going to get it wrong.
Yet the wider question of whether the Great Books can compete against smut and pornography? As a conservative, I am not willing to concede a single inch on this. Of course Shakespeare can beat smut. Of course Chaucer can beat pornography. Of course great literature can beat out pop culture for precisely the same reason G.K. Chesteron gave for why the Roman Empire converted to Christianity so quickly:
Because smut is boring.
Have More Confidence in the Good, Beautiful, and True
Spotsylvania County has been the epicenter of much of the book banning — what one school board member indicated as book burning — epidemic that seems to be gripping the nation.
I am sympathetic to the idea that smut should not be put alongside literature. Yet when Toni Morrison and James Baldwin go on the same funeral pyre as the smut, one has to question whether or not our criteria for banning books includes Romeo and Juliet (Juliet was 13), the Canterbury Tales, and even the Song of Solomon — which when one parent was challenged on this topic, she suggested that children should be given “edited” versions of Sacred Scripture instead.
Dr. Seuss is one thing. Holy writ? Sorry — I’m in sales, not management.
I am also quite suspect of the sexualization of everything. The political left isn’t shy about the reason why, especially if one believes that human freedom is intrinsically linked to the idea of personal pleasure and maximized gratification. No small wonder why their efforts toward a just society are entirely focused on minimizing consequences for bad behavior: mitigated sentencing, therapeutic abortions, student debt forgiveness, free health care, unemployment benefits, and the like.
Democrats will be quick to point to all of these things as their definition of a good and unironically moral society. Who doesn’t want public education, public roads, social security, and the like? Yet when we stretch basic goods into moral hazard, it is no small wonder why Republicans balk at paying student loans while Democrats see such as move as a basic civil right — we simply don’t share the same language about the things we value.
So too is the argument for and against certain books being provided in public settings, including school and public libraries.
“Ye Cannot Make Them Chaste, That Came Not Thither So”
So we have a twofold problem. We cannot pull up the weeds without pulling up the wheat, and there remains a prevalent fear among few that the good, beautiful, and true cannot survive in a heads-up contest against bad, ugly, and false.
The grand solution to bad ideas is not nor ever has been the enforcement of good ideas, but rather a marketplace for more ideas. Let good literature compete against bad literature and find out what we are still talking about in 50 years.
Milton makes this point at length about the follies of censorship.
Rather than removing the things which test virtue, writes Milton, we should consider the nature of mankind as they are tested in virtue, and whether removing the objects of covetousness make a man any less covetous?
They are not skillful considerers of human things who imagine to remove sin by removing the matter of sin; for besides that it is a huge heap increasing under the very act of diminishing, though some part of it may for a time be withdrawn from some persons, it cannot from all, in such a universal thing as books are; and when this is done, yet the sin remains entire. Though ye take from a covetous man all his treasure, he has yet one jewel left, ye cannot bereave him of his covetousness. Banish all objects of lust, shut up all youth into the severest discipline that can be exercised in any hermitage, ye cannot make them chaste, that came not thither so: such great care and wisdom is required to the right managing of this point.
Suppose we could expel sin by this means. Look how much we thus expel of sin, so much we expel of virtue, for the matter of them both is the same: remove that, and ye remove them both alike. This justifies the high providence of God, who, though he commands us temperance, justice, continence, yet pours out before us even to a profuseness all desirable things, and gives us minds that can wander beyond all limit and satiety. Why should we then affect a rigor contrary to the manner of God and of nature, by abridging or scanting those means, which books freely permitted are both to the trial of virtue and the exercise of truth?
Of course, who reads Milton today apart from mentioning Paradise Lost?
Part of being a literate soul is reading literature; those who do not read literature are by definition illiterate. The fact that some readers probably gave up on Milton tells you that we are farther away than we realize.
If those of us who claim to be defending the Great Books of the Western Canon refuse to hear the admonishments of John Milton? Who takes his place?
We know who takes his place. If that’s the proper pronoun.
Shaun Kenney is the editor of The Republican Standard, former chairman of the Board of Supervisors for Fluvanna County, and a former executive director of the Republican Party of Virginia.