“Free They Must Remain”: John Milton’s Enduring Wisdom
John Milton is one of history’s foremost English poets, and according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, “the most significant English author after William Shakespeare.” He is most famous for Paradise Lost, considered the finest epic poem in the English language. That makes the date of his birth, December 9, 1608, worth commemorating.
Milton also advanced liberty, and his advocacy had a major influence on the American Revolution. That influence came about because he was a fully convicted and forthright defender of religious rights, civil liberties, and the English Commonwealth during a tumultuous period of religious and political change. His argument in Areopagitica for the freedoms of speech and the press, and against government censorship, was also widely influential.
Milton’s political philosophy, which led him to oppose tyranny, and his theology, which advanced freedom of conscience and religious toleration, powerfully resonated with America’s founders, and its influence is most evident in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Consider a sampling of Milton’s wise words:
None can love freedom but good men; the rest love not freedom, but license, which never hath more scope than under tyrants.
License they mean when they cry, Liberty! For who loves that, must first be wise and good.
Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.
Truth…Let her and falsehood grapple.
Who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?
There is no truth sure enough to justify persecution.
He who thinks we…have attained the utmost prospect of reformation…by this very opinion declares that he is yet far short of truth.
Thou canst not touch the freedom of my mind.
He who reigns within himself, and rules passions, desires, and fears, is…a king.
No man…can be so stupid to deny that all men naturally were born free, being the image and resemblance of God himself.
[God] created them free and free they must remain.
The whole freedom of man consists either in spiritual or civil liberty.
Here the great art lies, to discern in what the law is to be restraint and punishment, and in what things persuasion only is to work.
What is strength without a double share of wisdom?
When complaints are freely heard, deeply considered, and speedily reformed, then is the utmost bound of civil liberty obtained that wise men look for.
Who overcomes by force, hath overcome but half his foe.
Nations grow corrupt, love bondage more than liberty; bondage with ease than strenuous liberty.
[Those] with their freedom lost, all virtue lose.
Most men admire virtue who follow not her lore.
John Milton’s literary blows against tyranny and government religion were principled stands taken during a maelstrom of change. Americans, in particular, have been major beneficiaries, through his political impact on our founders. The landmark 1964 Supreme Court case New York Times v. Sullivan, for example, even cited his Areopagitica.
For this, and for his poetry, Milton deserves our deepest gratitude, more than four centuries after his birth.