Bonfire of the Stupidities

The news this week has been dominated by Koran burning and all its ramifications. I’m not going to talk about that specifically – more than enough media coverage has already been given to Reverend Bushy McMuttonChops and his merry band of hillbillies for Jesus. No, instead, I’m going to step away from the religious elements of this case, and appeal to a higher ideal…

In 1644, the English Civil War was in full swing. Roundheads and Cavaliers were busily killing one another over conflicting ideas like the origin of governmental power, parliamentary representation, and the divine right of kings. The internet was notoriously slow in those days, so these ideas were largely promulgated by way of published books and pamphlets. (You remember books - those things that work like a Kindle but with only one file in memory...)

Naturally, each side of the conflict tried to regulate and prohibit said publishing – Parliamentarians opposed tracts advocating monarchy as god’s will, while the crown tried to stamp out any essay that advocated, say for instance, regicide. Parliament had already passed a law called the Licensing Order which restricted publishing quite severely. Basically, no one could print anything without the imprimatur of Parliament, and they tightly controlled any text they considered radical or polemic.

Despite being a devout parliamentarian himself, the great John Milton could not support the restriction, censoring, or destruction of books. In response he penned what is still considered one of the most compelling arguments of all time for free speech – Areopagitica.

Named for the Areopagus, the hill in Athens where the city elders and Archons met to discuss legal and philosophical matters, Areopagitica is an eloquent defense of the exchange of ideas that the written word represents. He speaks of the sanctity of books, of their inherent worth, saying, “For books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul whose progeny they are; nay, they do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them.”

He argued, and rightly so I think, that any harm done to a book, regardless its content, is a harm done to freedom of thought and to reason. He writes, “[A]s good almost kill a man as kill a good book. Who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God's image; but he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself, kills the image of God, as it were in the eye." Books, for Milton, were the distillation and avatars of reason.

Most importantly, Milton argued that no idea was too radical to be allowed to exist in print, saying, “Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.” Well over a century before our Bill of Rights, Milton planted the seed that inspired our founding fathers to protect free speech. It’s the phrase – “according to conscience” - that elevates this above just the right to verbally be a jackass. It’s actually about debate and the pursuit of reason.

So regardless of a book’s contents, regardless of your feelings about it, regardless of the misanthropic, misogynistic, warmongering, mythology between the covers, I’m with Milton when he says, ‘Let her [Truth] and falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?’

With that in mind, I’ll be the first to say that anyone who wants to burn a book that he owns has the right, but I believe that in doing so he violates a law higher than the Constitution. He offends reason itself.


Rebecca said...

If Truth triumphs over falsehood in a fair, um, grapple, why is Fox News winning?

Linus said...

The key phrase there is, "in a free and open encounter" - TV news is anything but fair.

Mayren said...

book burning is somehow wrong on all levels, even the secret levels when you go to the warp world pipes.

Linus said...

I agree, but some feel the need to destroy to make a point. There has to be a better way.

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