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John Milton (1608-1674). Areopagitica (1644)

By Barry Stocker
January 8th, 2012 at 2:24 pm | Comments Off on John Milton (1608-1674). Areopagitica (1644) | Posted in Liberal Philosophy, Uncategorized

John Milton (1608-1674)

Areopagitica (1644)

John Milton is best known as a poet, in English and in Latin,  particularly for his epic Paradise Lost, one of the major works in all English literature.  It is work with a religious structure, which also shows evidence of his opposition to (Satanic) tyranny, and support for republicanism as the most godly form of government on Earth.  As this suggests, Milton was also one of the major seventeenth century English republican thinkers.  Nineteenth century English liberals gave great importance to Milton as a forerunner, as in The Whig-Liberal  historian, politician and civil servant Thomas Macaulay who elevated Milton to the status of ‘martyr of English liberty’.   It is Milton’s strangely name Areopagitica which has made the biggest impression in the history of political thought.  Milton was a supporter of the English Commonwealth (1649-1660, though in the strictest sense it ended in 1653), which followed Parliament’s victory over the English monarchy, and the execution of Charles I.  He  argued for the Commonwealth on the basis of  a form of popular sovereignty argument (in which Milton thought that aristocratic bodies could be adequate to represent the nation) inThe Tenure of Kings and Magistrates of 1649.  He worked for Oliver Cromwell, commander of the Parliamentary army, and increasingly dominant in politics, as Secretary of Foreign Tongues (which meant chief translator and publicist for the government).  Cromwell can as much be regarded as the great traitor to English republicanism as its hero, but he did have republican supporters like Milton. Cromwell’s elevation to rank Lord Protector in 1653, along with his crushing of republican and democratic thinkers, his restrictions on parliament and religious dissenters, and increasingly monarchical pretensions, ended the hopes of a pure republic of liberty and parliamentary power, in England.  He was still the defender of the next best thing for Milton,  and for others. Areopagitica refers to the Athenian court of Areopagus which has secular and religious, legal and poetic, significance.  In secular terms it was a court of Athens, the most democratic and liberty respecting of ancient Greek states.  Ancient Greek tragedy links the Areopagus Hill with the transition from revenge to law, as it is the location of the trial of Oestes in the Eumenides (the last part of Aeschylus’ Oresteia), in which the Furies becomes the Kindly Ones.  As St Paul famously spoke there (New Testament. Acts 17: 24), it has an important place in the origins of Christianity.  This is very favourable to Milton’s interest in both Christian religion and antique literature. As was normal for republican and liberty oriented thinkers of the time, he drew on Ancient Greek and Roman history, along with the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, for examples of good and bad political forms.  In Milton, there is a particular emphasis on liberty, as the Protestant liberty for a Christian to seek an individual understanding of the Bible, and of God’s word.  Political liberty is necessarily bound up with this for him.

Milton quotes from Euripides’ tragedy the Suppliant Women at the beginning of Areopagitica, confirming the importance of Ancient Greek tragedy as a source of thought about liberty.  He also refers to the more strictly defined political thought of antiquity, as when he refers to Cicero in his account of  the value of publication freed from pre-censorship. In Areopagitica,  Milton is addressing parliament at the height of the English Civil War (1642-1651, also known, and more accurately, as the War of the Three Kingdoms) to appeal against the pre-censorship of books, which he refers to as licensing.  Milton’s argument in religion, in politics, and in all fields, is that truth emerges stronger for being challenged and then in the arguing for it. We can never be sure that we have found the highest truth, so we are bound to entertain counter-arguments to whatever we think is the highest truth we have.  Milton does make it  clear that he excludes atheism and Catholicism from the range of  thought which can be freely expressed, but this is not intolerance by the standards of the age.   It is the freedom of books in Athens that Milton refers to as a model in antiquity, and this extends to a suggestion that England is a particularly free nation, implicitly like ancient Athens, so we see the role of classicism, of nostalgia for ancient republics, in modern ideas about liberty.  Milton’s specific arguments for free speech include the idea that a right to free speech, and even demonstrable commitment to its exercise, is  a criterion of membership of a political community, both in legal terms and in terms of peer esteem.  Those who are not trusted in their actions, including the action of writing, even though their intentions are not known to be immoral or illegal, must be regarded as excluded from full citizenship, because of intellectual impairment, or citizenship of another nation.  Milton’s sense of liberty includes national self-government, and though his manner of referring to foreign residents may strike us as harsh, he does capture the idea that state power must be limited to what comes from the freely formed political will of the nation, and in responsible genuinely national political institutions, as opposed to the will of one person.  As a defender of free speech, and very few in his time went further in demanding liberty of expression, he is a great antecedent for John Stuart Mill, and all those who have argued for individual liberty, and for political institutions which act with rational deliberation, and which are accountable to public opinion.



Nick Clegg sets out his vision

By Simon Goldie
December 20th, 2011 at 3:07 pm | 5 Comments | Posted in Liberal Democrats, Liberal Philosophy, Policy

This Monday, Nick Clegg set out his vision for British society. As someone who has argued that Clegg has been weaving a liberal narrative from liberalism’s rich tradition, it is interesting to see Clegg draw these strands together.

Clegg distinguishes the socialist, conservative and liberal views of society. He argues that socialists, or social democrats, believe in a ‘good society’. Conservatives want a ‘big society’ and liberals promote an ‘open society’.

He makes it clear that there is some overlap for liberals with a ‘big society’ as both conservatives and liberals are sceptical of State power. There are also differences, which is why Clegg is a member of the Liberal Democrats and not a Conservative.

There is very little in the speech that nods to any overlap with Labour’s ‘good society’ bar that both parties see themselves as progressives. On this point, he makes it clear that Labour’s progressive agenda is based on a fixed blueprint. Having a set view is not, according to Clegg, compatible with an ‘open society’.

Clegg makes it clear that his liberalism is about people. As far as he is concerned the other two competing traditions put their faith in the State or non-State institutions.

The speech also covers some policy. Clegg’s interest in taxing unearned wealth fits with a party that has long had a fan base for land value taxation.

He ends the speech quoting Karl Popper.

The party now has to flesh out these ideas on social mobility, dispersed political power, transparency, a fair distribution of wealth and property and an internationalist outlook.

The challenge after that is to build an electoral base who support an ‘open society.’


Graham Watson and a liberal narrative

By Simon Goldie
December 1st, 2011 at 2:32 pm | Comments Off on Graham Watson and a liberal narrative | Posted in EU Politics, Liberal Democrats, Liberal Philosophy

In a recent post, I argued that the Lib Dems need to ensure that they have a clear identity.

In his piece congratulating Sir Graham Watson, Barry Stocker has drawn attention to a speech that Graham has given on liberalism.

The speech frames liberalism within a rich political tradition and shows why it is relevant today.

This is a welcome contribution to the ongoing discussion about where the party is going and where it should be going.


The broad church that is the Liberal Democrats

By Simon Goldie
November 28th, 2011 at 10:37 am | 6 Comments | Posted in Liberal Democrats, Liberal Philosophy, Social Liberal Forum, Uncategorized

In a series of comments under the post, The Strange Rebirth of Classical Liberalism, the question of what the Liberal Democrats are all about came up several times. One comment by Dan asked about the party’s view of limited government and the free market. Instead of responding directly by discussing my own experiences, I thought it might be more illuminating to look at what different strands make up the Liberal Democrats. This is partly because I see myself as a commentator on the party and how liberalism has developed.

It is a cliche to say that the party is a broad church. All political parties are.

In one sense, the Liberal Democrats are a new party. Formed after a merger, the party combines at least two political traditions. The SDP rejected a Labour party that was adopting policies like unilateral nuclear disarmament and withdrawal from the European Community. The party placed itself deliberately in the centre ground and shared some headline policies with the Liberal party.

The Liberal party was born out of a merger a century before between the Whigs and the Radicals. This tradition was influenced by the ideas of Adam Smith, John Locke and John Stuart Mill. It was shaped by a reforming impulse that manifested itself with repeal of the Corn Laws, pushing for free trade and the establishment of the rule of law. Its non-conformist radicalism made common cause with the co-operative, and mutual, movement and a concern for the poor.

Over time these strands have evolved, but they can still be identified in the party.

Simon Hughes, a member of the Liberal party, clearly comes from that non-conformist radical tradition. He has a deep concern for people in society who through no fault of their own struggle to get by. His instincts are liberal but mixes this with a desire for equality of opportunity.

The ex SDP side of the Liberal Democrats are more like Scandinavian social democrats. They are for a free market and strong public services.

The ‘Orange Book’ liberals, some of which are ex SDP, want to see government helping the most vulnerable in society and believe the freerer the market the more likely that is to happen. Some, like Chris Huhne, believe that regulatory frameworks can help develop markets that would not otherwise come into fruition.

The social liberals also support a free market, albeit one that is more heavily regulated. They tend to be sceptical about using market mechanics to help provide public services while the ‘Orange Bookers’ are more comfortable with this.

Since its inception, the party has supported constitutional reform which in their view would limit, and check, executive power. Traditionally, the classical liberals within the Conservative party have opposed these reforms. Some reject change because they believe tinkering with the constitution is dangerous, some dislike the idea of the executive being constrained while others take the view that constitutional change won’t actually limit government. Whether the changes that the Lib Dems argue for will work is open to debate. The point though is that the commitment to limiting government has always been there.

Clearly, the Liberal Democrats are not a classical liberal party. But there are members who are classical liberals and even social liberals are influenced by the ideas of liberty, tolerance, limited government, sound money and the distribution of power.


The Strange Rebirth of Classical Liberalism

By Simon Goldie
November 24th, 2011 at 11:00 am | 19 Comments | Posted in Liberal Philosophy, Libertarians, Liberty League

When George Dangerfield wrote The Strange Death of Liberal England it looked as though liberalism was no longer relevant to the body politic. The Liberal party had been overtaken by its rivals: the Conservatives and the newly-created Labour party. Many liberal ideas had become part and parcel of the political landscape, which might have explained the demise of the party.

In 2003, David Walter wrote The Strange Rebirth of Liberal England. The author argued that liberalism was back. But that liberalism was very different to the one that was withering away decades before.

It is no surprise that a political philosophy will adapt to changing times. Recently, though it would appear that the advocates of classical liberalism have re-entered the mainstream political debate.

One could argue that the Whigs who entered the Conservative party in the 19th century carried on that classical liberal tradition. The problem is that a political tradition co-habiting with another that pulls in a very different direction inevitably compromises and has its voice dulls.

There is quite a bit of evidence to suggest that classical liberalism has rediscovered its voice.

In the last few years, we have seen the creation of the Cobden Centre, Learn Liberty, a reinvigorated Institute of Economic Affairs, Liberty League, a plethora of classical liberal blogs, the creation of the Libertarian party and lastly, but no means least, Liberal Vision.

This doesn’t mean that all these groups agree with each other. There are differences over tax, the Europe Union, constitutional reform and human rights legislation. It does mean that the case for classical liberalism is being made: arguments for sound money, plurality, tolerance and individual freedom.

How much impact these disparate groups will have is an open question. What we can say for certain is that this reinvigorated classical liberal movement is, once again, having an impact on the public policy conversation.