For better or worse, our upbringing begins with indoctrination. We are instructed in absolute by our parents, our teachers, our friends and our preachers. Our worldview is also shaped by professionals of marketing, entertainment, and geopolitics whose success is measured by our behavior. In time, if we are fortunate, we learn that some of what we were taught isn’t true, and that bright moment is when indoctrination begins to yield to education.
Education at its best teaches us how to learn.
If we are readers, we may also learn from the greatest minds of the ages – at least the ones who wrote their thoughts in books. We absorb information and spend a lifetime sorting the true from the false. The truth is fine with this of course because it is never threatened by investigation.
In his Areopagitica, John Milton wrote
For who knows not that Truth is strong, next to the Almighty? She needs no policies, nor stratagems, nor licensings to make her victorious; those are the shifts and the defences that error uses against her power. Give her but room, and do not bind her when she sleeps . . . And though all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play upon the earth, so Truth be in the field, we do injuriously, by licensing and prohibiting, to misdoubt her strength.
Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter? Her confuting is the best and surest suppressing.
Milton argued for the examination of ideas across a broad spectrum through promiscuous reading. In Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me, Karen Swallow Prior says:
Today the word promiscuous is usually associated with sexual behavior, but this is a more recent usage, one that comes from the word’s actual meaning—indiscriminate mixing. It’s easy to see the sexual application of the word from this definition but instructive to think about in the context of reading. It’s surprising, I think, to realize that pious and scholarly Milton is actually arguing for indiscriminate, disorderly reading. And lots of it. In Milton’s day people had more fears surrounding promiscuous reading than promiscuous sex (the latter being rarer), so Milton had quite the challenge ahead of him.
In making his argument, as a churchman speaking to fellow churchmen, Milton cites the biblical examples of Moses, Daniel, and Paul, who were all steeped in the writings of their surrounding pagan cultures. Milton also invokes a leader of the third-century church who asserted that God commanded him in a vision, “Read any books whatever come into your hands, for you are sufficient both to judge aright and to examine each matter.” Such advice mirrors the Pauline suggestion to “test all things and hold fast to that which is good.”
Do you agree with Milton’s view about the strength of truth to overcome falsehood, or should some ideas be censored?
John 1: 1-5
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.
The son of a scrivener, he was educated at St Paul’s School, London, and at Christ’s College, Cambridge (1625–32), where he won a high reputation for his scholarship and literary gifts; his famous Ode on the Morning of Christ’s Nativity (1629) belongs to this period. From 1632 to 1638 he lived on his father’s estate at Horton in Buckinghamshire. Having abandoned his original intention of taking orders because of the ‘tyranny’ that had invaded the Church under Abp. W. *Laud, he devoted himself entirely to scholarship and literature. Among his finest poems of this period are L’Allegro and Il Penseroso, which are sometimes taken as expressing the two sides of his nature, torn between the desire for pleasure and the love of meditation and silence. In ‘A Maske Presented at Ludlow Castle, 1634’ [Comus] (pr. 1637), he sings the praises of chastity in a dramatic poem. In 1637 he wrote the monody Lycidas on the death of a friend, containing a sharp satiric allusion to the clergy, one of his main themes in later years. Next year he travelled in Italy, and after his return moved to London, where he spent many years in political and religious controversy. In 1641 he joined the *Presbyterians and took part in the famous ‘*Smectymnuus’ affair, and about the same time wrote The Reason of Church Government Urged against Prelacy, a fierce attack on episcopacy in which he saw only an instrument of tyranny. In 1643 he married Mary Powell, a member of a strongly royalist family. She left him shortly afterwards, and he returned once more to the question of the reform of the divorce laws, writing The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce (1643), in which he made a passionate appeal for the solubility of marriage on the grounds of incompatibility of character and declared the sanctity and sacramental character of marriage to be a clerical invention. The treatise, which roused a heated discussion, caused his break with the Presbyterians. Its publication without a licence from the censor led the case to be submitted to Parliament and drew from Milton his celebrated Areopagitica (1644) in defence of the freedom of the press.