“As good almost kill a man as kill a good book,” John Milton wrote in Areopagitica, his passionate and closely reasoned and historically buttressed attack on governmental licensing of books. “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.”
There are many ways, of course, to kill reason itself as manifest in the printed word. One of the most absurd, surely, is to judge the books not by what is in them, but by some characteristic that is not pertinent to the matter. Imagine someone combing through a library, marking for suspicion and for future elimination all books with purple covers, or all books whose total pages are divisible by 23, or all books beginning with the word “God.” No one would be so stupid, you say.
Tell it to the librarians at Bard College. Three students have taken up the assignment to evaluate the 400,000 books in its Stevenson Library not according to the content of the books, their inherent value, their beauty, their approach to the truth, but according to whether the authors were male or female, or of this race or that, had these or those sexual proclivities, or tooled around in a wheelchair rather than walking with two feet.
For it must surely be true that a one-legged man will have per ipsum important insights into General Kutuzov’s strategy at the battle of Borodino, and a lesbian will have earth-shaking things to say about Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture,” and we should look for Maori tribesmen to scan the broad vistas of meaning in War and Peace, because no fair-skinned son of the steppes can possibly do it.
Of course I am not saying that these people cannot do what I have said, or should not try. I mean only that their skeletal structure, sexual habits, and epidermal characteristics have nothing to do with the matter, no more than do the number of letters in their names, or which direction their front doors face, or whether they were born in June. Unless, perhaps, the cripple writes about what it is like to be crippled, or the lesbian writes about her chilly relations with men, or the Maori writes about his people’s unusual micro-tonal music.
Even then, we must judge their works as we judge anyone else’s. Your personal experiences may give you an entry into an area of truth that is hidden from others; but they may also bend or cloud your judgment. Strong passion can be like a storm. It seizes the attention, it fills up the field of the mind, it blows all loose things in its direction; and those who are caught up in it are sometimes the last people who can see the whole of what it is doing. And of all passions, the political are the murkiest and most destructive, once they are let loose from reason, historical precedent, and the salutary sense that precipitous change is contrary to the organic development of a culture, and is usually disastrous.
But there are rational passions too, or passions that are like the well-trained thoroughbred for a confident and clear-sighted rider. Milton himself was stirred by them when he wrote Areopagitica. He wanted the rational fight to come on. Let the books be published, and let us strive with them and, if need be, against them, for truth. “I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue,” he says, “unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of that race where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat.” Someone who wants to filter from the library thousands of books written by the “wrong” persons is no brave warrior, but a timid and pathetic weakling, triggered, as they say, by the indignity of seeing more Johns than Janes on the shelves of philosophy, and fearing to open the books, lest truth after truth be heaped upon his head.
There is, beyond the eagerness to enter the lists, another rational passion that three students at Bard and those who have egged them on do not show. Imagine that you enter the Sistine Chapel for the first time, and imagine that the place is quiet, and you are not being hustled through by the guards and the crowds. You open the books, so to speak, of Michelangelo, and Perugino, Botticelli, Pinturicchio, Ghirlandaio, and Rosselli. If you are a healthy human being, if you are sane and not mad, if you have an expansive soul and not a cramped little hideaway, your first and best and truest reaction will be, “How splendid and mysterious this is! How good it is that it exists! Praise God, that there were such painters! I am not worthy to stand here.” That intellectual gratitude may well lead you on to want to learn more and more. It may change your life. For the grateful mind, says our Milton, “By owing owes not, but still pays, at once / Indebted and discharged.” Gratitude is the virtue whereby the receiver of a gift freely participates in the virtue of the free giver. It may be the virtue that makes man most like God who made him. Milton seems to have thought so, as did his predecessors Dante and Shakespeare.
But when you look at the stacks of your library and you grumble, because not enough people who shared your chosen characteristic wrote the books, you are like a German so foolish as to refuse to enter the Sistine Chapel because the painters were all Italian. The paintings remain great. It is you who become small. Not humble; humility is compatible with greatness; but petty—petty in your touchiness and ingratitude and pride.
The licensers in Milton’s time feared the bad examples that the untrained mind might derive from bad books. But they were veritable champions of a free press by comparison with what we have now. For what is being destroyed in the student inquisitors, and in countless others like them from coast to coast who pick up the evil habit from their teachers, is the very capacity to read any book at all that might blow the gentlest breeze upon their little houses of sticks. They cannot receive the books as gifts from authors who are not like them in the ways they prefer. They do not look for truth and beauty. They look for a pacifier or an anodyne.
If they persist in this evil habit, they will become the unthinking tools of unreason itself, even as they preen themselves in their tiny gardens and say, “We have become as gods.”