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Liberty of Opinion and Open Society: Milton and Popper

"Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties" - John Milton

1 minute


Imagine living in 1644. You are one of the most important representatives of the Puritan group and you have just written a tract where you argue in favour of the dissolution of marriage where, briefly, you are speaking in favour of divorce. Your allies do not approve of your writings and call on censorship for what you have done. Thus, you write a powerful speech supporting liberty of opinion.


Lberty of opinion for Milton

This is what happened to the great English poet and intellectual John Milton (1608-1674), who held very different views from mainstream Puritanism regarding marriage and divorce, and wrote Areopagitica to substantiate his argument.
The title comes from the Athenian Areopagus, where tribunals used to take place in Ancient Greece and where the orator Isocrates delivered many different speeches. Milton arraigns censorship and defines the book as a holy living thing, whose killing (i.e. its censorship) cannot be justified under any circumstances, because it would involve murdering a human being. He makes a very strong case against censorship when he writes “give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties”. Speaking and knowing are vital to Milton and he would not allow anybody have to give up on this fundamental right.
Milton’s statement would re-echo much later in the wording of the First Amendment to Bill of Rights of the American Constitution, which grants liberty in religious and personal issues.


Popper and his Open Society

This is the context of 1644, when a document had to be written to re-emphasise a fundamental liberty. What about today, in a world dominated by Facebook where false stories and false news risk causing serious problems and could threaten public safety? A response to this comes from The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945), written in the aftermath of WWII by the Austrian-British philosopher Karl Raimund Popper (1902-1994).
The work has gone down in the history of contemporary philosophy for its paradox: Popper warns against tolerating the intolerant. He maintains that if we keep putting up with intolerance, we end up losing tolerance and respect for everybody. The immediate consequence for our world with this line of reasoning would be stop tolerating groups or people on social media spreading offensive and false news, even though it means encroaching on liberty of opinion.
Notwithstanding with this breach, I agree with Popper; we cannot keep putting up with people spreading lies and false news so as to make a profit or to threaten the general public.

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