Why free speech matters

May 30, 2021 by

by Andrew Doyle, spiked:

From the Inquisition to cancel culture, censorship has always been the enemy of progress.

Our scene begins on a lake of fire. Satan has been cast into Hell after a failed rebellion against God, and is fixed in chains along with his cohort of fallen angels. He assures his second-in-command, Beelzebub, that their defeat is only temporary, and that he intends to recover and continue the struggle against the ‘tyranny of heaven’. He breaks free and flies to dry land where he calls on his army to reassemble.

This is the dramatic opening of Paradise Lost (1667), John Milton’s epic poem about the fall of man. Amid Satan’s company of demons and counterfeit pagan gods there is an unexpected cameo which takes the form of a topical allusion. As Satan strides across the fiery landscape, Milton focuses our attention on his mighty stature by comparing his spear to ‘the tallest pine / Hewn on Norwegian hills’, and his shield to ‘the moon, whose orb / Through optic glass the Tuscan artist views’. This is Galileo, the only one of Milton’s contemporaries to be immortalised in Paradise Lost, here depicted with the recently invented telescope that he had adapted for the purposes of astronomical observation. Like Satan, he was cast out of favour for challenging the prevailing orthodoxies of his time – the evidence of his studies had persuaded him of the validity of the Copernican theory of the Earth’s motion around the Sun – but unlike Satan, Galileo was right.

Yet this flattering allusion was not the extent of their association. If Milton is to be believed, he met the ageing astronomer while on a trip to Italy in 1638. The reference appears in Areopagitica (1644), Milton’s counterblast to the Licensing Order of June 1643 which required all printed texts to be passed before a censor in advance of publication. According to Milton, he paid his visit while Galileo was under house arrest for ‘thinking in astronomy otherwise than the Franciscan and Dominican licensers thought’. Contrary to Voltaire’s writing on the subject, Galileo was not groaning away ‘in the dungeons of the Inquisition’, but was in fact living out his final days in his villa among the picturesque hills of Arcetri. It was here that he and Milton most likely met.

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