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The Netherlands And England

The first two countries to have substantial freedom from censorship were the Netherlands and England. At the time of the Dutch Revolt (1568–1648), the chaos of civil war, an extreme federalism consisting of numerous jurisdictions, and the growing economic importance of the commercial book market meant that the Dutch civil authorities were too exhausted to initiate effective censorship, that what was banned in one jurisdiction could be published in another, and that economic interests opposed censorship in the Netherlands. Protestant criticism of the Catholic Inquisition and Index also made it difficult to justify Protestant censorship. Similar reasons encouraged effective limits on censorship during the English Civil War and Commonwealth (1642–1660).

Postal Censorship Office in England, 1939. During World Wars I and II, mail in the participating countries was frequently censored to ensure that specifics about military strengths or weaknesses were not being leaked or that propaganda was not being spread. © HULTON-DEUTSCH COLLECTION/CORBIS

The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes articulated the case for censorship in his Leviathan (1651). A philosophical nominalist, Hobbes believed very much in the importance of words and even claimed that the English Civil War was caused by too much reading of ancient republican authors. Therefore, he argued, the prince should have control over all forms of expression, a position frequently emulated by political authorities elsewhere. But even Hobbes did not articulate a full case for censorship with no exceptions. He warned princes against wasting valuable power trying to control people's minds when unnecessary.

The first major articulation of opposition to censorship was John Milton's (1608–1674) Areopagitica of 1644. He associated licensing with the infamous Inquisition of the Catholic Church and argued that knowledge of errors helps confirm the truth. Also among his arguments were that books cannot be suppressed without great harm to learning, and most people do not learn their evil ways from books. The censors are not infallible, he said, and the attempt to regulate all forms of expression would be both exhausting and futile. Furthermore, he said, criticism of magistrates helps keep them informed. As usual, there were limits to Milton's tolerance: he approved of suppression of Catholics and the impious as threats to society. In the same period, Henry Robinson argued in Liberty of Conscience (1644) for liberty of the press on the ground that it was good for business.

The Dutch writer Benedictus de Spinoza (1632–1677) wrote provocative historical criticism of the Bible in his Theological-Political Treatise (1670), which also called for the freedom of every person to think what he wanted and to say what he thought. Spinoza's posthumously published Ethics (1677) argued for materialism, which was widely interpreted as atheism, and also asserted that part of the definition of a free man is one who can say what he thinks. Even though he wrote in Latin to avoid attention from anybody but the most educated, Spinoza's work was widely banned, and his followers were persecuted and censored throughout the following century.

Charles Blount (1654–1693) published A Just Vindication of Learning in 1679, and in Miracles, No Violation of the Laws of Nature (1683), he offered the first translation of part of Spinoza's work into English. His Reasons Humbly Offered for the Liberty of Unlicens'd Printing (1693) retailed Milton's reasoning and may have influenced Parliament's decision not to renew the Licensing Act in 1695. Like Milton, the English philosopher John Locke (1632–1704) opposed toleration of atheists and Catholics, and he also wrote several memoranda in the 1690s against the renewal of the Licensing Act. "I know not why a man should not have liberty to print what ever he would speake, and to be answerable for the one just as he is for the other if he transgresses the law in either," he wrote. When the Licensing Act expired in 1695 without renewal, England had de facto press freedom.

The deist John Toland (1670–1722) was responsible for the widespread distribution of Milton's Areopagitica in his 1698 edition of Milton's complete works, and he attacked censorship in several later publications. Other English deists from Anthony Collins to Matthew Tindal also defended freedom of expression. Both Spinoza and the deists are examples of radical philosophers in opposition to censorship.

James Mill (1773–1836) and his son John Stuart Mill (1806–1873) updated many of the arguments against censorship that had circulated in English, French, and German before them. James Mill argued that true statements about individuals should never be censored and that only direct obstruction of government operations should be censored, not general objections to policy. John Stuart Mill insisted that we do not really know anything unless we have considered the alternatives to it and that there is some truth in every opinion.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Categorical judgement to ChimaeraCensorship - Blasphemy, Heresy, And Atheism, Political Subversion, The Netherlands And England, From Bayle To Constant