Thou shalt not kill a book

This evening I’m thinking about these passages from Areopagitica, John Milton’s defense of freedom of speech against the restrictions of his day:

[…] for books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are; nay, they do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them. I know they are as lively, and as vigorously productive, as those fabulous dragon’s teeth: and being sown up and down, may chance to spring up armed men. And yet, on the other hand, unless wariness be used, as good almost kill a man as kill a good book: 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.


We should be wary, therefore, what persecution we raise against the living labours of public men, how we spill that seasoned life of man preserved and stored up in books; since we see a kind of homicide may be thus committed, sometimes a martyrdom; and if it extend to the whole impression, a kind of massacre, whereof the execution ends not in the slaying of an elemental life, but strikes at that ethereal and fifth essence, the breath of reason itself; slays an immortality rather than a life.

Why are these excerpts coming back to me tonight?

Three years ago on this date, I was attending an event hosted by the Montreal Press Club with keynote speaker Dr. Jordan Peterson to honour the inaugural “Freedom Award” recipient Raif Badawi.

Raif is a Saudi writer was sentenced to a thousand lashes and a decade of imprisonment on the charge of “insulting Islam through electronic channels.”

His wife and children were granted political asylum in Canada in 2013. They were also at the event.

Recalling Jordan Peterson’s moving speech from that evening, during which he displayed his pathos, sincerity, and resolve in discussing the importance of free speech, I found that he has since uploaded a video of his talk from that event. Here it is:

I find it amazing to see the continuity in thinking from John Milton to Jordan Peterson.

John Milton said that one who destroys a good book “kills the image of God” and “slays an immortality rather than a life.” More recently, Jordan Peterson in speaking on the dignity of speech, said, “It’s the most fundamental truth that the human race has ever discovered and we lose it at our absolute peril. And it’s not death– it’s worse than that, the peril. Because there are worse things than death and the worse thing than death is hell and we saw plenty of that in the twentieth century. And when we let freedom of speech go, that’s where we’re headed. And unless that’s where we want to go, then we should stop aiming for it.”

Freedom of speech and freedom of the press are, fundamentally, freedom of persons. It is a natural extension of the Commandment not to kill that we must not kill books.

Photo: Statue of Michel de Montaigne in Paris in January 2016

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