Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Freedom of Speech: The History of an Idea

Well, that is the official title of the book, and the publication date, according to Amazon, is September 16. No wonder I am sitting at home in this warm weather proofreading. If I say so myself, this is a great volume; I assembled a really excellent group of contributors. I am giving a talk in August at the New York Public Library on the subject, trying to tie together current anxieties concerning speech -- particularly the vexed issue of "hate speech" -- with similar anxieties among 18th-century thinkers, including the most "advanced" thinkers of the time, the philosophes. As I read proofs I keep encountering various nuggets that could have come right from the mouths of contemporary public intellectuals. Herewith some examples, with various rationales for denying the right of freedom of speech to ordinary folks:

"Enlightened monarch" Frederick the Great (below), responding to Baron d'Holbach's System of Nature (1770), argued that Holbach was wrong to want to enlighten all the people and give them freedoms and rights, which instead should be only the privilege of the educated. Frederick disagreed with Holbach that errors in thinking would be erased by a gradual advance of reason. Superstition and credulity were in any case proper to ordinary folk and helped to maintain the "moral and social order," by which we may infer he really meant the power of monarchs like himself.

I love the picture above of Holbach, one of the granddaddies of the French Revolution. (Too bad he died in January of 1789: I wondered what he would have said about its excesses.) He asserted that "the truth" should be accessible to all. But whose truth? And did one have the freedom to make mistakes? Not at all: there needed to be legislation to prevent the arts, for instance, from harming the morals of citizens and also to direct the taste of artists so that they would produce more useful works. Writers, after all, according to Holbach, must always keep in mind "what they owe to virtue, to morals, and to their fellow citizens" (Ethocratie ou le gouvernement fondé sur la morale, 1776).

The anxiety about the "feelings" of others is present in a writing by Herder. He asks who will be hurt if "blasphemous, voluptuous, and scandalous writings" are allowed. Certainly not the thinking man, but, rather, society's marginalized: "the vain milksop, the weak woman, the inexperienced youth, the innocent child." And it is the role of the state to protect these: "The state is the Mother of all its children; it must see to the health, strength, and purity of all."

Rousseau was not only an advocate of censorship (close down the theaters!) but of the suppression of public opinion and open dissent. Among the philosophes, I would venture to say that, pre-French Revolution, he was one of the few who seemed to discern the rise of democracy and of widespread difference of opinion. He did not celebrate such diversity, however; the so-called General Will would not emerge from the discussions of citizens, but from a popular assembly in which the members did not have communication among themselves. In his extremely popular novel Julie, or the New Héloise (1761), the communication between Julie and her lover, Saint Preux, is one that avoids words. As Saint Preux recalls: "How many things were said without opening the lips! How many sentiments were transmitted without the cold agency of speech!"

Such distrust of speech was common among philosophes, who feared the disagreements that speech caused. The desire for unanimity seems to be an accompaniment to the belief that something like "truth" can be discerned. As Benjamin Constant later wrote, "Truth is not just good to know; it is good to search for." It was the search that was important. And search involves error. As I write in the conclusion to this volume, despite all we owe to the philosophes for first articulating the arguments about rights, they were anchored in past intellectual traditions that valorized the pursuit of truth and, ultimately, agreement.

Truth, however, is not the standard of liberal democracies, which function not by imposing a few grand ideas handed down from on high, but by encouraging a marketplace of diverse, competing, rapidly changing, and unrestrained opinions. The marketplace of ideas was already a fact on the ground, before freedom of speech was legislated in the U.S. and France in the late 18th century, in the veritable tide of scientific and technical knowledge that traveled freely across Europe. The unfettered proliferation of theories and opinions, even of crackpot ideas -- and there were certainly many -- unleashed individual risk-taking, ingenuity, invention, and the historically unprecedented wealth that created "the West."

Picture credit: Coach Ben;


Anonymous said...

Rousseau seems to me such a free spirit, what with his "Confessions"--so incredibly Opra-like. (Of course, published posthumously, not broadcast for all the world to see.) His "Emile" is supposedly a huge influence on the Dr. Spock method of bringing up children, you know, the molly-coddling, the encouraging to "explore," etc. Rousseau is said to be responsible for the idea that human beings can "be anything they want to be." There is no set human nature, but rather a standard (morally relativistic) called "perfectibility." American public schools, not mention the Montessori schools, try to instill a sense of the possible. The idea that there are limits (budgets)...seems to be discouraged. Indeed I noticed incredible waste in the public school at which I taught for eleven years. All kinds of waste. Now a reaction against the so-called Rousseauan influence seems to be setting in, in places. But this is only the other side of Rousseau, the tough, no nonsense side. We have the "Reveries" side; then we have the "art is dangerous" side. I love this tension in Rousseau, one of the West's most influential geniuses. Can't wait to read "Julie," which my wife got me for Christmas couple years ago. Rousseau raves about it in his "Confessions." (By the way, for my French exam in grad school I translated Rousseau's "Preface" to his "Narcisse." My then Belgian girlfriend helped me polish it up! It contains some of the characteristic tension in Rousseau, as I recall, between the state's need for order and the individual's desire for self-expression and for art in general. Some of its content overlaps with that award-winning "First Discourse" that made Rousseau famous at age 38; also I think with his Bloom-translated "Letter to D'Alembert on the Theatre." I'd not heard of Holbach--am looking forward to this volume coming out in the fall. I'm especially interested in reading some Herder. By the way Lee Kuan Yew, the wise mentor of Singapore, seems to have used both ancients (Aristotle) and moderns (Rousseau) in his building up of what sounds like a magnificent place, a miraculous place. For him, Yew (a wise atheist), the leader, the founder, the legislator--must have prudence above all. Freedom of speech is fine and dandy--with certain prudent restrictions in a dangerously mixed society such as present-day Singapore.

Goethe Girl said...

Very thoughtful comments, which made me think that Rousseau was unlike the other philosophes in being what you suggest is a "relativist." Thus, "truth" was not his goal. At the same time, dissent bothered him. Still, as you write, an interesting tension. I like the "reveries," too.