The Faces Of Freedom
How does one define freedom? The OED gives about a dozen useful definitions that each pertain to one of a variety of the aspects of the human state. One referred specifically to the political freedoms of an individual: “Exemption from arbitrary, despotic, or autocratic control; independence; civil liberty” (def. 2). Another definition concerned the spiritual freedom found in Christianity: “fig. Liberation from the bondage of sin” (def. 1.b). There was another that defined freedom as “Physics. Capability of motion. degree of freedom: an independent mode in which a body may be displaced” (def. 10.a). The word liberty was used in one of the preceding examples and it is virtually interchangeable with freedom. In fact, the OED definition of liberty contains a number of the same definitions that freedom does. Obviously,since humanity is capable to being free in so many different ways it is difficult to come up with one definition of freedom. Milton addresses the freedom of the mind; God gives man the freedom of choice; Donne mentions spiritual freedom found from faith in God; Mary Wroth discusses the lack of freedom in love. Each of these writers used their ideas of freedom to make a point about how people are affected by freedom.
In Milton’s Areopagitica he writes against the censorship of literature arguing that people should have the freedom to choose what they want to read. Milton says, “If every action which is good or evil in man at ripe years, were to be under pittance and prescription and compulsions, what were virtue but a name, what praise could be then due to well doing, what gramercy to be sober, just, or continent?” (Areopagitica). Milton’s argument is that man must be free to choose what he allows to enter into his mind. If there is no such freedom, if every piece of “bad” literature is weeded out, where is there any need for moral fiber? Milton uses Adam as an example of the need for freedom. Milton writes:
- God therefore left him [Adam] free, set before him a provoking object, ever almost in his eyes; herein consisted his merit, herein the right of his reward, the praise of abstinence. Wherefore did he create passions within us, pleasures round about us, but that these rightly tempered are the very ingredients of virtue? (Areopagitica, emphasis mine)
Milton takes this idea of moral choice and applies it to the censorship issue of his day. He wants the Parliament of England to let the minds of the people filter out the good from the bad because that is the very nature of virtue. Give the mind freedom to acknowledge the bad, avoid it, and turn to good. Therefore, Milton is saying, the freedom of the mind to discern is the cause of virtue. Milton puts this idea into the mouth of God in Book III of Paradise Lost. God says to Jesus, concerning the fallen angels:
Freely they stood who stood, and fell who fell.
Not Free, what proof could they have giv’n sincere…
…What praise could they receive?