A Canon for Free Speech

Literary critics have expended oceans of ink debating what body of books comprises the best that has been thought and said in a particular literary tradition. Such debates range from the broader question of what constitutes the “Western Canon”, to narrower ones of what books make up a women’s canon, a black canon, or a gay canon. There is no reason why this kind of literary list-making should be confined to these increasingly hackneyed critical tussles. Why not a canon for a particular issue, such as free speech?

Well, since I asked, what body of books and other works of art does comprise the best that has been thought and said on free speech?

Clearly, because free speech is not just a literary theme addressed by creative works of fiction or poetry, the free speech canon will have to include other genres and forms, such as philosophy and polemic.

Indeed, perhaps the most vital text of all is a work of philosophy. It was once said only partly in jest that the entire European philosophical tradition consists of a series of footnotes to Plato. Most would agree this is a little rough on such weighty descendants as Descartes, Hume, and Kant, but a modified version of the quip can be applied to the philosophy of free speech. For it would probably be fair to say that almost all subsequent philosophical debate about free speech consists of a series of footnotes to one book: John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty.

Published in 1859, this book defined the outlines of the debate by defending the principle that, “there ought to exist the fullest liberty of professing and discussing … any doctrine, however immoral it may be considered”. To be sure, free speech’s philosophical roots stretch back through John Locke to the classical world, but On Liberty is the great milestone. As the book expounding the philosophical foundation upon which free speech is built, it deserves the central place in any free speech canon.

Mill is more lucid than most philosophers, but his prose is still philosophy, and is therefore a little on the dry side. A lively canon will need books with a bit more life, colour and pizazz.

Fortunately this can be readily supplied by the many ripping polemics written in defence of free speech. John Milton’s Areopagita, published in 1644 and named after Ariel Pogetica, a hill in Ancient Athens for discussion and free expression, is one of the earliest, and still ranks among the finest. It was distributed as a pamphlet in defiance of the Licensing Order of 1643, an act requiring authors to obtain government approval before publishing their work. Perhaps its most famous line is Milton’s entreaty, “Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties”.

This would surely be the most apposite riposte to any would be censor, the motto of any free speech advocate, or the tagline of any activist group, were it not for the fact that it has been bettered.

Voltaire may not have actually said “I may not agree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”, but it has nevertheless gained currency as not just an elegant and fitting encapsulation of his own views, but as the most perfect statement and explanation of the principle in general. As such, this quote, along with Voltaire’s wider writings on free speech, warrants a place up there with Milton in the polemical section of the free speech canon.

An honorable mention must go to Tom Paine, the Anglo-American revolutionary, activist and all-round trouble-maker, whose polemics attacking religion, monarchy, slavery, among other deserving targets, often touch on issues of free speech.

Paine no doubt took satisfaction in seeing some of what he so vigorously argued for codified in the American Constitution with the passing of the First Amendment in 1791. This emphatically states: “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” A legal document is strange inclusion in a literary canon, but as free speech is a legal issue as well as a philosophical and a literary issue, space should be made for these fine words. Perhaps, if we are being a little more expansive, we might also include England’s Bill of Rights 1689 which granted “freedom of speech in parliament”, and Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but if forced to pick one legal text, I would go with the US Constitution.

So much for free speech in philosophy, polemic, and law, what about the novel? Two novels stand out for inclusion in my opinion. George Orwell’s 1984 is an eerie evocation of what life would be like in a society with totalitarian levels of censorship. So eerie, in fact, that as Christopher Hitchens commented on visiting the world’s most totalitarian and censorious country, North Korea, it is almost as if Kim Il-Sung read the book and thought “Hmmm … Lets see if we can make this thing work”. The coining of terms like “newspeak” and “doublethink” alone merit the novel a place, and in any case one can hardly exclude Orwell from a free speech canon. (I am told that Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon is similarly unexcludable, but as I haven’t actually read it, I’ll only grant it provisional status…)

The other book crying out for inclusion, especially and largely because of its tumultuous history, is Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. Taking its title from the pagan verses alleged to have been temporarily included in the Qur’an by the Prophet Muhammad, the book ostensibly tells the story of two Indian expatriates living in England, but interlaced with this narrative are a series of dream sequences alluding to the aforementioned pagan verses. Muhammad, reimagined as Mahound, a pejorative variant of the Prophet’s name, is envisioned to have renounced Allah in favour of the old polytheistic deities for political reasons, whilst his wives become the prostitutes of a brothel in Mecca.

Reading this limited summary of the novel, one can begin to see why a devotee of Muhammad might get a little ticked off. But any summary fails to convey the subtlety and irony only made comprehensible by reading the book itself. This point is moot, however, as regards to the infamous fatwa issued by the Ayatollah Khomenei. Iran’s Supreme Leader ordered Muslims to kill Rushdie for the blasphemous act of writing the book, without having even read it himself. Rushdie went in to hiding for a number of years, and though he was never harmed, his Japanese translator was murdered, and several of his other translators and publishers were the targets of assassination attempts.

The whole imbroglio is one in which free speech bumped up against religious notions of blasphemy, and as such it became a cause celebre for free speech advocates the world over. In so being, The Satanic Verses is one of free speech’s essential books.  

Obviously the texts I have mentioned so far do not comprise an exhaustive list of free speech’s canonical works, but any canon of free speech would be incomplete without them. I do have one further slightly more unconventional text to add, John Meredith’s fantastic ‘Essay on Comedy’, which ought to enjoy a more elevated position that it does in the estimations of free speech advocates, but as this post is already rather long, I will save it for another day.


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