John B. Bury: On liberty of thought and discussion

il comizio di Guttuso
Nella foto: particolare de Il comizio di quartiere (1975) di Renato Guttuso (1911-1987)

JOHN B. BURY Most men who have been brought up in the free atmosphere of a modern State sympathize with liberty in its long struggle with authority and may find it difficult to see that anything can be said for the tyrannical, and as they think extraordinarily perverse, policy by which communities and governments persistently sought to stifle new ideas and suppress free speculation. The conflict sketched in these pages appears as a war between light and darkness. We exclaim that altar and throne formed a sinister conspiracy against the progress of humanity. We look back with horror at the things which so many champions of reason endured at the hands of blind, if not malignant, bearers of authority.

But a more or less plausible case can be made out for coercion. Let us take the most limited view of the lawful powers of society over its individual members. Let us lay down, with Mill, that “the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually and collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their members is self-protection,” and that coercion is only justified for the prevention of harm to others. This is the minimum claim the State can make, and it will be admitted that it is not only the right but the duty of the State to prevent harm to its members. That is what it is for. Now no abstract or independent principle is discoverable, why liberty of speech should be a privileged form of liberty of action, or why society should lay down its arms of defence and fold its hands, when it is persuaded that harm is threatened to it through the speech of any of its members. The Government has to judge of the danger, and its judgment may be wrong; but if it is convinced that harm is being done, is it not its plain duty to interfere?

This argument supplies an apology for the suppression of free opinion by Governments in ancient and modern times. It can be urged for the Inquisition, for Censorship of the Press, for Blasphemy laws, for all coercive measures of the kind, that, if excessive or ill-judged, they were intended to protect society against what their authors sincerely believed to be grave injury, and were simple acts of duty. (This apology, of course, does not extend to acts done for the sake of the alleged good of the victims themselves, namely, to secure their future salvation.)

Nowadays we condemn all such measures and disallow the right of the State to interfere with the free expression of opinion. So deeply is the doctrine of liberty seated in our minds that we find it difficult to make allowances for the coercive practices of our misguided ancestors. How is this doctrine justified? It rests on no abstract basis, on no principle independent of society itself, but entirely on considerations of utility.

We saw how Socrates indicated the social value of freedom of discussion. We saw how Milton observed that such freedom was necessary for the advance of knowledge. But in the period during which the cause of toleration was fought for and practically won, the argument more generally used was the injustice of punishing a man for opinions which he honestly held and could not help holding, since conviction is not a matter of will; in other words, the argument that error is not a crime and that it is therefore unjust to punish it. This argument, however, does not prove the case for freedom of discussion. The advocate of coercion may reply: We admit that it is unjust to punish a man for private erroneous beliefs; but it is not unjust to forbid the propagation of such beliefs if we are convinced that they are harmful; it is not unjust to punish him, not for holding them, but for publishing them. The truth is that, in examining principles, the word just is misleading. All the virtues are based on experience, physiological or social, and justice is no exception. Just designates a class of rules or principles of which the social utility has been found by experience to be paramount and which are recognized to be so important as to override all considerations of immediate expediency. And social utility is the only test. It is futile, therefore, to say to a Government that it acts unjustly in coercing opinion, unless it is shown that freedom of opinion is a principle of such overmastering social utility as to render other considerations negligible. Socrates had a true instinct in taking the line that freedom is valuable to society.

The reasoned justification of liberty of thought is due to J. S. Mill, who set it forth in his work On Liberty, published in 1859. This book treats of liberty in general, and attempts to fix the frontier of the region in which individual freedom should be considered absolute and unassailable. The second chapter considers liberty of thought and discussion, and if many may think that Mill unduly minimized the functions of society, underrating its claims as against the individual, few will deny the justice of the chief arguments or question the general soundness of his conclusions.

Pointing out that no fixed standard was recognized for testing the propriety of the interference on the part of the community with its individual members, he finds the test in self-protection, that is, the prevention of harm to others. He bases the proposition not on abstract rights, but on “utility, in the largest sense, grounded on the permanent interests of man as a progressive being.” He then uses the following argument to show that to silence opinion and discussion is always contrary to those permanent interests. Those who would suppress an opinion (it is assumed that they are honest) deny its truth, but they are not infallible. They may be wrong, or right, or partly wrong and partly right. (1) If they are wrong and the opinion they would crush is true, they have robbed, or done their utmost to rob, mankind of a truth. They will say: But we were justified, for we exercised our judgment to the best of our ability, and are we to be told that because our judgment is fallible we are not to use it? We forbade the propagation of an opinion which we were sure was false and pernicious; this implies no greater claim to infallibility than any act done by public authority. If we are to act at all, we must assume our own opinion to be true. To this Mill acutely replies: “There is the greatest difference between assuming an opinion to be true, because with every opportunity for contesting it it has not been refuted, and assuming its truth for the purpose of not permitting its refutation. Complete liberty of contradicting and disproving our opinion is the very condition which justifies us in assuming its truth for purposes of action, and on no other terms can a being with human faculties have any rational assurance of being right.”

(2) If the received opinion which it is sought to protect against the intrusion of error is true, the suppression of discussion is still contrary to general utility. A received opinion may happen to be true (it is very seldom entirely true); but a rational certainty that it is so can only be secured by the fact that it has been fully canvassed but has not been shaken.

Commoner and more important is (3) the case where the conflicting doctrines share the truth between them. Here Mill has little difficulty in proving the utility of supplementing one-sided popular truths by other truths which popular opinion omits to consider. And he observes that if either of the opinions which share the truth has a claim not merely to be tolerated but to be encouraged, it is the one which happens to be held by the minority, since this is the one “which for the time being represents the neglected interests.” He takes the doctrines of Rousseau, which might conceivably have been suppressed as pernicious. To the self-complacent eighteenth century those doctrines came as “a salutary shock, dislocating the compact mass of one-sided opinion.” The current opinions were indeed nearer to the truth than Rousseau’s, they contained much less of error; “nevertheless there lay in Rousseau’s doctrine, and has floated down the stream of opinion along with it, a considerable amount of exactly those truths which the popular opinion wanted; and these are the deposit which we left behind when the flood subsided.”

Such is the drift of Mill’s main argument. The present writer would prefer to state the justification of freedom of opinion in a somewhat different form, though in accordance with Mill’s reasoning. The progress of civilization, if it is partly conditioned by circumstances beyond man’s control, depends more, and in an increasing measure, on things which are within his own power. Prominent among these are the advancement of knowledge and the deliberate adaptation of his habits and institutions to new conditions. To advance knowledge and to correct errors, unrestricted freedom of discussion is required. History shows that knowledge grew when speculation was perfectly free in Greece, and that in modern times, since restrictions on inquiry have been entirely removed, it has advanced with a velocity which would seem diabolical to the slaves of the mediaeval Church. Then, it is obvious that in order to readjust social customs, institutions, and methods to new needs and circumstances, there must be unlimited freedom of canvassing and criticizing them, of expressing the most unpopular opinions, no matter how offensive to prevailing sentiment they may be. If the history of civilization has any lesson to teach it is this: there is one supreme condition of mental and moral progress which it is completely within the power of man himself to secure, and that is perfect liberty of thought and discussion. The establishment of this liberty may be considered the most valuable achievement of modern civilization, and as a condition of social progress it should be deemed fundamental. The considerations of permanent utility on which it rests must outweigh any calculations of present advantage which from time to time might be thought to demand its violation.

It is evident that this whole argument depends on the assumption that the progress of the race, its intellectual and moral development, is a reality and is valuable. The argument will not appeal to any one who holds with Cardinal Newman that “our race’s progress and perfectibility is a dream, because revelation contradicts it”; and he may consistently subscribe to the same writer’s conviction that “it would be a gain to this country were it vastly more superstitious, more bigoted, more gloomy, more fierce in its religion, than at present it shows itself to be.”

While Mill was writing his brilliant Essay, which every one should read, the English Government of the day (1858) instituted prosecutions for the circulation of the doctrine that it is lawful to put tyrants to death, on the ground that the doctrine is immoral. Fortunately the prosecutions were not persisted in. Mill refers to the matter, and maintains that such a doctrine as tyrannicide (and, let us add, anarchy) does not form any exception to the rule that “there ought to exist the fullest liberty of professing and discussing, as a matter of ethical conviction, any doctrine, however immoral it may be considered.”

Exceptions, cases where the interference of the authorities is proper, are only apparent, for they really come under another rule. For instance, if there is a direct instigation to particular acts of violence, there may be a legitimate case for interference. But the incitement must be deliberate and direct. If I write a book condemning existing societies and defending a theory of anarchy, and a man who reads it presently commits an outrage, it may clearly be established that my book made the man an anarchist and induced him to commit the crime, but it would be illegitimate to punish me or suppress the book unless it contained a direct incitement to the specific crime which he committed.

It is conceivable that difficult cases might arise where a government might be strongly tempted, and might be urged by public clamour, to violate the principle of liberty. Let us suppose a case, very improbable, but which will make the issue clear and definite. Imagine that a man of highly magnetic personality, endowed with a wonderful power of infecting others with his own ideas however irrational, in short a typical religious leader, is convinced that the world will come to an end in the course of a few months. He goes about the country preaching and distributing pamphlets; his words have an electrical effect; and the masses of the uneducated and half-educated are persuaded that they have indeed only a few weeks to prepare for the day of Judgment. Multitudes leave their occupations, abandon their work, in order to spend the short time that remains in prayer and listening to the exhortations of the prophet. The country is paralyzed by the gigantic strike; traffic and industries come to a standstill. The people have a perfect legal right to give up their work, and the prophet has a perfect legal right to propagate his opinion that the end of the world is at hand —an opinion which Jesus Christ and his followers in their day held quite as erroneously. It would be said that desperate ills have desperate remedies, and there would be a strong temptation to suppress the fanatic. But to arrest a man who is not breaking the law or exhorting any one to break it, or causing a breach of the peace, would be an act of glaring tyranny. Many will hold that the evil of setting back the clock of liberty would out-balance all the temporary evils, great as they might be, caused by the propagation of a delusion. It would be absurd to deny that liberty of speech may sometimes cause particular harm. Every good thing sometimes does harm. Government, for instance, which makes fatal mistakes; law, which so often bears hardly and inequitably in individual cases. And can the Christians urge any other plea for their religion when they are unpleasantly reminded that it has caused untold suffering by its principle of exclusive salvation?

Once the principle of liberty of thought is accepted as a supreme condition of social progress, it passes from the sphere of ordinary expediency into the sphere of higher expediency which we call justice. In other words it becomes a right on which every man should be able to count. The fact that this right is ultimately based on utility does not justify a government in curtailing it, on the ground of utility, in particular cases.

The recent rather alarming inflictions of penalties for blasphemy in England illustrate this point. It was commonly supposed that the Blasphemy laws, though unrepealed, were a dead letter. But since December, 1911, half a dozen persons have been imprisoned for this offence. In these cases Christian doctrines were attacked by poor and more or less uneducated persons in language which may be described as coarse and offensive. Some of the judges seem to have taken the line that it is not blasphemy to attack the fundamental doctrines provided “the decencies of controversy” are preserved, but that “indecent” attacks constitute blasphemy. This implies a new definition of legal blasphemy, and is entirely contrary to the intention of the laws. Sir J. F. Stephen pointed out that the decisions of judges from the time of Lord Hale (XVIIth century) to the trial of Foote (1883) laid down the same doctrine and based it on the same principle: the doctrine being that it is a crime either to deny the truth of the fundamental doctrines of the Christian religion or to hold them up to contempt or ridicule; and the principle being that Christianity is a part of the law of the land.

The apology offered for such prosecutions is that their object is to protect religious sentiment from insult and ridicule. Sir J. F. Stephen observed: “If the law were really impartial and punished blasphemy only, because it offends the feelings of believers, it ought also to punish such preaching as offends the feelings of unbelievers. All the more earnest and enthusiastic forms of religion are extremely offensive to those who do not believe them.” If the law does not in any sense recognize the truth of Christian doctrine, it would have to apply the same rule to the Salvation Army. In fact the law “can be explained and justified only on what I regard as its true principle—the principle of persecution.” The opponents of Christianity may justly say: If Christianity is false, why is it to be attacked only in polite language? Its goodness depends on its truth. If you grant its falsehood, you cannot maintain that it deserves special protection. But the law imposes no restraint on the Christian, however offensive his teaching may be to those who do not agree with him; therefore it is not based on an impartial desire to prevent the use of language which causes offence; therefore it is based on the hypothesis that Christianity is true; and therefore its principle is persecution.

Of course, the present administration of the common law in regard to blasphemy does not endanger the liberty of those unbelievers who have the capacity for contributing to progress. But it violates the supreme principle of liberty of opinion and discussion. It hinders uneducated people from saying in the only ways in which they know how to say it, what those who have been brought up differently say, with impunity, far more effectively and far more insidiously. Some of the men who have been imprisoned during the last two years, only uttered in language of deplorable taste views that are expressed more or less politely in books which are in the library of a bishop unless he is a very ignorant person, and against which the law, if it has any validity, ought to have been enforced. Thus the law, as now administered, simply penalizes bad taste and places disabilities upon uneducated freethinkers. If their words offend their audience so far as to cause a disturbance, they should be prosecuted for a breach of public order, not because their words are blasphemous (*Blasphemy is an offence in Germany; but it must be proved that offence has actually been given, and the penalty does not exceed imprisonment for three days). A man who robs or injures a church, or even an episcopal palace, is not prosecuted for sacrilege, but for larceny or malicious damage or something of the kind.

The abolition of penalties for blasphemy was proposed in the House of Commons (by Bradlaugh) in 1889 and rejected. The reform is urgently needed. It would “prevent the recurrence at irregular intervals of scandalous prosecutions which have never in any one instance benefited any one, least of all the cause which they were intended to serve, and which sometimes afford a channel for the gratification of private malice under the cloak of religion.” (*The quotations are from Sir J. F. Stephen’s article, “Blasphemy and Blasphemous Libel,” in the Fortnightly Review, March, 1884, pp. 289–318).

The struggle of reason against authority has ended in what appears now to be a decisive and permanent victory for liberty. In the most civilized and progressive countries, freedom of discussion is recognized as a fundamental principle. In fact, we may say it is accepted as a test of enlightenment, and the man in the street is forward in acknowledging that countries like Russia and Spain, where opinion is more or less fettered, must on that account be considered less civilized than their neighbours. All intellectual people who count take it for granted that there is no subject in heaven or earth which ought not to be investigated without any deference or reference to theological assumptions. No man of science has any fear of publishing his researches, whatever consequences they may involve for current beliefs. Criticism of religious doctrines and of political and social institutions is free. Hopeful people may feel confident that the victory is permanent; that intellectual freedom is now assured to mankind as a possession for ever; that the future will see the collapse of those forces which still work against it and its gradual diffusion in the more backward parts of the earth. Yet history may suggest that this prospect is not assured. Can we be certain that there may not come a great set-back? For freedom of discussion and speculation was, as we saw, fully realized in the Greek and Roman world, and then an unforeseen force, in the shape of Christianity, came in and laid chains upon the human mind and suppressed freedom and imposed upon man a weary struggle to recover the freedom which he had lost. Is it not conceivable that something of the same kind may occur again? that some new force, emerging from the unknown, may surprise the world and cause a similar set-back?

The possibility cannot be denied, but there are some considerations which render it improbable (apart from a catastrophe sweeping away European culture). There are certain radical differences between the intellectual situation now and in antiquity. The facts known to the Greeks about the nature of the physical universe were few. Much that was taught was not proved. Compare what they knew and what we know about astronomy and geography—to take the two branches in which (besides mathematics) they made most progress. When there were so few demonstrated facts to work upon, there was the widest room for speculation. Now to suppress a number of rival theories in favour of one is a very different thing from suppressing whole systems of established facts. If one school of astronomers holds that the earth goes round the sun, another that the sun goes round the earth, but neither is able to demonstrate its proposition, it is easy for an authority, which has coercive power, to suppress one of them successfully. But once it is agreed by all astronomers that the earth goes round the sun, it is a hopeless task for any authority to compel men to accept a false view. In short, because she is in possession of a vast mass of ascertained facts about the nature of the universe, reason holds a much stronger position now than at the time when Christian theology led her captive. All these facts are her fortifications. Again, it is difficult to see what can arrest the continuous progress of knowledge in the future. In ancient times this progress depended on a few; nowadays, many nations take part in the work. A general conviction of the importance of science prevails to-day, which did not prevail in Greece. And the circumstance that the advance of material civilization depends on science is perhaps a practical guarantee that scientific research will not come to an abrupt halt. In fact science is now a social institution, as much as religion.

But if science seems pretty safe, it is always possible that in countries where the scientific spirit is held in honour, nevertheless, serious restrictions may be laid on speculations touching social, political, and religious questions. Russia has men of science inferior to none, and Russia has its notorious censorship. It is by no means inconceivable that in lands where opinion is now free coercion might be introduced. If a revolutionary social movement prevailed, led by men inspired by faith in formulas (like the men of the French Revolution) and resolved to impose their creed, experience shows that coercion would almost inevitably be resorted to. Nevertheless, while it would be silly to suppose that attempts may not be made in the future to put back the clock, liberty is in a far more favourable position now than under the Roman Empire. For at that time the social importance of freedom of opinion was not appreciated, whereas now, in consequence of the long conflict which was necessary in order to re-establish it, men consciously realize its value. Perhaps this conviction will be strong enough to resist all conspiracies against liberty. Meanwhile, nothing should be left undone to impress upon the young that freedom of thought is an axiom of human progress. It may be feared, however, that this is not likely to be done for a long time to come. For our methods of early education are founded on authority. It is true that children are sometimes exhorted to think for themselves. But the parent or instructor who gives this excellent advice is confident that the results of the child’s thinking for himself will agree with the opinions which his elders consider desirable. It is assumed that he will reason from principles which have already been instilled into him by authority. But if his thinking for himself takes the form of questioning these principles, whether moral or religious, his parents and teachers, unless they are very exceptional persons, will be extremely displeased, and will certainly discourage him. It is, of course, only singularly promising children whose freedom of thought will go so far. In this sense it might be said that “distrust thy father and mother” is the first commandment with promise. It should be a part of education to explain to children, as soon as they are old enough to understand, when it is reasonable, and when it is not, to accept what they are told, on authority.

**Titolo originale: “The Justification of Liberty of Thought”; è il capitolo che chiude la prima edizione del libro dello storico e filologo irlandese John Bagnell Bury (1861-1927), A history of freedom of thought, London, Oxford University Press, 1913. La prima traduzione italiana (di G. Cazzaroli): Storia della libertà di pensiero, Milano, Feltrinelli, 1959 (che riprendeva una successiva edizione a cura di H. J. Blackham, il quale aveva aggiunto un epilogo che in clima post-bellico affrontava i pericoli dello scontro ideologico in corso). L’edizione Feltrinelli è stata ristampata più volte, fino al 1979; l’edizione italiana più recente è invece quella pubblicata da Immanenza (Napoli 2017; con traduzione di Ottavio Mastroianni e Prefazione e cura di Domenico Zanetti). Del classico di John Stuart Mill,On Liberty (1859), ricordato da Bury qui in S-Composizioni se ne può leggere in italiano il capitolo dedicato alla difesa delle differenze individuali: Mill: Elogio della differenza contro il conformismo. L’individualità come elemento di benessere. effe