Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Three Wise Monkeys

The Three Wise Monkeys, by Tumi-1983
Creative Commons
I've been thinking about censorship of late, and it's Milton's fault. I guess the idea that interests me most, though, is that of self-censorship--what we read, listen to, and watch and how that affects us as individuals. In Areopagitica, Milton proposes as one of his contentions against formal censorship that in order to comprehend and, ultimately, choose goodness and righteousness, a man must be exposed to both good and evil. "[B]ad books," Milton asserts, "to a discreet and judicious reader serve in many respects to discover, to confute, to forewarn and to illustrate."

Now this idea perhaps seems a little bit ridiculous at first, and it's easy to cast Milton aside as a dirty old man seeking to justify his ways. After all, the Doctrine and Covenants tells us to seek learning from the best books, and the prophets have encouraged us to use discretion in choosing which films to watch. But what if I were to tell you that this doctrine was preached in the early days of the LDS church? Brigham Young, for example, wrote in Journal of Discourses 2:93 (cue obligatory JoD eyeroll and sigh):
Shall I sit down and read the Bible, the Book of Mormon, and the Book of Covenants all the time?” says one. Yes, if you please, and when you have done, you may be nothing but a sectarian after all. It is your duty to study to know everything upon the face of the earth, in addition to reading those books. We should not only study good, and its effects upon our race, but also evil, and its consequences.
If that's not enough for you, then Joseph Smith's words from Liberty Jail ought to further prove the presence of this idea within at least early LDS theology (and if one blogger's assertions about Pres. Faust are true, then in more modern times as well). Smith's words are as follows:
Thy mind, O Man, if thou wilt lead a soul 
unto salvation, must stretch as high as the utmost Heavens, and search into and contemplate the 
lowest considerations of the darkest abyss, and expand upon the broad considerations of eternal 
Paradise, by Lucas Cranach the Elder
Creative Commons
Really, this concept goes back even farther, though. This is the same concept that Eve struggled with in her decision to partake of the fruit: Is it better to know evil if it means that we can more fully appreciate good? Now maybe you'll say that Eve was deluded and there really was a better way, and I'll agree with you whole-heartedly, but the reality is that we exist within the context of the fallen world, and in some sense, we have to learn by our own experience to distinguish between good and evil. 2 Nephi 2:11 explains this idea in greater detail:
For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things. If not so,. . . righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad.
Now, I don't want to be misunderstood as saying that personal censorship is wrong or that viewing 'evil' media is an important part of coming to know God. I personally don't watch most movies because of violence, and I don't keep books if I find that they have too much questionable material. But what I am suggesting is that maybe this idea isn't so far-fetched after all, and maybe Milton was on to something, even if he wasn't able to express his ideas in ways that are entirely comprehensible to us or his peers. I think in the end, Milton really did see this as a reasonable argument in favor of open licensing, and in light of the evidence that I've tracked down in favor of the idea within my own religious belief, I have to acknowledge that I see where Milton is coming from to some extent.

What are your thoughts on censorship? Is it a sign of top-heavy, oppressive government, or is it a necessary part of any integrated society?


  1. If we want to have true free speech, the price that we have to pay is people sometimes saying or printing things that we don't agree with (and may even find offensive). It's a trade-off--for every good thing that is protected by free speech (the Book of Mormon, for instance) there is at least one bad thing that is as well (such as those people who protest at military funerals). If we suppress one thought or expression, how can we justify not suppressing another? I guess you could call that a necessary evil (depending on your point of view). (Wow, that's a lot of parenthetical statements.)

  2. I guess the question to ask is, "is it worth it to not have censorship, if it means that both good and bad things are published?" Is having all those good works of literature worth all the terrible works as well?