The Reformation Roots of Freedom of Speech

When tackling a thorny issue in which well-meaning people with whom I tend to agree broadly are in disagreement with one another and I find myself being pulled in opposing directions by compelling arguments, I often begin by trying to establish some sort of very basic background or component ideas. Before tackling some of the thornier specific ideas related to freedom of speech as it relates to the internet, I wish to review some notion related to freedom of speech more generally.

A stained glass window featuring the image of a young woman.Freedom of speech is broadly assumed to be a good thing these days, as is demonstrated in its inclusion in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 19 reads, “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” This document was adopted in the wake of the atrocities of the Second World War.

However, freedom of expression, as a positive good, is of relatively recent vintage. Its existence as a “universal” right was spread by the “Declaration of the Rights of Man” and its appearance in that document can be credited to the philosophers of the Enlightenment.

Our current notions of human rights can be traced through the Enlightenment back to the Protestant Reformation.

The first entry in The Guardian’s “Timeline: A History of Freedom of Speech” in which freedom of speech seems to be broadly advocated for the public is a quotation from Erasmus, the sixteenth century “Prince of the Humanists”. In Education of a Christian Prince he wrote, “In a free state, tongues too should be free.”

Erasmus’ close contemporary Machiavelli famously also wrote a book of advice for a young ruler. Importantly, unlike Erasmus, Machiavelli decoupled the proper exercise of political power from traditional morality and virtue.

In 1517, a year after Erasmus wrote Education of a Christian Prince, Martin Luther famously posted his ninety-five thesis, leading to a break with the Roman Catholic Church. At first, the rights of the new Lutheran Church were asserted against those of the Roman Catholic Chuch, but eventually it became clear that even those individuals that had rejected the authority of Rome disagreed among themselves. The differing interpretations of scripture would lead to competing groups that Brad S. Gregory calls “moral communities.”

Radical Protestants, such as John Milton, insisted that religious belief should be left to the conscience of the individual. In the Areopagitica, he traces out the arguments which will recur in discussions of freedom of speech and expression.

According to Gregory,

Because individuals disagreed about the meaning of God’s word, individuals and not politically favored churches were and had to be the bearers of rights, beginning with the right to religious liberty

Gregory goes so far as to say that the medieval ethics based on virtue was “replaced” by ethics based on rights. The destruction caused by the wars that accompanied religious conflict, and the consequent political instability, needed a solution. Repression of religious minorities was not sustainable. Toleration was the solution and “the discourse of religious toleration was simultaneously a discourse of individual rights.”

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2 comments
  1. human rights often are not supported by the Catholic church for example, there are different velocities of development in agnostic vs. religious societies …

  2. This is interesting. One notices at the time of Enlightenment, the churches always asked for freedom from religion until when they got the power and they always wanted to change all this. As long as a particular sect wasn’t in charge, they wanted freedom.

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