By now you’ve probably heard about Cody Wilson’s fully functional, 3-D-printer-produced handgun. Last weekend, Wilson successfully test fired the “Liberator,” and posted its design on his non-profit company’s website. A 25-year-old student at the University of Texas Austin, Wilson is fond of invoking a mash-up of political ideology to justify freely distributing the designs for these plastic, untraceable, and perhaps undetectable objects. Suggesting that 3D printing allows a world of “equality” where everyone can print their own firearm, Wilson refers to the likes of Camus, Baudrillard, and Foucault in his interviews.
So it was perhaps inevitable that Wilson would eventually invoke John Milton to defend this supposed revolution in printing and radical freedom. I’m going to quote Wilson from a video found on Slashdot, because he is worth quoting verbatim and at length as he talks about Milton:
“Milton’s Areopagitica is essentially the spiritual analog that I’m holding out for people. Which is more to do not about like why guns are good. It’s more about why like speech and information is good. Why like you just must reckon with, you must be free to reckon with whatever ideas that you can. It isn’t enough that a society can just withhold things. That doesn’t befit you as a moral agent. That doesn’t allow you to exist or to, that doesn’t allow you to fully exercise your capacity as a human being, as a moral agent. That’s what I want this to be more about. Not to get stuck in debates about, well we can have semi-automatic rifles but let’s not have automatic rifles. Like Obama said, those belong on the battlefield. No, no, no, the battlefield is the mind, you know what I’m saying? Like the battlefield is culture. Let’s make people, let’s make individuals reckon with these ideas themselves.”
In fact, if one goes to Wilson’s website for Defense Distributed and clicks on the link for their Manifesto, it links directly to Areopagitica at Dartmouth’s Milton Reading Room. I’ve provided some thoughts on Milton’s statements about gunpowder and arms elsewhere on this blog. Here, however, Wilson’s argument seems to rest on Milton’s claims concerning the free press in Areopagitica, an early political tract that influenced the founding fathers of the United States. Wilson hangs his hat on Milton’s suggestion in Areopagitica that pre-publication censorship is unnecessary and that the free flow of ideas should proceed unimpeded. After comparing books to meats both clean and unclean, and quoting the scriptural exhortation that “to the pure, all things are pure,” Milton brings in the authority of Selden to show that
all opinions, yea errors, known, read, and collated, are of main service and assistance toward the speedy attainment of what is truest. I conceive, therefore, that when God did enlarge the universal diet of man’s body, saving ever the rules of temperance, he then also, as before, left arbitrary the dieting and repasting of our minds, as wherein every mature man might have to exercise his own leading capacity (ML 938).
Wilson, however, in one fell swoop applies Milton’s argument about ideas to objects, and ignores Milton’s important qualifications. In the passage above, Milton is quick to point out that there are still limits even to diet (the “rules of temperance”) and suggests that it is every “mature” man (not every man) who might be able to consume even bad ideas and books without risk of contamination.
Milton was no anarchist; not even a “like principled one” such as Wilson described himself in an interview with Glenn Beck. In my previous blog on Milton and gunpowder, I suggested that even as the returning tyranny of monarchy approached England’s shore, Milton was careful to qualify the right to bear arms by limiting arms to the “well-affected” either in a “standing army” or a “settled militia” (ML 1123-5). In Areopagitica, the “well-affected” are the right-thinking, the “fit though few” who follow right-reason toward truth and good. Like the founding fathers of the U.S., Milton recognized that there had to be some limits on liberty, some authority that would keep chaos of the mob in check.
If in The Ready and Easy Way, his last-minute plea to avert the return of monarchy, Milton was not for “radical liberty” quite the way Wilson imagines, he certainly wasn’t in Areopagitica. Pre-publication censorship may be abhorrent to Milton; but note what rights Milton does allow the presumably well-affected State:
As for regulating the press, let no man think to have the honor of advising ye [parliament] better than yourselves have done in that order… that no book be printed unless the printer’s and the author’s name, or at least the printer’s, be registered. Those which otherwise come forth, if they be found mischievous and libelous, the fire and executioner will be the timeliest and the most effectual remedy that man’s prevention can use (ML 965).
Milton, who would later serve as a licenser under the Protectorate (however liberally he might have interpreted his role), was far from advocating untraceable, unaccountable publication of ideas (especially if those ideas happened to be Catholic). Even in his most impassioned pleas for liberty, Milton knew precisely what he was resisting, and insisted that representative government could not function without an educated populace that could understand the same.
With this in mind, ask yourself how Milton might respond to Wilson’s claim to Beck that he is “just resisting.”
“What am I resisting? I don’t know… I’m not sure.. but they can never eradicate the gun from the earth.” -Cody Wilson.
– 7 May 13
[Updated 8 May]
*All Milton quotations are from the Modern Library’s The Complete Poetry and Essential Prose of John Milton, edited by William Kerrigan, John Rumrich, and Stephen Fallon.
For more on Cody Wilson’s printed gun, see:
The New Yorker, “A Gun, A Printer, an Ideology” (May 7, 2013)