Thoughts on Censorship

By Rev. Edmund Opitz, author of The Libertarian Theology of Freedom and Religion and Capitalism: Allies, Not Enemies. This essay was originally published in the June 1966 issue of The Freeman. Read more in the Edmund Opitz Archive.

love%20to%20read wrThe effort to prevent people from obtaining certain kinds of reading matter on the grounds that its perusal may inflict dam­age on the minds exposed to it, springs from a “father knows best” psychology. Men of this per­suasion assume that they know what is bad for people — even if the people themselves do not—and, further, that they are called upon to invoke statutory safeguards to prevent these latter from injuring themselves unawares. Paternalism is not limited to a concern for the purity of literature, however; the “father knows best” attitude is rampant in every sector of our society, and it is the key to the “liberal” mentality.

The liberal draws a clear dis­tinction between himself and the average man. The average man, in his ignorance and innocence, is at the mercy of his employer; he is gulled by the hucksters of the advertising profession; he is re­garded as fair game by the patent medicine men, food faddists, hid­den persuaders, and other such extremists. The liberal, therefore, attempts to regulate industry, fix wages, control profits, enforce so­cial security, and otherwise pro­tect the consumer against the wily agents of Madison Avenue and the obscene lure of tail fins.

Now, if the average man is as helpless and undiscerning as the liberal makes him out to be, why shouldn’t the liberal protect aver­age minds by screening out the garbage from the avalanche of reading matter and theater fare which engulfs the public? If it is important that we have building codes to insure safe dwellings —because the occupant couldn’t pos­sibly tell whether his own house will withstand the next storm or not; and if the food we eat must have the government stamp of ap­proval, and the clothes we wear conform to regulations, then why is it not more important to au­thenticate the purity of that which goes into the mind? Is not that which forms our ideas and opin­ions more important than the ex­ternals wherewith we are clothed and housed, and even more im­portant than the meat-cereal ra­tio of a hot dog? It is, of course, infinitely more important. Then why provide political guarantees of the amount of beef in a frank­furter and ignore what enters a man’s mind and soul via his eyes and ears?

Arguments in this vein are as old as time, and it took centuries for the idea of liberty to make headway against them. Despotism does not merely seek to control the external conduct of men; it knows that men may conform ex­ternally even while swallowing the revulsion that seethes beneath the surface. Despotism, therefore, must seek to control men’s ideas and their thoughts. Once this is accomplished, then each inner-di­rected man will control his own conduct willy-nilly in accord with the planner’s blueprint. More like­ly than not, this blueprint will in­clude an over-all plan for the econ­omy — perhaps in the form of guilds or castes or enforced oc­cupational and professional group­ings; and it will contain a long list of the citizen’s political duties. One thing it will not contain, and that is a guaranteed private sphere of individual immunity from governmental invasions — an immunity which belongs to per­sons as a matter of inherent right. This is the hallmark of the free society.

From Either Direction

Obviously, then, paternalism, and the disposition to regulate the lives of other people which stems from it, tends toward total regula­tion, no matter whether it starts with externals or internals. The inner and outer aspects of the person do not exist in watertight compartments; start with thought control and the regulation of ex­ternal actions follows inevitably, given time. Begin to regulate con­duct and, because actions follow ideas, propaganda and the selec­tion of reading matter are not far behind.

The paternalistic liberal is all for protecting the average man against the consequences of his follies in all external matters; but, paradoxically, when it comes to literature he is all for laissez-faire. He poses as the champion of free speech, freedom of the press, academic freedom, and liberties of the mind. To make this situation doubly paradoxical, the lower case conservative who favors freedom in general, while opposing various governmental interventions which hamstring commerce, nevertheless may sometimes respond favorably when someone whips up a move to ban a questionable book or play. The case for economic and politi­cal liberty is an old one, and it is better today than it ever was, philosophically. But it is incom­plete if it does not stand four­square for every liberty of the mind. Freedom is all of a piece, and so is its opposite, regulation.

Start with Self-Control

Freedom is a remedial thing in human affairs, which means that the answers liberty would give to the problems which arise in society grow from the inside outward. Liberty does not have a ready-made set of solutions which can be plastered onto the surface of things. If the believer in free­dom possessed a magic wand, one wave of which would impose libertarian solutions for all sorts of problems that now bedevil men while leaving everything else in­tact — including that which created the problems — he would not wave the wand, not if he understands freedom. The problem of censor­ship is only one among many, and there are no “instant solutions” to any problem which grows out of human nature itself. What we can do, however, is to sort out the elements of the problem, discard what does not properly belong, and get the rest into proper focus.

If people were to cease direct­ing their censorship efforts at lit­erary masterpieces like Tom Jones and The Merchant of Venice, a major part of the battle of the books would be over. But how do we recognize a piece of literature when we encounter it; and once we do have a piece of literature in our hands, how do we handle the salty passages which are to be found in Rabelais, Shakespeare, and even the Bible?

John Jay Chapman once re­marked that Italian opera has this superiority over the essays of Em­erson, that from the operas you’d at least learn that the human race consists of two sexes! The clash of this battle never echoes within an essay by Emerson, but the love story is at the heart of great lit­erature, from the Book of Ruth to Romeo and Juliet, right down to Aldous Huxley’s last novel. Mere ribaldry does not test the novel­ist’s powers, nor does mere senti­mentality; real artistry consists in maintaining in fiction the right relation of tension between ribal­dry and reverence which genuine love exhibits in life. Great works of literature do this, as a recent book somewhat ironically titled, tries to demonstrate. (How to Read a Dirty Book, Irving and Cornelia Sussman.)

The bookstore browser who walks out with this book merely because the title intrigues him will be disappointed. This brief essay is a serious defense of literary val­ues and a criticism of attempts to bowdlerize or censor great works of literature. This husband and wife team base their case on Christian premises and direct their fire especially against the misguided efforts of those people who seek to protect their neigh­bors from certain reading matter for presumed religious reasons. Religion is a celebration of life, and the artistic recreation of life demonstrates how every facet con­tributes to the whole. To try to sweep some aspect of life under the rug is an insult to the Creator. It is just as bad as idolizing some part at the expense of the whole. If the authors’ case were accepted, we’d no longer witness the spec­tacle of well-meaning people try­ing to ban Lolita or The End of the Affair.

Obviously, this little book does not cover much of the field. It presupposes, for instance, that we already have some feel for literary values. Most of us don’t, as a mat­ter of fact, despite — or perhaps because of — exposure to litera­ture courses in college and literary magazines thereafter. Montgom­ery Belgion’s book, Reading for Profit, is for the likes of us. This book had its inception in a series of lectures Mr. Belgion prepared for his fellow prisoners of war in 1941. Mr. Belgion expanded these into a book published in England in 1945. Its success was astonish­ing, selling upwards of 100,000 copies in the major European languages. The Henry Regnery Company was the American pub­lisher, but unfortunately this re­markable book is now out of print. There is no better book for awak­ening our own appreciation of lit­erature, by alerting us to the ear­marks of literary merit.

Know the Difference

It was Goethe who observed that literature may be divided into the sickly and the healthy; but it is only after we have educated our­selves into an awareness of where­in the greatness of a literary mas­terpiece consists that we can make the distinction. “The final pur­pose of all great art,” wrote Al­bert Jay Nock, “is that of elevat­ing and sustaining the human spirit through the communication of joy, of felicity.” Lesser art may also perform this function; there are many second- and third-rate novels that may be read with profit, and the same may be said for drama and poetry.

The problem of censorship wears a somewhat different aspect once we have familiarized our­selves with the values that are em­bodied in great literature and which we encounter nowhere else. Life is impoverished by every at­tempt to tamper with these values, and an acknowledgment of this fact takes literature out of the censorship hassle. Furthermore, an appreciation of genuine litera­ture depreciates the attractiveness of fraudulent literature — which is what pornography is.

It is sometimes argued that no one can say what is pornographic and what is not. Well, some men cannot distinguish between a good cigar and a piece of rope. The ex­pert testimony of D.H. Lawrence may be cited on this point; ex­pert because Lawrence’s own nov­els came under the censor’s fire and copies were burned by the hangman. But Lawrence knew lit­erary values and he knew wherein pornography differed: “In the first place,” he wrote, “genuine pornography is almost always un­derworld; it doesn’t come out in­to the open. In the second, you can recognize it by the insult it offers, invariably, to sex, and to the human spirit. Pornography is the attempt to insult sex, to do dirt on it…. The insult to the hu­man body, the insult to a vital hu­man relationship! Ugly and cheap they make human nudity, ugly and degraded they make the sexual act, trivial, cheap, and nasty…. This furtive, sneaking, cunning rubbing of an inflamed spot in the imagination is the very quick of modern pornography, and it is a beastly and very dangerous thing. You can’t so easily expose it, because of its very furtiveness and its sneaking cunning….”

When the literary marketplace is free and when the society con­tains a large number of people who are keen on good literature, will there still be pornography? Yes, but it will not constitute a problem. We don’t need a law to prevent healthy, well-fed people from sampling garbage!

Many a man lives a burden to the earth; but a good book is the precious life-blood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life.
John Milton, Areopagitica

Share this article:

Subscribe by Email

Whenever there's a new article or episode, you'll get an email once a day! 

*by signing up, you also agree to get weekly updates to our newsletter

Join our Mailing list!

Sign up and receive updates any day we publish a new article or podcast episode!

Join Our Mailing List


How Well do you know Christian Libertarianism?

Take our short quiz to find out how you rank!