November 23, 2017

“He who destroys a good book kills reason itself.”


In the 1630s, England’s infamous “Star Chamber” (sort of a politically-oriented version of the Spanish Inquisition) banned the printing or sale of “any seditious, scismaticall, or offensive Bookes or Pamphlets.”

The Star Chamber was abolished in 1641.

But two years later, the British House of Commons passed a new censorship law.

Although it was called a book “licensing” law, it was more about limiting free speech and creating publishing monopolies for politically-connected publishers than it was about protecting the rights of authors (or readers).

Books deemed to be in violation of the “Licensing Order of 1643” were seized and destroyed. And, the writers, printers and publishers of those books faced prison sentences.

This angered England’s great poet John Milton and inspired him to write a “speech” urging more liberal publishing laws.

The full title of the printed version was Areopagitica; A Speech of Mr. John Milton For the Liberty of Unlicens’d Printing, To the Parlament of England. (The complete text is online here.)

Now generally referred to as Areopagitica for short, it was first published, in pamphlet form, on November 23, 1644.

Milton’s Areopagitica is among the most famous historical documents advocating freedom of the press ever written. (The title alludes to the ancient Greek judges of Areopagus.)

One line in it is still frequently quoted today and included in many books of quotations:

“As good almost kill a man as kill a good book: who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God’s image; but he who destroys a good book kills reason itself.”

Milton’s eloquent words failed to persuade Parliament to change its book “licensing” and censorship regulations. They remained in effect until 1694, 20 years after Milton’s death.

Of course, in the centuries since then, censorship of books has significantly and steadily decreased, at least in the United Kingdom, the United States and other Western democracies.

But even in those countries efforts to ban books from public libraries has continued.

For example, during the first decade of the 21st Century, the American Library Association documented more than 4,000 attempts to have various book removed from local libraries here in the US.

Some modern self-appointed censors want to ban books that conflict with their religious or political views. Some want to block access to books they deem “pornographic.”

Other reasons given for requesting books to be banned from American libraries in recent years include things like sexism, “anti-family” content and uses of the N-word, one of the common complaints lodged against Mark Twain’s classic novel Huckleberry Finn.

In fact, the targets of people and groups who want to ban books at their local libraries include many major literary classics, such as: 

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
1984 by George Orwell
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey
For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
The Call of the Wild by Jack London

You can read a longer list of examples on the “Banned & Challenged Classics” page of the ALA’s website.

If John Milton were still around to see that list, I’m pretty sure it he be angered again.

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November 05, 2017

“Spare the rod and spoil the child”


It’s not surprising that many people think the quote “Spare the rod and spoil the child” comes from the Bible.

There are at least five verses in the Bible’s Book of Proverbs that talk about using a rod to beat a child — for his own good, of course.

The most famous is Proverbs 13:24: “He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes.”

An even scarier piece of parenting advice is in Proverbs 23:13-14. It says: “Withhold not correction from the child: for if thou beatest him with the rod, he shall not die. / Thou shalt beat him with the rod, and shalt deliver his soul from hell.”

However, although the saying “spare the rod and spoil the child” was clearly inspired by these Biblical verses, it does not appear in the Bible.

It comes from the epic-length 17th-century poem ”Hudibras”, written by Samuel Butler (1612-1680), a cheeky British poet who enjoyed mocking religious extremists and hypocrites.

Butler’s epic satire follows the trials and tribulations of a character named Sir Hudibras.

Initially, the poem describes Hudibras as a noble and pious knight.

But during the course of the story he is shown to be a buffoonish poseur and nitwit.

Butler published Hudibras in three parts, in 1663, 1664 and 1678. The famous “spare the rod” quote comes in Part II, which was entered into the Stationer’s Registry (Britain’s early version of a copyright office) on November 5, 1663.

At the end of Part I, Sir Hudibras is put in prison after getting into a fracas with a group of locals who were watching a bear baiting “entertainment.”

In Part Two, a widow Hudibras had been wooing comes to visit him in jail and says she’ll get him out if he’ll prove he truly loves her.

When he tries to profess his love, she quickly rejects flowery words as the kind of proof she wants:

       “Hold, hold, quoth she; no more of this,
       Sir Knight; you take your aim amiss:
       For you will find it a hard chapter                         
       To catch me with poetic rapture.”

The widow then suggests that Hudibras could prove his love by attempting suicide. For example, she says, if he tried to hang himself she would believe him and cut him down before he died.

Hudibras thinks that option sounds a bit “too harsh.”

So, the widow suggests that Hudibras could prove his love by whipping himself or by letting her whip him. She then explains the benefits of the “virtuous school of lashing.”

Near the end of her spiel on the joys of the whip, the widow utters the famous “spare the rod” quotation:

       “If matrimony and hanging go
       By dest’ny, why not whipping too?                           
       What med’cine else can cure the fits
       Of lovers when they lose their wits?
      
Love is a boy by poets stil’d;
       Then spare the rod and spoil the child.”

Hudibras promises to enroll in the “school of lashing” if the widow gets him released.

She does. But then Hudibras reneges on his promise, a betrayal that sets up the plot of Part III of the poem, in which Hudibras gets his final comeuppance.

Samuel Butler was almost certainly thinking of the Biblical verses about rods and children when he wrote his own famous line about them.

When read or heard out of context, it may seem like Butler’s “spare the rod and spoil the child” quote has a meaning similar to the Bible verses — i.e., parents should discipline their children with physical punishment if they want them to turn out “right” and keep them from becoming spoiled brats or worse.

But what Butler implied in between the lines of his satiric verse is a bit more bawdy than Biblical.

The obvious theory, given the scene it’s used, in is that it refers to sexual fetishes involving spanking, whipping and a dominatrix.

Another theory is that it’s a reference to an old bit of sexual folklore about how to “spoil” — and thus prevent — a woman from becoming pregnant.

One thing is certain: what Samuel Butler was talking about in that part of his poem Hudibras is a bit different than what the pious authors of the Book of Proverbs had in mind.

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