It’s raining here in Dallas this morning, and pensive is my mood. I’m locked in thoughts ranging from my age to political assassinations to the future that awaits my children. The title of this post is a famous line from the 17th Century John Milton (Paradise Lost) poem, I Did but Prompt. It’s one of the most fascinating, pre-American statements, and it says a lot about human nature. “License they mean when they cry liberty” has been with me for decades, and it never fails to influence my thinking when I hear people spouting about that most important American word “liberty.”
Milton’s poem is about the uselessness of preaching the truth of freedom to a class of people who are, frankly, uninterested, because it will impact their place in life. “…all this waste of wealth,” he writes, “and loss of blood.” He refers to the Biblical wisdom of not “casting your pearls before swine,” an admonishment not to waste your time with people who refuse to listen, people whose own contempt for truth leads them astray.
And yet, as Milton suggests, these people are often loudly proclaiming their belief in liberty, often defending it with war and violence. Milton, however, sees through this and proclaims that what they’re really defending is “license,” a much different concept than that of liberty.
“For who loves that (liberty),” he notes, “must first be wise and good.”
I think this is being played out before us today in nearly every corner of our culture. Nobody wants the truth inherent in liberty, because liberty requires responsibility. We want license, the “freedom” to do what we want at all times. Milton wisely notes that there’s a HUGE difference between the two, and I think we need to talk about this.
The First Amendment, for example, is a requisite cornerstone of liberty, because the courage to tell the truth must be protected. However, when it’s used to protect license, it’s polluted and turned on its head, and that’s a problem. I think the Founding Fathers knew that liberty demands sacrifice (Milton’s view), but we don’t hear much about that today. The emphasis on truth is the differentiator, which is why I am obligated to support everything about WikiLeaks and at the same time curse the political discourse of today, like that which played at least some role in the murderous atrocity in Tucson yesterday. The former seeks truth, but the latter seeks self gain.
License they mean when they cry liberty.