Thursday, 29 November 2012

The irrelevance of censorship

Extracted from:

The Abolition of Genius
by Charles McCreery
Chapter XIV: Human Rights and Private Property – I
Oxford Forum, awaiting publication

© Copyright Charles McCreery 2012

The irrelevance of censorship

One might ask how it is that in the past men and women of genius have
been able to make original contributions to thought in countries that
had no official freedom of speech, publication, or assembly, if these
so-called ‘human rights’ are as crucial as their modern protagonists
imply. The answer is that these people of genius achieved what they
did thanks to private incomes, their own or that of someone else. The
societies in which they lived may have been indifferent or even hostile
to freedom of speech and the like, but they tended to have a tolerant
attitude to the concept of private property.

Let us consider some examples. Descartes’ thinking led him
to two conclusions among others: that the earth rotated and that
the universe was infinite. He included these ideas in a book he was
writing called Le Monde, but when he heard that the Inquisition had
condemned Galileo for expounding similar views, he decided not to
publish it. However, there is no reason to suppose that he stopped
thinking about such matters. The Inquisition may have been indirectly
responsible for the non-publication of his book, at least during
his lifetime, but they did not have any direct control over the private
income which enabled him to write it.

It is even questionable whether the sort of censorship imposed
by old-style capitalist societies is an efficient method of preventing the
emergence of new ideas or works of art. Publication is only the last and
most peripheral link in the chain of production of a new artistic or intellectual
work. It is clearly more effective to attack the original thought
at its psychological source, in the stages of preparation, conception or
execution, by depriving the original mind of its financial independence
or any hope of achieving it. Then the mind in question will be unable
to provide itself with the necessary conditions for its work without first
gaining the support and approval of the collective. If the results of its
work are likely to be of the kind that the collective will want to censor,
then this support will not be forthcoming and not only will the work
never see the light of day but it will never even be begun.

Historically speaking, censorship alone, unaccompanied by any
attack on the original thinker’s financial independence of the collective,
seldom seems to have done more than delay the publication of new
ideas. Sometimes it did not even do that. There have been occasions on
which a foreign country was willing to permit the publication of a new
work that was banned in the author’s own. For example, when Galileo
was condemned by the Inquisition and his books banned, the manuscript
of his last work, the Discourses concerning Two New Sciences,
was smuggled out of Italy and published in Holland.

A similar example is provided by the life of Kant. His essay
Religion within the Limits of Pure Reason was to have been published
by the Berliner Monatsschrift, but the Prussian government, which
had recently established a strict censorship of any writing that did not
support orthodox Lutheranism, refused permission to publish. Kant
then sent the essay to some friends in Jena and had it published by
the university press there, Jena being under the jurisdiction, not of
Prussia, but of the Duke of Weimar (the same one, incidentally, who
was currently patronising Goethe).

The episode concerning Galileo’s book also provides an example
of the relative importance of economic factors. If Galileo had not
been able to live privately in his own house following the Inquisition’s
condemnation, waited on by his own servants and not compelled to
earn his living, he would not have been able to write the Discourses at

Friday, 25 May 2012


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