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  • Milton and Political Correctness
  • Mary Ann McGrail (bio)

In the opening of the title essay of Persecution and the Art of Writing, Leo Strauss speculates:

We can easily imagine that a historian living in a totalitarian country, a generally respected and unsuspected member of the only party in existence, might be led by his investigations to doubt the soundness of the government-sponsored interpretation of the history of religion. Nobody would prevent him from publishing a passionate attack on what he would call the liberal view. He would of course have to state the liberal view before attacking it; he would make that statement in the quiet, unspectacular and somewhat boring manner which would seem to be but natural; he would use many technical terms, give many quotations and attach undue importance to insignificant details; he would seem to forget the holy war of mankind in the petty squabbles of pedants. Only when he reached the core of the argument would he write three or four sentences in that terse and lively style which is apt to arrest the attention of young men who love to think. That central passage would state the case of the adversaries more clearly, compellingly and mercilessly than it had ever been stated in the heyday of liberalism, for he would silently drop all the foolish excrescences of the liberal creed which were allowed to grow up during the time when liberalism had succeeded and therefore was approaching dormancy. His reasonable young reader would for the first time catch a glimpse of the forbidden fruit. The attack, the bulk of the work, would consist of virulent expansions of the most virulent utterances in the holy book or books of the ruling party. The intelligent young man who, being young, had until then been somehow attracted by those immoderate utterances, would now be merely disgusted and, after having tasted the forbidden fruit, even bored by them. Reading the book for the second and third time, he would detect in the very arrangement of the quotations from the authoritative books significant additions to those few terse statements which occur in the center of the rather short first part.


This description of exoteric writing—that is, writing with two teachings: “a popular teaching of an edifying character, which is in the foreground; and a philosophic teaching concerning the most important subject, which is indicated only between the lines” [Strauss 36]—is the principle of reading most closely associated with Strauss and Straussians. What Strauss describes here is the practice of “writing between the lines” by authors holding heterodox views, constrained by the prejudices of their audience or the vested interests of the regimes within which they write. The term is broadly misused by both opponents and students of Strauss’s work themselves and has helped to gain Straussians the mythopoetic status of hermetic school. The popular version of this theory [End Page 98] is that there are writers with secret teachings, and this occasionally lends itself to different kinds of scholarly deception and grandstanding.

Strauss, in this passage, refers to the position of a writer in a totalitarian country. This might lead a writer or critic in a liberal, democratic country to conclude wrongly that this kind of writing would not appear in a liberal society where there is no direct suppression of freedom of speech. I wish to suggest in this article that Milton’s Areopagitica uses a form of exoteric writing, what Macaulay calls a “peculiar art,” which addresses itself not just to the dangers of suppression of thought from above, but also to the potential dangers of suppression of thought from below. In liberal regimes, de Tocqueville located the origins of the latter, the suppression of thought from below, in what he called the tyranny of the majority. One contemporary form of this is “political correctness,” an insistence that public writings and speeches be purified to conform to a particular view of what constitutes “unprejudiced” language. Geoffrey Hill has referred to these communally enforced constraints as “the thuggish stereotypes of political correctness,” a phrase which conveys the paradox of a concept which is based simultaneously on a certainty about the incapacity of writers...

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pp. 98-105
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