Orwell and Milton: By the known rules of ancient liberty; Jesuit Relations and The Dawn of Everything

Orwell ends his introduction to Animal Farm with:

In our country … it is the liberals who fear liberty and the intellectuals who want to do dirt on the intellect: it is to draw attention to that fact that I have written this preface.


The Freedom of the Press remained unpublished until October 8, 1972, when it was printed by the New York Times under Orwell’s original title.

The essay was intended as a discussion of publicity surrounding the publication of Animal Farm. In it, Orwell writes about his views on the freedom of thought:

…The issue involved here is quite a simple one: Is every opinion, however unpopular — however foolish, even — entitled to a hearing? Put it in that form and nearly any English intellectual will feel that he ought to say ‘Yes’.

If the intellectual liberty which without a doubt has been one of the distinguishing marks of western civilisation means anything at all, it means that everyone shall have the right to say and to print what he believes to be the truth, provided only that it does not harm the rest of the community in some quite unmistakable way. 

The enemy is the gramophone mind, whether or not one agrees with the record that is being played at the moment.

I am well acquainted with all the arguments against freedom of thought and speech — the arguments which claim that it cannot exist, and the arguments which claim that it ought not to. I answer simply that they don’t convince me and that our civilisation over a period of four hundred years [emphasis – Quotations] has been founded on the opposite notice. … If I had to choose a text to justify myself, I should choose the line from Milton:

By the known rules of ancient liberty.

The word ancient emphasises the fact that intellectual freedom is a deep-rooted tradition without which our characteristic western culture could only doubtfully exist. From that tradition many of our intellectuals are visibly turning away. 


“Four hundred years” earlier was when Europe came into close contact with societies of the “New World”, though this is probably not what Orwell had in mind. 

Jesuit missionaries regularly commented on the social systems of the New World in their reports, published as Jesuit Relations. The first Relation was printed in 1632. The Freedom of the Press suggests that Orwell was unfamiliar with the social organisations discussed by Jesuits. John Milton (1608 – 1674), on the other hand, a multilingual erudite, who travelled extensively throughout Europe, must have heard of or read the original Jesuit accounts. At least on one occasion, in Italy, Milton attended a dinner party hosted by a Jesuit institution: Miller, L. (1979). Milton Dines at the Jesuit College: Reconstructing the Evening of October 30, 1638. Milton Quarterly13(4), 142–146. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24462876. It is unlikely that Relations and the New World would not have been the subject of conversation for at least part of the evening.

Was Milton’s reference to “the known rules of ancient liberty” a reference to something other than “our characteristic western culture”? Could Milton also refer to the liberty that existed in the New World, of which he might have known through Jesuit writings? It is unclear whether Milton thought of the native American societies when he wrote his sonnet (Milton’s original text: By the known rules of antient libertie). But, given how involved he was with the world around him, it is possible that he would have been aware of what they were.

The first four volumes of Jesuit Relations are now on Quotations.ch. The history of the contact between the Old World and the New (and many other matters) is discussed in The Dawn of Everything by David Graeber and David Wengrow.

Related posts:

Orwell’s Animal Farm: “a statement about human society everywhere and at all times”?

Zamyatin and Huxley through Orwell’s eyes

Ed Simon, the author of Milton, You Should Be Living at This Hour, commenting on whether Milton may have read Jesuit Relations:

Some other recent articles on Milton:

Paradise and paradox: an inner pilgrimage into John Milton

Trying to Write About “The Two John Miltons”