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The Freedom of the Press remained unpublished until October 8, 1972, when it was printed by the New York Times under Orwell’s original title.

Although it was intended as a discussion of publicity surrounding the publication of Animal Farm, Orwell tells us about his views on the nature of 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 the European culture began to come into close and sustained contact with the societies of the “New World”. The history of this contact (and many other matters) is discussed in detail in The Dawn of Everything by David Graeber and David Wengrow.

Some of the social systems of the New World were carefully reported on by Jesuit Missionaries. The reports were published as Jesuit Relations. Jesuits began publishing Relations in the early 17th century. The style of Orwell’s writing in the The Freedom of the Press suggests that he may have been unfamiliar with the social organisation of the free societies, discussed by Jesuits, that were common outside of Europe prior to colonisation. John Milton (1608 – 1674), a multilingual erudite, who travelled throughout Europe, might have heard of or read the original Jesuit reports.

Was Milton’s reference to “the known rules of ancient liberty” a reference to something else, that Orwell might have missed? Perhaps, Milton was also referring to the liberty that existed in the New World, which might have been known to him through the Jesuit writings? It is not clear whether Milton thought of the native American societies when he wrote his sonnet – find Milton’s original text here: 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.

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”