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

Orwell ends his introduction to Animal Farm, his 1945 novel, 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The introduction – The Freedom of the Press – remained unpublished until October 8, 1972, when it was printed by the New York Times under Orwell’s original title.

In the essay, Orwell discusses the publicity surrounding the publication of his novel and contemplates 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. 


Orwell somehow singles out a period of the last four hundred years. One of the significant developments roughly four hundred years before Orwell’s writing the introduction was Europe’s coming into close contact with the societies of the “New World”.

Jesuit missionaries, who lived and travelled in the New World, studied the social systems they encountered and wrote about them in their reports, published as Jesuit Relations. The first Relation was printed in 1632. The text of The Freedom of the Press suggests that Orwell was unfamiliar with the societies of the New World as discussed by the Jesuits. John Milton (1608 – 1674), on the other hand, whom Orwell chooses to “justify” himself, a multilingual scholar who travelled extensively throughout Europe, is unlikely not to have 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 improbable that the Relations and the New World would not have been the subject of conversation for at least a part of the evening.

Were Milton’s “known rules of ancient liberty” a reference to something other than Orwell’s “characteristic western culture”? (See below the discussion on the “fascination with the question of social inequality…in the 1700s”.) Did Milton refer to the liberty that was discovered to have existed among the cultures of 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 the sonnet that includes the line chosen by Orwell (Milton’s original text: By the known rules of antient libertie). But, given how intensely Milton was involved with the world around him, it is unlikely that he would have been unaware of what they were. A Stanford scholar, J. Martin Evans, provides a rich context to this question in his work Milton’s Epic – Paradise Lost and the Discourse of Colonialism.

The first 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 written by David Graeber and David Wengrow. As we find out in The Dawn of Everything, to view “the intellectual liberty” as “one of the distinguishing marks” uniquely “of western civilisation” is a profound fallacy. Interestingly, what we discover through scholarship today and what was unavailable in Orwell’s times, in Milton’s times, might have been something akin to the news one reads in a newspaper.

Related posts:

Fascination with the question of social inequality was relatively new in the 1700s, and it had everything to do with the shock and confusion that followed Europe’s sudden integration into a global economy, where it had long been a very minor player. In the Middle Ages, most people in other parts of the world who actually knew anything about northern Europe at all considered it an obscure and uninviting backwater full of religious fanatics who, aside from occasional attacks on their neighbours (‘the Crusades’), were largely irrelevant to global trade and world politics.1 European intellectuals of that time were just rediscovering Aristotle and the ancient world, and had very little idea what people were thinking and arguing about anywhere else. All this changed, of course, in the late fifteenth century, when Portuguese fleets began rounding Africa and bursting into the Indian Ocean – and especially with the Spanish conquest of the Americas. Suddenly, a few of the more powerful European kingdoms found themselves in control of vast stretches of the globe, and European intellectuals found themselves exposed, not only to the civilizations of China and India but to a whole plethora of previously unimagined social, scientific and political ideas. The ultimate result of this flood of new ideas came to be known as the ‘Enlightenment’.

If we ask, not ‘what are the origins of social inequality?’ but ‘what are the origins of the question about the origins of social inequality?’ (in other words, how did it come about that, in 1754, the Académie de Dijon would think this an appropriate question to ask?), then we are immediately confronted with a long history of Europeans arguing with one another about the nature of faraway societies:

Graeber, David; Wengrow, David. The Dawn of Everything (pp. 28-30). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.

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

Zamyatin and Huxley through Orwell’s eyes

Some other recent articles on Milton:

Paradise and paradox: an inner pilgrimage into John Milton

Trying to Write About “The Two John Miltons”

Milton, You Should Be Living at This Hour

An “Animal Farm” as constructed by a linguist: