Courting the Abyss updates the philosophy of free
expression for a world that is very different from the one in which
it originated. The notion that a free society should allow
Klansmen, neo-Nazis, sundry extremists, and pornographers to spread
their doctrines as freely as everyone else has come increasingly
under fire. At the same time, in the wake of 9/11, the Right and
the Left continue to wage war over the utility of an absolute
vision of free speech in a time of increased national security.
Courting the Abyss revisits the tangled history of free
speech, finding resolutions to these debates hidden at the very
roots of the liberal tradition.
A mesmerizing account of the role of public communication in the
Anglo-American world, Courting the Abyss shows that
liberty''s earliest advocates recognized its fraternal relationship
with wickedness and evil. While we understand freedom of expression
to mean "anything goes," John Durham Peters asks why its advocates
so often celebrate a sojourn in hell and the overcoming of
suffering. He directs us to such well-known sources as the prose
and poetry of John Milton and the political and philosophical
theory of John Locke, Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, and Oliver
Wendell Holmes Jr., as well as lesser-known sources such as the
theology of Paul of Tarsus. In various ways they all, he shows,
envisioned an attitude of self-mastery or self-transcendence as a
response to the inevitable dangers of free speech, a troubled
legacy that continues to inform ruling norms about knowledge,
ethical responsibility, and democracy today.
A world of gigabytes, undiminished religious passion, and
relentless scientific discovery calls for a fresh account of
liberty that recognizes its risk and its splendor. Instead of
celebrating noxious doctrine as proof of society''s robustness,
Courting the Abyss invites us to rethink public
communication today by looking more deeply into the unfathomable
mystery of liberty and evil.