Courting the Abyss: Free Speech and the Liberal Tradition

by John Durham Peters

University of Chicago Press | April 15, 2005 | Hardcover

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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.

Format: Hardcover

Dimensions: 316 pages, 9 × 6 × 1 in

Published: April 15, 2005

Publisher: University of Chicago Press

Language: English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10: 0226662748

ISBN - 13: 9780226662749

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Courting the Abyss: Free Speech and the Liberal Tradition

Courting the Abyss: Free Speech and the Liberal Tradition

by John Durham Peters

Format: Hardcover

Dimensions: 316 pages, 9 × 6 × 1 in

Published: April 15, 2005

Publisher: University of Chicago Press

Language: English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10: 0226662748

ISBN - 13: 9780226662749

Table of Contents

Introduction: Hard-Hearted LiberalismThe Intellectual Options TodayLiberals, Civil Libertarians, and LiberalismThe Free Speech StorySelf-Abstraction and StoicismThe Method of PerversityChapter 1. Saint Paul's ShudderThe Puzzle of PaulThe Case of Meat at CorinthThe Privilege of the OtherIn Praise of ImpersonalityHosting Dangerous DiscourseStoic, Rhetorician, JewChapter 2. "Evil Be Thou My Good": Milton and Abyss-RedemptionAreopagitica, a Misplaced ClassicProvoking ObjectsScouting into the Regions of SinDramatis PersonaeThe Morality of TransgressionChapter 3. Publicity and PainThe Public Realm as SublimationLocke's Project of Self-DisciplineAdam Smith and the Fortunate Impossibility of SympathyMill and the Historical Recession of PainStoic Ear, Romantic VoicePublicity and PainChapter 4. Homeopathic Machismo in Free Speech TheoryThe Traumatophilic First AmendmentHolmes and HardnessBrandeis and Noxious DoctrineSkokie SubjectivityHardball Public Space and the Suspended SoulImpersonality, or Openness to StrangenessChapter 5. Social Science as Public CommunicationPositivism as Civic DisciplineThe Arts of Chaste DiscourseDemocracy and NumbersObjectivity and Self-MortificationMedical ComposureWays to Rehearse DeathChapter 6. "Watch, Therefore": Suffering and the Informed CitizenCatharsisCompassionCouragePity and Its CriticsNews and the Everlasting NowChapter 7. "Meekness as a Dangerous Activity": Witnessing as ParticipationWitnessing with the BodyWitnessing from CaptivityPersons as Ob
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From the Publisher

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.

From the Jacket

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 anxieties about 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.

About the Author

John Durham Peters is F. Wendell Miller Distinguished Professor in the Department of Communication Studies at the University of Iowa. He is coeditor of several volumes and the author of Speaking into the Air, also published by the University of Chicago Press.

Editorial Reviews

"Peters has written an interesting and provocative book. . . . Courting the Abyss is about free speech generally, but it focuses on this suggestion that we all become better people through tolerating the most hateful and diabolical speech, by staring at and listening to the Nazis and the racists in our midst. Peters is interested particularly in the expression of a Stoic sense of virtue and self-mastery in the free-speech position. The civil libertarian says: I am sufficiently in control of myself to look on the Nazis without contamination. I will not be brought down to their level. By staring at their swastikas and paying attention to their slogans, I grow and become a better person. Indeed, we all become better people and our society becomes a better society with this ability to look unflinchingly into the abyss of racial hatred. Peters’s book is a story of ‘abyss-artists’, who put their evil on public display, and ‘abyss-redeemers’, who believe in a moral alchemy that can make virtue out of our gaze into hell. (Abyss-avoiders, on the other hand, are those who recoil from the display and either shield their own and others’ eyes or at least demand a better reason for ‘defending to the death’ the Nazis’ right to march through Skokie.) Abyss-redemption, he says, is a major and neglected theme in the history of liberal thought. . . . Peters has, I think, done us a service in pursuing this idea of abyss-redemption. I don’t mean he commends it to us: he does not. But he rightly o
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