History of Censorship

History of Censorship

Early History

Censorship and the ideology supporting it go back to ancient times. Every society has had customs, taboos, or laws by which speech, play, dress, religious observance, and sexual expression were regulated.

Greek Censorship

In Athens, where democracy first flourished, Socrates preferred to sacrifice his life rather than accept censorship of his teachings. Charged with the worship of strange gods and with the corruption of the youth he taught, Socrates defended free discussion as a supreme public service. He was thus the first person to formulate a philosophy of intellectual freedom. Ironically, his disciple Plato was the first philosopher to formulate a rationale for intellectual, religious, and artistic censorship.

Plato believed that art should be subservient to morality; art that could not be used to inculcate moral principles should be banned. In the ideal state outlined in The Republic, censors would prohibit mothers and nurses from relating tales considered bad or evil; and in his Laws Plato proposed that wrong beliefs about God or the hereafter be treated as crimes and that formal machinery be set up to suppress heresy.

In the 5th century BC, the Athenian philosopher Anaxagoras was punished for impiety; Protagoras, another leading philosopher, was charged with blasphemy, and his books were burned. These instances of repression and persecution in Athens were not truly typical of Greek democracy, for usually the freedom to speak openly in private or in the assembly was respected.

Roman Censorship

In Rome the general attitude was that only persons in authority, particularly members of the Senate, enjoyed the privilege of speaking freely. Public prosecution and punishment, supported by popular approval, occurred frequently. The Roman poets Ovid and Juvenal were both banished. Authors of seditious or scurrilous utterances or writings were punished. The emperor Caligula, for example, ordered an offending writer to be burned alive, and Nero deported his critics and burned their books.

The far-flung Roman Empire could not have lasted for some four centuries if it had not maintained a policy of toleration toward the many religions and cults of the diverse nations and races it ruled. The only demand made was that Roman citizens, as a political act, worship the imperial person or image; beyond that, all citizens were free to worship their own gods and to observe their own rites and rituals. To Jews and early Christians, however, emperor or image worship was idolatry, and they refused to obey. They were persecuted and frequently martyred for their religious beliefs.

Church Censorship

In AD 313 the Roman emperor Constantine the Great decreed toleration of Christianity. Twenty years later, Constantine the Great set the pattern of religious censorship that was to be followed for centuries by ordering the burning of all books by the Greek theologian Arius.

Roman Catholic Censorship

After the emperor Theodosius made Christianity the established religion of the empire, the Roman government and the church began to persecute both pagans and Christian heretics who deviated from orthodox doctrine or practice. The pope was recognized as the final authority in church doctrine and government, and the secular state used force to compel obedience to his decisions. Books or sermons that were opposed to orthodox faith or morals were prohibited, and their authors were punished. The first catalog of forbidden books was issued by Pope Gelasius in 496. Individual heretical books were subsequently forbidden by special papal edicts. Censorship in this period was concerned primarily with suppressing heresy. For the purpose of punishing all such manifestations, Pope Gregory IX instituted the Inquisition in 1231. For almost 500 years the Inquisition remained an influential agency of religious censorship.

The invention of printing in the 15th century made prepublication censorship possible. In 1487 Pope Innocent VIII introduced such censorship. Printers were required to submit all manuscripts to church authorities, and a work could be printed only after it had been approved. Pope Paul III in 1542 established the Universal Roman Inquisition, or Congregation of the Holy Office, one of whose duties was to examine and condemn heretical or immoral works. In 1559 Pope Paul IV first issued the Index of Forbidden Books, which was supplemented by his successors. Approximately 5000 books were ultimately listed in the Index, and the last edition was issued in 1948. Pope Paul VI in 1965 made substantial reforms, changed the name of the Holy Office to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and abolished the position of censor. It was announced that the Index would not be renewed, that the penalty of excommunication would no longer have the force of law, but that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith would occasionally publish lists of books that were not recommended for reading by Roman Catholics.

Protestant Censorship

The Protestant Reformation did not itself erect a change in the practice of censorship. Its leaders—among them John Calvin, John Knox, and Martin Luther—claimed liberty of conscience and toleration only for themselves and their followers. When in power, they too attempted to suppress all deviation from their own brands of orthodoxy; they persecuted Protestant heretics and Roman Catholics.

In England King Henry VIII supplanted the pope as head of the Church of England. The Act of Supremacy (1534) vested in the king power to declare and punish heresies. He persecuted both papists and reformers, and he burned copies of the English translation of the New Testament.

Henry VIII established a licensing system that resembled the prepublication censorship of Pope Innocent VIII. It required printers to submit all manuscripts to church authorities for their approval prior to publication. This licensing system continued in England until 1695. The English poet John Milton protested against such censorship in his classic essay Areopagitica (1644). Many English people associated licensing by church censors with ecclesiastical supervision, the Inquisition, and restraints on religion, education, and intellectual pursuits.

Censorship in the Modern World

The 18th century marks the beginning of the modern period, with its emphasis on toleration and liberty—a beginning that reflects the influence of the Age of Enlightenment and the American and French revolutions (see Enlightenment, Age of). Although the new spirit of liberty was first felt in the area of religious belief, it rapidly affected political life, science, and literature. The United States, France, and England set the pattern and the pace. The Declaration of Independence (1776), the U.S. Constitution (1787) with its Bill of Rights (1789-91), and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1789) became models for the modern world. In England Roman Catholics were freed of all disabilities in 1829; Jews achieved the same freedom in 1858.

Government Censorship

See Government Censhorip, including in Europe, here.

Source: “Censorship”Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2000. Contributed by Milton R. Konvitz

See Also

Historical Development of Civil Law
Early Courts
Inquisitorial Legal System
Law and Liberty
Religious law



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