“This fight matters even if you lose.” That’s how Jeremy Young of PEN America, a national organization that promotes freedom of speech, publication and thought, concluded an inspiring message to a recent gathering of Florida professors at New College in Sarasota.
Detailing the ongoing depredations of “educational censorship,” not only in Florida but throughout our country, Young warned us that there is likely a great deal of suffering still to come. As I was simultaneously preparing a lecture for my course on the history of Renaissance and Reformation Europe — a critical segment of the “Western Civilization” that we have been encouraged to teach by the governor — I was reminded of a paragraph of Michel de Montaigne’s essay “Of Cannibals,” written around 1580. While some may turn their eyes away from the courageous person who loses in battle for a just cause, Montaigne observed, that person “is killed, but not conquered. The most valiant are often the most unfortunate. So there are triumphant losses that are more to be envied than victories.”
The Austrian novelist, biographer and refugee from Nazi oppression Stefan Zweig opened his own 1936 book “The Right to Heresy” with this paragraph from Montaigne. The small book focuses on the reactions of a brave dissident to the execution of a “heretic” in John Calvin’s Geneva in 1553. The authoritarian leader of theocratic Geneva, Calvin ordered that Miguel Serveto be arrested and burned at the stake, together with his books, for his opinions on the trinitarian or unitarian nature of God — even though he had just arrived in Geneva as a refugee from the Spanish Inquisition.
Calvin received praise from most sectors of both Catholic and Protestant Europe for what he had done in this case, but the Protestant intellectual Sebastian Castellio, Calvin’s former friend and a former Geneva resident, denounced Serveto’s trial and punishment. In the midst of his own era of book-burnings, Zweig pointed out what he called Castellio’s “immortal words” in reaction to this judicial murder: “‘To kill a man never defends a doctrine, but instead kills a man. When the Genevese executed Serveto, they were not defending a doctrine, but sacrificing a man. We do not testify our own faith by burning another, but only by our readiness to be burned on behalf of this faith.’”
Pointing out the moral for his own time, Zweig commented, “Truth can be spread, but it cannot be forced.” Drawing on the flood of speeches he had recently heard in Europe, he insisted that “no doctrine becomes sounder, no truth truer, because of screaming and zealotry; nor can violent propaganda become more effective by getting worked up into a rage. Still less does a doctrine or a philosophy become truer by hunting down the individuals whose conscience compels them to go against it.”
Castellio and Montaigne lived in the darkest and bitterest of times, when, for nearly a full century, Christians in Western Europe tore each other apart over religious differences. Executing heretics only generated even more horrific violence in the 16th century. Banning books from libraries, mandating approved curricula and stifling free discussion in a classroom will not replace one idea with another in the 21st. Will we, in this state, have the courage to stand by truth-telling and freedom of conscience, and against censorship, indoctrination and elimination of those whose views are not endorsed by the current government?
Jonathan S. Perry is an associate professor of history at the Sarasota-Manatee Campus of the University of South Florida, and he also appeared as a contestant on the television program “Jeopardy!” in February 2023.