When I was a young man, I knew an old man who used to say, ‘The more I see of some people, the more I like my dog.’ Years later I learned that this saying wasn’t original to him, but that different versions of it have been ascribed to well-known writers of the past. Another saying that this same old timer liked (and perhaps also borrowed), was: ‘Perfect individual freedom is divisible by the number of people present.’ In this man’s final years, he lived all alone, which probably caused him to put too fine and cynical of a point on the fact that as a group grows in numbers, so too, do rules, regulations, and restrictions. Still, his platitude about freedom does appear to be an across-the-board truism, just as the Ogden Nash poem about a dog being “man’s best friend” continues to have emotional resonance with many, given their day-to-day encounters with humans.
The foregoing was called to mind when I came across something Mark Twain said about free speech which he dictated to a stenographer for his memoirs a few years before his death in 1910. In a 1907 entry, Mark Twain asserted: “Whenever the human race assembles to a number exceeding four, it cannot stand free speech.” He contended that the fewer on hand to talk and listen, the freer the speech would be. In stipulating that the number of people should ideally be no more than four, he further stressed that “free speech was only possible” if the four persons “are all of one political and religious creed.” In setting forth this fairly tall order to achieve free speech, Mark Twain went on to remark that while it had been boasted ‘self-admiringly’ in both England and America that a man was free to “talk out his opinions,” there had never really been any such thing as free speech in these two countries, if “more than four persons are present” when it came to “certain tender subjects” that were “avoided and forbidden.” Perhaps this negative assessment was one of the reasons Mark Twain didn’t want his unexpurgated autobiography released until after he’d been dead for one hundred years.
Whether perfectly achieved or not, free speech has been highly valued in England and America. While regularly misattributed to Voltaire, it was actually English writer Evelyn Beatrice Hall who wrote, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” This established “right to say” surely furnished Sir Winston Churchill with enough firsthand experience so that he declared: “Some people’s idea of free speech is that they are free to say what they like but if anyone says anything back, that is an outrage.” Perhaps it was this particular human failing that moved Irish poet and playwright Oscar Wilde to take Evelyn Hall’s oft-cited phrase and give it this whimsical twist: “I may not agree with you, but I will defend to the death your right to make an ass of yourself.”