Meaning: While they are alive, even the best writers (such as Mark Twain) are afraid to say what they really think. There is a cost for total honesty, counted in the currency of real-world consequences–offending people, upsetting them, causing outrage etc. (This dovetails with my earlier post on Einstein, who succeeded because he cared so much less than others about incurring this particular cost.)
Posthumous publication, by contrast, avoids this to some extent. So, says Twain, only the dead writer can be said to have free speech:
The living man is not really without this privilege-strictly speaking-but as he possesses it merely as an empty formality, and knows better than to make use of it, it cannot be seriously regarded as an actual possession. As an active privilege, it ranks with the privilege of committing murder: we may exercise it if we are willing to take the consequences.
And what is lost?
There is not one individual who is not the possessor of dear and cherished unpopular convictions which common wisdom forbids him to utter. When an entirely new and untried political project is sprung upon the people, they are startled, anxious, timid, and for a time they are mute, reserved, noncommittal.
And thus, power to the dead:
Free speech is the privilege of the dead, the monopoly of the dead. They can speak their honest minds without offending. We may disapprove of what they say, but we do not insult them, we do not revile them, as knowing they cannot now defend themselves.
And then we discover:
If they should speak, it would be found that in matters of opinion no departed person was exactly what he had passed for in life. They would realize, deep down, that they, and whole nations along with them, are not really what they seem to be-and never can be.
To which Adrian, a cutting-edge blogger, adds:
Certainly, for all the words about transparency in blogging I forever think of the stuff I don’t write about, whether through wordly wisdom or moral cowardice. Probably you do too.
Well, in fact, yes. I do too.