In the opening pages of Ray Bradbury’s famous novel Fahrenheit 451, protagonist Guy Montag asks: Wasn’t there a time when firemen used to put out fires? They laugh at him, rebuke him and say: Everybody knows firemen start fires.
Montag knew this. Montag’s father and his grandfather had been firemen. It had been his duty for many years to start fires. He knew it was his duty to burn books, but this day would be different.
Montag arrived on the scene to do his job but found a woman who wouldn’t leave. He complained that she had all of her books but still wouldn’t leave. Undeterred, Montag proceeds with the other firemen to douse her books—and her—with kerosene. The woman shouts out and goads them. She is indignant that they would touch her books at all, and she still wouldn’t leave. She says to them: “Play the man, Master Ridley; today we will light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, that it won’t be forgotten.”
They keep dousing her with kerosene and she says it again: “Play the man, Master Ridley. Today we will light such a candle.”
In the book, the reference is lost on the firemen who simply continue to do their job.
The reference is to 16th century figure Hugh Latimer, who literally became a human candle. He was burned at the stake in 1555 for heresy—opposing the state religion. He wanted to promote the idea that the Bible should be translated into English, which the state forbade.
In America today, we’re not yet burning people at the stake, fortunately. Nor are we burning books. But your government is interested in what books you read. They’re interested in what you say in your phone calls. They’re interested in what you write in your emails.