John Milton knew just what he was risking—his freedom, his very life perhaps when he published a pamphlet named Areopagitica; A speech of Mr. John Milton for the Liberty of Unlicenc’d Printing, to the Parliament of England on November 23, 1644. He never actually gave the speech publicly. It was the defiant act of publishing it at all that was the point. Parliament, which he had supported loyally as a having been a leading Presbyterian pen man during the English Civil War, had passed the Ordinance for the Regulating of Printing or Licensing Order of 1643, which required authors to have a license approved by the government before their work could be published. We would now call this prior restraint. It was aimed not only at Royalists and Catholics but at any critics of Parliament. Milton blatantly did not obtain the required license and the pamphlet, although a scholarly and well-reasoned appeal was a rebuke of Parliament’s increasingly dictatorial ways.
English poet, theologian, and political radical John Milton was born on December 9, 1608 in Cheapside, London under the sign of the Spread Eagle Inn. His father, also named John, came from a fairly wealthy Catholic family but had been disowned after throwing his lot with the emerging Protestants.
Young John was educated at St. Paul’s School and Christ College, Cambridge with an eye to joining the Anglican clergy. At school he showed an amazing facility for languages, both classical and modern. He mastered Hebrew, Greek, Latin, and Old English as well as Italian, French, Spanish, and Dutch. He was soon composing original poetry in Latin and Italian as well as English.
John Milton as a young scholar.
Milton abandoned his plans to join the priesthood and determined to self-educate himself. He retreated to his father’s ancestral home in Buckinghamshire for six years of intensive study. Not only was he said to have read “every book that could be found in England,” he undertook an intensive study of the Bible, including familiarity with the earliest available texts in Hebrew and Greek.
In 1638 Milton embarked on a 16 month tour of France and Italy, where he sought out and met many of the leading intellectuals, poets, and philosophers of the late Renaissance. Perhaps most influentially, he met the astronomer Galileo, whose persecution would inform his later crusades against censorship.
Returning to England he became involved in the rising religious dissent leading to the English Civil War. He published three pamphlets, Of Reformation touching Church Discipline in England Of Prelatical Episcopacy, and The Reason of Church-Government Urged against Prelaty which won the wide approval of the Puritan party.
About the same Milton took a 16 year old wife, Mary Powel. It was not a happy marriage to say the least and despite giving him three daughters the two lived apart most of the time until her death. The misery of his marriage later caused Milton to publicly champion divorce, a strict taboo to Catholics, Anglicans, and Dissenters alike. Indirectly his experience as the advocate of a despised and unpopular cause would inform his views on freedom of expression. Following the publication of three pro-divorce arguments he came under vicious attack and calls for his official prosecution. His work was likely among those that Parliament had in mind when he began work on the Areopagitica.
A vary dangerous and daring book indeed.
Typically the learned and widely read Milton drew on a Classic allusion, probably obscure in his own time, as the inspiration for his title. Areopagitikos was the title of a published oration by the Athenian Isocrates in the 5th century. Areopagus was a hill in Athens, the site of legendary tribunals and the name of a democratic council whose power Isocrates hoped to restore. Like the Greek, Milton published rather than actually declaimed his oration and addressed it to the authorities who were both the agents of the protested injustice in the hope that reason and good sense would change their views.
In the pamphlet Milton leveraged his reputation as the enemy of the episcopacy and supporter of Parliament. He began with flattery—compliments England for having overcome the tyranny of Charles I and the prelates. Then he maintained his sincere loyalty but avowed his complaints about the restrictions placed on public discourse represented constructive criticism, a virtuous alternative to false flattery. Then he expressed confidence that Parliament would heed the voice of reason and would be willing to repeal any Act in the light of truth and upright judgment.
Having covered his ass to the best of his ability, Milton launched on his closely argued thesis rife with historical and theological references. He began by pointing out that the ancient Greeks and the virtuous Romans of the Republic had no pre-censorship of books. Sometimes books that were outrageous to the public morals were burned or destroyed after public consideration and rejection of the ideas, not silenced before they could even be considered. He pointed to origins of pre-censorship of books in the Inquisition, Pope Martin V who first formally banned heretical books and declared a crusade against the early Protestants including the Hussites of Bohemia and Wycliffites in England, the Counter Reformation represented by the Council of Trent.
Milton then extoled the power of books to enlighten and open the mind. Even bad or heretical books challenged the enlightened reader to sharpen his arguments against them. All Protestantism was based on the ability of men to read widely, consider what they read, and make judgements. He relied on the ultimate Puritan assumption—that God endowed every person with the reason, free will, and conscience to judge ideas for themselves. Ideas should be rejected by the reader’s own moral sense, not by a licensing authority.
Then he argued that attempts to restrict reading by listening would fail both in practice and intent. The Order supposedly hoped to prevent the infection of the lower classes by bad ideas, but Milton pointed out that only learned men, well equipped to make moral judgements, actually read such books. The lower orders could either not read them at all, or could not understand what was written. More over there were dozens of other ways by which social infections could be spread—by public speech, popular ballads, plays, and tavern talk. It would be impossible, not to say tyrannical, to try and suppress them all. You might as well, Milton wrote, “regulat[e] all recreations and pastimes, all that is delightful to man.”
In many ways Milton’s appeal was neither radical nor absolutist. He acknowledged that there were bad books that society might need to destroy and authors who should be punished for offences including libel, indecency, blasphemy, and heresy. He cheerfully admitted he had no intention of including Catholic books and authors under the rights and protections he generally demanded. He asked mainly a return to the state of English law before the adoption of the Licensing Order—all books required to be inscribed at least a printer’s name and preferably an author’s real name instead of the nom de plume—usually a classical Latin or Greek reference—that was customary on potentially controversial books so that in case the books proved offensive or harmful, they could more easily be seized and the authors punished.
Still, for its time and place Areopagitica was quite daring. It was also brilliantly argued and exquisitely written by the standards of the time. Among the ringing phrases it included were:
... as good almost kill a Man as kill a good Book; who kills a Man kills a reasonable creature, Gods Image; but hee who destroyes a good Booke, kills reason it selfe, kills the Image of God, as it were in the eye. Many a man lives a burden to the Earth; but a good Booke is the pretious life-blood of a master spirit, imbalm’d and treasur’d up on purpose to a life beyond life.
Lords and Commons of England, consider what Nation it is whereof ye are, and whereof ye are the governours: a Nation not slow and dull, but of a quick, ingenious, and piercing spirit, acute to invent, suttle and sinewy to discours, not beneath the reach of any point the highest that human capacity can soar to.
Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.
Milton braced for a reaction upon publication. Predictably Parliament was unmoved—they would not rescind the Licensing Order until long after the Restoration of the Monarchy and freedom of the press was not guaranteed—under most circumstances—until 1695. It is still not broadly constitutionally protected as it is in the United States. Between Milton’s advocacy for divorce and this treatise on freedom of the press there were indeed renewed calls for his arrest and punishment. But Milton’s previous contributions to the Parliamentary cause, as he probably hoped, spared him immediate punishment.
Indeed Parliament and Oliver Cromwell needed his pen and services. Cromwell, the victorious Puritan General, became Lord Protector in 1646 and appointed Milton the important post of Secretary for Foreign Tongues under the new Commonwealth and its official propagandist. His main duties were to use his deep mastery of Latin—still the court and legal language of much of Europe—as well as modern European tongues to assuage united hostility of Europe to the regicide English regime and even to eventually win diplomatic recognition for the new government. Milton produced several tracts, which explained the “people of England and their Parliament as well as justifying regicide. The works included The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates; Eikonoklastes, an explicit defense of the regicide; The Defense of the English People [Defensio pro Populo Anglicano] or First Defense; and the Second Defense [Defensio secunda] which lauded Cromwell, while exhorting him to remain true to the principles of the Revolution.
While Cromwell may have been offended by a certain scolding mode in some parts of the latter document, he was grateful for the support. But after Cromwell died his son and heir could not maintain the Commonwealth. After the Restoration in 1660 Milton found himself not only without protection, but a hunted man. He was arrested and as the most significant apologist for the separation of Charles I’s head from his shoulders, Milton expected to face the executioner himself. But Charles II decided to pursue a policy of reconciliation. The monarch allowed Milton to go free on parole on condition that he refrain from all political writing.
Aged and blind, Milton dictated the text of Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained at his Buckinghamshire estate.
Now rapidly going Blind, Milton was more than willing to honor that pledge. He returned to the Buckinghamshire estate where he began work on his magnum opus Paradise Lost and its sequel Paradise Regained. He worked by dictation to his loyal assistant Andrew Marvell and other retainers. The publication of Paradise Lost was delayed by the Black Plague and the Great Fire of London until 1667. It was an immediate and enormous success. Paradise Regained and the tragedy Samson Agonistes both published in 1671.
His major work was now behind him. Milton spent his last years putting his papers in order hoping there would come a time when it would again be safe to publish a comprehensive edition of all of his works including his controversial writing on diverse and Areopagitica. It was not to be. It would be nearly a hundred years before it was safe to re-issue his entire life work.
Milton lived quietly in London for the last decade of his life where he died peacefully in Buckinghamshire on November 8, 1674 at the age of 65.
As for Areopagitica, it proved very influential in the long run. After the Restoration English Protestants sorted themselves out—Anglicans, content with the Monarchy and willing to embrace elements of Catholicism in its ritual and worship; the Presbyterians, keepers of the austere Puritan flame, and growing numbers of more radical dissenters who were step-by-step moving away from Calvinism and toward religious and political liberalism. With this latter group freedoms of the press and of expression were high values. Milton provided a readymade defense for the inevitable reaction against them and attempts at suppression. Across the puddle it entered public consciousness with the increasingly liberal clergy around Boston and embrace by Patriots like Sam and John Adams.
It was also treasured by the leaders of the Scottish Enlightenment and philosophers like John Locke and John Stuart Mills as well Virginians George Mason, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison. All of the most intellectually influential founders read and treasured Milton. His ideas on freedom of the press found their way into state constitutions and the First Amendment of the Constitution which the courts have broadly interpreted to ban virtually all prior restraint except in narrow national security areas.
Milton's words from Aeopagitica are inscribed over the door to the main reading room in New York City's Central Library.
In fact Justices on the United States Supreme Court have specifically cited Areopagitica in four important First Amendment cases—New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1954) which established that proof of actual malice was require in suits for defamation and libel brought by public officials against the press; Times Film Corp. v. City of Chicago et al. attacking film censorship as prior restraint; Eisenstadt, Sheriff v. Baird striking down restriction on birth control lectures; and in Justice Hugo Black’s influential dissent in Communist Party of the United States v. Subversive Activities Control Board from the Majority ruling upholding restrictions on the C. P. arguing that they were a violation a free speech and free association.
Areopagitica remains foundational to civil libertarians and Free Speech absolutists like myself who find themselves besieged rising right wing neo-fascists, a paranoid and invasive government, and most recently even allies in the struggles against racial, gender identity, ethnic minority, and class oppression.
Everyone, it seems, believes in freedom of the press and freedom of speech up to the point the press writes or the speech utters what they do not want to hear.