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Areopagitica

Areopagitica: A speech of Mr John Milton for the liberty of unlicensed printing to the Parliament of England is a prose tract or polemic by John Milton, published November 23, 1644, at the height of the English Civil War. Milton's Areopagitica is titled after a speech written by the Athenian orator Isocrates in the 5th century BC. (The Areopagus is a hill in Athens, the site of real and mythical tribunals. Isocrates hoped to restore the Council of the Areopagus.) Like Isocrates, Milton had no intention of delivering his speech orally. Instead it was distributed via pamphlet, defying the same publication censorship he argued against.

Milton, though a supporter of the Parliament, argued forcefully against the Licensing Order of 1643, noting that such censorship had never been a part of classical Greek and Roman society. The tract is full of biblical and classical references which Milton uses to strengthen his argument. The issue was personal for Milton as he had suffered censorship himself in his efforts to publish several tracts defending divorce (a radical stance at the time and one which met with no favor from the censors).

Interestingly, Milton is not completely libertarian in Areopagitica and argues that the status quo ante worked best. According to the previous English law, all books had to have at least a printer's name (and preferably an author's name) inscribed in them. Under that system, Milton argues, if any blasphemous or libelous material is published, those books can still be destroyed after the fact.

Areopagitica is among history's most influential and impassioned philosophical defences of the principle of a right to free speech.

Some consider Areopagitica worth reading side-by-side with Paradise Lost; a juxtaposition of these texts may yield an intriguing window into Milton's non-conventional theological tendencies.

Quotations

For books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul whose progeny they are; nay, they do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them.

As good almost kill a man as kill a good book: who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God's image; but he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself, kills the image of God, as it were, in the eye.

And though all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play on the earth, so Truth be in the field, we do injuriously by licensing and prohibiting misdoubt her strength. Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?

I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race, where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat.

Areopagitica and its context

Areopagitica, as noted in previous sections, is frequently quoted as a classical text which is in defense of Freedom of the Press. It is important, however, to remember that the context of Areopagitica is one which differs greatly from the current geopolitical setting. When discussing the Freedom of the Press, it can be very tempting to use Milton's arguments about the value of books and their implication for truth in the world. However to use Milton in defense of our modern constitutions and their emphasis on the freedom of speech and the freedom of the press, is to misuse Milton entirely. Milton's concepts are ones which do not mirror those of the modern world. With Milton you have to keep in mind the Theological account present in Areopagitica. At the core of its justification is the theme of God. All of the defenses he gives are predicated on a strongly theological account. “[T]he argument of Areopagitica is for a purposive liberty: the Christian Liberty of the Puritan saint searching after God's partially revealed truth.” Now this aspect is absolutely crucial. Milton is not arguing for the freedom of speech for all (after all, he excludes Catholics from his considerations entirely) but rather arguing for a way to further the truth of God. The Truth we discover may have many aspects, as one can see when one compares Milton to John Stuart Mill. But the truth which we are in search of, and in defense of, is God's truth. And it is one which we will never know, but which we will get closer and closer to by allowing some freedom of exchange so that we can learn more of God's truth. As he puts it, “There must be many schisms and many dissections made in the quarry and in the timber, ere the house of God can be built”

References

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