Today I want to tell you about John Milton’s ‘Areopagitica’ which he published on this day in 1644. Normally, I’m not a big fan of Milton, his Paradise Lost is tedious in the extreme, so it’s nice to find something he did that I like. Areopagitica is a pamphlet which defends the freedom of speech and expression. It is one of the most eloquent defences of press freedom and many of the arguments he made are still useful today.
Milton published this pamphlet at the height of the Civil War and Parliament had, in 1643, introduced a law which severely restricted people’s freedom to read and publish anything that the new regime did not agree with. Anyone who wanted to publish anything at all required a special license from the government. If they printed anything the government did not agree with the work would be seized and destroyed. Any writers, printers or publishers found to be involved would be arrested and imprisoned.
Milton had already suffered under these stringent censorship laws when he had tried to publish several tracts defending divorce. This was not a popular idea in the 1640s. In publishing and distributing Areopagitica, he was defying the very law he was arguing against.
He began, judiciously, by complimenting the government on the way it overthrew the tyranny of the king but went on to say that he ought to be able to air his grievances, because constructive criticism is better than false flattery. He then pointed out that, while the Greeks and Romans had sometimes burned books, they had at least allowed them to be printed, read and judged first. He reminded them that banning books was one of the things they had hated the monarchy for in the first place.
Milton explained that reading is useful because people can only become learned by reading. That means reading bad books as well as good ones. Sometimes you can discover what is true by considering what is not. He believed that God had given every person reason, free will and conscience so that they can judge ideas for themselves and decide what is good and what is bad. They shouldn’t have a government appointed body deciding for them. That you don’t have to believe what you read and sometimes, coming across a lie can lead to good things.
He thought the new publishing laws would not be useful. It can’t possibly prevent the spread of corruption because, if people are not allowed to publish their ideas in books, they will just talk about them instead. If you really wanted to make people think exactly what you wanted them to all the time, you would just have to ban everything: “If we think to regulat printing, thereby to rectifie manners, we must regulat all recreations and pastimes, all that is delightful to man.”
Milton doesn’t think government appointed licensers are the best people to judge what is good or bad anyway. Even if they were good at their job, they could easily make a mistake, and anyway it would take ages to look at every single book. A complete waste of time and money. They must have a pretty low opinion of both the writers and the readers if they think that these sort of decisions need to be made for them: “… a dishonour and a derogation to the author, to the book, to the priviledge and dignity of learning.” He thought people should be open to new ideas, because you never know where a new truth might be found. To be stifled by a government order can only lead to laziness and conformity.
Unfortunately, his arguments did nothing to sway the Presbyterians in government. The law was not lifted until 1695. Although Milton’s Areopagitica, contains some quite modern ideas, he was still a man of his time. He did think that if a book was published, then read by learned men and found to be blasphemous, it should absolutely be burned and its author taken away and executed. Apart from that he seems like a thoughtful and intelligent fellow, so I’ll end with this quote from his pamphlet:
“Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.”