Areopagitica by John Milton, a contentious pamphlet, was published in 1644. It is frequently cited as the first passionate defence of free speech since it challenges the idea of censoring books before they are published.
Milton praises the vitality of books and decries their annihilation, noting that it is just as bad to destroy a good book as it is to almost kill a man. Ironically, under the time of Charles II, two of Milton’s books were censored and burned.
As Milton sees it, rather than removing temptation through censorship, we should be permitted to read competing views in print and use reason to select between them. He alludes to the biblical account of Adam and Eve’s fall from grace when they eat the fruit of knowledge. While some may hold God responsible for Adam’s “transgression,” Milton gives God the credit for granting mankind the ability to make their own decisions; after all, “reason” is nothing more than a means of making those decisions.
What is the title “Areopagitica” about?
This pamphlet is framed as an address “to the Parliament of England” during the rule of Charles I, yet Milton makes reference to ancient Greek democracy. The title comes from the Greek word Areopagus which is a hill on the top of which St. Paul preached during the Council of Elders.
Why Milton wrote Areopagitica?
Henry VIII instituted government oversight of the printing industry, which persisted well into the 17th century. John Lilburne, a political activist, was apprehended in April 1638 for bringing in subversive literature. He was slapped a fine of £500 and flogged for the distance of two miles when he was taken from Fleet Prison to the pillory. In response to Lilburne’s treatment, Milton published his booklet.
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Areopagitica actually did not do anything. Not until 1695 were restrictions on printing loosened, fostering the growth of newspapers and regional printers.
Summary of Areopagitica
Milton uses historical examples to back up his claims, such as the fact that neither Ancient Greece nor Rome mandated author licences. Blasphemous or libellous books have been destroyed and their authors punished on occasion.
However, as Milton points out, these bans were only instituted after the books were published and disputed. He goes on to say that licencing was initially implemented by the Catholic Church during the Inquisition and was later widely employed by the increasingly powerful popes in Rome.
When it comes to education, Milton believes that all works, not just those in a favoured canon, are necessary.
What is considered “wrong” or “bad” can be learned by reading books that are banned from society. If you want to know what the truth is, look at what it contradicts.
Milton argues that a government should not have the power to restrict the types of books that the general public can read because each person is equipped with a free will, the ability to reason, and a conscience of their own. He cites the exemplary behaviour of early Christians who had converted from other religions, such as Saint Paul.
Milton argues that any licence order passed by Parliament would fail because it would be too wide, covering even the Bible, which has been censored in the past for containing parts describing blasphemy and bad conduct.
Furthermore, Parliament will be powerless to prevent the influence of scandalous books on the ignorant, as it is the educated, not the ignorant, who are more likely to read such books. Word-of-mouth will propagate the ideas that licencing attempts to ban.
To add insult to injury, the very idea of licencing is unfair to authors, who usually have nothing but the best intentions when they write.
According to Milton, individuals in positions of authority over what can and cannot be published exercise this authority in a manner that is arbitrary, subjective, and judgmental. He thinks it would be best to let it be published and then see if it contains any blasphemous or defamatory material. It would be at that point that the books might be burned.
The legacy of Areopagitica
Milton’s Areopagitica failed to persuade Parliament to repeal the Licensing Order’s prepublication censorship requirement. Milton was considered a maverick for his day because he connected free will with individual rights. This, along with his prior conflicts with Parliament over his publications in favour of divorce, prevented his ideas from becoming widely accepted.
Milton’s Areopagitica and the rights it defends have withstood the test of time well.
Almost immediately, Milton’s ideas were incorporated into the Puritan church’s formal charter. The Westminster Confession of Faith, written between 1643 and 1650, codified divorce exceptions for desertion and adultery.
The impact of Milton’s ideas was far-reaching. A form of censorship known as “prior restraint,” or censoring before something is published, is explicitly forbidden by the United States Constitution.
Milton’s writings argued that the suppression of ideas before they were published would have a chilling impact on the fundamental human rights to freedom of thought, communication, and the press. This would create a significant barrier to research into issues of providence.
One of the most controversial and powerful arguments of individual rights and freedoms, Apreopagitica serves as a sobering reminder that these liberties have not always been taken for granted.
In his writing, Milton departed from the standard practises of his countrymen. His contentious political and religious views persisted throughout his life.
Since most of his early writing was deemed heretical or treacherous, it was censored by the strict standards of the time and never saw print. As a result, he felt forced to publicly shame Parliament for instituting such stringent censorship. The outcome was the political pamphlet “Areopagitica,” which argued against censorship in favour of free publication so that readers may provide constructive feedback.
According to Milton, any man of average intelligence can detect the difference between good writing and nonsense by using critical thinking. The author’s dedication to introspection, a recurring theme in his writing works, presumably served as inspiration for this notion.
Milton was widely reviled by the state and the church during his lifetime but came to enjoy more widespread acceptance after his death.
In “Areopagitica,” this is what he uses to back up his claims. For the simple reason that an author wants his immortal spirit to be kept in his writings so that he can continue to exist in some form or another beyond his own physical death.
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Though ahead of his time, Milton’s theories came to serve as the yardstick against which subsequent doctrinal changes within Christianity were judged. His “Areopagitica” claims, then, are a kind of prophecy that come true. Because of the importance of protecting the rights of authors, he fought for press freedom.
According to Milton, a written work is a tomb in which the author’s spirit rests, permanently interred in the words they authored years earlier. He believed that Milton’s works kept him alive, and that the man who can be encountered in works like Paradise Lost was not someone who died centuries ago but rather was still alive in the 1600s, preaching to a small, ignorant population.