Updated on 21 March 2021
Written in 1644 by John Milton (1608 – 1674) Areopagitica is impassioned defense of free speech and anti-censorship.
Areopagitica is the most famous of John Milton’s prose works because it has outlasted the circumstances of its original publication.
Milton was an English poet and intellectual freethinker, who served as a civil servant for the Commonwealth of England. He is best known for his epic poem Paradise Lost (1667) and is believed to have been a secretive Seeker.
At the beginning of the English Civil War Period, on 14 June 1643, the English Parliament passed a law called the Licensing Order. This required that all books be approved by an official censor before publication. Outraged, the next year, Milton published the pamphlet Areopagitica (1644), pleading for the repeal of the law. He wrote:
“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.”
Milton realized how difficult it would be to change Parliament’s opinion, so he made his argument with subtlety. His title alludes to a famous speech called Areopagusis, which argued for polilitical reform and was written by the Greek educator Isocrates in the 4th century BC.
“And what doe they tell us vainly of new opinions, when this very opinion of theirs, that none must be heard but whom they like, is the worst and newest opinion of all others, and is the chief cause why sects and schisms doe so much abound and true knowledge is kept at distance from us ; besides yet a greater danger which is in it.”
The arguments were not initially successful as official censorship of books in England lasted until the nineteenth century, but Areopagitica has long been an inspiration for those demanding a free press. In fact, its arguments against censorship are nearly as fresh and convincing today as they were in the middle of the 17th century.
“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.”
The Supreme Court of the United States has referred to Areopagitica, in interpreting the First Amendmentof the United States Constitution, to explain the Amendment’s protections.
“The light which we have gained was given us, not to be ever staring on, but by it to discover onward things more remote from our knowledge.”
The Supreme Court
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