Please analyse this passage from Areopagitica by John Milton. Specifically, what is the significance and context of this passage to the rest of the work?
'Yet is it not impossible that she may have more shapes than one. What else is all that rank of things indifferent, wherein Truth may be on this side, or on the other, without being unlike herself? What but a vain shadow else is the abolition of those ordinances, that handwriting nailed to the cross? What great purchase is this Christian liberty which Paul so often boasts of? His doctrine is, that he who eats or eats not, regards a day, or regards it not, may doe either to the Lord. How many other things might be tolerated in peace, and left to conscience, had we but charity, and were it not the chief stronghold of our hypocrisy to be ever judging one another?'
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The central concept of this passage is about the assertion of individual liberties against legal impositions. This is significant to the work as a whole, which is an impassioned and eloquent plea for liberty of thought and expression, written in response to a censorship law passed by Parliament in 1643. Suppression of this kind is both wicked and un-Christian, to Milton’s way of thinking. He uses St Paul’s words to supplement his argument in this passage, including a specific allusion to Colossians 2, when he talks of ‘the abolition of these ordinances, that handwriting nailed to the cross’. This implies that Christ’s crucifixion cancelled out other laws and rules, and that therefore Christians have freedoms which earthly rules cannot, and should not bind. This is what Milton means by the 'Christian liberty' that St Paul ‘boasts of'. In an allusion to Romans 14, Milton remarks that individuals are free to eat or not, and to celebrate particular days or not, according to choice; they are all still acceptable to God. Certainly, Milton is of the strong opinion that people should not be judged on such matters by other people, as all human beings will ultimately be judged only by God.
In other words, Milton is arguing for the toleration of different ideas among individuals, saying that they all have valid opinions of their own, and that therefore the state should not try to impose its own control and force everyone to conform to only one way of thinking and behaving. It can be seen, then, that Milton frames his liberal argument in Christian theological terms. In addition to this, of course, he makes classical references, as seen in the very title of the piece, which refers to a tribunal in Ancient Greece and a speech by the Athenian orator Isocrates. We should note as well, however, that the title can also be linked to St Paul, who is said to have preached to the Athenians at the Areopagus.
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