Why would Milton begin "Areopagitica" with a verse from the Suppliant Women?

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In his 1644 “Aeropagitica,” John Milton presented an impassioned defense of freedom of expression in opposition to a censorship law, the Licensing Order, which Parliament had passed the previous year. Although this law was not repealed, his letter has become famous for its defense of freedoms of speech and of the press. The quotation from Euripides’s The Suppliants that he placed at the beginning is appropriate because it comes from a play in which such freedoms are discussed, and because Milton deliberately compares contemporary English society to that of ancient Greece in being a democracy rather than ruled by tyranny.

In the passage quoted, Theseus has been challenged by Creon’s herald from Thebes about the character of Athenian society. When the herald arrives and seeks the “despot” to whom he can deliver Creon’s message, Theseus informs him that “this city is not ruled by one man, but is free.” The herald says that people are too ignorant to know how to rule themselves and when a “mob” rules, and even an unworthy man can advance “by beguiling with words the populace.” Theseus replies, “Nothing is more hostile to a city than a despot,” and then, in the lines Milton quotes, argues that “true Liberty” consists of free people who also advise the public that they too may speak freely.

In the first, lengthy paragraph, Milton states his confidence that the members of Parliament are sincere in believing that the law will “advance the publick good,” and that he supports their desire to “promote their Countries liberty.” It is unrealistic, however, to expect that liberty would include lack of disagreement; instead, “the utmost bound of civill liberty” means ensuring that “complaints are freely heard, deeply consider'd and speedily reform'd” England’s principles, thanks to God and the Lords and Commoners, include challenges to “tyranny and superstition.”

The changes he suggests are equally well established; if anyone “should accuse me of being new or insolent,” they should realize that he actually values imitating "the old and elegant humanity of Greece” in which democracy was already well established. Thus, in hearkening back to the classical antecedents, Milton strengthens his case that lack of censorship supports true democratic principles.

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It is the content of the quote rather than its source that motivated Milton to use it at the beginning of "Aeropagitica." In many ways, the excerpt reflects a central theme of the essay, which was written to argue against the licensing of books by the Crown, a practice that allowed the government to censure written material. The excerpt is saying essentially that liberty and justice depend in no small part on the ability to "speak free," and make one's views heard. Milton makes the same point in "Aeropagitica." Licensing and censorship, he argued, should anger every "learned and religious men," because they both restricted the expression of ideas and gave bad ideas more publicity than they should receive. Comparing truth to a "streaming fountain," Milton claimed that without the "perpetuall" flow of new ideas, might become a "muddy pool of conformity." So Milton argues, like the passage from the Suppliants suggests, that men should be allowed the freedom to express their ideas.

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