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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 182

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John Milton's Areopagitica protests against and calls for the repeal of the Licensing Order of 1643, which required all books to be reviewed by the official censor before being published.

Milton begins his argument by praising Parliament's history of defending liberty. He then explains that a free press was a highly valued aspect of ancient Greek and Roman societies. Milton also provides examples of tyranny through censorship, such as those seen in the Roman Catholic Church.

Milton also argues that the destruction of literature deemed inappropriate or unacceptable does not benefit society, as it offsets the balance of good and evil and hinders a person's pursuit of the truth. Milton believed that a person's reasoning skills would guide them, and if the Parliament was truly Christian, it would see the value in letting citizens experience these trials of morality.

Finally, Milton claims that humans will always experience temptations and that no amount of outside meddling would change that. The number of censors that would be needed to completely rid the world of these temptations would be astronomical and against the country's best interests.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 848

Areopagitica is the most famous of Milton’s prose works because it has outlasted the circumstances of its original publication. On June 14, 1643, the English Parliament passed a law called the Licensing Order, which required that all books be approved by an official censor before publication, and on November 23, 1644, Milton wrote Areopagitica, pleading for the repeal of the law. His arguments were not successful—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 seventeenth century.

Milton realized how difficult it would be to change Parliament’s opinion, so he marshaled his argument with great subtlety. His title alludes to a famous speech by the Greek educator Isocrates, and Milton uses a classical argumentative structure and many techniques of classical rhetoric that would have commanded respect from his seventeenth century audience. Yet the modern reader, unaware of classical rhetoric, can still marvel at the cleverness and logic that Milton uses to persuade his contemporary lawmakers. He begins by praising Parliament for its defense of liberty in the past. He then offers a historical review of censorship, pointing out that freedom of the press was highly valued in ancient Greece and Rome. Milton traces the tradition of tyrannical censorship to the Roman Catholic Council of Trent and the Spanish Inquisition, both of which found few champions among the members of the English Protestant Parliament. As Milton points out, the Roman Catholic church was a traditional enemy of the freedom-loving Parliament.

Milton’s next tactic is to disarm the argument that censorship serves society by destroying bad books. In a world where good and evil are often intermingled and difficult to discern, the reading of all books—good and bad—contributes to the human attempt to understand and pursue Truth. God gave human beings Reason as a reliable guide, and judgment is the exercise of Reason; true Christian virtue rests in facing trials and choosing wisely. In one of the most famous passages from Areopagitica, Milton says:He that can apprehend and consider vice with all her baits and seeming pleasures, and yet abstain, and yet distinguish, and yet prefer that which is truly better, he is the true warfaring Christian. I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed. . . . That which purifies us is trial and trial is by what is contrary.

Milton then shows that external restraint is futile in the attempt to make human beings good. The temptations to evil are infinite, and to protect humans from all harm, the number of censors would have to be infinite as well. Even if censorship were limited to books, too many censors would be required for the great number of books to be examined, and the work of reading so many bad books would be tedious drudgery. Those best qualified to judge would be disinclined for this work, and censorship would fall to ignorant and less qualified men.

Milton’s final points are that censorship will discourage intellectual activity, impede the pursuit of Truth, undermine the nation’s respect for scholars, and cast doubt on the ability of ordinary persons to think for themselves. Furthermore, censorship will limit the pursuit of new truths since its activity is by nature conservative; only accepted truths would ever pass examination. Yet truth is never stagnant and never simply accepted uncritically from an external authority. Human beings come to know Truth from constant testing and discussion, a process that can be tolerated because Truth is so powerful: “And though all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play upon the earth, so Truth be in the field. . . . Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?”

In the face of such eloquence, there is only one disappointment in Areopagitica: Milton is not willing to give the same freedom from censorship to books espousing Roman Catholicism. Milton, most Puritans, and many Englishmen saw Catholicism as tyrannical, even evil. In his journey to Italy, Milton had seen a Catholic government imprison Galileo for asserting that the earth was not the center of the universe. In England, on November 5, 1605, the Roman Catholic conspirator Guy Fawkes had come dangerously close to blowing up the king, his ministers, and Parliament with twenty barrels of gunpowder (the Gunpowder Plot). It stands to reason that a lawful society cannot tolerate what would destroy it, and the radically Protestant Milton saw Roman Catholicism as a serious threat to social order: “I mean not tolerated Popery, and open superstition, which as it extirpates all religions and civil supremacies, so itself should be extirpate, provided first that all charitable and compassionate means be used to win and regain the weak and the misled.”

In spite of this flaw in Milton’s argument, Areopagitica remains one of the most eloquent defenses of an essential social freedom and therefore an invaluable document in the history of Western society.

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