Milton’s Areopagitica is among the most eloquent protests against prior censorship ever written. Its context lies in the religious politics of seventeenth century England, where the religious cross-currents of the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation inflamed passions, as the French Revolution and Soviet communism did in later centuries.
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...
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