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...
John Milton’s classic defense of freedom of the press and religious liberty is his response to an ordinance of Parliament of June 14, 1643, requiring among other things that all books receive an official censor’s approval prior to publication. Milton sees this act as a renewal of Stuart tyranny and of the Star Chamber decree of 1637, which had also denied freedom of the press. When this decree was abolished in 1640, a flood of political and religious pamphlets had followed, and for three years freedom of the press had prevailed in England. Milton views such intellectual and polemic activity as being healthy for the nation, and he deeply regrets the renewal of state control over printing. In his view, such control reflects the growing tendency of the Presbyterian Parliament to impose uniform religious practices on England and to oppose all political opposition. Milton’s own Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce (1643), which supported more liberal divorce laws, had been printed without permission, and Parliament had sought to discover the author of this unlicensed work. In form, Areopagitica is a classical oration addressed to Parliament although it is not intended for oral delivery. Milton draws the title from a speech of Isocrates to the court of the Areopagus in Athens.
In the long opening section, Milton establishes a favorable view of the author and of the Parliament he is addressing. He characterizes Parliament as a strong defender of liberty that has already restored much lost freedom to the nation. Liberty, he adds, can exist only when complaints can be aired openly and considered wisely. He writes to Parliament equally as a passionate lover of liberty and as an ardent supporter of Parliament; beyond that he writes as a learned scholar representing the learned individuals of England.
The first argument in favor of freedom of the press begins with a long historical survey of this issue. Milton demonstrates that Greece and Rome valued this freedom highly and recognized atheism and libel as the only two reasons for censorship. Under the Christian Roman emperors, moreover, only following transcription were books examined, accepted, or judged heretical. Only with the Council of Trent and the Inquisition, “the most antichristian council and the most tyrannous inquisition that ever inquired,” were books no more “as freely admitted into the world as any other birth.” Milton points out to Parliament that the sources of its legislation are the tyrannical Council of Trent and the forces of tyranny that Parliament itself had once overthrown in the name of liberty.
Those who agree that the source of censorship is bad may still insist that it produces good results. To this contention Milton replies with his second major argument, that moral evil or good is a matter of rational choice and that virtue rests in temperance, in choosing between good and evil. God, Milton argues, left to the individual the exercise of a power of choice so that those who can distinguish between good and evil and who abstain from evil are the true Christians. Real virtue must face trial, must constantly be tested; to prohibit books, therefore, is to prohibit the testing of virtue and the confirming of truth. Censorship denies the efficacy of reason. To know evil through books and to reject it are necessary conditions for human virtue.
Proponents of censorship argue that circulating evil books produces...