England’s Civil War

The English Civil War began in the summer of 1642 over constitutional and religious issues, pitting Parliament against royalist forces. Fears were rife of religious sectarianism and covert support for Roman Catholicism, especially after a deluge of sectarian books and pamphlets followed Parliament’s early noncensorship policy. Parliament responded in 1642 by requiring every publication to bear the name of its printer; but on June 14, 1643, Parliament went even further by requiring approval and licensing of all publications before printing, instituting a regime of prior censorship.

Milton was an ideal writer to respond to Parliament’s order. A brilliant student at St. Paul’s School in London and at Cambridge University, Milton read Greek, Latin, and Hebrew and was steeped in the Bible and the Greek and Roman classics. Urged to reply to Parliament, Milton published Areopagitica without official approval, in November, 1644. His tract’s title refers to a speech known as “Logos aeropagitikos” that the ancient Athenian Isocrates addressed to Athens’ governing council. This council, drawn from ordinary citizens, had reduced the power of the Areopagus, a council of elders named for the Athenian hill on which it met. Milton’s essay did not take Parliament to be the Areopagic council; rather, the Areopagus was the English people, whose powers had been diminished by the censorship order.

Milton’s Arguments

Many of the arguments of Milton’s essay became classics in the history of modern liberal thought, but they were not all liberal. For example, he did not champion freedom to publish all persuasions, especially Catholicism. Within limits, however, his arguments marked a giant stride on the road to freedom of expression. As demanded by the occasion, Milton cast his arguments in the context of the times. He repeatedly stressed that the practice of prior censorship had been started by the very same religious persuasion that his audience was so keen to condemn—Roman Catholicism—and had been carried even further by the hated Spanish Inquisition. To drive his point home, Milton surveyed the whole of ancient Greek, Roman, and biblical practices, using his immense erudition. He pointed out that although Greece and Rome had condemned libellous material, they had never embraced prior censorship. The Spartan lawgiver Lycurgus even invited residence by foreign poets who might soften the city’s crude manners. In the late Roman Republic, Cato the Elder had tried to have Cynic philosophers banished, but the Senate would not permit it.

Only with the Roman church after the year 800 had books been prohibited. The policy had grown stricter in Spain and Italy in the fifteenth century and had been endorsed by the Council of Trent, the conference on Catholic doctrine which had ended in 1563. By then, Milton wrote, “No book, pamphlet, or paper” could be printed unless “approved and licensed under the hands of two or three glutton friars.” To underline the evil of the policy, Milton alluded to his poignant 1638 meeting with Galileo Galilei in Florence, where the old man—broken by the Roman Inquisition for endorsing Copernicanism—was living under house arrest.

To Milton, books were not dead things, but they contained “a potency of life.” Suppressing a good book is like killing a good person, he wrote, perhaps worse: “Who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God’s image; but he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself, kills the image of God.” Suppressing books destroys stored reason and “slays an immortality rather than a life.” Truths lost may never be replaced and whole nations suffer in consequence; Protestant England seemed poised for a “second tyranny over learning.”

Milton’s Second Argument

Milton also praised study as necessary for great spiritual creation, citing Moses, Daniel, and St. Paul as masters of learning. He argued that reading impious material was not dangerous, since “to the pure all things are pure.” Bad books no more corrupt a good person than good books alone reform a bad person. The search for truth is among the highest human callings, and its practitioners should neither be discouraged and stultified nor insulted by censorship. Censors, indeed, will often be younger and less learned than the writers they judge.

More important was Milton’s emphasis on the nature of moral action and the effect that censorship has on the moral life of the individual. The essence of the moral life is choice. God gave humanity reason and the ability to choose right action as opposed to making all human behavior instinctual, requiring no choice. But censorship seeks to remove moral choice because only the censor chooses. Milton repeatedly argued that censorship treats mature adults as children, unable to exercise reason and choice.

Milton’s Third Argument

Milton’s final argument was that Parliament’s order was useless, since censorship must necessarily be imperfect. If people are to be kept from corruption, shielding them from books will not suffice alone. Their entire experience must be controlled. The moral life, by contrast, must be confronted with temptation and therefore choice: “I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue,” Milton wrote, “unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary.” Virtue that counts is virtue tested: life’s trials purify those of good character.

Censorship damps down learning and blunts the ability to reason, slowly strangling truth. Truth benefits in its struggle with falsehood, as good benefits from confrontation with evil. Good and evil cannot be separated by mere mortals. Echoing Saint Augustine, Milton argued that truth and falsehood are inextricably intertwined. Error cannot be eliminated without also removing truth. Censorship implies adherence to orthodox tradition. Far from respecting the past, Milton viewed tradition as an obstacle to furthering truth, which he argued is revealed only gradually, not all at once. Parts of the truth are encompassed by tradition, but cannot be advanced unless writers are free to depart from the past. Truth, moreover, can be anesthetized by tradition into “conforming stupidity.”

Areopagitica’s Legacy

Read by generations in Western democracies as a signal event in the history of freedom, Milton’s essay has been deeply influential. His arguments anticipated Baruch Spinoza’s demands for free expression in Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (1670), and Immanuel Kant’s admonition “dare to know” in “What Is Enlightenment?” (1784)—which also warned readers not to allow others to think for them, and which interpreted “enlightenment” as humanity’s passage from childhood to maturity. Above all, Milton’s essay influenced John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty (1859), which consciously adopted various of its arguments, carrying them even further than the poet intended in pleading for freedom of action as well as of thought and expression.

Areopagitica was a significant event in the history of the modern West because it established the idea that censorship attacks elemental human liberties, especially the free use of one’s mind. “Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely, according to conscience, above all liberties,” Milton wrote. His teaching advanced the notion that free inquiry—the search for truth—is an essential well-spring of humanity’s spiritual life.


Hanford, James Holly, and James G. Taaffe. A Milton Handbook. 5th ed. New York: Prentice-Hall, 1970. A wealth of information about Milton’s life, works, and critical reputation. Offers synopses of individual works and comprehensive critical assessments. An excellent beginning source for the general reader and student.

Kranidas, Thomas. “Polarity and Structure in Milton’s Areopagitica.” English Literary Renaissance 14 (1984): 175-190. A careful analysis of style and argumentative prose, especially informative on Milton’s use of sources. Views Milton as a champion of Greek intellectual freedom, unlike the English prelates associated with historical religious repression and with the Roman Catholic Church.

Milton, John. The Prose of John Milton. Selected and edited by J. Max Patrick. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1967. Includes the complete text of Areopagitica. Extensive introduction to the tract provides a critical analysis, an evaluation of previous scholarship, and a useful bibliography. Heavily annotated.

Whitaker, Juanita. “ ‘The Wars of Truth’: Wisdom and Strength in Areopagitica.” Milton Studies 9 (1986): 7-38. Traces the themes of wisdom and strength in the tract and argues that Milton relates both to books, a principal metaphor of the argument. By promoting intellectual freedom, books contribute to political and civic strength.

Wolfe, Don M. Milton in the Puritan Revolution. New York: Humanities Press, 1963. Chapter on Areopagitica explains Milton’s lines of argument. Places the work within its revolutionary milieu; compares Milton’s pamphlet to other contemporary pamphlets advocating liberty.