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...
(The entire section is 1409 words.)