Themes

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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 329

John Milton's Areopagitica's central theme is a philosophical opposition to censorship. Milton's purpose is best summed up in his own words: "Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties." This piece was written in response to Parliament passing a law which refused the publication of any material until it was approved by an official censor. This would be done to prevent heretical or offensive material from seeing the light of day. Milton's writing argues this is detrimental to society at large, since it limits learning opportunities and free thought.

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While a religious man, Milton thinks one essential component of strengthening one's soul against heretical ideas is being familiar with those ideas (so as to be better able to refute them). He points to the biblical examples of Moses, Daniel, and Paul as men who were learned in the pagan writings of the Egyptians, Greeks, and Caldeans. They were not corrupted by learning pagan ideas. Milton uses Paul in particular as an example, since Paul "thought it no defilement to insert into holy Scripture the sentences of three Greek Poets." Their reading widely made them better holy men, in Milton's eyes. To discourage such eclectic reading would even undermine scholars and intellectual culture.

Milton also observes that the enemies of the early Christians were more on board with Christians being prohibited to read pagan studies, claiming "they wound us with our own weapons, and with our owne arts and sciences they overcome us." Milton believes that learning different ideas, even dangerous ones, can only serve to sharpen the mind. The only kind of writing Milton views as unworthy of toleration is that sympathetic to Roman Catholicism, which he viewed as truly evil. For a modern audience, this would be the only significant flaw in his argument, but otherwise, the central theme of the work is that censorship only hurts the people the censor board claims it is trying to protect.

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