John Milton Publishes Areopagitica


”Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.”

Hello, and welcome to On This Date, Some Years Back. Today is November 23, 2017, and on this date, 373 years back, in 1644, John Milton published Areopagitica, a polemic arguing against censorship.

John Milton is most famous for his magnum opus, Paradise Lost, but was a highly influential thinker before he ever wrote that. In 1644, Milton was 36 years old, and was disturbed by the passage of the Licensing Order of 1643, a law which required authors to have works approved by the English government prior to publication. He had previously been censored, and disallowed, from publishing a series of defenses for divorce, which was unpopular with the church at the time, but Milton (a very pious man) found himself on the wrong side of the issue nevertheless.

This all happened set against the backdrop of the English Civil War, which saw the deeply unpopular and autocratic King Charles I fought off Parliamentarians (led by Oliver Cromwell and a host of other noblemen) for control of the British Isles. Before the war began, Parliament abolished the Star Chamber, the government censors, and failed to fill the void. It wasn’t a purposeful move toward freedom of speech and the press, but merely a bureaucratic mistake. As a result of the publishing laws growing more lax, publishing in England exploded. And given the state of things in the land, very many works were printed that painted the English government and monarchy in a negative light.

That’s why the Licensing Act was passed in 1643. It was an attempt to rein in the writers to where they had been when the Star Chamber was still active.

Having had a taste of freedom, though, many writers strongly denounced the new rules and crackdowns. And so Milton penned the Areopagitica. The title comes from a speech delivered by the Ancient Greek orator Isocrates, in reference to the Areopagus hill, a legendary location in Ancient Athens. In the piece, Milton argued the benefits of free speech and thought often relying on Biblical passages to support and bolster his case. In a nutshell, he held that in order for mankind to truly be responsible for its actions, an open discussion must occur wherein all the available options are presented, and the proper choice is made. Essentially, government censorship was like an overbearing parent sheltering a child. The child can’t make the right decisions if it is never allowed a chance to decide anything.

Despite his well-founded and reasoned argument, the Areopagitica had little effect on the status quo. In fact, the censorship got worse before it ever got better. Eventually, though, in 1695, England press gained freedom to publish works without government censorship. Even though Areopagitica didn’t have an immediate effect, it has survived the test of time, and continues to be a relevant document to this day. In the centuries since it was written, it has influenced thinkers and made its way into other documents promoting a free press. In America, the main entrance to the Main Reading Room of the New York Public Library is adorned with a passage from it. Likewise, there have been several Supreme Court First Amendment cases where the Areopagitica was cited in the decision. It is that influential.

Thanks for reading, and be sure to check back tomorrow for a shocking event that a numb country wasn’t able to react appropriately to.

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