Areopagitica by John Milton: Feb.Literary Movement Challenge



Areopagitica; a speech of Mr John Milton for the Liberty of Unlicenc’d Printing, to the Parliament of England 1664

The speech was named after Areopagitikos, a speech written by the Athenian orator, Isocrates, in the 5th century BC.

‘Give me the liberty to know, to utter and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties’ John Milton

‘And though all the windes of doctrin were let loose to play upon the earth, so Truth be in the field, we do injuriously by licencing and prohibiting to misdoubt her strength. Let her and falsehood grapple;who ever knew Truth put to the wors, in a free and open encounter.’ John Milton

(of course freedom of speech is not so cut and dried nowadays but you get the drift:)

England was engaged in Civil War, deposing and executing King Charles I.  When the fight was against the King, the Protestants had opposed censorship laws dictated by the King, but as so often happens, as soon as they were in power they issued their own set of laws. They were trying to banish writings in favour of the King and his family, the idea of a king, and other more extreme elements of religion.

John Milton begins by complimenting them on overcoming the tyranny of the King and tells them he was penning the speech as a matter of civil liberty and loyalty, as he wished to speak fairly and truthfully not to flatter and deceive.

He goes on to point out the ancient Greeks and Romans had never practiced censorship, if a text was deemed so bad, it could be banned or burnt, but after publication not before. The Greeks and Romans were held in great respect by the ‘civilized world’ at the time, so this had a bearing on his arguments.

Milton then pointed out to the Protestant rulers of the land that the first group of people to institute censorship was the Roman Catholic Inquisition – good move that.

His argument continues to show how banning the printing of a  ‘bad’ book, and the evil ideas within, will fail to suppress the ‘infection’ caused by them. There was still word of mouth. To suppress all infection and corruption one would need to ban all pastimes and social recreations and interactions. By allowing men to read would allow them to judge for themselves and learn what is evil and to be avoided, because God had allowed men to have free will and a conscience.

Milton desired a country open to truth and and understanding and not governed by an arbitrary standard of good taste and judgment. He is arguing that censorship in this fashion is thwarting God’s will, insulting Him almost, and leaving the door wide open to worse evils.

Of course John Milton being human has his own,  ‘it’s okay to ban these’ –

‘I mean not tolerated Popery, and open superstition,which as it extirpats all religious and civil supremacies, so itsef be extirpat’

Milton was just a little ahead of his times, he had, prior to Areopagitica, tried to persuade Parliament to change the laws on divorce, and been censored himself. He was a man of his times but with a great feeling for the individual rights. The Puritans did respond in 1643-1550 and allowed divorce on the grounds of infidelity and abandonment. A great achievement for the time.

Milton was one of the great Renaissance men, a great poet, defender of human rights and a thinker par excellence.

Although Milton was unsuccessful in changing the law on press censorship at the time, freedom of the presses was  achieved in 1695 because of it’s influence. His speech has been praised and held in honour through the ages. Transporting itself around the world. America has imbued it in their constitution and it has been cited by the Supreme Court there on numerous occasion.

It was and is a very important speech, and has influenced our lives and underpinned out desire for free speech for hundreds of years. Although the reading of the 50 pages was a difficult task, I am not fluent in the old ways of writing, my knowledge of ancient Greece and Rome is slender, I have always enjoyed his way with words and this was no exception. I have often heard about this speech and now I have read it. so smiling all around:)


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