Milton and Free Speech

The Areopagitica's Argument Against Censorship

John Milton is a poet and man of letters who lived during the time of Oliver Cromwell in the 17th Century in England. One of his most famous and lasting works of writing is the Areopagitica, a document he drafted in defense of unlicensed printing at a time when the British government and Parliament sought to restrain such privileges.

Areopagitica was published 23 November 1644, at the height of the English Civil War. The title comes from Aeropagitikos, a speech written by Isocrates, an Athenian orator, in the 5th century BC, to restore the council of Areopagus, named for a hill in Athens. Milton’s version of the Areopagitica was delivered via pamphlet, in defiance of a publication censorship that was also what he argued against in the pamphlet itself. Milton argued against the Licensing Order of 1643, despite previous support of the Presbyterians in Parliament informed by the author’s own Protestantism.

The Licensing Order required authors to have a licence approved by the government before their work could be published, and the issue was a personal one for Milton because he had been previously censored in attempts to publish pamphlets defending divorce. Areopagitica uses biblical and classical references as support for Milton’s argument, so Milton clearly understood his audience: the Calvinist Presbyterians in Parliament at that time.

Now that a little historical context has been set for the time and place in which Areopagitica was published, this article will go into greater detail about the main arguments posited by the pamphlet for the rights of individuals when it comes to freedom of expression and the potential for suppression by ruling governments.

Areopagitica and Freedom of Expression

Milton's Criticism of British Parliament

Even before he begins his argument proper in Areopagitica, Milton defends the very idea of writing something like the pamphlet, stating that to bring forth complaints before Parliament is a matter of civil liberty and a citizen’s duty. He also makes the case that Parliament should listen to “the voice of reason” and be “willing to repeal any Act” for the sake of truth and justice.

Milton provides historical evidence that Ancient Greece and Rome did not adhere to the practice of licensing. In some cases, libelous writings were burnt and their authors punished, but it was after production that these texts were rejected rather than a priori censure. Milton argues that a text should first be “examined, refuted, and condemned” rather than prohibited before its ideas have even been expressed. Milton points out that licensing was first instituted by the Catholics with the Inquisition, again appealing to the Protestants in Parliament.

Regarding the proper use of books, Milton argues that being a learned individual involves reading all types of books, citing Moses, David, and Paul as strong examples of such individuals. All types of books would necessarily include even the “bad” or heretical books, because, if nothing else, we can learn from them through negative example. Milton believes that God endowed every person with the conscience to judge ideas for themselves, so the ideas in a text should be rejected by the reader’s own critical thought process, not by a licensing authority. Also, the mind is not corrupted simply by encountering falsehood. Milton points out that encountering falsehood can actually lead to virtuous action, such as how St. Paul’s converts had privately and voluntarily burned Ephesian books considered to be "magic."

Next, Milton argues that Parliament’s licensing order will fail in its purpose to suppress scandalous, seditious, and libellous books: “This order of licensing conduces nothing to the end for which it was framed." The order was meant to rectify manners by preventing the spread of an “infection” caused by bad books. Milton argues that contrary to the intended result, the licensing order will not prevent a fool from being a fool, but only serve to artificially limit the potential wisdom that could be accrued through censored texts. In Milton’s view, even the Bible itself contained offensive descriptions of blasphemy and wicked men, and would be subject to censure. The “infection” of spread knowledge would not stopped by the censorship of publications, anyway, since information can still be taught through word of mouth or otherwise. The licensing of books, then, cannot possibly prevent societal corruption. “If we think to regulate printing, thereby to rectify manners, we must [also] regulate all recreations and pastimes...” Finally, Milton also points out that if there are even licensors fit for making these judgments (which he doesn’t believe there are anyway), then the possibility of error in licensing books is still great, and the amount of time the job would take is impractical.

Milton argues for the potential of abuse and neglect that the Licensing Order would be prone to, noting licensing is “a the dignity of Learning.” This is because many authors will produce a written work with genuinely good intentions only to have it censored by what amounts to a subjective, arbitrary judgment of the licenser. Milton also thinks that England needs to be open to truth and understanding, which should not be monopolized by the government’s standards. Faith and knowledge need exercise, but this Order will lead to conformity and laziness. Licensing will hinder discovery of truth by the government’s prejudice and custom, because there will always be more truth to be found that we do not yet know of. Additionally, Milton thinks that licensing could potentially hinder God’s plans, since it gives the licenser the power to silence others.

In conclusion, although Milton recognizes individual right, he is not completely libertarian in the Areopagitica, arguing that having at least a printer's name (and also perhaps an author's name) inscribed in published books, will allow the government to prosecute those who publish libellous material. Milton also has his own limits to tolerance, drawing a personal line at putting up with popery and open superstition.

In our next article, we will more closely evaluate Milton's arguments in Areopagitica, as well as see how well these arguments have stood the test of time.