No one knows why John Milton’s first wife left him in 1642 after only a few weeks of marriage. Perhaps the fact that the 33-year-old writer was twice Mary Powell’s age had something to do with it. Whatever the details, that bad match may have planted the seeds for the best prose work of Milton’s career.
Today, Milton is best known for “Paradise Lost”. Long before writing this epic poem about the fall of man, however, he was a polemicist who participated in the political controversies of his time. One of them involved the rules of marriage, and shortly after his separation from Mary, Milton wrote several tracts in favor of allowing a divorce on the grounds of incompatibility. This idea shocked many Puritans, and one clergyman said Milton’s pamphlets “deserved to be burned”.
Then came a new controversy, not about burning books but about banning them. A bill in Parliament required printers to receive government approval for their publications, partly to guard against the supposed heresies of Milton and his fellow authors. For Milton, this licensing system was an illiberal outrage – and he said so in “Areopagitica”, which is now widely considered the world’s first significant essay in the defense of free speech.
The 1644 treaty takes its particular name from the Areopagus, a rocky mountain just below the Acropolis in Athens. The ancient Greeks gathered here for debates and trials. It is also the site of Paul’s sermon in Acts 17. Milton presented his essay in the form of a speech, although he never delivered it. That’s probably just as well: with nearly 18,000 words, it would have taken about three hours.
“Give me freedom to know, to express and to argue freely according to conscience, above all freedoms,” Milton wrote, in a line that has echoed through the centuries. Another famous passage is etched above the entrance to the New York Public Library’s Reading Room: “A good Booke is the precious blood of a master spirit, embalmed and valued purposely for a life beyond.” of life. “It may sound like outlandish nonsense, but Milton was deadly serious. He equated censorship with murder: “Whoever kills a Man kills a reasonable creature, Image of God; but he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself, kills the image of God.
Amid rousing rhetoric and lofty abstractions, “Areopagitica” offers a compelling argument for the social value of freedom of expression: “Where there is much desire to learn, there will necessarily be much discussion, much writing, much opinion; for opinion in good men is only knowledge in the making. To restrict it, wrote Milton, “will have the effect of discouraging all learning and stopping the Truth.” Even “bad books” have a role, because “to a discreet and judicious reader they serve in many ways to discover, to refute, to warn and to illustrate. Their challenges promote the development of morality: “I do not I cannot praise a fleeting and cloistered virtue, untrained and breathless, which never goes out and sees its adversary.
Milton also imagined “ridiculous and weary” efforts to extend the bans beyond printers and scoffed at them. “No music is to be heard,” he wrote, “but what is serious.” Beware even a sanctioned song that has a good rhythm: “There must be license dancers, that no gesture, movement or behavior be taught to our young people but what, by their allocation, must be considered as honest.” And be careful what you wear: “Our clothes should also be referred to the license of some more sober master builders to see them cut in less wanton attire.” A censor ultimately acts in futility, he wrote, like “that gallant man who thought he was crushing the crows by closing his Parkgate.”
A minor curiosity in “Areopagitica” is Milton’s brief mention of visiting “the famous Galileo grown old, a prisoner of the Inquisition, for having thought of astronomy differently than the Franciscan and Dominican licentiates thought”. It is the only record of a meeting between the greatest scribe of the time and its greatest scientist, and it is said to have occurred when Milton visited Italy in 1638. The reference to Catholic orders also highlights a glaring inconsistency in Milton’s thinking, for his hatred of persecution could not overcome his hatred of Catholicism. At the end of “Areopagitica”, Milton assured his fellow Protestants that his view of free speech had limits: “I mean untolerated popery and open superstition.”
Modern readers accustomed to the First Amendment and its safeguards tend to agree with the broad themes of “Areopagitica”. Milton’s contemporaries, however, were unconvinced: Parliament passed his Licensing Act, which remained in effect until 1695. In the long run, of course, “Areopagitica” and its principles prevailed.
In other news, the Miltons have reconciled. After three years apart, Mary returned to John. Their union went on to produce four children, but not before giving birth to a pivotal document in the history of freedom.
-M. Miller is director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College.
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