Milton and Freedom of Expression

views updated


The renowned poet John Milton's Areopagitica, written in 1644, is the earliest extended essay on the freedom of the press that continues to be read today. The essay was prompted by a decision of Parliament to reinstate the practice of licensing all books and pamphlets. This occurred a few short years after the institutions of crown censorship, including the infamous Star Chamber, had been abolished as part of a general challenge by the legislature to royal authority. In the interim after the abolition of crown licensing, as a civil war was raging, the leaders of Parliament became distressed both by the efflorescence of radical religious ideas circulating in the streets and by the effectiveness of propaganda then being disseminated by forces loyal to the King. Milton, along with many of his Puritan brethren, was disillusioned by this return to centralized control over thought. He implored the Parliament to have more faith in the English people by trusting them with unlicensed books and pamphlets.

Milton's argument is divided into four parts. First, he asserts that licensing writings is a relatively recent practice, developed by the Roman Catholic Church to thwart the Protestant Reformation and reaching its logical culmination in the Spanish Inquisition. Enlightened regimes tracing back to ancient Greece and Rome eschewed the policy of licensing, Milton claims. In identifying the regulation of speech with the Catholic Church, Milton appealed to the sympathies of his overwhelmingly Protestant audience, and to their widely held fears that the Stuart monarchs planned to return England to the Catholic fold.

Second, Milton argues that exposure to evil is necessary to knowledge of the good. He notes how the wisest thinkers throughout history have made it a point to study the systems of thought they were ultimately to reject and refute. "I cannot praise," says Milton, "a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary.…" The theologicalnotion of temptation figures prominently in this part of the argument. "[T]hat which purifies us is trial," Milton asserts, "and trial is by what is contrary."

The third section of the essay develops the claim that as a practical matter the licensing of books and pamphlets will not achieve its intended objectives. It is not easy, Milton observes, to determine which writings are truly evil and dangerous. What is to be done, for example, with "books which are partly useful and excellent, partly culpable and pernicious.…" If all such works were denied publication, the "commonwealth of learning" would be badly damaged. To evaluate writings in a discerning manner, a licenser "had need to be a man above the common measure, both studious, learned, and judicious.…" But this sort of work will not attract such a person, for "there cannot be a more tedious and unpleasing journey-work, a greater loss of time levied upon his head, than to be made the perpetual reader of unchosen books and pamphlets, oft times huge volumes." Given the drudgery of the job, "we may easily foresee what kind of licensers we are to expect hereafter, either ignorant, imperious, and remiss, or basely pecuniary."

Moreover, even if censors were discerning, evil writings would circulate underground. And evil ideas can be spread by means other than books and pamphlets. Milton likens the futile project of licensing to "the exploit of that gallant man who thought to pound up the crows by shutting his park gate."

The fourth part of the argument of Areopagitica is the longest and the most impassioned. Here Milton waxes poetic regarding the harm that censorship does to the spirit of inquiry, both religious and political. It is an assault on the dignity of a writer, he says, to distrust him as though he were a truant schoolboy, to make him "trudge to his leave-giver" to obtain permission to publish. This demeaning distrust extends also to the general population of readers. If we "dare not trust them with an English pamphlet," says Milton, "what do we but censure them for a giddy, vicious, and ungrounded people, in such a sick and weak state of faith and discretion, as to be able to take nothing down but through pipe of a licenser."

One crucial consequence of the distrust implicit in licensing is its devastating effect on the general level of spiritual and political energy. Images of sloth and torpor abound in the essay. "[O]ur faith and knowledge thrives by exercise," Milton contends. Truth can be compared to "a streaming fountain; if her waters flow not in perpetual progression, they sicken into a muddy pool of conformity and tradition." The aim of censorship is a debilitating stasis, "a dull ease and cessation of our knowledge," an "obedient unanimity," the "forced and outward union of cold and neutral and inwardly divided minds."

Milton's regard for dynamism and ferment caused him to express a much higher opinion of the religious radicals of his day than was common, even among other proponents of toleration. Parliament's return to the practice of licensing had been prompted in part by the outpouring of bizarre, extravagant versions of Protestant theology that had greeted the lifting of crown censorship. This caught the mainstream Protestants who controlled Parliament by surprise and alarmed them greatly because they took seriously the notion of blasphemy and considered the stakes to be nothing less than divine favor at a pivotal moment in the history of both the Reformation and the English nation. Milton, in contrast, viewed the radical sectarians as a source of energy and potential revelation, despite his own rather more conventional theological views. "Where there is much desire to learn, there of necessity will be much arguing, much writing, many opinions; for opinion in good men is but knowledge in the making." Parliament's fear of heresy, he says, is exactly the wrong theological response: "Under these fantastic terrors of sect and schism, we wrong the earnest and zealous thirst after knowledge and understanding which God hath stirred up in this city. What some lament of, we rather should rejoice at, should rather praise this pious forwardness among men, to reassume the ill-deputed care of their religion into their own hands again."

Milton's disdain for censorship derived in part from his belief that each person must take responsibility for his religious convictions and must form those convictions by an active process of inquiry. Also central to his position was his belief that the capacity of mortals to know the truth is very limited such that human laws designed to protect the known truth from heretical opinions are more likely to preserve error than to serve their intended purposes. Milton considered the search for truth to be never-ending until the Second Coming, and a matter of slow, fitful, halting progress. "[H]e who thinks we are to pitch our tent here, and have attained the utmost prospect of reformation that the mortal glass wherein we contemplate can show us, till we come to beatific vision, that man by this very opinion declares that he is yet far short of truth." The problem of false appearances figures prominently in Milton's argument. Truth, he asserts, "may have more shapes than one." Its "first appearance to our eyes, bleared and dimmed with prejudice and custom, is more unsightly and unplausible than many errors, even as the person is of many a great man slight and contemptible to see to."

Milton's understanding of the relationship between the freedom of speech and the search for truth was informed not only by his notions of personal responsibility and human incapacity but also by his belief in divine providence. The circulation of heretical ideas is not as threatening as the proponents of censorship suppose because just when "false teachers" are "busiest in seducing" the populace, "God then raises to his own work men of rare abilities, and more than common industry" to revise previous errors and "go on some new enlightened steps in the discovery of truth." "For who knows not that truth is strong, next to the Almighty?" Because of divine providence, "though all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play upon the earth, so Truth be in the field, we do injuriously by licensing and prohibiting, to misdoubt her strength. Let her and falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?"

As much as he insisted upon personal responsibility and struggle in matters of faith, and as impressed as he was with the limitations of human knowledge, Milton nevertheless explicitly excepted Roman Catholics from his argument for toleration. "I mean not tolerated popery," he says, "and open superstition, which, as it extirpates all religions and civil supremacies, so itself should be extirpate.…" Defenders of Milton have observed that almost all his fellow proponents of toleration made this exception and that the fear of Catholic military designs dominated the politics of Stuart England, not least the political struggle during the civil war between the Parliament and the Crown for the allegiance of the general populace. Had Milton urged the toleration of Catholics he would have lost credibility with his intended Parliamentary audience. Milton's critics point out that an argument that emphasizes the need to confront supposed falsehood would seem to require the toleration of the most feared and powerful "supposed falsehood" of the day.

theAreopagitica is noteworthy as a rich repository of images and characterizations pertaining to censorship and free inquiry, and as an imaginative development of the point that there is positive value in grappling with ideas that may turn out to be false and evil. Interpretative debates persist regarding whether Milton's argument is limited solely to controversies over the regulation of religious speech, whether it constitutes only a case against the prior licensing of speech with no implications for disputes over other forms of control such as criminal penalties, and whether the author's refusal to tolerate Catholics renders his plea for free expression incoherent and/or hypocritical. The extent to which Milton's analysis was informed by his deep faith in divine providence and by the particular view of truth he derived therefrom raises questions regarding how much the Areopagitica has to offer the modern age. However these matters are resolved, Milton's observations about the importance of maintaining energy and his penetrating satirical comments about the dynamics and pretensions of censorship preserve the continuing value of the essay.

Vincent Blasi


Barker, Arthur 1942 Milton and the Puritan Dilemma. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Haller, William 1955 Liberty and Reformation in the Puritan Revolution. New York: Columbia University Press.

Kolbrener, William 1997 Milton's Warring Angels. Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press.

Loewenstein, David 1992 Milton and the Drama of History. Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press.

Smith, Nigel 1990 Areopagitica: Voicing Contexts 1643–45. In David Loewenstein and James Turner, eds., Politics, Poetics, and Hermeneutics in Milton's Prose. Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press.

About this article

Milton and Freedom of Expression

Updated About content Print Article