Areopagitica by John Milton

It has been said of "Areopagitica, a Speech of Mr. John Milton for the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing to the Parliament of England," that it is "the piece that lies more surely than any other at the very heart of our prose literature." In 1637 the Star Chamber issued a decree regulating the printing, circulation, and importation of books, and on June 14, 1643, the Long Parliament published an order in the same spirit. Milton felt that what had been done in the days of repression and tyranny was being continued under the reign of liberty, and that the time for protest had arrived. Liberty was the central principle of Milton's faith. He regarded it as the most potent, beneficent, and sacred factor in human progress; and he applied it all round—to literature, religion, marriage, and civic life. His "Areopagitica," published in November, 1644, was an application of the principle to literature that has remained unanswered. The word "Areopagitica" is derived from Areopagus, the celebrated open-air court in Athens, whose decision in matters of public importance was regarded as final.

I.—The Right of Appeal

It is not a liberty which we can hope, that no grievance ever should arise in the Commonwealth—that let no man in this world expect; but when complaints are freely heard, deeply considered, and speedily reformed, then is the utmost bound of civil liberty attained that wise men look for. To which we are already in good part arrived; and this will be attributed first to the strong assistance of God our Deliverer, next to your faithful guidance and undaunted wisdom, Lords and Commons of England.

If I should thus far presume upon the meek demeanour of your civil and gentle greatness, Lords and Commons, as to gainsay what your published Order hath directly said, I might defend myself with ease out of those ages to whose polite wisdom and letters we owe that we are not yet Goths and Jutlanders. Such honour was done in those days to men who professed the study of wisdom and eloquence that cities and signiories heard them gladly, and with great respect, if they had aught in public to admonish the state.

When your prudent spirit acknowledges and obeys the voice of reason from what quarter soever it be heard speaking, I know not what should withhold me from presenting ye with a fit instance wherein to show, both that love of truth which ye eminently profess, and that uprightness of your judgment which is not wont to be partial to yourselves, by judging over again that Order which ye have ordained to regulate printing: that no book, pamphlet, or paper shall be henceforth printed unless the same be first approved and licensed by such, or at least one of such, as shall be thereto appointed.

I shall lay before ye, first, that the inventors of licensing books be those whom ye will be loth to own; next, what is to be thought in general of reading, whatever sort the books be; last, that it will be primely to the discouragement of all learning and the stop of truth. I deny not that it is of greatest concernment in the Church and commonwealth to have a vigilant eye how books demean themselves, as well as men. For books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are.

Nay, they do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them. I know they are as lively and as vigorously productive as those fabulous dragon's teeth; and, being sown up and down, may chance to spring up armed men. And yet, on the other hand, unless wariness be used, as good almost kill a man as kill a good book. Many a man lives a burden to the earth; but a good book is the precious life-blood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to life beyond life. 'Tis true, no age can restore a life, whereof perhaps there is no great loss; and revolutions of ages do not oft recover the loss of a rejected truth, for the want of which whole nations fare the worse.

We should be wary, therefore, how we spill that seasoned life of man, preserved and stored up in books, since we see a kind of homicide may be thus committed, that strikes at that ethereal essence, the breath of reason itself, and slays an immortality rather than a life.

II.—The History of Repression

In Athens, where books and wits were ever busier than in any other part of Greece, I find but only two sorts of writings which the magistrate cared to take notice of—those either blasphemous and atheistical, or libellous. The Romans, for many ages trained up only to a military roughness, knew of learning little. There libellous authors were quickly cast into prison, and the like severity was used if aught were impiously written. Except in these two points, how the world went in books the magistrate kept no reckoning.

By the time the emperors were become Christians, the books of those whom they took to be grand heretics were examined, refuted, and condemned in the general councils, and not till then were prohibited.

As for the writings of heathen authors, unless they were plain invectives against Christianity, they met with no interdict that can be cited till about the year 400. The primitive councils and bishops were wont only to declare what books were not commendable, passing no further till after the year 800, after which time the popes of Rome extended their dominion over men's eyes, as they had before over their judgments, burning and prohibiting to be read what they fancied not, till Martin V. by his Bull not only prohibited, but was the first that excommunicated the reading of heretical books; for about that time Wickliffe and Huss, growing terrible, drove the papal court to a stricter policy of prohibiting. To fill up the measure of encroachment, their last invention was to ordain that no book, pamphlet, or paper should be printed (as if St. Peter had bequeathed them the keys of the press also out of Paradise), unless it were approved and licensed under the hands of two or three glutton friars.

Not from any ancient state or polity or church, nor by any statute left us by our ancestors, but from the most tyrannous Inquisition have ye this book-licensing. Till then books were as freely admitted into the world as any other birth. No envious Juno sat cross-legged over the nativity of any man's intellectual offspring. That ye like not now these most certain authors of this licensing Order, all men who know the integrity of your actions will clear ye readily.

III.—The Futility of Prohibition

But some will say, "What though the inventors were bad, the thing, for all that, may be good?" It may be so, yet I am of those who believe it will be a harder alchemy than Lullius ever knew to sublimate any good use out of such an invention.

Good and evil in the field of this world grow up together almost inseparably. As the state of man now is, what wisdom can there be to choose, what continence to forbear, without the knowledge of evil? I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race, where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat. That which purifies us is trial, and trial is by what is contrary. And how can we more safely, and with less danger scout into the regions of sin and falsity than by reading all manner of tractates and hearing all manner of reason? And this is the benefit which may be had of books promiscuously read.

'Tis next alleged we must not expose ourselves to temptations without necessity, and next to that, not employ our time in vain things. To both these objections one answer will serve—that to all men such books are not temptations, nor vanities, but useful drugs and materials wherewith to temper and compose effective and strong medicines. The rest, as children and childish men, who have not the art to qualify and prepare these working minerals, well may be exhorted to forbear, but hindered forcibly they cannot be by all the licensing that sainted Inquisition could ever yet contrive.

This Order of licensing conduces nothing to the end for which it was framed. If we think to regulate printing, thereby to rectify manners, we must regulate all recreations and pastimes, all that is delightful to man. No music must be heard, no song be set or sung, but what is grave and Doric. There must be licensing dancers, that no gesture, motion, or deportment be taught our youth but what by their allowance shall be thought honest. Our garments, also, should be referred to the licensing of some more sober workmasters to see them cut into a less wanton garb. Who shall regulate all the mixed conversation of our youth? Who shall still appoint what shall be discoursed, what presumed, and no further? Lastly, who shall forbid and separate all idle resort, all evil company? If every action which is good or evil in man at ripe years were to be under pittance and prescription and compulsion, what were virtue but a name?

When God gave Adam reason, he gave him reason to choose, for reason is but choosing. Wherefore did he create passions within us, pleasures round about us, but that these rightly tempered are the very ingredients of virtue?

Why should we then affect a rigour contrary to the manner of God and of nature, by abridging or scanting those means which books freely permitted are both to the trial of virtue and the exercise of truth?

IV.—An Indignity to Learning

I lastly proceed from the no good it can do to the manifest hurt it causes in being, first, the greatest discouragement and affront that can be offered to learning and to learned men. If ye be loth to dishearten utterly and discontent the free and ingenuous sort of such as were born to study, and love learning for itself, not for lucre or any other end but the service of God and of truth, and perhaps that lasting fame and perpetuity of praise which God and good men have consented shall be the reward of those whose published labours advance the good of mankind, then know that so far to distrust the judgment and the honesty of one who hath but a common repute in learning, and never yet offended, as not to count him fit to print his mind without a tutor and examiner, is the greatest displeasure and indignity to a free and knowing spirit that can be put upon him.

When a man writes to the world he summons up all his reason and deliberation to assist him; he searches, meditates, is industrious, and likely consults and confers with his judicious friends. If in this, the most consummate act of his fidelity and ripeness, no years, no industry, no former proof of his abilities can bring him to that state of maturity as not to be still mistrusted and suspected, unless he carry all his considerate diligence to the hasty view of an unleisured licenser, perhaps much his younger, perhaps far his inferior in judgment, perhaps one who never knew the labour of book-writing, and if he be not repulsed or slighted, must appear in print with his censor's hand on the back of his title, to be his bail and surety that he is no idiot or seducer, it cannot be but a dishonour and derogation to the author, to the book, to the privilege and dignity of learning.

 And, further, to me it seems an undervaluing and vilifying of the whole nation. I cannot set so light by all the invention, the art, the wit, the grave and solid judgment which is in England, as that it can be comprehended in any twenty capacities how good soever, much less that it should not pass except their superintendence be over it, except it be sifted and strained with their strainers, that it should be uncurrent without their manual stamp. Truth and understanding are not such wares as to be monopolised and traded in by tickets and statutes and standards.

Lords and Commons of England, consider what nation it is whereof ye are, and whereof ye are the governors—a nation not slow and dull, but of a quick, ingenious and piercing spirit, acute to invent, subtle and sinewy to discourse, not beneath the reach of any point the highest that human capacity can soar to. Is it for nothing that the grave and frugal Transylvanian sends out yearly from as far as the mountainous borders of Russia, and beyond the Hercynian wilderness, not their youth, but their staid men, to learn our language and our theologic arts? By all concurrence of signs, and by the general instinct of holy and devout men, God is decreeing to begin some new and great period in His Church, even to the reforming of Reformation itself. What does He, then, but reveal Himself to His servants, and as His manner is, first to His Englishmen?

Behold now this vast city—a city of refuge, the mansion house of liberty, encompassed and surrounded with His protection. The shop of war hath not there more anvils and hammers waking to fashion out the plates and instruments of armed justice in defence of beleaguered truth than there be pens and heads there, sitting by their studious lamps, musing, searching, revolving new notions and ideas wherewith to present, as with their homage and their fealty, the approaching Reformation; others as fast reading, trying all things, assenting to the force of reason and convincement. What could a man require more from a nation so pliant and so prone to seek after knowledge? 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. A little generous prudence, a little forbearance of one another, and some grain of charity might win all these diligencies to join and unite in one general search after truth, could we but forego this prelatical tradition of crowding free consciences and Christian liberties into canons and precepts of men.

Methinks I see in my mind a noble and puissant nation rousing herself like a strong man after sleep, and shaking her invincible locks. Methinks I see her as an eagle mewing her mighty youth, and kindling her undazzled eyes at the full midday beam; purging and unsealing her long-abused sight at the fountain itself of heavenly radiance; while the whole noise of timorous and flocking birds, with those also that love the twilight, flutter about, amazed at what she means, and in their envious gabble would prognosticate a year of sects and schisms.

What should ye do then? Should ye suppress all this flowery crop of knowledge and new light? Should ye set an oligarchy of twenty engrossers over it, to bring a famine upon our minds again, when we shall know nothing but what is measured to us by their bushel? Believe it, Lords and Commons, they who counsel ye to such a suppressing do as good as bid ye suppress yourselves. If it be desired to know the immediate cause of all this free writing and free speaking, there cannot be assigned a truer than your own mild, and free, and humane government. It is the liberty, Lords and Commons, which our own valorous and happy counsels have purchased us, liberty, which is the nurse of all great wits. Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience above all liberties. And 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. Whoever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter? For who knows not that Truth is strong, next to the Almighty? She needs no policies, nor stratagems, nor licensing to make her victorious. Those are the shifts and defences that error uses against her power. Give her but room, and do not bind her when she sleeps.