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Still Martyred after All These Years: Generational Suffering in Milton's Areopagitica

From: ELH
Volume 70, Number 4, Winter 2003
pp. 963-987 | 10.1353/elh.2004.0001

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ELH 70.4 (2003) 963-987

John Milton begins the Areopagitica with a tantalizing portrayal of ancient republican culture that suggests flattering similarities between Athens and the English Commonwealth. Displayed on the title page, as David Norbrook has discussed, is an era of idealized, free speech fostered in open political fora like the Athenian Assembly. The epigraph from Euripides defends the right of "free born men" to "advise the public" and "speak free[ly]" while delivering counsel. Via Euripides, and the title description of the tract as "a speech of Mr. John Milton . . . to the Parlament of England," Milton styles himself in the image of an ancient citizen orator while Parliament assumes the role of a classical assembly ready to receive his wisdom. He continues this comparison in the first paragraph of the tract by invoking the original author of the Areopagitica, Isocrates, "who from his private house wrote that discourse to the Parlament of Athens" (A, 2:489). Instead of referring to Isocrates's audience by its proper name, the Assembly, Milton selects the word "Parlament" in order to suggest its resemblance to the new English government.

It comes as a great surprise, then, that Milton quickly discards the Athenian model, exchanging "the old and elegant humanity of Greece" (A, 2:489) for a modern and sinister example of church government. In his opening argument against licensing, he contends that English MPs, by reimposing licensing for all publications, resemble Spanish Inquisitors who repress worthy speech by means of torturous instruments like the Index and imprimatur (A, 2:503). Milton presses the issue of lineage in this scandalous comparison, announcing that the "project of licensing crept out of the Inquisition, was catcht up by our Prelates, and hath caught some of our Presbyters" (A, 2:493). To prove his claim, he charts the rise of censorship from antiquity to the present, casting blame upon Catholicism for instituting the most egregious forms of suppression. He imputes to the "Popes of Rome" (A, 2:501) responsibility for establishing the practices of book burning, unnecessary censorship, and licensing. "Drawn as lineally as any pedigree" (A, 2:505), his history aims to expose the foreign, Catholic roots of licensing and thereby pin the papist label upon English "inquisiturient Bishops," who advocate licensing as part of the native tradition (A, 2:507).

Milton's revelation of Parliament's ties to the Inquisition, I will suggest, does not ultimately reinforce admiration for classical forms of inquiry in his tract. Instead, it unravels his argument about the ill effects of censorship. This is chiefly because his equation of licensing with inquisitorial practice itself draws upon a powerful tradition of English martyrology that positively values torture and trial. For generations bred upon the pages of John Foxe, words like "Inquisition" would have brought to mind moments when the act of suppression provoked resistance, when the false church's attempt to silence martyrs (either during trial or at the stake) became the platform from which they broadcast their faith.

Milton's impulse to study licensing by means of genealogy replicates a further, more complicated aspect of Foxean method. I will show how Milton's licensing history depends upon the logic of Tudor historiography, which identified the lineage of the Protestant church only in instances of its persecution. His choice to construct a history of licensing repeats the apocalyptic periodizationsof Foxe and his influential predecessor, John Bale. For Bale, Foxe, and seventeenth-century historiographers writing in the same tradition, growth of the Antichrist's power appeared at moments in history when the true, or Protestant, church was about to be born, about to be unveiled. I am interested in the philosophical repercussions resulting from Milton's adoption of an apocalyptic formula that, at one and the same time, enables a specific history and serves as a theoretical method for identifying truth. Examined in relation to Milton's history of licensing, I shall argue that several martyr images in the tract bear out the theoretical implications of apocalyptic method. These images not only elaborate a concept of positive suffering (and thus confirm the rules of apocalyptic readings of church history), but also figure suffering as a process of genealogy and generation...



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