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20 4. John Milton’s Areopagitica (1644) I “As everyone knows,” we have been reminded by Barbara K. Lewalski, “[John] Milton’s argument [in the Areopagitica], couched in poetic imagery and high rhetoric, has become a cornerstone in the liberal defense of freedom of speech, press, and thought.” This document is particularly important with respect to freedom of the press, as traditionally understood. Freedom of speech, insofar as it is different, can be said to depend, for its cornerstone, upon the traditional parliamentary immunity, an immunity reaffirmed in such declarations as the English Bill of Rights of 1689. The “high rhetoric” referred to begins with the title and epigraph for this pamphlet. Reference is made in its title to the Areopagus, an important Athenian tribunal. The reader can be reminded thereby of a speech by Isocrates, the Areopagiticus, which had been directed to that tribunal, an institution to which the English Parliament is implicitly likened by Milton. His epigraph from Euripides draws on a speech attributed to Theseus, the legendary founder of Athens. The argument thereafter draws freely upon Classical and other literary sources, as Milton implicitly likens himself to a citizen of the Athenian democracy. Milton’s learning is evident throughout, but in such a way as to make him less accessible to the typical reader today than is, say, the Socrates of Plato’s Apology, a speaker in fact before an Athenian tribunal. II The principal concern expressed by Milton is with respect to the Licensing Act enacted by Parliament in 1643. This concern took the form, in liberty of the press discussions during the ensuing century, of opposition to previous, or prior, restraints of publications. Such restraints often tended, in effect, toward a system of censorship. 4. John Milton’s Areopagitica 21 Systematic censorship is attacked as destructive of honest, and useful, criticism of public measures. Costs and delays can be expected, as well as unfortunate accommodations by authors to the current orthodoxy, with matters likely to deteriorate as the quality of the censoring declines, something to be expected, if only because of the tedium of a censor’s duties. And if there are indeed corrupting materials being dealt with routinely by the system, what is the effect of systematic review of such materials likely to be on the character of the typical censor? Milton’s efforts did not win an immediate repeal of the Licensing Act. On the other hand, he himself, an influential member of the dominant political movement of the day, was not prosecuted for having published his pamphlet without a license, even though his name is presented boldly on its cover. But, it seems, the printer and bookseller were far more vulnerable , which may account for why their names were omitted from the title page. III The boldness of Milton is not limited to his presuming to publish without a license. His language throughout is that of a human being determined to be, and to seem to be, free. There is not here, despite the closing paean to Parliament, the determined obsequiousness, in the face of authority, of Thomas More’s generation a century earlier. Particularly criticized by Milton, and others of like mind, is any system which subjects writings to official scrutiny before publication. Thus, William Blackstone, more than a century later, could still consider the prohibition of prior, or previous, restraints the most important feature of liberty of the press. The repudiation of prior restraint means, in effect, that the activity of publishing will be treated like most other activities of which the law takes notice. Thus, the publisher (or printer) would always have the benefit, in his dealings with government, of due process of law, something which can inhibit considerably even the most determined “thought police.” It should not be forgotten that a licensor can suppress scores of publications with far less effort and publicity than can be expected during the prosecution of a single offending printer because of the contents of what has been published (not simply because he has published without a license, which can be fairly easily established). Of course, some printers have always been willing to subject Part One 22 themselves to pre-publication review in order to make it highly likely that they would not be troubled thereafter for whatever they do publish. IV The traditional arguments against prior restraints usually acknowledged that prosecutions could properly be directed against the publication of offensive matter. Such offensiveness could consist of treasonable utterance, sedition, fraud, blasphemy, obscenity...


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