This controversial pamphlet, entitled Areopagitica was written by John Milton in 1644. It argues against the censorship of books before their publication, and is often held up as the first impassioned plea for free speech.
Milton celebrates the vitality of books and condemns their destruction, saying one might ‘as good almost kill a Man as kill a good Book’ (p. 4). Ironically, two of Milton’s books were later suppressed and burnt in the reign of Charles II.
Milton says that we should be trusted to read different ideas in print and use reason to choose between them, rather than having temptation removed through censorship: ‘What wisdome can there be to choose … without the knowledge of evill?’ (p. 12). He draws on the biblical story of the Garden of Eden, where Adam and Eve sin by tasting the forbidden fruit. Although some people might blame God for allowing Adam to ‘transgresse’, Milton praises him for giving humans ‘freedom to choose, for reason is but choosing’ (p. 17).
How does Areopagitica relate to Paradise Lost?
In Paradise Lost (1667) these arguments around freedom and reason are voiced by God the Father, who says he made man ‘just and right’ but also ‘free to fall’. Without freedom, man’s love for God would be mere obligation, rather than ‘true allegiance’. Man must use ‘Will and Reason’ ‒ ‘Reason also is Choice’ (3.98‒99; 104; 108).
What does the title mean?
The pamphlet is presented as a speech ‘to the Parlament of England’ in the reign of Charles I, but Milton also invokes the idea of ancient Greek democracy. His title, Areopagitica comes from the Greek Areopagus – a hill where the Council of Athens met, and St Paul delivered a sermon.
What prompted Milton to write the pamphlet?
State control of printing was introduced by Henry VIII and continued into the 17th century. In April 1638, political agitator John Lilburne was arrested for importing subversive books. He was fined £500 and flogged for the two miles between the Fleet Prison and the pillory. Milton wrote his pamphlet as a protest against Lilburne’s treatment.
In fact, Areopagitica had little impact. It was not until 1695 that laws on printing were relaxed, allowing for a blossoming of newspapers and provincial presses.