The true but arguable claim of the text is that Readings should be examined before they’re condemned and burnt, taken away from public knowledge. Milton here is expressing the need for freedom of speech within the written text. He doesn’t go so far as to say an entirely free way of whatever’s being printed and still adheres to the phrase “Status quo ante.” He’s still working within the framework of there being a publisher and authors name on the text. All the same, he does argue that licensing is dishonest and a hindrance to knowledge and learning. He defends authors as he believed a written work might be published with the best intentions and those who mean to censor it are merely being subjective in their judgement. He further states that England needs to become more open and understanding to truth and should not be controlled by the government. He states this as “I know not what should withhold me from presenting ye with fit instance wherein toshew both that love of truth which ye eminently professe, and that rightness of your judgement which is not wont to be partiall to your selves; by judging over again that Order which ye have ordain’d to regulate Printing, That no Book, pamphlet, or paper shall be henceforth Printed,unlesse the same be first approv’d and licenc’t by such, or at least one of such as shall be thereto appointed. For that part which preserves justly every mans Copy to himselfe, or provides for the poor, I touch not, only wish they be not made pretenses to abuse and persecute honest and painfull Men, who offend not in either of these particulars.”
John Milton wrote this text in 1644 at the height of the English Civil War. His stance was an opposition to Parliament’s 1643 Ordinance for the Regulating of Printing. The text is about fighting censorship. It adds to our literary history because it shows how there was concern over what or what could/should be published. It reflects the concerns of its historical moment nationally and globally because it takes into account the idea of government vs. press. The title was attributed to Areopagiticus a speech written in Ancient Greece. However, it was also attributed to the defense St. Paul made in Athens, specifically, against the idea that he was promoting false gods and foreign, wrong, teachings. Milton here is making an allusion to the idea that there’s always been an affordance for freedom of speech and press and that the fight must continue for the sake of knowledge. As he himself would publish works such as Paradise Lost and other controversial material. His work was often deemed controversial and while he doesn’t make a full affordance to freedom, I think it’s making the most that it can given the time period and restrictions he was working under.
This text builds on generic traditions that precede it such as the description of St. Paul’s defense above. It also alludes to many old religious and classic books in order to address a mainly Calvinist Presbyterian board that was on parliament at the time. He makes references to Ancient Greece and Rome and how they didn’t adhere to the practice of licensing and how, even if a harsh punishment was enforced, the work was rejected after production rather than before it (which really is just a sneaky way of saying, condemn the author but let the work live on to a time period where it’s tolerated, perhaps!) The genre it represents is speech writing. It notably uses existing conventions such as using the weaknesses of who you’re addressing and making it something that helps you. Milton knows that the board who will read this is filled with people who understand the references he’s putting in. He makes a point that licensing was first put in place by the Catholic Church and goes so far as to bring up the popes and their harsh regime of the past and how there was the banning of books that weren’t necessarily blasphemy, but merely not favored to those in power.
Some essay questions one might include about this text are:
“Truth is compar’d in Scripture to a streaming fountain; if her waters flow not in a perpetuall progression, they sick’n into a muddy pool of conformity and tradition. A man may be a heretick in the truth; and if he beleevethings only because his Pastor sayes so, or the Assembly so determins, without knowing other reason, though his belief be true, yet the very truth he holds, becomes his heresie. There is not any burden that som would gladlier post off to another, then the charge and care of their Religion.”
–Should literature be censored? Does censoring literature take away from our means of knowledge and learning?
“For Books are not absolutely dead things, but doe contain a potencie of life in them to be as active as that soule was whose progeny they are; nay they do preserve as in a violl the purest efficacieand extraction of that living intellect that bred them. I know they are as lively, and as vigorously productive, as those fabulous Dragons teeth; and being sown up and down, may chance to spring up armed men.”
–How is Areopagitica an example of using generic history to strengthen your argument and how can Areopagitica be used with a modern text/another text to strengthen the idea of freedom of speech/press within the literary world?
–Interp problem: I think the problem a text such as this might be whether or not Milton is really going for the idea of freedom of press or not. I feel as though he is given the constraints of who he’s speaking to, but there could be the counter argument that he still restricts freedom of publication and isn’t fully on a libertarian side within the argument.
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