Areopagitica for Millennials

A few weeks ago, I went to the Chiltern village of Chalfont St Giles to visit a building that looks like something an illustrator would produce in a children’s encyclopedia to accompany the word cottage. Black timber beams intersect the neat, red brick walls and it’s wise to stoop as you enter the cool, dark hallway. Behind the cottage, a beautifully faux-natural garden slopes gently uphill, shaded by dozens of shrubs and trees. Here, in 1665, the regicide, essayist and poet John Milton left London and set up home, to escape the Great Plague and complete Paradise Lost.

Milton’s cottage has been a museum for over a century and inside you will find some remarkable books, including an unusual collection of versions of Paradise Lost in translation. One of these was published on toilet paper. It is an edition in Serbo-Croat by Communist Party official turned dissident, Milovan Djilas, written while he was in prison in the former Yugoslavia, where Paradise Lost was a banned book.

While browsing various display cases, I was captivated by the sight of a first edition of Milton’s famous essay, Areopagitica. When Oliver Cromwell’s republican government, which Milton had actively and enthusiastically helped into power, and for whom he worked, decided to introduce new laws on censorship, Milton rebelled and wrote arguably the most powerful defense of freedom of the press ever published. He called it Areopagitica, after a speech of the same name given by the Athenian rhetorician Isocrates, in which he spoke passionately about the political state of his nation. It remains one of the most significant essays on liberty ever written. Although it wasn’t published in France until 1788, the year before the French Revolution, and the first German translation didn’t appear until after the attempted German revolution of 1848, in 1851 Milton’s essay had a profound effect on early Americans like Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin.

Freedom of expression has once again become the focus of political interference in the West, in ways we really haven’t seen since Milton’s lifetime. Politicians have successfully created something the law now refers to as a hate crime, which any reasonable citizen should view as a potential threat to freedom of expression. The UK government is currently bolstering this legislation with a Counter Terrorism and Border Security Bill. According to the Index on Censorship, a campaigning organization founded in 1972 to publish books banned in the Soviet Union and elsewhere, this bill aims to outlaw any person who expresses a [prohibited] opinion or belief. As the Index argues, “The bill seeks to distinguish between holding an opinion (legitimate) and expressing it (illegitimate in the circumstances envisaged by the bill) … Without the right to express a thought or belief, freedom of expression would be meaningless. The right to express an opinion is fundamental.”

If it succeeds, this new bill will allow a Western democracy to prosecute someone, merely for expressing an opinion. And that opinion, needless to say, is most likely to have been expressed in writing: on screen, or in print. Someone, somewhere is just itching to light a bonfire and they don’t care whether it’s books or laptops they hurl onto it.

Milton’s Areopagitica was a speech in name only. It was intended to be read and was published as a political pamphlet. Milton was also the leading Latinist of his day, which is partly why the new republican government employed him. They needed a linguist of considerable skill to manage their international communications. Most readers today will struggle with Milton’s English prose. Steeped in the rhetorical traditions of Classical literature, and fresh from holidaying in some of the elite European literary salons of his day, Milton’s prose style almost seems as though it comes from another world. So we should not be surprised that fairly recent graduates, even those working in publishing, might be totally ignorant of Milton’s remarkably articulate defense of books.

It’s high time someone brought Areopagitica back into the public consciousness.

I want to make Milton’s hugely important speech accessible and relevant to modern readers, because a renewed and revitalized censoriousness demands it. Although Milton was not a wholly conventional Protestant, Paradise Lost demonstrates that his politics left no room for either Catholics or atheists—and Areopagitica is no exception in that respect.

Areopagitica is one of history’s greatest attacks on the urge those in power so easily develop, to censor the voices of those they govern. That urge has reared its grotesquely ugly head once again and the onus is on those of us who recognize it for what it is to decapitate it as ruthlessly and brutally as Milton and his fellow regicides dealt with the king they loathed.

Milton subtitled his speech For the Liberty of Unlicenc’d Printing, because the changes proposed were that all books would need to be read by representatives of the state, and granted a license by them, before they were published. Areopagitica demands authors be free both to write and to publish what they think freely, without state interference. He has no problem with the law being used to prosecute blasphemy, slander or treason after publication. It is the state’s predetermination as to what does or does not become a book that he refutes so passionately.

This alone exposes the entire notion of a hate crime as deeply flawed, since, in order to create this category, the state had to categorize victims of hate in advance. There are currently five categories of hate crime: disability, race or ethnicity, religion or belief (which includes non-belief), sexual orientation and gender identity (misogyny may be added later). I will leave you to ponder how long it will take that list to grow and to reflect on how much folly accompanied the expansion inherent in the language of the list, as it stands.

Milton opens his speech by addressing the nation in the form of Parliament and quickly moves to establish liberty as the foundation of the new commonwealth, the liberty so precious to all those who had recently lived through and survived a devastating civil war. The death toll of the Civil War is difficult to assess, but historians generally agree that losses amounted to around 3.5 percent of the population of England, double that of Scotland and something like 40 per cent of the population of Ireland. To give you a sense of comparison, around two percent of the British population were killed in the First World War. Yet that lesser catastrophe was marked a century later, in 2014, with 888,246 ceramic poppies placed outside the Tower of London, to afford people some sense of the scale of loss. The English Civil War, in comparison, created such a profound sense of national horror, guilt and remorse that we have effectively locked it out of the nation’s collective memory, like a family lunatic in the attic.

To forestall critics, Milton quickly asserts that the freedom to complain, be heard and find redress is the best anyone should expect from a civil society: “when complaints are freely heard, deeply consider’d and speedily reform’d, then is the utmost bound of civill liberty attain’d, that wise men looke for.” He flatters his readers in advance (hoping they will identify as wise men), no doubt hoping his own complaint will be speedily redressed.

Areopagitica, like everything Milton wrote, is replete with Classical and Biblical references, although it’s chiefly Roman and Athenian culture that he opts for in this argument because flattery is a core strategy. He flatters his readers throughout by comparing the Commonwealth to ancient Rome, in having successfully fought off tyranny and superstition (shorthand for the monarchy and Catholicism) and talks of Parliament in terms of its maturity, wisdom and courage. He even deploys some clever rhetoric when he recommends the abandonment of the Licensing Order of 1643. Abandoning the order he argues, “would fare better with truth, with learning, and the Commonwealth,” and, in doing so, Parliament would be able to show the public it is listening—not as the monarchy did to public flattery—but to sincere and public advice from private citizens. Millions of frustrated, impassioned pleas online today have the same, simple expectation.

It’s worth reflecting on those twin bombshells: truth and learning. Permit the state to decide what does and does not get published, and it’s nothing less than truth and learning you turn your back on.

The licensing of books is a practice Milton connects with earlier, tyrannical, specifically Catholic authorities, because he knows that that—alongside his alignment of the republican parliament with ancient Rome and Athens—will aid his cause. But these are rhetorical techniques used to persuade men who had proved utterly ruthless in war and in government. They are the seasoning, not the substance, of Areopagitica. And it’s the substance I want modern readers to know about.

We just need to hear what he says about books to realize he has a compelling message for us today.

In essence, he sets out three key arguments. The first is that censorship is essentially a Catholic weakness, a cruel and authoritarian trait Milton traces back to Pope Martin V in 1418 and which reached its height after the Council of Trent in 1545–63 and specifically under the Inquisition. Milton plays two of his strongest cards here. He knew the value and strength of his own scholarship, so he makes generous reference to Latin and Greek texts to establish historical precedents for freedom of expression. He also knew just how deeply hatred of the Catholic Church defined the Puritan mind, so he uses this phrase when inviting his readers to consider their own historical relationship with the urge to censor, “the inventors of it to bee those whom ye will be loath to own.”

Secondly, he makes it clear, through a litany of Classical and later examples, that if licensing in 1643 is intended to prevent the publication of “scandalous, seditious, and libellous Books,” it has no chance of success, because it has never worked in the past. Finally, he argues that learning and truth in both civil and religious matters rely wholly on the publication of books. There are two distinct strands to this hugely significant claim, of which too many cultural and political zealots today are self-evidently ignorant. One stresses that books are necessary merely to maintain our existing knowledge. Licensing would lead to “disexercising and blunting our abilities in what we know already.” The other asserts that to license books is to suffocate new discovery and new wisdom at birth, before it can snatch its first breath and wail. I’ll leave you to make the connection with that creeping recent trend to condemn and prohibit the writings of long dead authors on the grounds their work is racist, imperialist or in some other way freshly offensive.

In possibly the most famous passage from Areopagitica, Milton then does something that distinguishes him from the politicos and flat-screen troops fighting today’s cultural wars. He admits that books are profoundly dangerous objects and that both Church and Commonwealth need to keep “a vigilant eye how Bookes demeane themselves as well as men; and thereafter to confine, imprison, and do sharpest justice on them as malefactors,” because books are as vital and energetic as the minds that gave them birth. Books are living things, capable of stirring men to war with each other. Each book captures something of the very essence of the single human soul who created it. And, since man is made in God’s image, destroying a book is as criminal and immoral an act as murder. Indeed worse because “hee who destroyes a good Booke, kills reason it selfe,” kills the very image of God, implanted in man by divine will.   

You don’t have to be a seventeenth-century English Christian to get the point.

As physical, cultural objects, books possess a life infinitely beyond the brief lives of those who create them. Wise authors learn quickly that the moment their books are published they take on a life of their own and there is absolutely nothing they can do about it. Only the foolish or the arrogant try. That infinite promise is of supreme importance to Milton. It means if you destroy a single book you are reducing its potential to enhance millions of others’ lives and if you destroy every copy (so often the ambition of book burners the world over) you are destroying something as close to immortal as it is possible to get on this earth. If that doesn’t make you question the wisdom of any policy designed to publish only those books that meet the narrow requirements of some ephemeral, politically correct, commercial pledge—such as Penguin Random House’s recent promise to select new authors “taking into account ethnicity, gender, sexuality, social mobility and disability”—what on earth will?

Kill a book and you kill “the breath of reason it selfe.” And, by restricting what they publish to the dictates of the politicos and paper-thin activists fighting narcissistic wars in flat-screen trenches, some publishers will be killing off good books in order to sell bad ones.

To support the rational platform he’s established, Milton enters into a lengthy account of how and why books have been challenged throughout history right up to the Reformation. He knows that, compared to his audience, his scholarship is unassailable, but he is consistent in distinguishing between cases in which books were challenged after publication because they were considered libelous or seditious, and papal initiatives to prohibit publication in advance, intended to repress fundamental freedoms. He lays the blame for the very origin of censorship firmly at Rome’s door.

But, as a Christian, Milton cannot escape relying on Church authority somewhere and he finds it by quoting directly from the words of St Paul, “Prove all things, hold fast that which is good,” and “To the pure, all things are pure.” Wielding these well-worn words as Biblical authority, he extends them to argue that “all kinde of knowledge whether of good or evill; the knowledge cannot defile, nor consequently the books, if the will and conscience be not defil’d.” What kind of freedom prohibits a Christian from feeling the full force of his or her conscience? The personal is no more political than the will is enslaved to evil. Even good books can occasion evil outcomes in the hands of the vicious. So how futile then is licensing?

He quickly exploits that good­­–bad antithesis by pointing out that bad books serve good purposes because, without them, how would we be able to dispute or advance our knowledge? Milton shrewdly argues something he knows he has already demonstrated: that it’s far wiser to entertain not only opinion that supports your own view, but also opinion refuting it.

For Milton, good and evil are as intrinsically mixed as the seeds the nymph Psyche was forced to separate by her mother-in-law, Venus. Adam and Eve ate only one apple. We can only ever know good by its evil twin. So natural is the paradox, you have probably never stopped to consider that evil twin image.

Yet, from this bitterly human paradox, Milton draws a profoundly Christian benefit. What wisdom is there in choice, he asks, what courage in patience, unless it is gained through distinguishing good acts from bad, the kindly from the vicious? The purity of the untested soul is mere costume, an outward display of inner apathy. Life is a race and eternal life the reward for those who compete.

His eyes fixed on that immortal prize, he strides on, arguing that, because we can only be virtuous by studying and rejecting vice, how better to do that than through the richness and variety of what we read? In fact, how much safer to read lies and sin than to commit them? Religious texts are themselves full of examples of blasphemy and corruption and the learned are the most likely to be corrupted, since the uneducated rely on them for knowledge. Jesuits, unsurprisingly, provide him with the perfect example.

He exposes the entire notion of licensing as a fool’s errand because religious books, the most abundant texts in seventeenth-century England, cannot be suppressed without damaging all learning and debate, and because evil does not rely on books alone to find its way into men’s hearts. His crisply linear logic turns to the magistrates appointed the task of censorship and Milton asks what kind of man could possibly take on such a responsibility? Who could possibly be immune or above corruption? Infallibility, he and his audience know, is a papist trick.

That criticism applies as exquisitely today to anyone who thinks him- or herself capable of the nice sifting that will inevitably accompany a choice to publish books by ethnicity, gender, sexuality, social mobility or disability, as it did to Cromwell’s monochrome magistrates. What a soulless, blinkered, naively superior path to tread.

What’s more, Milton asks, why make print a special case in the regulatory arena? If books are to be regulated, then so should any act we delight in as recreation. Music, dancing, even the clothes we wear should be checked and licensed by magistrates before they can be allowed to enhance our lives. Even, he concludes, youthful conversation should be suspect. He paints a potent picture of a pending puritanical purge.

Milton has no time for such a regressive landscape and rejects it on the grounds that if every good or evil action we perform is constrained or compelled by law then virtue is just an empty word and the gratitude or censure due from family or friends, pointless. How foolish, he argues, to complain, as some do, that God allowed Adam to sin? That thorny old theodicy recently plunged even the people’s sophist, Stephen Fry, into legal hot water. Fry narrowly avoided facing an Irish court on defamation charges, after comments he made on Irish television, which included, “How dare you create a world in which there is such misery that is not our fault? It’s not right. It’s utterly, utterly evil. Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid god who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain?” God gave Adam and all of mankind reason, that quintessentially human freedom to choose, and what else is reason if not choice? An Adam incapable of choice is God’s puppet. God gave us passion, emotion and pleasure because only through moderation and self-governance can we understand what virtue is.

Feel free to remove god from the equation. You can’t destroy its truth. Men and women place minimal value on obedience or love that is forced or compelled. A gift not freely given is a debt.

“They are not skilfull considerers of human things, who imagin to remove sin by removing the matter of sin,” Milton argues. If there is one single message a modern reader new to Areopagitica should assimilate, it’s this one. When you have no concept of sin, when your entire education teaches you to believe you are the only arbiter of right and wrong, the focus of all energy in your own universe, it’s easy to see how the beauty of those words and of the examples that follow, can have become invisible and inaudible to so many today:

Though ye take from a covetous man all his treasure, he has yet one jewell left, ye cannot bereave him of his covetousnesse. Banish all objects of lust, shut up all youth into the severest discipline that can be exercis’d in any hermitage, ye cannot make them chaste, that came not thither so.

The clarity of these thoughts is surpassed only by their icy truth. Those intent on prescribing what the book-buying public is permitted to read, on the basis of their predetermined agenda, take heed. How crazed a lens through which to view mankind. How lacking in vision. In Milton’s universe, God gives us limitless minds, minds we can never fully satisfy, the capacity to think the unthinkable, so how absurd is it then that we impose limits by proscribing books, our chief means of understanding both virtue and truth. Pursue that argument logically, as Milton does, and the task his republican government has set itself is immense because, of course, it must then repeal or proscribe every book it objects to that has already been printed, plus all books in all other languages. And what should the state do about books that are only partly pernicious? Does it ban the good sections with the bad?

Some of you may even anticipate where Milton takes his puritan readers next because the circularity of his argument is simply glorious. This had already been done—it was the precise outcome of the Council of Trent and the Inquisition enacted by those repressive Catholic authorities his readers detested.

If you wish to prevent religious sects and schisms, the spoken is as powerful as the written word, but if it’s only manners you wish to improve, look at Spain and Italy, Milton suggests, then ask whether or not they are more honest, wise or chaste after centuries of inquisitorial censorship. Returning to practicalities, he asks again what kind of men could carry out such a demanding task? What kind of scholar has the mixture of linguistic skill and judiciousness to decide which book lives and which dies? Milton can hardly imagine a worse waste of anyone’s precious life than to be tasked with wading through mountains of bad writing. It’s easy to predict who would choose to do such work and why. They are lining themselves up in publishing companies today.

After arguing that licensing has never worked and can never work, Milton turns to the damage it causes. Dismissing the idea, popular with the bishops of his era, that learning is historically wedded to religion, he reminds his readers that true learning is an unconditional endeavor: an unusual, even novel thought in the twenty-first century. Learning, he insists, is something to be loved for itself, in the service of only two masters: god and the truth. Money has nothing to do with it. However, he does acknowledge a motive many who devote their lives to study will recognize. If their work advances the good of mankind, then the praise and admiration that brings over time is itself a sought after reward. The distrust and threat that licensing implies is not just an imposition, but an indignity, to anyone freely pursuing knowledge and learning. It’s a condition guaranteed to stifle their pursuit. Who can think the unthinkable, knowing paid agents of the state have the power to veto thought? What kind of science is pursued without doubt or risk?

Personally, I cannot remember a time when those we elect to positions of power have provoked such widespread contempt. Party loyalties, traditionally fierce in the UK, have been sorely tested by a parade of individuals of all political shades, so clearly but willfully out of their depth that we would rather watch them flail around trying to keep their heads above water than throw them a lifeline. Knowing then that we are subject to politicians who are more clueless than classless, any attempt by them to censor our freedom of expression is implicitly a fool’s errand, as Milton knew four hundred years ago.

Milton has his own version of this modern dilemma. Every author has a right to question the credentials of anyone assuming sufficient knowledge or learning to censor or edit their work. If the state assumes that right, then, Milton argues, the state might govern me, but it is never my critic. Under such a state, what man would even care to learn, or seek greater knowledge, since life would be easier and more pleasant if one remained ignorant? The world has more than enough such states for Western democracies to start adding to their number, when they should be reducing it. The kind of censoriousness Milton feared from Parliament and bishops, then, is no different from the kind we see today in another fascinating respect. The more you repress something, Milton says, the more you fuel it. He quotes Sir Francis Bacon: “The punishing of wits enhaunces their authority … and a forbidd’n writing is thought to be a certain spark of truth that flies up in the faces of them who seeke to tread it out.” Isn’t that precisely the mechanism we see operating online today that we have falsely branded fake news?

Truth, for Milton, is a Biblical stipulation, a personal responsibility, a “streaming fountain” that must eternally progress—unless what you really want is a sickly, silted-up pool of “conformity and tradition.” Truth entered the world with Christ, but on his ascension into heaven it was broken and scattered by godless men and it’s been the labor of good men ever since to reconstruct it. Milton sees this activity of the faithful as a continual one, only reaching its conclusion with Christ’s second coming. The light man has been given is to seek truth by. Not to stare upon and worship blindly. So rich and poor men alike will suffer from censoriousness. Rich men won’t care for truth as long as they can farm out their religion to some private curate, leaving them free to make more money. The poor will do as they’re told as long as they’re entertained because that’s so much easier than thinking. What you get from both is a state of sterile, cold conformity.

England, for Milton, was genuinely the source and beating heart of the Reformation and he describes his London as an intellectually vital place, full of men thirsting for knowledge. He rejects the Protestant anxiety that sees potential schisms and sects around every corner. The opinions that concern his censorious colleagues in government are just the result of good men seeking greater understanding, examples of the clarity of the Bible’s “streaming fountain.” Allow them the freedom to think and write, he argues, and England will be the envy of the world. England is surrounded by enemies, hemmed in on all sides, and yet remains intellectually vital and full of dispute—which Milton sees as an example of good government. That leads him to another famous section of Areopagitica, in which he describes the nation as a youthful eagle in the throes of a Damascene conversion, staring boldly at heaven itself, surrounded by lesser fowl that stand amazed and envious.

Does the current, widespread tendency to denounce anything that smacks of discomfiting debate suddenly sound more rusty and ragged, less cutting edge?

The clever circularity I already highlighted, when Milton brought his readers round to a realization that what they wanted was the very thing they despised, a Catholic Inquisition, appears again towards the close of Areopagitica. This time he returns to the idea of liberty with which he began his speech. The cause of this huge surge in thought and debate “is the liberty, Lords and Commons, which your own valorous and happy counsels have purchast us, liberty which is the nurse of all great wits.” For Parliament to suppress this now would be to suppress itself. We, the freethinking English, are the product of your rebellion against tyranny and oppression, he argues. Parliament might as well pass a law allowing fathers to murder their own children.

Liberty is a potent idea in most western democracies and Milton doesn’t shirk the challenge of asking why: “Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.” Contrast the elegance of those English words with the brutally technocratic construction of today’s hate crime.

Martial imagery isn’t common in Areopagitica, but Milton resorts to it when he outlines a picture of any worthwhile book facing publication under this new oppressive regime. It’s as though having prepared himself carefully and justifiably for battle with his intellectual opponents, instead of them taking to the field in a fair encounter, they skulk and hide in cowardly ambush, either side of a narrow licensing bridge all authors are forced to cross. Nonetheless Milton himself believes in the divine power of truth: “so Truth be in the field, we do injuriously, by licencing and prohibiting to misdoubt her strength. Let her and Falshood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the wors, in a free and open encounter.”

That “free and open encounter” has been the expectation authors have had of English publishers since 1695, when the licensing act Milton opposed was finally allowed by parliament to lapse. In 1644, they ignored him. Now it seems the playing field has been well and truly tilted and, in the case of some publishers, the author’s gender or ethnic identity will determine whether or not a book sees the light of day. Self-determined, of course, for who would dare demand proof?

Areopagitica’s adamantine logic takes on even greater contemporary relevance when you apply it to the febrile nature of social media discourse in general and the far wider question of how new publishing platforms have eschewed the well-established legal responsibilities of publishers, in pursuit of what Silicon Valley so often loves to argue are libertarian values. Milton states that the most likely victim of censure will always be truth because prejudice and familiarity necessarily cloud our vision and make new truths look unlikely and implausible. He uses an amusing analogy of great men who most often appear anything but impressive in the flesh, then blames the censorious—for demanding no voice be heard except those they approve—for the very same rash of sectarianism and religious quarrelling that they claim they want to end because it’s that exclusivity, that determination to silence others, which keeps truth at bay. If you feel Areopagitica’s contemporary relevance is still eluding you then carry out a little thought experiment and imagine social media conversations, minus the desire to silence others.

Milton concludes Areopagitica with some speculation about whether or not professional printers—and the Stationers’ Company in particular—might have had a corrupting influence on parliament in drafting this new order. He describes the new licensing act as “the immediat image” of one created by the discredited Star Chamber Charles I had used so ruthlessly to maintain power, reminding fellow regicides that the Star Chamber, like Charles himself, is now with “Lucifer.” It is the only time he uses that word in Areopagitica, and from the man who is soon to write Paradise Lost, that is damnation indeed.

There are some informative similarities between Milton’s era and our own. Cromwell and his New Model Army were innovative pragmatists, while visionaries like the Levellers and the Diggers promised radical change. Printing had become cheaper and easier, so it wasn’t that difficult for anyone who wanted to influence the public to circulate political pamphlets. Old certainties had given way to unknowns, following regicide and years of civil war, and, even after peace had settled, England felt isolated and vulnerable to threat from abroad. Uncertain times find certainty through truth and learning, not through creeping state censorship.

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