Little Bits of History


Posted in History by patriciahysell on November 23, 2013
John Milton

John Milton

November 23, 1644: John Milton publishes a pamphlet called Areopagitica. Milton (1608-1674) was a poet, author, polemicist, and civil servant for the Commonwealth of England. He is best remembered for his epic poem, Paradise Lost, and this work. Polemics are formal argumentative dissertations on religious, philosophical, political, or scientific issues. The documents usually provide a view antithetical to those publicly held and seen as beyond reproach. Areopagitica was one of these writings. The title is a reference to a speech written by Isocrates in the fifth century BC.

The pamphlet was written to oppose the Licensing Order of 1643. The Star Chamber was abolished in July 1641. This was a British court of law at the Palace of Westminster. The system was set up to ensure equality under the law and was where prominent people were tried. Over time, the system was corrupted and became a political weapon wielded by the monarchy and the courts. The rulings were secretly arrived at and there was no oversight or accountability. It was a way to enforce censorship, protecting those who could purchase the court’s decisions. When Parliament disbanded the Star Chamber, they were not advocating for freedom from censors.

Parliament, simply stated, wanted to be the body to decide what to censor. Even so, with lessened strictures there was an impressive rise in new publications with 300 new books on the market between 1640 and 1660. The Licensing Order of 1643 reintroduced nearly all of the Star Chamber strictures only with Parliament holding the power. Books still needed pre-approved licenses; registration of publishers and authors remained; destruction of offensive books was still enacted; and the offending publishers, printers, and authors could still be imprisoned.

Areopagitica: A speech of Mr. John Milton for the liberty of unlicensed printing to the Parliament of England is Milton’s prose attack against censorship. It is a frequently cited work advocating for freedom of expression. The English Civil War was in full swing and ideas were being repressed by an authoritarian body. By publishing his polemic, Milton was daring the very censorship he decried to prove the merit of his argument. Milton admired the free expression of thought of the ancient Greeks and Romans. He was not exactly so revolutionary as to advocate for a total lack of censoring. If blasphemous or libelous works were published, it would be advantageous to destroy them. Milton used God’s Will as justification for freedom of the press. While not exactly aligned with today’s thoughts on freedom, it was a great start.

“For books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul whose progeny they are; nay, they do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them.”

“As good almost kill a man as kill a good book: who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God’s image; but he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself, kills the image of God, as it were, in the eye.”

“And though all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play on the earth, so Truth be in the field, we do injuriously by licensing and prohibiting misdoubt her strength. Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?”

“I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race, where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat.” – all from Areopagitica by John Milton

This article first appeared at in 2009. Editor’s update: John Milton is mostly known for this epic poem, Paradise Lost. It was written in blank verse and first published in 1667. It is divided into ten books and has over 10,000 individual lines. It is based on the Biblical story of the Fall of Man. The cast of characters are Satan, Adam, Eve, the Son of God, God the Father, Raphael, and Michael. The story tells of the temptation of Adam and Eve by the fallen angel, Satan, and their subsequent expulsion from the Garden of Eden. The themes taken up in the work include both marriage and idolatry. The marriage of Adam and Eve is based on mutual dependence and is not hierarchical. It is not, however, without some misogyny as Adam is smarter than Eve and closer to God than she is. Idolatry is criticized and even the building of churches or altars is unnecessary, according to the book. God can be experienced without the physical objects used by mankind to theoretically bring God closer to man.

Also on this day: Healthy Hearts – In 1964, the first coronary bypass graft surgery was performed by Dr. Michael DeBakey.
Hijacked – In 1985, EgyptAir Flight 648 was hijacked.
Why Thespians? – In 534 BC, Thespis won an entertainment contest in Athens.

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