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- The Life of John Milton Vol. 3 1643-1649 - 50/128 -


THE AREOPAGITICA; A SPEECH FOR THE LIBERTY OF UNLICENSED PRINTING.

One good effect the incident had produced. It had prescribed for Milton a new piece of work. This Parliamentary Ordinance for Printing with which it had been proposed to crush him; this whole system of Censorship and licensing of books that had prevailed so long in England and almost everywhere else; this delegation of the entire control of a nation's Literature to a state-agency consisting of a few prejudiced parsons and schoolmasters seated atop, to decide what should go into the funnel, and a Company of Stationers seated below, to see that nothing else came out of the funnel:-was not this a subject on which something might be said? Would it not be more than a revenge if Milton were to express his thoughts on this subject? Would it not be a service of moment to England? What might not be hoped for from the Parliament if they were fitly addressed on such a theme? It was the great question of Liberty in all its forms that England was then engaged in. Civil Liberty, Liberty of Worship, Liberty of Conscience, were the phrases ringing in the English air. But in the midst of this general clamour for Liberty no one yet had moved for one form of Liberty, which would be a very substantial instalment of the whole, and yet was practicable and perhaps within sight--the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing. Let this then be Milton's new undertaking! In the fact that it had been so clearly assigned to him, nay, forced upon him by circumstances, he began to discern a certain regulation, not quite dependent on his own forethought, of the recent course of his life. "When the Bishops at length had fallen prostrate, aimed at by the shafts of all, and there was no more trouble from _them_," he afterwards wrote, reviewing this portion of his life, "then I turned my thoughts to other matters--if I might in anything promote the cause of true and solid liberty; which is chiefliest to be sought for not without, but within, and to be gained not by fighting, but by the right basing and the right administration of life. When, therefore, I perceived that there are in all three sorts of liberty, without the presence of which life can hardly anyhow be suitably gone through--Ecclesiastical, Domestic or Private, and Civil--then, as I had already written on the first, and as I saw that the Magistrate was sedulously occupied with the third, I took to myself that which was left second, viz. Domestic Liberty. That also appearing to consist of three parts--whether Marriage were rightly arranged, whether the Education of Children were properly conducted, and whether, finally, there were the power of free Philosophising--I explained what I thought, not only concerning the due contracting of Marriage, but also, if it were necessary, the due dissolution of the same.... On that subject I put forth some books, exactly at that time when husband and wife were often the bitterest enemies, he at home with his children, and she, the mother of the family, busy in the camp of the enemy, threatening death and destruction to her husband.... Then I treated the Education Question more briefly in one little book.... Finally, on the subject of the liberation of the Press, so that the judgment of the true and the false, what should be published and what suppressed, should not be in the hands of a few men, and these mostly unlearned and of common capacity, erected into a censorship over books--an agency through which no one almost either can or will send into the light anything that is above the vulgar taste--on this subject, in the form of an express oration, I wrote my _Areopagitica_." [Footnote: The Latin of the passage will be found in the _Defensio Secunda pro Popalo Anglicano._] In this passage, written in 1654, there is a slight anachronism. _All_ Milton's Marriage and Divorce tracts had not yet been published: two of them were still to come. At the moment at which we have arrived, however, that mapping out of his labours on the Domestic or Private form of the general question of Liberty which the passage explains must have already been in his mind. He had written largely on a Reform in Marriage and Divorce, and more briefly on a Reform in Education. In the Marriage and Divorce subject he had found himself met with an opposition which did not permit him yet to lay it aside; but meanwhile, in consequence of that opposition, nay, of the very form it had taken, there had dawned on him, by way of interlude and yet of strictly continuous industry, a great third enterprise. In any lull of war with the Titans what is Jove doing? Fingering his next thunderbolt. Released from all trouble by the Committee of the Commons, and left at leisure in Aldersgate Street, through September, October, and November, 1644, what was Milton doing? Preparing his _Areopagitica_.

It appeared November 24, a month after the Second Battle of Newbury, and the very day before that outbreak by Cromwell, against the Earl of Manchester for slackness in the battle, which led to the Self-Denying Ordinance and the New-Modelling of the Army. It was a small quarto of 40 pages with this title:--

AREOPAGITICA;

A Speech of Mr. John Milton for the Liberty of Unlicens'd Printing, to the Parlament of England.

[Greek: Touleutheron d'ekeino, ei tis thelei polei Chręston ti bouleum eis meson pherein, echon. Kai tauth o chręzon, lampros esth, o mę thelon, Siga ti touton estin isaiteron polei;] _Euripid. Hicetid._

This is true Liberty, when free-born men Having to advise the public may speak free, Which he who can, and will, deserv's high praise, Who neither can nor will, may hold his peace; What can be juster in a State than this? _Euripid. Hicetid_. London, Printed in the yeare 1644.

There was no printer's or bookseller's name to the pamphlet; and it came forth unlicensed and unregistered. It would have been indeed absurd to ask one of the Censors to license a pamphlet cutting up the whole system of Censorship. Still here was another deliberate breach of the law by Milton. It was probably to soften and veil the offence that the pamphlet was cast into the form of a continuous Speech or Pleading by Milton to Parliament directly, without recognition of the public in preface or epilogue. [Footnote: That Nov. 24, 1644, was the day of the publication of the _Areopagitica_ I learn from Thomason's MS. note "Novemb. 24" in the copy among the King's Pamphlets in the British Museum; Press Mark 12. G. e.9./182.]

The _Areopagitica_ is now by far the best-known of Milton's pamphlets, and indeed the only one of his prose-works generally read. Knowing his other prose-writings, I have sometimes been angry at this choice of one of his pamphlets by which to recollect him as an English prose-writer. I have ascribed it to our cowardly habit of taking delight only in what we already agree with, of liking to read only what we already think, or have been schooled into considering glorious, axiomatic, and British. As there are parts of Milton's prose-writings that would be even now as discomposing and irritating to an orthodox Briton as to an orthodox Spaniard or Russian, a genuine British reader might be expected perhaps to tend to those parts by preference. Hence there is something not wholly pleasing in the exclusive rush in our country now-a-days upon the _Areopagitica_ as representative of Milton's prose. And yet the reasons for the fact are perhaps sufficient. Though the doctrine of the Treatise is now axiomatic, one remembers, as one reads, that the battle for it had then to be fought, that Milton was the first and greatest to fight it, and that this very book did more than any other to make the doctrine an axiom in Britain. But, besides this historical interest, the book possesses an interest of peculiar literary attractiveness. It is perhaps the most skilful of all Milton's prose- writings, the most equable and sustained, the easiest to be read straight through at once, and the fittest to leave one glowing sensation of the power of the author's genius. It is a pleading of the highest eloquence and courage, with interspersed passages of curious information, keen wit, and even a rich humour, such as we do not commonly look for in Milton. He must have taken great pains to make the performance popular.

After an exordium of respectful compliment to the Parliament, the rhetorical skill of which is as masterly as the sincerity is obvious, Milton announces his purpose. He thinks so highly of the Parliament that he will pay them the supreme compliment of questioning the wisdom of one of their ordinances and asking them to repeal it. He then quotes the leading clause of the Printing Ordinance of June 14, 1643, enacting that no Book, Pamphlet, or Paper should thenceforth be printed unless it had previously been approved and licensed by the official censors or one of them. He is to challenge, he says, only that part of the Ordinance. He is not to challenge the part for preventing piracy of copyright; which he thinks quite just, though he can see that it may be abused so as to annoy honest men and booksellers. From a passage farther on we learn also that Milton did not object to a prohibition of anonymous publication; for he refers with entire approbation to a previous Parliamentary Ordinance, enacting that no book should be printed unless the names of the author and printer, or at least that of the printer, were registered. If Parliament had stopped at that Order, they would have been well advised; it is the licensing Enactment of the subsequent Order of June 1643 that he is to reason against. Books, indeed, were things of which a Commonwealth ought to take no less vigilant charge than of their living subjects, "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." All the more reason to beware of violence against books. "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. Many a man lives a burden to the earth; but a good book is the precious life-blood of a master-spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life." And how had this slaying of books, and even the prevention of their birth, by a Censorship, grown up? After a historical sketch of the state of the law and practice respecting books among the Greeks, the Romans, and the early and mediaeval Christians, Milton arrives at the conclusion that the system of Censorship and Licensing was an invention of the worst age of the Papacy, perfected by the Spanish Inquisition. He gives one or two specimens of the elaborate _imprimaturs_ prefixed to old Italian books, and makes much fun of them. The Papal invention, he continues, had passed on into Prelatic England. "These are the pretty responsories, these are the dear antiphonies that so bewitched our late prelates and their chaplains with the goodly echo they made, and besotted us to the gay imitation of a lordly _imprimatur_, one from the Lambeth House [the Archbishop of Canterbury's Palace, where MSS. had to be left by their authors for revision by his chaplains], another from the west end of Paul's [the site of Stationers' Hall]."

Yes! but, whoever were the inventors, might not the invention itself be good? To this question Milton next proceeds, and it leads him into the vitals of the subject.

He contends, in the first place, for the scholar's liberty of universal reading at his own peril, his right of unlimited intellectual inquisitiveness. What though there are bad and mischievous books? "Books are as meats and viands are, some of good, some of evil substance, and yet God in that unapocryphal vision said, without exception, 'Rise, Peter, kill and eat.'" Good and evil are inextricably mixed up together in everything in this world; and the very discipline to virtue and strength consists in full walking amid both, distinguishing, avoiding, and choosing. "I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out to see her adversary, but slinks out of the race where that immortal garland is to be run for notwithstanding dust and heat. Assuredly we bring not innocence into the world, we bring impurity much rather; that which purifies is trial, and trial is by what is contrary." There is much more in the same strain, a favourite one with Milton, with instances of readings in evil books


The Life of John Milton Vol. 3 1643-1649 - 50/128

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