Forgotten London Classics: John Milton, Areopagitica; A Speech of Mr John Milton For the Liberty of Unlicenc’d Printing, To the Parlament of England (1644)
John Milton could lay quite a claim to being the greatest Londoner of them all: famous in his lifetime throughout Europe as both poet and prose writer; master of multiple genres including tragedy, epic, the sonnet and the elegy; composer of Paradise Lost (finished when he had completely lost his sight); signatory to Charles I’s death warrant and chief apologist for the regicide; able to compose in several languages and read Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Italian and French; formidable proponent of new systems of learning and social relations in his works on divorce and education; coiner of the word satanic, amongst many others; and fierce advocate of a kind of free speech. Milton’s London was that of the 1640s and 1650s, revolutionary and dynamic decades of intense religious debate, civil conflict and massive social change. Key to this foment was the newly opened and dynamic print culture of the city, and Milton was forefront amongst those who defended the liberated presses.
During the period before 1642 publishing was closely controlled and monitored by the Crown; censorship was a fact of life. However the Star Chamber, which carried out this task, collapsed due to the breakdown of royal authority after the outbreak of the war between King and Parliament in 1642. As a consequence the presses boomed and publication went through the roof. A key element of this was the exponential increase in news. Before 1642 access to news was controlled; the years following saw the birth of the newspaper as we might recognise it in the guise of cheap, populist newsbooks such as Mercurius Britannicus or The Man in the Moon. However, Parliament attempted to reimpose censorship in 1643, and Areopagitica is written as a response to this move. Milton berates Parliament for trying to stem the tide of information.
Milton does not pretend to authoritative knowledge through debate, but merely a better and more enlightened conception. His discussion of the public nature of printed books is situated within a Ciceronian discourse of advice and reasoned persuasion. The forum for debate has a literal and conceptual pertinence; books have a concrete and material status as carriers of thought and opinion, and they inhabit and create a particular space. Milton’s conception of the power of this space, the forum for reasoned debate which will encourage a movement to right government and the perfection of the species, is predicated upon a humanist notion that all books are good and that reason is paramount. It also rests on a notion of free market economics which emphasises that the marketplace will settle according to the demand of informed and intelligent consumers. He does not argue for complete openness – libel and blasphemy will still be dealt with – but claims that a truly free society has an open press. Famously, he saw books as having some kind of vital life: ‘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’. Furthermore, he argues that books are almost more important than people; that reason is most useful to a society and the destruction or censorship of reason can destroy us: ‘And yet on the other hand unlesse warinesse be us’d, as good almost kill a Man as kill a good Book; who kills a Man kills a reasonable creature, Gods Image; but hee who destroyes a good Booke, kills reason it selfe, kills the Image of God, as it were in the eye. Many a man lives a burden to the Earth; but a good Booke is the pretious life-blood of a master spirit, imbalm’d and treasur’d up on purpose to a life beyond life. Milton’s impassioned claims for the power of open publication and truth is resonant now; surely debates over the control of information in any kind can benefit from reading his rational, direct, and persuasive writings.