Lessons on free speech and intellectual combat from John Milton

By | April 28, 2021

Nicholas McDowell writes:

Published at the height of the first English Civil War, Areopagitica: A Speech of Mr John Milton for the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing, to the Parliament of England (1644), remains a powerful defence of free expression. Printing might now have almost given way to digital media as the form in which beliefs and ideas are proposed, argued with and attacked, but the questions raised by Areopagitica about liberty of thought and speech, and more specifically writing, are more urgent than ever. John Milton, the poet who, in Paradise Lost (1667), composed an English epic that could compete with and even surpass the Greek and Latin classics, was also a prose writer of distinction. This fact tends to be eclipsed by his reputation as a poet. But in Areopagitica, he gave Western liberalism some of the language through which it still conceives of itself. It’s both illuminating and salutary, at a moment of crisis in the liberal tradition, to return to the principles that shaped that tradition. At a time when the possibility of civil war in the United States is openly entertained by some, literally as well as metaphorically, we can learn much about the tensions inherent in liberalism by returning to the origins of Milton’s arguments amid the actual civil war that raged in Britain and Ireland in the mid-17th century.

There’s little evidence that what has become Milton’s best-known prose work had any wide impact on the thinking of his contemporaries: one German reader in 1647 suggested that it should be translated into other languages to ‘give it good circulation in other lands where such tyranny reigns’, but he also thought it ‘rather too satirical’ and that its arguments needed to be ‘more moderately set forth’. The real impact of Areopagitica ­– the title alludes to Isocrates’ seventh oration addressed to the Areopagus, the ancient council of Athens – came in later revolutions and in different lands. Thomas Jefferson quoted it, and the comte de Mirabeau’s translation into French went through four editions between 1788 and 1792.

Its eventual influence on British thought is apparent in the echoes of its argument and imagery in John Stuart Mill’s essay On Liberty (1859), in which Mill insists that freedom of expression is a precondition of a flourishing society. The occasion for George Orwell’s powerful essay ‘The Prevention of Literature’ (1946), in which he considers the twin threats posed to ‘intellectual liberty’ by ‘totalitarianism’ and ‘monopoly and bureaucracy’, was Orwell’s dismay after attending a meeting of the PEN Club – a society founded in 1921 to further intellectual cooperation among writers – to commemorate the tercentenary of the publication of Areopagitica. That ‘no speaker quoted from the pamphlet which was ostensibly being commemorated’ was, for Orwell, an indication of the failure of his contemporaries to live up to the ideals that they claimed to promote.

The resonance of Areopagitica for US ideals of the free exchange of ideas is, however, apparent to anyone who has been to the New York Public Library. A plaque on Library Way bears this quotation from the pamphlet beside an image of a printing press: ‘Where there is much desire to learn, there of necessity will be much arguing, much writing, many opinions; for opinion in good persons is but knowledge in the making.’ More prominent is the quotation displayed above the entrance to the main reading room, which preserves the original spelling: ‘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.’ [Continue reading…]

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