Milton's Areopagitica: Summary & Analysis

Milton's Areopagitica: Summary & Analysis
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  • 0:00 Historical Context
  • 0:55 Milton's Appeal To…
  • 2:15 Practical Concerns
  • 4:05 Legacy
  • 4:50 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Benjamin Gaines

Benjamin has his master's degree in literature and has taught writing in and out of academia.

John Milton's Areopagitica is one of the earliest essays arguing for the freedom of the press and against preemptive censorship. Learn more about the content and history of this important piece of historical writing.

Historical Context

Today, we take for granted the idea that we can write and share things without getting permission beforehand. Whether it's a newspaper, book, blog, or social media post, the decision to share something rests with each of us, not with the government. This wasn't always the case, though.

In 1643, the Parliament of England was concerned that they had no control over what was being printed throughout the country. They were especially angry about people writing untrue, offensive, or blasphemous things about the church or the government.

As a result, they passed a law known as the Licensing Order of 1643. This law required that every book, pamphlet, and other written material had to be approved by the government before it could be printed.

The next year, famed author and poet John Milton published a pamphlet called Areopagitica. It presented his reasons for opposing this law and argued against regulating printing.

Milton's Appeal to History and Faith

The heart of Milton's argument is the idea that no book should have to be approved before it can be printed. Milton wasn't against all censorship, but he didn't feel that books should need government pre-approval. To this end, he uses references to both the bible and ancient Greece and Rome to support his position.

He observes that both ancient Greece and Rome (revered as the founders of modern civilization) would punish blasphemous and libelous writing, but they would not require all authors to submit their books first for approval. Milton argues that England could take a lesson from this by allowing unrestricted printing, but punishing anyone who abused it.

Areopagitica then contrasts the classical, enlightened tradition of the Greeks/Romans with the censorship and regulation of the Catholic church and the Spanish Inquisition. This argument took advantage of the fact that Parliament was made up of Protestants who had a strong dislike of the Catholic church. No English politician at that time would want to be thought of as siding with Catholicism.

Portrait of John Milton
John Milton

Milton then changes focus to the bible, discussing how biblical figures would use immoral or heretical texts to expose their flaws. This argument develops the idea that although Parliament might disagree with a work, they could use its ideas to show how wrong the offending author might be.

Practical Concerns

From there, he challenges the very purpose of the law. Parliament cited the dangers of blasphemous, insulting, and otherwise dangerous information spreading. However, Milton argues, ideas and information spread by more than just books. If you are trying to protect people from bad influences with this law, won't you need to censor songs, dancing, clothing, and everything enjoyable in life? Imagine a world where you needed to fill out a government form to tell a joke or have a conversation in public. Doesn't that sound dreadful?

Milton then moves on to the practical side of things. Not only does he believe that the goal of this law is bad, but he argues that the law itself won't work properly. Among the flaws he sees in requiring all books to be pre-licensed before they can be read, he includes:

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