MILTON: Areopagitica

MILTON: Areopagitica

  • The epigraph is from Euripides’ play, The Suppliants. The quote asserts that true Liberty consists of freedom of speech.
  • Milton claims to write this polemic to advance the public good.
  • One cannot expect that no grievance will ever arise in a State. The freedom to express complaints, to consider complaints, and to act for the greatest good after careful consideration of the merits of the grievances are the qualities of true Civil Liberty.
  • There are three principals that distinguish praise from flattery: 1) only that which merits praise is praised; 2) things praised truly exist in those persons to whom they are ascribed; and 3) the man who praises another can demonstrate that he does not flatter.
  • Milton compares the Parliament of England with the Parliament of ancient Athens. He praises England for hearing the grievances of private citizens like the Athenian Parliament. Milton thus elevates England to the esteemed level of ancient Greece.
  • In an interesting digression, Milton concurs with Aristotle’s opinion that cold climates make men slow-witted.
  • Milton asks Parliament to reconsider their Order that no writing may be published unless it is approved and licensed by a committee.
  • Milton shall demonstrate that the authors of the practice of licensing books are men that Parliament abhors; then he shall address the topic of reading in general; then he shall demonstrate that the Order does not achieve its objective of suppressing scandalous, seditious, and libelous books; finally, he shall demonstrate that the Order will discourage learning and hinder the discovery of Truth.
  • Milton does not argue against the practice of censoring writings after they have been published and punishing the authors. However, he suggest that Parliament must be wary about censoring writings; for writings contain the essence of the living intellect that wrote them. Killing a book is a sort of homicide.
  • The practice of licensing originated in the Inquisition and adopted by the Prelates who ruled England shortly before the time that Milton wrote this treatise. Parliament consisted mainly of Protestants who did not wish to behave like their Catholic predecessors in any way.
  • The magistrates of Athens only took notice of blasphemous and libelous writings.
  • Milton claims that all the best and wisest Commonwealths in history forbore the practice of licensing. Only the oppressors of men – i.e. the Catholic Church – took up the practice to hinder the development of the Reformation.
  • Milton alludes to the well-read biblical figures of Moses, Daniel, and Paul to support his argument that an understanding of the truth can be obtained by reading what is not true; and that readers are not debauched by corrupt writings.
  •  The seven liberal sciences are: grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music.
  • Man has sufficient capacity to reason and judge aright the contents of all texts.
  • Bad men will find occasions of evil even in the best books [the devil may quote scripture for his purpose]. Bad books serve the Good Man to discover, refute, forewarn, and to illustrate.
  • All opinions, even blatant errors, are of assistance in attaining the Truth.
  • The knowledge of good is so involved and interwoven with the knowledge of evil that they are inseparable. Knowledge of evil leads to knowledge of good and vice versa. Furthermore, the man who can understand vice and all its baits and seeming pleasures yet prefers virtue is more praiseworthy than the man who never confronts vice, but withdraws away from it into isolation. The true virtue of temperance is demonstrated in the man who knows vice yet abstains. The man who removes himself from all knowledge and temptation of evil does not exercise virtue.
  • We are not born innocent. We are born impure. Trials of evil purify us.
  •  One harm that people fear can arise from books is the corruption of morals.
  • In response to the first fear, Milton argues that corrupting influences spread by other means than books alone. To think that the licensing of books will hinder the spread of corrupting ideas is as foolish as the thought that one could imprison pigeons in a yard by closing a gate. Furthermore, the licensers would be subject to the supposed corrupting influence – who is so infallible as to be incorruptible?
  • A wise man will gather gold out of the most scurrilous book, and a fool will be a fool even with the best book. There is no reason to remove anything advantageous to a wise man’s knowledge.
  • If we regulate printing to rectify manner, we must regulate all pastimes and recreations, such as music, dancing, food, drink, clothing, etc.
  • If every good act is done under compulsion, then virtue does not merit praise. An individual must be presented with both sin and virtue, and prefer virtue over sin to be praised for being virtuous. Without temptation and sin, there is no virtue.
  • Doing good deeds is much to be preferred than hindering evil.
  • Another reason that licensing will not achieve its end of preventing corruption of manners is that licensing is impractical. The qualities of licensers must be learned, intelligent, and discerning. No such man will voluntarily devote his time to pouring over tomes. There are too many texts waiting to be published, and too few men who are willing to be scrupulous licensers. Thus, the job of a licenser will be taken by unqualified and venal men.
  • Licensing is the greatest discouragement and affront to the learned man. It offends the writer, who must submit his work to one who perhaps is less intelligent, younger, and unqualified than him. It is offensive to the English people because it implies that the people are gullible and corruptible.
  • Knowledge – like faith, limbs, and complexion – thrives by exercise. If there is not a perpetual progression towards the truth, men sink into a muddy pool of custom and conformity.
  • A man who believes things only because his Pastor or another says so, though the beliefs are true, is a heretic of Truth.
  • There is no burden that some would more happily give to another than the charge and care of one’s religion. The wealthy man renounces the toil of discovering religious truth, and commits the managing of his religious affairs to some person of divine not and estimation. The wealthy man makes this other person his religion; he considers his association with the other man to be sufficient evidence of his own piety. Thus, religion becomes a commodity that can be left at home or at the church while one engages in the economy.
  • Licensing will hinders us from progressing towards the Truth. We have not reached, nor will we ever reach, the beatific vision of Truth. If the Order to License is enacted, then the English people will sink into dullness, conformity, and tradition.
  • We search for and discover what we do not know by considering what we do know.
  • Opinion in good men is but knowledge in the making.
  • Let Truth and Falsehood grapple. Truth confuting Falsehood is the best and surest suppressing.
  • It is more wholesome and prudent to tolerate than to censor.
  • The first appearance of Truth is often obscured by custom and prejudice.
  • Truth is dispensed in degrees so that the light of Truth does not blind us as the radiance of the sun.
  • A better way to curb mischievous and libelous writings is to require all publications to print the author’s name and the name of the publisher. If the writing is found to be mischievous and libelous, the writer and publisher may be punished; and thus an example will be set that will deter future writings of such nature.

“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; nay they do preserve as in a violl the purest efficacie and extraction of that living intellect that bred them.”

“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.”

“He that can apprehend and consider vice with all her baits and seeming pleasures, and yet abstain, and yet distinguish, and yet prefer that which is truly better, he is the true wayfaring Christian. I cannot praise a fugitive and cloister’d vertue, unexercis’d & unbreath’d, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race, where that immortall garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat. Assuredly we bring not innocence into the world, we bring impurity much rather: that which purifies us is triall, and triall is by what is contrary.”

“Since therefore the knowledge and survay of vice is in this world so necessary to the constituting of human vertue, and the scanning of error to the confirmation of truth, how can we more safely, and with lesse danger scout into the regions of sin and falsity then by reading all manner of tractats, and hearing all manner of reason?”

“To sequester out of the world into Atlantick and Eutopian polities which never can be drawn into use, will not mend our condition; but to ordain wisely as in this world of evill, in the midd’st whereof God hath plac’t us unavoidably.”

“Many there be that complain of divin Providence for suffering Adam to transgresse, foolish tongues! when God gave him reason, he gave him freedom to choose, for reason is but choosing; he had bin else a meer artificiall Adam, such an Adam as he is in the motions. We our selves esteem not of that obedience, or love, or gift, which is of force: God therefore left him free, set before him a provoking object, ever almost in his eyes herein consisted his merit, herein the right of his reward, the praise of his abstinence. Wherefore did he creat passions within us, pleasures round about us, but that these rightly temper’d are the very ingredients of vertu?”

“There be delights, there be recreations and jolly pastimes that will fetch the day about from sun to sun, and rock the tedious year as in a delightfull dream. What need they torture their heads with that which others have tak’n so strictly, and so unalterably into their own pourveying. These are the fruits which a dull ease and cessation of our knowledge will bring forth among the people. How goodly, and how to be wisht were such an obedient unanimity as this, what a fine conformity would it starch us all into?”

“There be pens and heads there, sitting by their studious lamps, musing, searching, revolving new notions and idea’s wherewith to present, as with their homage and their fealty the approaching Reformation: others as fast reading, trying all things, assenting to the force of reason and convincement.”

“Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.”

Milton’s Areopagitica is concerned primarily with freedom of speech, and the licensing of books. However, I found his tangent argument regarding the nature of good and evil to be much more fascinating than the main topic. Milton attempts a theodicy – i.e. an explanation for the existence of evil in the world. He writes that without the knowledge of evil, there cannot be knowledge of good. These concepts are so involved and interwoven that they cannot exist without one another.

This argument has been repeated by many writers throughout history. I think that Dostoyevsky provided a crushing counterargument in The Brothers Karamazov. Dostoyevsky accepts the premise that good cannot exist without evil, but, through the character of Ivan, he questions whether the knowledge of good is worthy of allowing evil to exist in the world. Ivan specifically asks if divine felicity justifies the suffering of innocent children. I suppose that each individual will answer this question differently, but I would answer ‘no.’

Milton also argues that virtue cannot exist where vice does not exist. He uses an analogy similar to the one used by Aristotle when he discusses virtue as an act, not a passive quality – “it is not the swiftest in the audience who win the garlands, but those who compete in the race.” One must be faced with both virtue and vice, and prefer virtue over vice. If one is compelled to perform virtuous acts, then we would not consider such a man to be virtuous because he did not choose virtue for itself, but rather for another end – avoidance of pain and other methods of compulsion. I agree with this argument. The man who works in a bakery yet abstains from gluttony is more admirable and commendable than the man who has no access to the quantities of food that would provide sufficient temptation for one to become a glutton. The latter man is not a glutton because of circumstances beyond his control, not because he chooses to be temperate. The former man chooses temperance over gluttony, and thus can rightly be praised as virtuous.

MILTON: Areopagitica

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