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Areopagitica: A speech of Mr. John Milton for the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing to the Parliament of England is a 1644 prose polemical tract by English author John Milton against censorship. Areopagitica is among history's most influential and impassioned philosophical defences of the principle of a right to freedom of speech and expression, which was written in opposition to licensing and censorship. It is regarded as one of the most eloquent defences of press freedom ever written because many of its expressed principles form the basis for modern justifications of that right.
Areopagitica was published 23 November 1644, at the height of the English Civil War. It is titled after a speech written by the Athenian orator Isocrates in the 5th century BC. (The Areopagus is a hill in Athens, the site of real and legendary tribunals, and was the name of a council whose power Isocrates hoped to restore). Like Isocrates, Milton had no intention of delivering his speech orally. Instead it was distributed via pamphlet, defying the same publication censorship he argued against. As a Protestant, Milton had supported the Presbyterians in Parliament, but in this work he argued forcefully against the Licensing Order of 1643, in which Parliament required authors to have a license approved by the government before their work could be published.
This issue was personal for Milton as he had suffered censorship himself in his efforts to publish several tracts defending divorce (a radical stance which met with no favor from the censors). Areopagitica is full of biblical and classical references which Milton uses to strengthen his argument; this is particularly fitting because it was directed toward the Calvinist Presbyterians that comprised Parliament at that time.
Before presenting his argument, Milton defends the very idea of writing a treatise such as Areopagitica. He compliments England for having overcome the tyranny of Charles I and the prelates, but his purpose is to voice his grievances. Milton defends this purpose, holding that to bring forth complaints before the Parliament is a matter of civil liberty and loyalty, because constructive criticism is better than false flattery.  He concludes his introduction by encouraging Parliament to obey “the voice of reason” and to be “willing to repeal any Act” for the sake of truth and upright judgment. .
Milton begins with historical evidence noting that Ancient Greece and Rome did not adhere to the practice of licensing. In some cases, blasphemous or libelous writings were burnt and their authors punished, but it was after production that these texts were rejected rather than prior to. Milton’s point is that, if a text is to be rejected, it should first be “examined, refuted, and condemned” rather than prohibited before its ideas have even been expressed. Milton points out that licensing was first instituted by the Catholics with the Inquisition. This fact appealed to the Parliament’s religious beliefs since the Parliament was dominated by Protestants, and there were conflicts between the Protestants and Catholics in England; see Protestant Reformation. Milton provides historical examples of the aftermath following the Inquisition, including how there were popes in Rome beginning in the 1300s who became tyrannical licensers. For example, Pope Martin V became the first to excommunicate the reading of heretical books, and then in the 1500s the Council of Trent and Spanish Inquisition prohibited texts that were not even necessarily heretical, but only unfavorable to the friars.
Milton proceeds his argument by discussing the purpose of reading. He mentions that Moses, David, and Paul, were all learned, which reminds his Protestant audience that being learned involves reading “books of all sorts.” He argues that this includes even the “bad” or heretical books, because we can learn from their wrongs and discover what is true by considering what is not. Milton’s point is that God endowed every person with the reason, free will, and conscience to judge ideas for themselves, so the ideas in a text should be rejected by the reader’s own choice, not by a licensing authority. Also, the mind is not corrupted simply by encountering falsehood. Milton points out that encountering falsehood can actually lead to virtuous action, such as how St. Paul’s converts had privately and voluntarily burned Ephesian books considered to be "magic."
Milton then argues that Parliament’s licensing order will fail in its purpose to suppress scandalous, seditious, and libelous books: “This order of licensing conduces nothing to the end for which it was framed." The order was meant to rectify manners by preventing the spread of an “infection” caused by bad books. Milton objects, arguing that the licensing order is too sweeping, because even the Bible itself had been historically limited to readers for containing offensive descriptions of blasphemy and wicked men. Milton also points out that Parliament will not protect the ignorant from bad books by this Order, because the books would more likely have been read by the learned anyhow. Further, whatever bad ideas were written can still be taught through word of mouth or otherwise, so “infection” or corruption is not prevented. Milton’s point is that licensing books cannot possibly prevent societal corruption (it is “far insufficient to the end which it intends"), so there is no viable stopping point: “If we think to regulate printing, thereby to rectify manners, we must [also] regulate all recreations and pastimes...” Finally, Milton also points out that if there are even licensers fit for making these judgments, then the possibility of error in licensing books is still great, and the amount of time the job would take is impractical.
Milton argues that licensing is “a dishonor and derogation to the author, to the book, to the privilege and dignity of learning.” This is because many authors will produce a written work with genuinely good intentions only to have it censored by what amounts to a subjective, arbitrary judgment of the licenser. Milton also thinks that England needs to be open to truth and understanding, which should not be monopolized by the government’s standards. Faith and knowledge need exercise, but this Order will lead to conformity and laziness. Licensing will hinder discovery of truth by the government’s prejudice and custom, because there will always be more truth to be found that we do not yet know of. Milton thinks that licensing could potentially hinder God’s plans, since it gives the licenser the power to silence others.
Although Milton recognizes individual right, he is not completely libertarian in Areopagitica as he argues that the status quo ante worked best. According to the previous English law, all books had to have at least a printer's name (and preferably an author's name) inscribed in them. Under that system, Milton argues, if any blasphemous or libellous material is published, those books can still be destroyed after the fact.
Areopagitica did not persuade the Presbyterians in Parliament to invalidate the prepublication censorship component of the Licensing Order of 1643; freedom of the press was not achieved until 1695. However, as Milton's treatise has been overwhelmingly praised, understanding his audience moves us toward an understanding of why it was unsuccessful. Milton and the Presbyterians had together abolished the Star Chamber Decree under King Charles, but now that they were not being oppressed and they held the power, the Presbyterians in Parliament no longer held to their defense of freedom of the press. Through the Licensing Order of 1643, they were set on silencing the more radical Protestants, the Independents. Milton's treatise is his response to that licensing order, which clearly came at a time when he and the Parliament were already at odds.
In addition, by the time Milton wrote Areopagitica he had already unsuccessfully challenged Parliament in other areas of privilege and right. Milton’s divorce tracts proved too radical for his day, as did this work. Milton’s ideas were ahead of his time in the sense that he anticipated the arguments of later advocates of freedom of the press by relating the concept of free will and choice to individual expression and right. Milton's treatise "laid the foundations for thought that would come after and express itself in such authors as John Locke and John Stuart Mill."
Another example of its influence is in that of the United States Constitution, which includes the prohibition against prior restraint, or prepublication censorship. This prohibition is necessary because, as Milton recognized in Areopagitica, to threaten censorship prior to publication would have a chilling effect on expression and speech, or in Milton’s view, it would interfere with the pursuit of truth as it relates to a providential plan.
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; nay, they do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them.
[A]s 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.
[T]hough all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play on the earth, so Truth be in the field, we do injuriously, by licensing and prohibiting, to misdoubt her strength. Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?
I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary but slinks out of the race, where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat.
Truth indeed came once into the world with her divine Master, and was a perfect shape most glorious to look on: but when he ascended, and his Apostles after him were laid asleep, then straight arose a wicked race of deceivers, who, as that story goes of the Egyptian Typhon with his conspirators, how they dealt with the good Osiris, took the virgin Truth, hewed her lovely form into a thousand pieces, and scattered them to the four winds. From that time ever since, the sad friends of Truth, such as durst appear, imitating the careful search that Isis made for the mangled body of Osiris, went up and down gathering up limb by limb, still as they could find them. We have not yet found them all, Lords and Commons, nor ever shall do, till her Master's second coming [...]
Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.
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A quotation from Areopagitica – "A good book is the precious lifeblood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life" – is still prominently displayed over the entrance to the renovated Main Reading Room of the New York Public Library.
The Supreme Court of the United States has, in interpreting the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, referred to Areopagitica to explain the Amendment's protections. The Court has cited to Areopagitica, by name, in four cases. Most notably, in the landmark case New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, the Court cited Areopagitica to explain the inherent value of false statements. The Court cited Milton to explain the dangers of prior restraint in Times Film Corp. v. City of Chicago et al. Later, Justice Douglas, concurring in Eisenstadt, Sheriff v. Baird cited the pamphlet to support striking down restrictions on lecturing about birth control. Finally, Justice Black cited Areopagitica when, in Communist Party of the United States v. Subversive Activities Control Board, he dissented from the Court's upholding of restrictions on the Communist Party of the United States against a free speech and free association challenge. In each instance, Milton is cited by the Court's members to support a broad and expansive protection of free speech and association.
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