A COMMENTARY BY SIR RICHARD C. JEBB
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In 1644 the English poet and man of letters, John Milton, published the Areopagitica as an appeal to Parliament to rescind their Licensing Order of June 16th, 1643. This order was designed to bring publishing under government control by creating a number of official censors to whom authors would submit their work for approval prior to having it published. Milton’s argument, in brief, was that precensorship of authors was little more than an excuse for state control of thought. Recognizing that some means of accountability was necessary to ensure that libellous or other illegal works were kept under control, Milton felt this could be achieved by ensuring the legal responsibility of printers and authors for the content of what they published.
In this essay, attacks on Catholicism should be read with the context of the English Civil War kept in mind. Although the English had had some form of censorship since about 1530, Milton tried to shame Parliament into adopting his views by claiming it a recent Catholic import, a product of the King’s Star Chamber, which so recently had been abolished (1641), and which had been the principal opponent of the Protestant Parliament. While the Licensing Order had as its official intent the restoration of the legal protection of the Stationer’s Company monopoly on printing, Milton saw as its byproduct the return of state control over publishing in general. His own experience in having to get his writings on divorce published without license, reinforced his views that a new dogmatic authority was replacing the old.
While knowledge of this context is important to an understanding of the nature of Milton’s passion in writing this pamphlet, it is not essential to a modern appreciation of its contents. Milton’s words are just as powerful today in their call for freedom of thought as they were in his own. The issue he is addressing is still with us: the debate between legitimate societal control and freedom – whether of printing, speech, or thought – is on-going, and will continue to be of central importance in our media-dependent culture.
The following extracts should, it is hoped, bring out the vision that was Milton’s, and make clear why this pamphlet is, to this day, an important part of English letters, and will hopefully provide grounds for fruitful reflection on this, its 351st anniversary. Editorial comments have been inserted prior to some sections, using italics to differentiate them from Milton’s own words.
Sid Parkinson, Editor, Discourse
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