33 pages 1 hour read

John Milton


Nonfiction | Essay / Speech | Adult | Published in 1644

A modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, SuperSummary offers high-quality Study Guides with detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, and more.

Summary and Study Guide

Areopagitica Summary

As an epigram, Milton quotes Euripides, who wrote: “This is true liberty, when free-born men, having the advise the public, may speak free, which he who can, and will, deserves high praise; who neither can, nor will, may hold his peace; what can be juster in a state than this?” (337). Milton explains that addressing Parliament in the name of the “public good” (337) is no small feat and that any person in this position would have doubts and fears of punishment. For Milton, the thought of arguing on a topic that he has previously written about frequently arouses within him “a passion far more welcome than incidental to a preface” (338). He asserts that regardless of the outcome, it will be worth the effort if it “brings joy and gratulation” to “all who wish and promote their country’s liberty” (338). Milton goes on to explain that “liberty” does not mean “that no grievance should ever arise in the commonwealth” (338), but that those grievances can be spoken publicly, considered, and addressed.

Milton praises Parliament for fighting against the tyranny of King Charles I and religious leaders as well as for accomplishing a level of freedom that Rome could not. Although Milton admits that he “might be justly reckoned among the tardiest, and the unwillingest of them that praise ye” (338), he points out that praise without “three principal things” is only “courtship and flattery” (338). First, that which is praised must be “solidly worthy of praise” (338). Second, it must be “truly and really in those persons to whom they are ascribed” (338). And third, the person praising must “demonstrate that he flatters not” (338). Milton asserts that truth and true praise are better than flattery and that offering advice is a form of praise. He calls on members of Parliament to show that they, unlike other rulers, prefer “public advice” to “public flattery” (339). By listening to Milton’s argument, Parliament can demonstrate that it is better than King Charles I and his religious leaders, who have “produced nothing worth memory but the weak ostentation of wealth” (339). Milton suggests that the members of Parliament seem to prefer to emulate the ancient Greeks rather than “the barbaric pride of a Hunnish and Norwegian stateliness” (339). The Greek leaders valued the insight of educated men and would listen when they offered critiques.

The crux of the matter that Milton wishes to discuss is the decree by which Parliament has “ordained to regulate printing, that no book, pamphlet, or paper shall henceforth be printed” (340) without the approval and licensing of Parliament, or someone appointed by Parliament. He notes that there is a section that preserves copyright for authors and publishers as well as “provides for the poor” (340), and he has no objection to either of these rules. Milton’s concern is the clause which requires that any book or pamphlet published must be “approved and licensed” by an agent appointed by Parliament. Milton lays out the argument he will make against this law. First, he will show that those who invented the book licensing system are papists, who Parliament will not want to be associated with; second, he will discuss the purpose of reading texts in general; third, he suggests that the order will not suppress the types of books that it is meant to suppress; and fourth, the order will effectively cause “the discouragement of all learning, and the stop of truth, not only by disexercising and blunting our abilities in what we know already, but by hindering and cropping the discovery that might be yet further made both in religious and civil wisdom” (340).

Milton admits that both the church and the commonwealth must pay attention to books because books are living things that “contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are” (341). He further contends that he “who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God’s image; but he who destroy as good book kills reason itself, kills the image of God, as it were, in the eye” (341). Destroying books amounts to killing “the breath of reason itself, slays an immortality rather than a life” (341). Milton informs readers that the idea of licensing rose out of the Inquisition and led to the persecution of some of their fellow Presbyterians. In ancient Athens, leaders only took notice of works that were blasphemous or libelous. Otherwise, they paid no attention to works that expressed varying opinions. Milton cites various examples of ancient Greeks who wrote freely without interference from the government. Similarly, although the ancient Romans cared more about military training than learning, only libelous texts were destroyed, and their authors subsequently punished. Milton lists various Roman writers who were not suppressed. When the emperors of Rome converted to Christianity, books by “those whom they took to be grand heretics” (344) were destroyed, but “the writings of heathen authors, unless they were plain invectives against Christianity” (344)were allowed without obstruction.

Milton goes on to establish that censorship of books is a prime directive of the papacy when, after the year 800 AD, the Roman popes “extended their dominion over men’s eyes as they had before over their judgments” (344) and began to burn and forbid texts that they “fancied not” (344). At first, they only targeted heretical texts, excommunicating those who read them. But when reformists began to publish treatises exposing the corruption in the Roman Catholic Church, the Papal Council imposed more severe restrictions. Through the Council of Trent and the Spanish Inquisition, the church created catalogues of forbidden books. It did not stay with “matters heretical, but any subject that was not to their palate” was prohibited. Finally, “as if St. Peter had bequeathed them the keys of the press also out of Paradise” (345), the papacy determined that each text must be “approved and licensed under the hands of two or three glutton friars” (345). He quotes several examples of Roman clergymen writing their “imprimatur,” which is Latin for “approval for printing.” Milton then asserts that the word “imprimatur” cannot be translated into English because it is “the language of men ever famous and foremost in the achievements of liberty” (346), and English would not host such a tyrannical word.

Having drawn the lineage of censorship to the Roman Catholic Church and the papacy, Milton declares: “Till then, books were ever as freely admitted into the world as any other birth; the issue of the brain was no more stifled than the issue of the womb” (346). He compares censoring a book before publication to judging a soul before it is born. Milton suggests that those who wrote the licensing order did not have “sinister intention” for “all men know the integrity of your actions and how ye honor truth will clear ye readily” (346). Milton suggests that some might argue that even if the creators of a thing are bad, the creation might still be good. He asserts that this might be true, but the licensing and censorship laws are not particularly difficult to invent, and some of the greatest societies in history have flourished without it. Additionally, the only leaders to use the practice are “falsest seducers and oppressors of men” who did so “for no other purpose but to obstruct and hinder the first approach of Reformation” (347). Therefore, Milton claims that it would be nearly impossible to use such an invention for good.

Milton then turns his attention to whether it is beneficial or damaging to read indiscriminately. He references Moses, Daniel, and Paul, who demonstrated knowledge of Egyptian, Greek, and Babylonian literature. Milton offers examples in which reading has been limited or forbidden, as with Julian the Apostate, a Roman emperor “and subtlest enemy to our faith” (347) who forbid Christians from “the study of heathen learning” (347). He cites St. Jerome who, in a fever dream, was whipped by the devil for reading Cicero. Milton adds that Eusebius had a vision long before St. Jerome, without a fever, in which God appeared and said: “Read any books whatever come to thy hands, for thou art sufficient to judge aright and to examine each matter” (348). This statement agrees with St. Paul, who said: “Prove all things, hold fast to that which is good” (348). Milton suggests that St. Paul might have added “to the pure, all things are pure” (348). He compares literature to the consumption of meat, about which God leaves “the choice to each man’s discretion” (348). For an unhealthy stomach, whether meat is “wholesome” or “unwholesome” (349) makes no difference, just as a “naughty mind” can use good books for mischief.

By allowing men to choose food at their own discretion, bypassing the dietary laws in the Old Testament, God provided the opportunity to demonstrate moderation and restraint. Milton asserts: “There were but little work left for preaching, if law and compulsion should grow so fast upon those things which heretofore were governed only by exhortation” (349). He argues that if God had wanted to restrict his followers’ reading, he would have provided a list. In the world, good and evil are intertwined, and “[it] was from out the rind of one apple tasted that the knowledge of good and evil, as two twins cleaving together, leapt forth into the world” (350). A man cannot choose goodness if he has not had the opportunity to know evil. Milton disparages “fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary” (350). Humans are imperfect but become purified through tests and trials. Untested virtue is superficial. By reading indiscriminately, human virtue can be tested and strengthened, which translates into virtuous action in the real world.

Milton addresses the types of presumed potential harm that might come from uncensored reading: first, it might infect the minds of readers and corrupt them. If this is the case, however, they will have to ban any book that discusses religious controversy or human learning. Even the Bible describes heathen or sinful acts and uses unholy language. Milton argues that evil is disseminated by “the worst of men, who are both most able and most diligent to instill the poison they suck” (352). Banning English books will do nothing to stop those who bring evil ideas from foreign lands. Books that raise debates about religion are the most dangerous, but they tend to reach the educated rather than the uneducated, who are usually not affected by them unless they are taught be educated men. However, the “cautious enterprise of licensing” (353) will not hinder these ideas because “evil manners are as perfectly learned without books a thousand other ways which cannot be stopped” (353).

Since educated men are the first to be exposed to vice-filled books and thus the ones to spread that vice, how can Parliament be sure that the licensers can be trusted? Furthermore, “if it be true that a wise man like a good refiner can gather gold out of the drossiest volume, and that a fool will be a fool with the best books, yea or without a book, there is no reason that we should deprive a wise man of any advantage to his wisdom” (353). Although it is thought that one should avoid unnecessary exposure to temptation, Milton argues that books are not temptations. They are “useful drugs and materials wherewith to temper and compose effective and strong medicines” (353) that men cannot live without. The licensing act will not stop weaker men from reading tempting books, so therefore it will not do what it is designed to do.

Milton goes on to argue that the licensing system “conduces nothing to the end for which it was framed” (353). No other civilization that has valued education instated licensing laws like the ones imposed by Parliament. Since, as he pointed out earlier, the licensing decree is not a difficult or complicated invention, he deduces that other societies have chosen not to impose such laws. For instance, although Plato’s Republic proposes laws that restrict reading and learning, his laws were invented for an imaginary society, and he did not abide by those laws in real life. Plato was aware that his laws were impractical in any existing republic. There are many ways to corrupt the mind other than books. In order to control the ethics of a people, one would have to “regulate all recreations and pastimes, all that is delightful to man” (355). It would require endless licensers to approve each piece of music or dance. Then, someone would have to regulate “household gluttony” and “inhibit the multitudes that frequent those houses where drunkenness is sold and harbored” (355) as well as fashion and clothing. Milton asks: “Who shall still appoint what shall be discoursed, what presumed and no further?” (355).

While those things that would elude licensing are “the bane of the commonwealth” (356), the “great art lies [in] discern[ing]” (356) which laws are essential and which situations can be controlled through persuasion. Milton contends that if a person’s actions are entirely legislated, they do not deserve praise for acting virtuously. While some claim that God should not have allowed Adam to eat the forbidden fruit, they are fools. With reason, God gives the freedom of choice. Otherwise, what would be the point of passions and pleasures if not to allow humans to exercise temperance and virtue. Milton further maintains that removing objects of sin does not remove the sin. Even if it were possible to banish sin by removing tempting objects, this would also mean banishing virtue. Taking away choice in literature goes against God’s command for “temperance, justice, continence” (356).

Milton notes that the licensing act is impotent to stop Mercurius Aulicus, an underground newspaper that favors the king and speaks out against Parliament. For the act to be effective, all existing books would need to be scoured, as well as any foreign books entering the country. Some books might have parts that are acceptable and pieces that are evil, and licensers would need to censor parts of them. To do this, Parliament would need to employ many more officials. In order to handle the workload, these officials would begin to close down presses that printed objectionable materials. Milton asserts that this would bring England back to the model provided by the Council of Trent and the Spanish Inquisition, which he knows Parliament would despise. Although the licensing act aims to “prevent sects and schisms” (358), the effect would be the opposite. Many faiths prefer to pass on their doctrine through “unwritten traditions” (358). Even Christianity, which was a schism, has disseminated doctrine verbally. If the goal of the act is to improve morals, Parliament should look to Spain and Italy, both of which have imposed strict censorship laws and neither of which have demonstrated improved morals in their people.

Additionally, a person serving as a licenser will need to be educated and exceptionally unbiased. A licenser who does not meet these criteria will do more harm than good, and any truly educated person will find serving as a licenser to be a waste of time. For his statement, Milton apologizes to current licensers, who clearly accepted the position to be obedient to Parliament yet are already tired, as evidenced by their tendency to make excuses to travel so often. If even the current licensers are bored with the job, future officials in the position will likely be “either ignorant, imperious, and remiss, or basely pecuniary” (358). Milton argues that no good and only harm can come from licensing laws, “in being first the greatest discouragement and affront that can be offered to learning and to learned men” (359). The prelates, or the clergy, once complained that if their pay and power were reduced, “then all learning would be for ever dashed and discouraged” (359). Milton disagrees, arguing that those who study for the love of learning and “the service of God and truth” (359) are the true intellectuals. God has allowed these intellectuals to achieve “lasting fame and perpetuity of praise” (359). Refusing to allow such a scholar to print his ideas is the largest offense that can be leveled against him.

The licensing system reduces scholars to schoolchildren. While a thorough intellectual “summons up all his reason and deliberation to assist him” (359), consults with his fellow scholars, and becomes informed on his subject, the licenser is likely much less qualified than the writer to judge a book’s merit. The licensing process also stifles a writer who might want to make changes to a text before it is printed. Going back and forth to the licenser and the printer will slow down the publication process and result in inferior work. Furthermore, the act of licensing will destroy the author’s credibility as a teacher, as readers will not respect the work of a writer who is controlled and edited by the state. In the case of a deceased author, a licenser might decide to cut portions of the book deemed objectionable. Therefore, “the sense of that great man shall to all posterity be lost” (361). Milton asserts that he could give an example of an author to which this “violence” (361) has been done, but he will save that for a later date. Eventually, the censors will begin removing the “choicest” passages “of exquisitest books” (361) and damage the legacies of dead scholars. Living writers, knowing this, will be miserable, and only fools will be able to be happy.

Milton argues that the licensing act is offensive, not only to scholars, but to all of England’s citizens. Twenty licensers, even good ones, cannot encapsulate the wisdom of a nation. Truth cannot be “monopolized,” standardized, and commodified. He compares the licensing act to the Philistines, who enslaved the Jews and banned smiths and forges in Israel, requiring the Israelites to rely on their captors to sharpen their metal tools. Similarly, England’s scholars would have to go to the licensers to approve and hone their ideas. Even scholars who have never committed an offense would be subjected to the indignities, and even “unoffensive books must not stir forth without a visible jailer in their title” (362). Even the commoners will be subjected to this mistrust, as they will not be allowed to read so much as a pamphlet without government approval. The government cannot pretend that this is “care or love” (362) when countries that do not love their people are doing the same thing. It isn’t a strong protective measure because it only stops one method of corruption, and there are many more. This doubt of the commoners speaks poorly of the ministers if Parliament believes that “the whiff of every new pamphlet should stagger them out of their catechism and Christian walking” (362). Why should the ministers bother if their massive volumes of sermons and lectures are considered so ineffectual compared to papist censorship?

Milton has spoken to learned men in more tyrannical countries who have complained about the way that censorship has “damped the glory of Italian wits” (363), causing a cessation of new writing. He visited Galileo, who was imprisoned during the Inquisition for the licensers’ opinions of his work. Even though England was still subject to royalist and religious rule at the time, he believed that this reputation abroad was a positive sign. Milton never dreamed that the revolution would lead to the same restrictions as the Inquisition. He declares that this is not only his grievance, but a grievance of all scholars facing these new restrictions. In the name of all English scholars, he expresses the fear that the licensing act will create a dictatorship over education and that the papists and the Presbyterians will become interchangeable. Church leaders will begin to hold multiple positions, a practice that the Presbyterians denounced in the Catholic Church.

With the sentiment that fear of something as small as an unlicensed pamphlet will turn into fear of any dissent, Milton stresses his belief that “a church built and founded upon the rock of faith and true knowledge” would not be so weak. Although the Westminster Assembly has not finished debating and solidifying the rules of the new church, restricting the liberty to write shows lack of confidence in all educated and religious men. It was promised that the takedown of the bishops would result in open presses: “it was the people’s birthright and privilege in time of Parliament; it was the breaking forth of light” (365). Now that the bishops have been removed, agents of the Reformation have simply taken their places. Once again, the presses and education have been stifled. Instead of suppressing schisms, the licensing act will encourage them.

Faith and knowledge, like the body, requires exercise. Milton argues: “Truth is compared in scripture to a streaming fountain; if her waters flow not in a perpetual progression they sicken into a muddy pool of conformity and tradition” (365). A person who believes something only because he is told to believe it is a heretic, even if what he believes is true. It would certainly be simpler to pawn off one’s religion to another person’s responsibility. A rich man who wants to devote life to pleasure might hire someone to handle his religious affairs. If a person’s piousness is structured for him, there is no longer any need to think about important issues. As a result, people will become less intelligent, and society will become stagnant. Even the clergy will lose its incentive to learn and write since licensed books of sermons will take the place of new thought.

It is only fair to allow a prudent, educated man to publish his thoughts if he is so inclined. Christ said that he preached publicly because he had the confidence to do so, and writing is even more public than preaching and easier to debate. Not only will licensing obstruct the search for truth, but the clergy will be too busy to fully perform clerical duties. The licensing act will obstruct the flow of truth, “our richest merchandise” (368). The English already enjoy “a great measure of truth” (368), but that doesn’t mean that they should stagnate and stop searching. Milton explains that Jesus Christ is truth in “a perfect shape most glorious to look on” (368). When he ascended to heaven and his apostles died, “then straight arose a wicked race of deceivers who […] took the virgin Truth, hewed her lovely form into a thousand pieces, and scattered them to the four winds” (369). They have not yet located all of her pieces and must keep searching until Christ returns, but the licensing act will stand in the way of that search. Removing the bishops from power was not enough, and the English must continue to search for truth. It is “pride and ignorance” (369) that causes fear of schisms and sects, for “the golden rule in theology as well as in arithmetic” (370) is the search for truth.

Milton reminds Parliament that the people of England are intelligent. They have always studied science and philosophy, and other civilizations have learned from them. Heaven has favored England: “Why else was this nation chosen before any other, that out of her, as out of Sion, should be proclaimed and sounded forth the first tidings and trumpet of reformation?” (370). England has the privilege of reforming her neighbors. However, England now threatens to regress and “become hitherto the latest and the backwardest scholars” (370)—even more so than those it has been called to teach. God is beginning a spiritual revolution, but the English will no longer be worthy to lead it. England is a “city of refuge, the mansion house of liberty, encompassed and surrounded with his protection” (371). It harbors weapon-makers and scholars searching for knowledge. It only needs “faithful laborers to make a knowing people, a nation of prophets, of sages, and of worthies” (371). The spiritual revolution is already beginning in England. The fear of imaginary sects and schisms are causing them to “wrong the earnest and zealous thirst after knowledge and understanding which God hath stirred up in this city”(371).

In building the temple, each piece must be hewn and molded before it fits together. By this, Milton means that schisms in the church are natural in the search for truth. He implores his audience to “be more considerate builders, more wise in spiritual architecture when great reformation is expected” (372). Respecting and debating diverse ideas is what will ultimately construct the temple. He claims that Moses must be celebrating in heaven to see his “memorable and glorious wish […] fulfilled” in England that “all the Lord’s people are become prophets” (372). Milton compares the church to a tree and the sects are its branches, but no matter how the tree divides, the roots are strong. Even when the city was under attack, Londoners continued to have discourse and remained calm because they believed in their government. Like a body with fresh blood, a people full of energy and ideas is strong and healthy. Milton imagines a strong, noble nation “rousing herself like a strong man after sleep and shaking her invincible locks” (373). She is fresh, strong, and full of fire.

Milton asks: “What should ye do then? Should ye suppress all this flowery crop of knowledge and new light spring up and yet springing daily in the city? Should ye set an oligarchy of twenty engrossers over it to bring a famine upon our minds again, when we shall know nothing but what is measured to us by their bushel?” (374). This would be suppressing the freedom that they fought for. If Parliament wants a people that is “ignorant again, brutish, formal, and slavish, as ye found us” they will need to “first become that which ye cannot be, oppressive, arbitrary, and tyrannous, as they were from whom ye have freed us” (374). Milton declares: “Give me liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties” (374). He reminds Parliament of Robert Greville, the Lord Brooke, who died fighting as a general to the parliamentary army. His memory is highly regarded by Parliament, and he urged England to “hear with patience and humility” (375) those who do not conform. Now, the privilege to write and speak freely will allow truth to wrestle with falsehood, and they should have faith that truth will win as she always does in a “free and open encounter” (375).

In the search for truth, if “the new light which we beg for shines upon us” (375), it is now necessary to battle with licensers to publish it. Milton refers to the battle for truth as a war and keeping a “narrow bridge of licensing where the challenger should pass” an act of “weakness and cowardice” (376). Truth doesn’t require laws; she needs space to spread. Milton states that Christ gave his followers free will and to judge one another is an act of hypocrisy. He fears that the slavery of conformity under papist rule has left “a slavish print around our necks” (376) and a fear of any division in the church, even if it is on a non-essential point. He continues that conformity can turn into inertia and spiritual death. Small disagreements do not need to separate the body of the church. While the church is becoming cohesive, a man who discovers a truth should write about it and the government should not stop him with licensing hurdles. In order to bring about the new age in the church, although there are many “sectaries and false teachers” (378), God has sent men “of rare abilities” (378) who must be allowed to search for truth and express it freely.

God is not limited in the way he enlightens his followers. Therefore, a Christian should follow their conscience and “walk in the spirit and not in the letter of human trust” (378). If men who are leading schisms seem to be wrong, it is lazy to refuse to debate and discuss with them. It is possible that they are informed by God and simply have new and unfamiliar ideas. By judging them without understanding, they run the risk of being the persecutors of God’s word. Milton reminds Parliament that many among them broke the licensing laws set forth by Charles I and hopes that none of those who refused to follow the king’s licensing act are responsible for imposing this one. He suggests that those who are imposing the suppression ought to be suppressed themselves because they are clearly too puffed up and proud to remember the harm that the king’s licensing agreement caused.

Milton reiterates that he supports the section of the law that requires the author or printer’s name to be registered for each work published. This will protect the rights of the author and the printer to the work, and he suggests that those who infringe upon those rights ought to be executed. However, the licensing policy is the same as that imposed by the Spanish Inquisition and the Star Chamber Decree, and the motives behind those laws were evil. Those administrations dominated the press and used it to spread falsehoods about Royalists abroad. Milton says that he knows that governments make mistakes led by false information, but the spread of false information is much more likely “if liberty of printing can be reduced into the power of a few” (380). However, he calls the quick address and rectification of mistakes a virtue of the “greatest and wisest men” (380).

blurred text
blurred text
blurred text
blurred text
blurred text
blurred text
blurred text
blurred text
Unlock IconUnlock all 33 pages of this Study Guide
Plus, gain access to 8,000+ more expert-written Study Guides.
Including features:
+ Mobile App
+ Printable PDF
+ Literary AI Tools