John Milton


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Areopagitica Summary and Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 36-page guide for “Areopagitica” by John Milton includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like Free Will and Truth.

Plot Summary

In 1644, poet and prose-writer John Milton wrote his polemic Areopagitica to address British Parliament and its 1643 licensing order that required the censorship of all printed materials. Although the complete title, Areopagitica: A Speech for the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing to the Parliament of England, implies that the text is oratory, Milton privileged text over speech as a means of communication and wrote the “speech” to be read rather than spoken. He takes the title from the “Areopagiticus” discourse, in which the Greek rhetorician Isocrates wrote a lecture that was also designed to be read and not delivered. Isocrates’s “speech” addresses the highest Court of the Areopagus (the word literally translates as “the hill of Ares”), offering advice from a private citizen for social reform. Similarly, Milton addresses Parliament from the stance of a private citizen who critiques the actions of the British government. The title also refers to Paul’s sermon in the “Book of Acts,” in which he gathered pagan Athenians at the same hill and referenced Greek poetry and gods to teach Christianity.

King Charles I, an English Stuart monarch, believed in the divine right of kings to rule. His 1637 Star Chamber Decree imposed strict censorship rules, banning citizens from printing, importing, or consuming texts that questioned the church. New books required examination and licensure before publication and dissemination. With the help of Milton and his writing, Parliament became primarily Presbyterian and between 1641 and 1642, the Star Chamber Decree was abolished. However, anxious about dissenters, Parliament enacted the Licensing Order of 1643, which reinstated many of the same rules as the Star Chamber Decree. All printed materials were to be registered with the Stationer’s Company, once again subjected to scrutiny by censors appointed by Parliament, and could only be printed with the approval and licensing of one of these agents. Milton rebelled, refusing to register either Areopagitica, or his pro-divorce tract, The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce. The Licensing Order also ratified some of the earliest copyright legislation, ordering that authors and publishers had exclusive rights to their written texts. Milton makes it clear that he does not dispute this portion of the order.

Milton argues not for an entirely ungoverned press, but for a press that is allowed to print materials that may be judged after rather than before publication. His oration centers on free will, which gives men the opportunity to choose to be virtuous. Milton claims that forcing men to act virtuous through legal restrictions robs them of actual, tested righteousness and that principled men are shaped through their response to temptation. He asserts that such a society will become uneducated and dull and that England, which is in the midst of the Protestant Reformation, has a duty to lead the world as thinkers and prophets. Milton’s Areopagitica was unsuccessful in its time, and censorship in this form continued until 1695. However, it was the first significant treatise to address the freedom of the press, and its influence continues to reverberate in subsequent arguments for free speech. The United States Bill of Rights, for instance, owes a debt to Milton’s tract. In its moment, Areopagitica, like many of Milton’s works, offered a progressively radical perspective that Parliament simply could not adopt.

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