12 Nov 2008

Essays on Areopagitica

Literature takes many historic forms, from simple fictional prose to poetic prose to eloquently written political appeals. One political appeal, The Areopagitica was perhaps the first argument in history defining and arguing for the freedom of the press, predating the First Amendment of the Constitution by more than a century. The Areopagitica was published by John Milton in 1644 as a plea to the King of England to rescind the “Licensing Order” of 1643 and to again allow the free, uncensored publication of all books.

During the era of 1642 to 1651, England was rocked by a series of three attempts to overthrow the absolute rule of England’s monarchy, being finally successful in 1651 with the victory of the Parliamentarian forces at the battle of Worchester. Early during this decade, the King of England, Charles I, attempted to quell the rising dissention of the people by issuing the 1643 “Licensing Order” that required all books acquire the approval of royally appointed censors prior to publication, a concept to which the Areopagitica was written in opposition to.

Milton’s motivation in publishing the Areopagitica was not necessarily a political one, though he was a parliamentary supporter, but was in fact of a more personal nature. As a consequence of the 1643 order, Milton had several publications on the subject of divorce and his support of the right of divorce rejected by censors not because of blasphemy or libel, as had been the original intent of the 1643 order, but because the censors found his topic personally objectionable. Milton argued in the Areopagitica that the 1643 order had extended too much power to the censors who were all too ready to abuse the authority and was in fact fueling the ire of the people against the crown.

Naturally, the Areopagitica, effectively an attack against the rampant climate of censorship, was published without censorship approval.

  • Review the text of the Areopagitica and analyze its arguments in light of the events surrounding it in England. Was the argument radical? Was the argument effective? What reasons might the King of England have had in encouraging censorship?
  • Compare the Licensing Order of 1643 with the United States Sedition Act of 1918. Are there similarities? Does the government truly have the right to issue such an order? How would Milton’s arguments in the Areopagitica apply?

It is not uncommon for governments to overstep their authority during times of trouble. Yet, as Thomas Jefferson pointed out, the price of our freedom today is eternal diligence. John Milton set the precedence on the issue of freedom of the press in the Areopagitica long before the United States was born. Hopefully, the idea will survive the insanity we are experiencing in the world today.

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