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First page of the 1644 edition of Areopagitica

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 free expression, which was written in opposition to licensing and censorship and is regarded as one of the most eloquent defenses of press freedom ever written.


It was published November 23, 1644, at the height of the English Civil War. Areopagitica is titled after a speech written by the Athenianmarker orator Isocrates in the 5th century BC. (The Areopagusmarker is a hill in Athensmarker, 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.

Milton, though a supporter of the Parliament, argued forcefully against the Licensing Order of 1643, noting that such censorship had never been a part of classical Greek and Roman society. The tract is full of biblical and classical references which Milton uses to strengthen his argument. The issue was personal for Milton as he had suffered censorship himself in his efforts to publish several tracts defending divorce (a radical stance at the time and one which met with no favor from the censors).

Interestingly, Milton is not completely libertarian in Areopagitica and 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 libelous material is published, those books can still be destroyed after the fact.

Some consider Areopagitica worth reading side-by-side with Paradise Lost; a juxtaposition of these texts may yield an intriguing window into Milton's non-conventional theological tendencies.


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.

As 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.

And though 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 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.

Areopagitica and its context

Milton's concepts are ones which do not mirror those of the modern world, and his justification for the freedom of the press is God's Will. All of the defenses he gives are predicated on a strongly theological account. Milton's own fixed theological views do not obstruct the true goal of Areopagitica, or the natural progression that stemmed from its interpretation: to allow freedom of speech in written form.

"[T]he argument of Areopagitica is for a purposive liberty: the Christian Liberty of the Puritan saint searching after God's partially revealed truth."

Milton is not arguing for the freedom of speech for all: after all, he excludes Catholics from his considerations entirely. Rather he argues for a way to further the truth of God (the truth which we are in search of). It is one which we will never know, but which we will approximate to by allowing some freedom of exchange so that we can learn more. As he puts it,

"There must be many schism and many dissections made in the quarry and in the timber, ere the house of God can be built"

With Milton's celebration of the book and free expression, according to some: Milton's work has shone like a beacon to book artists and publishers through the centuries. 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 displayed in many public libraries.


  2. Milton, John Areopagitica London: MacMillan and Co. Limited, 1915 p 41

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