Great Books: Areopagitica

As I said last month, I plan to read 12 of the Great Books in 2023. In this dark time of censorship and anti-Enlightenment, where cancel culture causes good men to be barred from society through no fault of their own, it seemed prudent to begin with something that represented liberty and free thought.

John Milton’s Areopagitica is often cited as the seminal argument in favor of a free press and one of the reasons the Founding Fathers not only created the First Amendment, but fought for their freedom in the first place. Written as a letter to the English Parliament, the relatively short work (my copy from Project Gutenberg was about 60 pages at the high zoom necessary for my failing eyesight) manages to be dense with both content and allegory.

The history behind Areopagitica is the history of the Reformation and the English Civil War. To prevent supposedly heretical and seditious tracts from finding their way into the public sphere, the aristocrats of Parliament wanted to create an official printing license. No book could be printed unless licensed, and unless it made it through their handpicked censors. That way, they reasoned, all the “bad” works would be weeded out.

Milton expertly tears down this argument, and his counterpoints still stand strong four centuries later. Banning books doesn’t kill the ideas within them, and every attempt to control society in that way has failed—good Protestant that he is, our author continuously refers to the Inquisition’s index of prohibited literature as the most egregious failure. His other point is also a salient one: reading something awful doesn’t make you an awful person; conversely, if you were already prone to vile tendencies, not having a book about them isn’t going to change your mind.

The marketplace of ideas wasn’t a concept that existed in 1644, yet its roots are laid down here. Let people use their reasoning abilities, and they will see which books are worth studying, which are worth printing and selling and buying. Prevent them from exploring, and they will become slaves, intellectually stunted and only able to think what they are told. (One might also say that John Milton predicted the NPC meme, as his argument accurately describes those who support lockdowns, vaccine mandates, carbon credits, and the war criminal in Kiev for no reason other than because the TV told them to.)

Of course, even a work so defining has its flaws. Mostly, they come from the thick religious allegory. Areopagitica isn’t peppered with Biblical references, like so many other proto-Enlightenment works; it’s caked in them. And, while Milton correctly recognizes that the Bible would, if it were properly examined, be one of the first books on any blacklist, he can’t quite make the logical leap that it should be held to the same standards as any other book.

He also falsely equates “good” with “Christian”, stating that one category of books which deserves to be banned is those that are impious. But this would censor many of our greatest works. It would silence the voice of his contemporary, Spinoza, among many others. While common sense tells us that there is an argument, however weak, to be made for censoring outright lies and fraud, freedom of the press must also include freedom of religion. Milton’s failure to recognize this is a product of his time: England in the 16th and 17th centuries was torn apart by the Reformation, as monarchs and despotic “protectors” alike took turns using force of law to persecute their religious enemies.

Despite all this, Areopagitica was a good read. It shows that people nearly 400 years ago faced the same problems we face, and some of them had some of the same thoughts about how to solve them. Censorship is never the answer; on this, Milton and I agree. On the other hand, we’ll have to agree to disagree on the limits of the free press. For me, it is absolute. But that’s because I was born after the Enlightenment, rather than in the years just before it.

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