Milton wrote the Areopagitica in 1644, and it was published in November of the same year. ‘The political turmoil in England, resulting from the conflict between Charles I and the republican forces, was then at its height. In fact, the Civil War had started in August 1642 and the country at this time faced a political crisis which ultimately led to the triumph of the Puritans under Oliver Cromwell. However, the Areopagitica shows no signs of having been in any way affected by the political developments or the war -situation in the country.
Milton wrote the Areopagitica in defense of the freedom of the press, and more particularly the freedom of the authors and publishers in carrying on their business of writing, printing, and publishing books, pamphlets, tracts, etc. Milton had felt greatly annoyed by the ordinance which the parliament of the time had proclaimed on the 14th June, 1643 with the aim of preventing authors and printers from publishing any kind of writing without first obtaining a license to do so from a committee constituted for the purpose. The Presbyterian Party was at this time in of the parliament, and had begun to dominate parliamentary proceedings; and this licensing order was intended by it to reduce English religious life to a uniformity in line with its own views and opinions, and to minimize the political opposition to its ideology and its purposes. Writers like Milton, who greatly valued intellectual liberty, looked upon the new ordinance as a sign of the revival of the tyranny of the earlier Stuart regime and, more particularly, of a decree passed by the Star Chamber in 1637 with regard to printing. That decree had collapsed in 1640 when the Star Chamber itself was abolished, and, thereafter, printing had practically been free. From 1640 onwards a multitude of pamphlets had appeared in England representing every shade of political and religious opinion. Milton regarded this diversity of writing as a healthy sign of free intellectual activity, and as a promise of national progress. But the Presbyterians, with their narrow outlook, regarded the freedom of the writers and printers as a threat to the orthodox Calvinistic beliefs and to the stability of the political establishment. The Presbyterians, wanting to increase their hold upon the minds of the people having the same views, passed the licensing order which required thewriters and the printers to seek the permission of the constituted authority to publish any written material with which they might want to influence the English public. The constituted authority was a committee consisting of twenty members chosen from amongst the members of the ecclesiastical profession. Thus in actual practice the priests of Presbyterian views were to determine which books or pamphlets should be published and which should be forbidden. This new licensing order was thus an infringement of the right of authors and printers to publish anything they pleased; and it naturally provoked the ire of men like Milton, though Milton was one of the very few men who openly and publicly protested against it. It is significant that Milton published the Areopagitica without obtaining the permission of the constituted authority. In other words, the Areopagitica was itself an unlicensed and, therefore, illegal publication. The name of the printer -was, however, not indicated anywhere in .this pamphlet, though Milton published his own name on the title page as its author. It is also significant that the authorities did not take any action against the author of this unlicensed pamphlet. The title page also carried the following lines from a play by the ancient Greek dramatist, Euripides:
This is our true Liberty when free born men
Having to 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 jester in a State than this?
The first edition of the Areopagitica was the only one to appear in Milton’s own life-time.
The title “Areopagitica” is a reference to a hill near the city of Athens, a leading City-state in ancient times. The hill, called the “Areopagus”, was the site where the Athenian State Assembly had’ its headquarters. About the year 355 B.C. an Athenian politician by the name of Isocrates had written an oration entitled “Areopagiticus” which was addressed to the legislative assembly. Through this oration, Isocrates had pleaded for the re- establishment of a judicial tribunal which had been in existence in the 7th- 6th centuries B.C. and which, in Isocrates’s opinion needed to be revived. In other words, the oration entitled “Areopagiticus” had urged the Athenian authorities to revive an institution which, in its author’s opinion, would promote public welfare. Milton’s Areopagitica was also written as a kind of oration; and it was also addressed to the legislative body of his country. Furthermore, this discourse or oration also pleaded for the revival of a certain right which the English nation had previously been enjoying, and which had now been suppressed by the licensing order of 1643. Milton wrote this oration about eighteen months after the proclamation of the licensing order which at the suppression of a right that had previously been in existence. Here Milton visualizes himself as addressing the English Parliament of the time and asking them to reconsider the licensing order which they had passed earlier. Of course, Milton did not actually address the Parliament because he held no position by virtue of which he could address either the House of Lords or the House of Commons in person. We are only to imagine that Milton was addressing both Houses of Parliament and urging them to withdraw a licensing order which he thought to be an unjust attack on the freedom of writers, printers, and publishers.
As already pointed out, the Areopagitica was a plea for the abrogation of a licensing order passed by the Parliament of the time: about eighteen months earlier. Milton here puts forward several arguments to support his plea for the removal of the restrictions which Parliament had imposed upon authors and publishers, and his plea for the restoration of the freedom which had existed before the issuance of the licensing order. Freedom is the keyword so far as this discourse is concerned. The Areopagitica is, in other words, a fervent defense of the freedom of the press. However, we must here note that, although Milton was a champion of freedom in every sense, he confines his attention in this discourse mainly to religious freedom or the freedom to hold, to express, to publicize, and to propagate any kind of religious opinions and beliefs which a man or a party or a group of persons might hold. The Areopagitica insists upon the need to create conditions in which human beings are free to hold any opinions and beliefs which, according to their own thinking and reasoning, seem to them to be true. Milton could see the injustice and the wrong to which he himself, and other lovers of freedom as well, would be subjected as a consequence of the new licensing order. The whole tone of the discourse shows Milton’s sincerity and the genuineness of his love of freedom. The licensing order passed by Parliament had said that “no book, pamphlet, or paper shall be henceforth printed, unless the same be first approved and licensed by such, or at least one of such as shall be thereto appointed.” Milton’s conscience as a scholar, as a teacher, and as a lover of freedom revolted against this injunction; and the Areopagitica was a direct result of the rebellion which the licensing order had stirred and generated in him. The Areopagitica is regarded as a classic by all lovers of the freedom of the press.
After dwelling upon a few preliminaries, Milton informs us that he proposes to deal with the Parliament’s licensing order under four heads. Thus-is the Areopagitica was written according to a plan; and it naturally falls into four sections. In the first part of the discourse, Milton traces the history at licensing; and his account of how licensing had originated does no credit to those who had been responsible for it in the beginning. In the second part, Milton dwells upon the good and also upon the harm which the reading of books can do. In the third part, Milton seeks to show that the purpose, with which the licensing order was passed by the Parliament, would certainly not be achieved by it. Finally, and most important, Milton tries to prove that this licensing order would discourage all learning and would hinder, and even arrest, the spread of truth among the people. There is thus a systematic development of thought in this discourse. We have here a reasoned discourse, a cogent and coherent defense of the freedom of thought and expression. The development of the theme in this discourse is perfectly logical; and there is a commendable continuity in it. There are no superfluities, and no digressions. There is nothing superfluous in it, and nothing surplus. Milton here shows himself not only as a-perceptive thinker but also as superb orator and a perfect logician. As for the style, the Areopagitica is written in a highly learned and scholarly style and, although there are many passages which require several readings in order to be understood, we do not come across many obscurities and hardly any ambiguities. It is certainly not a simple style. Many sentences are too long, too involved, and too complicated to be understood by the average reader without help from a scholar. The main ideas in this discourse are simple enough; but the ideas have been in a manner which would not fascinate, or charm, or even appeal to, the average reader. Milton’s prose style is forbidding, as his poetic style also is. In fact, Milton’s prose writings are as scholarly and, therefore, as difficult to comprehend as are his poems. Milton is one of the most difficult of the English authors; and the Areopagitica is an example of that difficulty.