John Milton was born in London, in Bread Street, Cheapside, on the 9th December 1608. His father had been able to attain some prominence and make a comfortable fortune as a scrivener or notary and through the allied business of private banking or money-lending. Possibly the poet inherited from his father a disposition toward religious independence. He also owed to his father a debt in the way of music. The father was a composer, not of the first rank but still of enough repute. The poet’s life-long devotion to music is seen in the warmth of his allusions to it. Milton’s mother was well- esteemed and known for her charities. Milton had an older sister Anne, who married in 1623, and a younger brother, Christopher, who became a lawyer and, though a Royalist, continued to be on good terms with him.
Milton received his early education at home under private tutors and was then admitted to St. Paul’s School, perhaps in 1620. At school he studied Latin and Greek, besides other subjects. One of his private tutors was a Scotsman, Thomas Young, to whom he later wrote two letters and the Latin Elegy IV (1627), in which he gratefully recalled Young’s introducing him to Latin poetry. Milton was from childhood a great reader. This excessive reading proved to be the initial cause of his subsequent blindness.
His earliest attempts at verse, made at the age of fifteen, were rhymed paraphrases of Psalms 114 and 136. He also wrote a few Latin exercises at this time. His closest friend, at school and later, was Charles Diodati, the son of a prominent physician of Italian origin, who went from St. Paul’s School to the University of Oxford. A less intimate friend was Alexander Gill, the son of the school headmaster.
In 1625, Milton matriculated at Christ’s College, Cambridge. He obtained his B.A. degree in 1629 and his M.A. in 1632 at the same university. Young men who later attained distinction and who were studying at Cambridge during the same period were Roger Williams, Thomas Fuller, Thomas Randolph, and Jeremy Taylor. At Cambridge Milton wrote abundant Latin verse and seven Latin prolusions. (“Prolusions” were public speeches made by students to prove their learning and their rhetorical and argumentative powers). The occasion of his first Latin elegy, addressed to Diodati, was his rustication, after a quarrel with his tutor, in 1626. Back in London, he compared this period of exile from the university to the exile of his beloved Ovid and rejoiced in the opportunity to read classical plays and to see beautiful girls while strolling. On his return to the university, he was assigned to another tutor and graduated in the normal time. At the university, Milton earned the nickname “the Lady” because of his handsome and delicate features and the purity of his mind and behavior which prevented him from joining the diversions of his coarser fellows, During the seven years that he spent at Cambridge he moved from some unpopularity to general respect and high esteem. He did not love the scholastic logic which largely dominated the university curriculum and which he criticized as unless. In his last prolusion, he asserted the creed of a young Renaissance humanist who was at once a Christian, a Platonist, and a Baconian.
Milton’s Latin poetry, with all its conventional rhetoric, sometimes attained higher levels than that of any other English writer. Elegy V, a picture of awakening spring, is aflame with the sexual imagery of an intense though innocent paganism. In Elegy VII he presents himself as a confident foe of Cupid who is overcome by the beauty of a girl he encounters. The young poet’s sensuous instincts were further displayed, along with his mastery of Italian, in six Italian sonnets (1630).
Early in 1628 he wrote the earliest of his English poems, On the Death of a Fair Infant. In part of an academic prolusion in English couplets (At a Vacation Exercise, 1628) he declared his devotion to his native language, a style free from eccentricity, and exalted themes concerning Nature and man. In the Latin Elegy VI, addressed to Diodati in the Christmas season of 1629-30, he praised the light verse inspired by wine and love but turned from that to celebrate the ascetic purity of the heroic poet. The Elegy ended with a reference to a poem he had just written, his first great poem in English, On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity. This poem showed that, poetically speaking, Milton had come of age. It also shows his future direction, both in its religious theme and in its mastery of conception and form and image and rhythm. Probably in the long vacation of 1631, Milton wrote the two companion poems L’Allegro and Il Penseroso. Less ambitious in theme than the Nativity Ode, these two poems have their own complexity, concealed beneath a unique grace and charm. In 1631 he also wrote two elegies on Hobson, the Cambridge carrier whose death occasioned much student wit.
Milton’s scholarly and literary gifts had from childhood marked him out in the minds of his family and teachers for a priestly career. In his later prose, he recorded that he had refused to “subscribe slave” in a church governed by prelacy, but the date of this negative decision is not known. As his academic career neared its end, the problem of an occupation was to come up, and the poem Ad Patrem may well have been written in 1631-32. In this composition, Milton assumes that he would not be pushed into some basely remunerative profession by his father who had encouraged his literary pursuits and who was himself a devotee of the Muses.
After taking his M.A. degree in July, 1632, Milton went to stay at his father’s country-house at Horton, near Windsor, Berkshire, where he spent some six years. During these years he laid the foundation or set the direction of his liberal thinking. With a humanistic zeal he lost himself in the study of history, literature, and philosophy, ancient and modern, to gain. An insight into all the generous arts and affairs. Occasionally he visited London in quest of books or something new in mathematics or music. An important landmark in his early career is the sonnet, “How soon hath Time”, written on his twenty-fourth birthday (9th December, 1632).Though this sonnet expresses his uneasiness about his present and future, he earnestly dedicates his life to his great Task-Master’s will. The first fruits of this self-dedication were two short religious poems, On Time, and At a Solemn Music (1632- 33). They have the form of a madrigal, a stanza of a canzone*; and the irregular lines are powerfully modulated, so that every word has weight. The poems are expressive of the beatific vision that always stirred his imagination. Both contrast the grossness of temporal life, the jarring discord of sin, with the eternity and harmony of heaven and goodness.
Perhaps in 1632, Milton had, at the invitation of the musician Henry Lawes, written Arcades, a miniature masque intended as a tribute to the dowager Countess of Derby. In 1634, he wrote Comus, another masque. Comus was Milton’s first dramatization of his great theme, the conflict of good and evil. He has told us that his early reading had nourished his faith in chastity. He had loved and imitated the erotic poetry of Ovid and his fellows. But, while continuing to cherish their art, he had turned away from their sensuality to the idealism of Dante and Petrarch. Then came the romances of knighthood. Finally, “the divine volumes of Plato” taught him the true love of the good. Prior to and beyond all were “those chaste and high mysteries” glorified by St. Paul and the Book of Revelation.
Comus was in a way of song of innocence. Lycidas, written in 1637, was a song of experience. This poem, in form and sentiment an elegy of the classical kind, was Milton’s first attempt to justify the ways of God to himself and to other men. The premature death (by drowning) of a virtuous and promising young man, Edward King, who was about to enter a career of service to God, brought home to Milton’s mind the whole enigma of life and death, of the rightness of things in a world where such things could happen. The passages on fame and the hired clergymen in this poem should not be treated as digressions. They are quite central in the emotional dialectic. In the end, God’s justice and providence and the conditions of earthly life are vindicated, not by reason, but by the beatific vision of Lycidas’s soul received into heaven. “The poem is remarkable for its complexities and depth, its reverberating solidity of reference, its rich variety of pace and tone, the artistic control that dominates its turbulent emotions, and the high serenity of victory won at the end.’
Milton’s mother died in 1637. In May, 1638 the poet went to Italy. He stayed chiefly in Florence, Rome, and Naples. The Italian men of letters gave him a cordial reception. Their treatment of him warmed his heart and nourished his self-confidence. To his distinguished host in Naples, BaptistaManso, Milton wrote an epistle (1638-39), which is one of his best Latin poems. He also wrote an epistle to a Roman poet, Salzilli, and several epigrams in praise of the singing of the famous Leonora Baroni. Although he mingled happily with Catholics, he maintained his stout Protestantism and sometimes spoke of religious subjects. He also called on Galileo in the latter’s semi-captivity.
Milton felt compelled to give up his plan to visit Sicily and Greece on receiving news of mounting political and civil tensions in England. In August, 1638 his friend, Diodati (who had become a physician), had died. On his way back to England, Milton, stopped at Geneva to see Diodati’s uncle, John Diodati, who was a Professor of Theology there. He ‘reached England in July, 1639 and settled down in a house in London where he set up a school. His first pupils were Edward and John Phillips, the sons of his sister Anne. Late in 1640, he wrote an elaborate elegy in Latin on Diodati. This has commonly been ranked at the head of Milton’s Latin poems. It contains expressions of heart-felt loneliness which are especially moving from a man often regarded as proudly self-sufficient.
Milton devoted the years 1641-60 wholly to writing prose tracts in the cause of religious and civil liberties. As he tells us in an important personal passage in his fourth tract, Reason of Church Government Urged against Prelacy (1642), it was a great sacrifice on his part to put aside his poetic ambitions in order to embark on a career of pamphleteering. But, as he proceeded with this work, he felt encouraged by the thought that in his many and varied defenses of liberty he was, in another way, fulfilling his epic and patriotic aspirations.
The large bulk of Milton’s prose is read only by scholars. It fills four times as many volumes in his poetry. Milton’s age was an age of great prose. Milton’s own prose, at its best, has a very individual if often undisciplined greatness. Even if he had never written any poetry, his prose works would remain a valuable interpretation of the Puritan revolution. These prose works have a significant place in the history of political thought. Besides, they are a record of Milton’s growth in religion and politics, and of his dreams and disillusionments. They are indeed an essential introduction to his mature poetic works. They serve as a bridge between the radiant idealism of youth and the much-tried faith and fortitude of age.
During 1641-42, Milton wrote five pamphlets attacking prelacy. Milton urged that the Reformation must be completed with a drastic purge of Romanism and a return to the democratic simplicity and purity of the apostolic church. He puts all the emphasis on the inward spirit of Biblical faith in contrast with outward show and spurious tradition.
Milton wrote several tracts on marriage and divorce. In May, 1642, several months before the outbreak of the Great Rebellion, Milton married Mary Powell, the daughter of a royalist squire of Oxford shire who owed money to his father. The marriage of a scholar and poet of thirty-three and an uneducated girl half his age, from a large, easy-going household, could hardly have been expected to be successful. The young wife, visiting her family a little later, refused to come back. Milton was, of course, much distressed. In the tracts, Milton argued that incompatibility between man and wife was an even stronger reason for divorce than adultery which was then recognized as the sole basis for it. A loveless marriage, he said, was a crime against human dignity. Both religious and philosophic tradition and the way of the world recognized the superiority of man over woman. Without denying that view, Milton upheld a personal and Puritan ideal of marriage as an active bond of mutual love and mental companionship. He was, however, attacked as a new libertine by most people. In 1645, a reconciliation between Milton and his wife was effected. In 1646, when his wife’s family had been ruined by war, he took into his house the whole noisy family of ten members and kept them for nearly a year. Three daughters, Anne, Mary, and Deborah were born in 1646, 1648 and 1652 respectively. Mrs. Milton died a few- days after Deborah’s birth. In 1654, Milton published his well-known pamphlets, Of Education and Areopagitica, the latter of which is regarded as a classic document. In Areopagitica, he expressed a boundless faith in the Englishmen whom God had chosen to complete the Reformation begun by Wycliffe. Here he showed himself as a resolute believer in the power of truth to win its way through free inquiry and discussion.
In the next few years Milton probably worked chiefly on his History of Britain and his large treatise on Christian doctrine. In February, 1649, two weeks after the execution of Charles I, appeared a political tract, The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, by Milton. Milton rejected the Stuart claim of the Divine Right of Kings, and his object was to reconcile the public mind to the execution of Charles. In March, 1649 Milton was invited to become Secretary for Foreign Languages to Oliver Cromwell’s Council of State. In his official capacity Milton remained quite busy, especially in replying to the propaganda that the supporters of the King were carrying on against the King’s execution. By 1651, however, when Milton was just forty-three, he had completely lost his eye-sight which had been failing for years. Blindness greatly reduced his strictly secretarial duties, though he continued till 1659 as a translator of official letters.
His last political pamphlet was published in March, 1660. It was a daring act on Milton’s part to bring out this pamphlet in the face of events which were moving to restore monarchy in England and to bring back Charles II who had been living in exile. When in May, 1660 Charles IL made his triumphant entry into England, the event was probably the greatest disillusionment in Milton’s life. All his republican ardor and endeavors came to nothing.
During the twenty years devoted to public affairs Milton was mostly cut off from poem, but he wrote seventeen occasional sonnets, versified a number of Psalms and began the composition of Paradise Lost. Worth mentioning here are three deeply personal sonnets and one “On the Late Massacre in Piedmont”. Two of the personal sonnets were written on the subject of his blindness, and the third on the death of Milton’s second wife, Katharine Woodcock, whom he had married in 1656.
With the re-establishment of monarchy in England, Milton, having been a well-known apologist and defender of the regicide, was in real danger, the new government had already exhumed and hanged at Tyburn the bodies of Oliver Cromwell and some others. In the summer of 1660, a warrant for Milton’s arrest was issued. He was taken into custody but soon released. His life was spared through the efforts of the poet Andrew Marvell or perhaps of the royalist playwright, Sir William Davenant (whose life Milton had earlier saved during Cromwell’s rule). It may have been argued that the blind writer was now harmless and that nominal proceedings against him were enough. His remaining fourteen years were on the whole, outwardly, and to some extent inwardly, peaceful. Of course, he had his share of troubles: a frugal domestic economy necessitated by financial stringency, blindness and gout, and a certain amount of friction with his daughters because of faults on both sides. Apart from the publication of books, the chief events of these years were Milton’s marriage in 1663 to a third wife, the young and amiable Elizabeth Minshull, who survived him, and the removal, during the plague of 1665, to a house at Chalfont St. Giles, Buckinghamshire (now a Milton Museum).
The publications of Milton’s later years were: Paradise Lost (1667), for which he received ten pounds; text books of simplified Latin Grammar (1669) and Logic (1672); the History of Britain (1670); Paradise Regained (1671); Samson Agonistes (1671); the second, enlarged edition (1673) of the Poems of 1645; the second, revised edition of Paradise Lost (1674); and EpistolaeFamiliares with the ProlusionesOratoriae(1674).
Milton died on the 8th November, 1674, a month short of his sixty-sixth birthday. He was buried in St. Giles’s, Cripple gate, and the burial was attended by all his learned and great friends.
Milton was pre-eminently a poet; but he also wrote a number of prose works. His prose works were written chiefly in the form of pamphlets or tracts, though he did write a couple of larger works also. The pamphlets were written, chiefly on subjects which were engaging public attention at that time, and which had given rise to many controversies in the field of politics and religion. From the spring of 1641 to the spring of 1642, Milton remained engaged in a public controversy relating to church government which had been a subject of many debates in the Long Parliament and which had (aroused strong public passions. Milton wrote as many as five pamphlets, one after the other, urging the abolition of a form of church government known as the episcopal system. His pamphlets provoked many angry replies from his opponents, and he himself became angrier as he wrote pamphlet after pamphlet. His first pamphlet on this subject was entitled Of Reformation Touching Church Discipline. This pamphlet was written in a tone of moderation, and it was a carefully reasoned historical discussion of the subject. His position in this pamphlet was essentially that of Calvinism to which he ultimately became almost hostile. In this pamphlet he suggested that the English Church should emulate the example of the Scottish Church which favored Presbyterianism. The Scottish Church did not believe in the hierarchy of ecclesiastical officials which the episcopal system required. The Presbyterians believed in the equality of all the churchmen, while the episcopal system favored a hierarchy. Milton’s second pamphlet was entitled Of Prelatical Episcopacy. This pamphlet was an attempt to .prove that the episcopal system was an institution of the primitive church. In his third pamphlet entitled Animadversions on the Remonstrants, Milton employed a flippant and satirical tone in criticizing an opponent, namely Bishop Hall, an eminent man in his profession. The fourth and the fifth pamphlets were elaborate treatises entitled The Reason of Church Government Urged against Prelacy. All these pamphlets, taken together, show Milton’s keen interest in ecclesiastical matters and his deep concern in the kind of organization which he thought should prevail in the church. His opposition to the episcopal system was almost fierce, and he wrote strongly and emphatically in favor of Presbyterianism which subsequently was opposed by him as much as he had opposed the episcopacy at the time of writing his first five pamphlets.
When the ecclesiastical controversy ended, Milton began his campaign against the divorce laws of his country. From 1643 to 1645 he wrote four pamphlets on this subject. The most important of these was the first pamphlet entitled The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce. The existing laws permitted a divorce only on the ground of adultery; but Milton advocated divorce on other grounds as well, including temperamental incompatibility between a man and his wife. Milton was prompted to write upon the subject of divorce by his own personal circumstances. His wife, Mary Powell, seemed to have deserted him; and Milton felt so angry with her that he wanted to divorce her. That was the reason why he urged a change in the divorce laws so as to be able to divorce his wife on the ground of temperamental incompatibility. His divorce pamphlets brought a violent reaction from Milton’s contemporaries because the orthodox Christian faith did not recognize the reason which had been put forward by Milton as a valid ground for divorce. Milton was obviously very much ahead of his times in this matter because today temperamental incompatibility has been recognized legally as a ground for divorce in many Western, and even Oriental, countries. These divorce pamphlets were a remarkable testimony to Milton’s ability to formulate a principle which has ultimately been recognized as having almost universal validity.
In 1644 Milton wrote a pamphlet entitled Of Education. This pamphlet, like those on the subject of divorce, was a direct result of Milton’s personal experience. This experience was two-fold: on the practical level, it was his tutorship of his sister’s two sons; and on the theoretical level it was the many discussions which were going on about the teaching methods of a famous educational reformer by the name of Comenius. In his pamphlet, Milton outlines an elaborate programmed of studies in schools and universities. This scheme of studies shows Milton’s humanist ambition to create a “universal” man. In 1580 Sir Philip Sidney had similarly outlined a course of studies by recommending first the Scriptures, and then works on moral philosophy, on the art of war, on history, and on geography. Milton, like eve1Y humanist, would have agreed with Sidney’s remark: “The variety rather delights me than confounds me.”
In the same year (1644), Milton wrote the Areopagitica which subsequently proved to be the most durable of all Milton’s prose writings. This pamphlet was written in the form of an oration addressed to the two Houses of Parliament of the time, urging them to repeal or withdraw the licensing order which they had passed in the preceding year with regard to all kinds of publications. Milton was firmly opposed to any kind of censorship upon books, pamphlets, tracts and, in fact, all kinds of writings. Milton was a staunch believer in freedom—freedom of all kinds including the freedom of authors to write whatever they pleased and ‘the freedom of publishers to publish whatever they pleased (of course, with the consent of the authors whose writings they wanted to publish). The Areopagitica is a forceful and eloquent plea for the freedom of authors and publishers to print and publish. Milton here first points out that there was hardly any real censorship in ancient Athens, the only exception being blasphemous and libelous writings. He then tries to show that even bad books can serve a good purpose. Next, he tries to convince the Members of Parliament that the licensing order passed by them would not serve the purpose which it was intended to serve. And, lastly, he argues at considerable length to make the point that the licensing order would hinder the Spread of existing knowledge and would obstruct the discovery of new knowledge.
In 1649 Milton published a pamphlet entitled The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates to justify the execution of King Charles I. The King had been executed just two weeks before; and Milton wrote this pamphlet to justify the action taken against the King by the Puritans led by Oliver Cromwell who had proclaimed a Commonwealth in place of the monarchy which stood abolished with the execution of Charles I. As with the pamphlets on divorce, Milton here goes beyond the immediate occurrence to formulate general principles. Here he argues that free men, having once entered into a voluntary contract with their governors, may terminate that contract if they find that their governors (in this particular case the King) had become tyrannical and despotic, But in this pamphlet Milton also criticizes the tendency of the Puritans or the Presbyterians, who had won the battle against the King, to control and coerce the conscience of the individual and thus to commit the same blunder which the Prelates and the Bishops had previously been committing. Thus, besides offering a justification for the execution of the King, Milton here disapproves strongly of the policies of the Presbyterians whom he had vigorously supported in his anti-episcopal pamphlets.
Between the years 1651 and 1660 Milton wrote a few other political pamphlets as well. These were his two Defenses of the Republican regime, and one entitled The Ready and Easy Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth. Milton’s thinking here appears to have become less flexible until his endorsement in the last-mentioned work of government by a grand council of the worthiest persons. Milton insists that sovereignty may never be transferred but only delegated. He also expresses his opposition to government by any single person, be it a king or å leader (like Cromwell). Milton did not approve of the rule of a single person for the simple reason that such a ruler would be corrupted by the very excess of his power. In fact, whatever he had written against the monarchy in his first political pamphlet, was not written out of any hostility to the person of the king but out of a pure zeal for the freedom of mankind. Milton’s political thought, as expressed in these pamphlets, was diametrically opposed to that of Thomas Hobbes, the political philosopher of the same period. Hobbes was a materialist. Milton was an idealist. Milton maintained that the liberty of man was a fundamental right granted to him permanently by God. Hobbes supported absolute authoritarianism or autocracy. Milton emphatically rejected any theory which deprived man of his independence, while Hobbes was a. believer in a powerful government having complete and absolute authority over the people. Milton also differs from Hobbes in another respect, namely the style of writing. Even in his political pamphlets, Milton writes with the magniloquent tone of the epic poet. However, Milton’s political pamphlets like some of his ecclesiastical ones are somewhat marred by a frequent use of bad language. Milton here employs not only the weapon of mockery and ridicule but also of invective and vituperation. The Arcopegitica is the one outstanding pamphlet in which Milton adopts a gentle, polite, and courteous tone verging on suavity.
After the restoration of monarchy in England in 1660 Milton did not write much prose because he realized that, under the changed political conditions, it would be useless to write any further pleas for liberty. Besides, he now wanted to get busy with his great poetic enterprise, namely Paradise Lost. However, it is quite safe to assume that he would have risked even his own life if an occasion had presented itself for him to start another campaign for liberty. He did write a few tracts on miscellaneous subjects, one of them bearing the title of True Religion, Heresy, Schism, and Toleration, which was published in 1673.
Another prose work written by Milton was the History of Britain which was published in 1670, though it might well have been written in the early 1640s. In writing this History Milton evidently aimed at veracity, brevity, and readable ness. And, although in writing it he was certainly influenced by modern writers, he actually went back to the original authorities such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Laws, Bede, and the medieval chroniclers, which no English historian had done before him; and he exhibits a very modern sense of the need of assessing their respective values. Milton’s critical and scholarly point of view won him the admiration of such a distinguished contemporary historian as Sir Charles Firth. But the History was never completed. Another of Milton’s works in prose was a theological treatise entitled De Doctrina Christiana which he wrote in Latin and which was published a century and a half after Milton’s death, in 1825.
A critic thus comments upon Milton’s prose writings: “Milton said that in writing prose he had the use, as it were, only of his left hand. But that left hand was a powerful one, whether in Latin or in English, and whenever he deals with matters of more than transitory significance (and it is characteristic of him to interpret particular issues at hand in accordance with large and enduring principles), his writings at their best constitute a vital and permanent contribution to literature and thought. Many passages have in them all the intensity of Milton’s personality, the temperamental and passionate qualities which belonged to him as a poet, while they often prevent him from taking a calm and judicious view of his subject, fire his eloquence and make his work a personal record of the highest interest.”
“The subject of Milton’s prose work is not a very easy one, and it has been often neglected—comparatively, at least—in general surveys of his work. Poets have usually been good prose-writers is a commonplace; and that some of Milton’s prose passages are among the finest in English is hardly denied by anybody. Yet, even here, there have been gainsayers who were not political partisans, and whose competence was not to be questioned; while, if we stop short of absolute gainsaying, there has been hardly anybody, whose competence and impartiality are not questionable, to praise without abundant and uncomfortable allowance and exception. The difficulty arises mainly from the fact that, except in the Education tractate, and in the curious Histories, Milton was always fighting a prize in his prose compositions; and that hardly ever, except in the Areopagitica, had he a prize before him which was worth the fight in a literary sense. One would suppose that no one, unless entirely carried away by sympathy with Milton’s causes, could approve Milton’s controversial methods. His capital fault is that he never succeeds in bringing the matter under any consideration which his opponents can be imagined as sharing, or reasonably invited to share. To convict your adversary on your own statement of the case is quite idle: and that is what Milton is constantly doing.
“And it so happened that some of his special characteristics of style, which were harmless and even beneficial in verse, were dangerous, more especially at the time, in prose. He was very fond of long sentences—the very first of Paradise Lost contains sixteen lines and, perhaps, six score words, while there are others longer. In verse, this did no harm, and much good—indeed, without it, he could hardly have achieved his famous ‘verse- paragraph’s His unerring sense of verse-form prevented these sentences from being in any way formless. But in prose it was different. Destitute of the girth and band of the line, enabled to expand and expatiate, to indulge in parenthesis and additional relative clause, by the treacherous confusion of English and Latin grammar which prevailed, his sentences too frequently became a mere welter; and, in citing some of the finest, it is customary to commit the minor fraud of stopping short where he ought to have stopped, but did not.
“If there had been—as it was practically impossible that there should be then—an accomplished critic who, at the same time, was not a political or ecclesiastical partisan, he must have been genuinely distressed by Of Reformation Touching Church Discipline in England, when it appeared in 1641. It is impossible to read a page or two (of this tract) without seeing that here was a writer who united the gifts of striking phrase and rhythmical adjustment as, even in that age of marvelous achievement in these respects, few had done; but who exaggerated the defects of composition, usual after Hooker’s time, in an almost unbelievable way. The second sentence, not without premonition of the great flights later, is almost a pattern of Milton’s style when not at its best. There is no necessary harm in the long cumulative sentence: it may be found (for instance in Ruskin) of something like double the above length, but building up a picture whose every stroke is a clear and congruous addition. Milton’s, at first sight and not at first sight only, is a daub of plastered touches. One or two of the sections (if they can be called sections) could, indeed, be kept clear by punctuation. But, for the most part, they are not hinged and jointed together; they are thrust bodily into each other’s substance so far as composition goes, while the actual words could be thinned out, with, in many cases, almost infinite advantage,
“This passionate, voluminous, eloquent, unequal medium served Milton when he did not use Latin, throughout his life, and on almost all occasions. An in tenser passion, with a nobler subject, elevated it into the noble, but even then not always faultless, style of the great Areopagitica passages; of the fine prayers at the close of Reformation Touching Church Discipline in England; of some parts even of the unfortunate divorce tracts. Less fortunate occasions and a lower mood degrade it into the rude railing and insolent swagger of Eikonoklastes which Mark Pattison, for all his liberalism and his Milton-worship, describes as ‘grossly indecent’; or into the inconceivably dreary horseplay—or worse—-of the Animadversions. With passion and interest almost entirely absent, it composes itself into the sober, business-like, yet very far from inelegant, vehicle of the Education tractate. It is really curious to see how, for the most part, the sentences shorten themselves, how the composition is clarified, the epithets are thinned and carefully sifted, in this tract.’ —George Saintsbury
“Originally of argument need not be sought in Areopagitica for it will not be found. Commonplaces, indeed, abound; but there are commonplaces raised to the level of great literature. Bishop Joseph Hall, Milton’s antagonist in the anti-episcopal tracts, rephrased a familiar notion thus: “There can be but one truth; and that one truth oft-times must be fetched piece-meal out of divers branches of contrary opinions. But Milton’s restatement is a touchstone of English prose:
Truth indeed came 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 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…..
The style is the work. It looks beyond Milton’s other work—and other styles—to the only other classical oration in English literature, Sidney’s Defense of Poesie. The Areopagitica like the Defense weds style and argument in such a manner that, while style and structure reflect the practice of classical rhetoricians, the thesis appeals to the most liberal instincts in man. Milton has appreciated by now what he would later transmute into poetry, that rhetoric by itself could be put to perverse uses, witness its deployment by Satan in Paradise Lost.’ But rhetoric exerted on behalf of truth—the truth of moral precepts immemorially upheld—could so imprint a cause upon the consciousness of man as he should not willingly let it dies.’ —C.A. Patrides
“In form the Areopagitica is a majestic example of the classical oration. The title is that of a written speech of Isocrates addressed, in a private capacity, to the Athenian Court of the Areopagus. It conforms to all the principles of oratory laid down by Quintilian and embodied in Demosthenes and Cicero. The speeches of the fallen angels in the second book of Paradise Lost, the description of Satan’s address to Eve, and the characterization of the Athenian orators who “wielded at will that fierce democracy” in the days of a noble eloquence “since mute” show how deeply Milton had studied and admired this branch of ancient literature. The general principle of toleration, applied essentially to publication in Areopagitica, had been maintained before Milton’s time against the prevailing doctrine by other Independents, including Roger Williams in his Bloody Tenet of Persecution”. —James Holly Hanford.
‘‘The twenty years of Milton’s life as a public disputant were preceded by a period of travel abroad (1638-1639), chiefly in Italy, during which he may have met Galileo, was entertained by the Italian literary academies and pondered much upon a projected epic or drama on the subject of King Arthur’s wars, a subject suggested to him by the epics of Tasso and Ariosto. His return was hastened by news of King Charles’s expedition against the Scots, a step whose seriousness Milton well knew. Once back in London, he was drawn into a pamphlet-war on the vexed question of episcopacy. Then followed his ill-starred marriage into a Royalist family, and the writing of his pamphlets on divorce. These were received with astonishment and execration by his countrymen, who did not see that Milton was only bringing to bear upon one issue of domestic life, that spirit of free inquiry everywhere being applied to public institutions, and everywhere spreading change through the social fabric of England. Another signal illustration of Milton’s revolutionary questioning followed, in the shape of an attack upon the censorship of the press. The time-honored institution of the censorship he saw to be an intolerable hindrance to freedom of thought; in a pamphlet entitled Areopagitica (1644) he launched against it all the thunders and lightings of his magnificent rhetoric. On the execution of King Charles I (1649) Milton was the first to lift up his voice, amid the hush and awe of consternation, in defense of the deed. His pamphlet On the Tenure of Kings and Magistrates (1649) was of such timely service to the Commonwealth party that he was appointed to the position of Latin Secretary to Cromwell’s government, his duties being to invite correspondence with foreign powers, and to reply to attacks by foreign pamphleteers of importance. In the midst of a controversy of this sort his eyes failed, and in a short time he was totally blind. He continued his duties, with the poet Andrew Marvell as his assistant. After the Restoration in 1660 Milton was imprisoned for a short time and then forced to live in retirement in order to escape paying with his life for his fearless support of the ideals and actions of the Commonwealth party.” —Fred B. Millett
“The Areopagitica is probably the most famous of Milton’s prose writings, as it is the only one familiar to any but the student. By an ordinance which came into operation in 1643, it was rendered obligatory on the author of a new publication to get the license of the Commissioners appointed to supervise the press before such work could be issued. Milton set the ordinance at defiance by publishing his first divorce pamphlet without license and without the printer’s name, and added insult to injury by dedicating it to the Parliament. He followed this up by an open (and quite unsuccessful) attack on the censorship of the press in the tract which he entitled Areopagitica: A Speech for the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing, to the Parliament of England. ‘The name of the tract was taken from the Areopagitic oration of Isocrates, a written speech like Milton’s, also addressed to the national council. Areopagus (Ares or Mars’ Hill) was the meeting-place of the Athenian Senate. Here he denounces the restrictions on the liberty of expressing opinion with the stately eloquence and passionate rhetoric of which he was a master. He strays more rarely than is usual with him in prose into labyrinthine constructions and syntactical jungles, while there is none of the rancor and scurrility which mar so much of his polemical prose. An intense love of liberty and truth glows through it; the majestic soul of Milton breathes such high thoughts as had not been uttered before. It is impossible to select a passage from-Milton’s prose which does not give too high or too low an idea of his general style. We will, then, choose one here from the Areopagitica which exhibits him at his best:
Good and evil we know in the field of this world grow up together almost inseparably; and the knowledge of good is so involved and interwoven with the knowledge of evil, and in so many cunning resemblances hardly to be discerned, that those confused seeds which were imposed upon Psyche as an incessant labor to cull out and sort asunder were not more intermixed. It was from……. through the cave of Mammon and the bower of earthly bliss that he might see and know and yet abstain.
Milton’s is not a prose that will do for everyday purposes; it is too rarely pedestrian. When it is not soaring high aloft amid the clouds, it is only too frequently dragging flabbily and formlessly. Through the mire.” —Wyatt and Collins
“His aversion from any censure of the press caused him to publish the most eloquent of his prose works, Areopagitica, a Speech for the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing (1644). Here he appeals both to patriotic pride and to the passion for liberty. He desires that England shall champion the noble cause he advocates, and he has a vision of his country regenerate by the abolition of intellectual tyranny:
Methinks I see in my mind a noble and puissant nation rousing herself like a strong man after sleep, and shaking her invincible locks: methinks I see her as an eagle muing her mighty youth, and kindling her undazzled eyes at the full midday beam; purging and upscaling her long abused sight at the fountain itself of heavenly radiance; while the whole noise of timorous and flocking birds, with those also that love the twilight, flutter about, amazed at what she means
He admits that books acknowledged to be maleficent should be proscribed, but is opposed to censorship as a preventive measure, giving his reasons in a passage as lofty and beautiful as his most famous verses and as lastingly young” —Emile Legouis
“He published about the same time his Areopagitica, a speech of Mr. John Milton for the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing. Danger of such unbounded liberty, and the danger of bounding it, have produced a problem in the science of government which human understanding seems hitherto unable to solve. If nothing may be published but what civil authority shall have previously approved bower must always be the standard of truth; if every dreamer of innovations may propagate his projects, there can be no settlement; if every murmurer at government may diffuse discontent, there can be no peace; and if every sceptic in theology may teach his follies, there can be no religion. The remedy against these evils is to punish the authors; for it is yet allowed that every society may punish, though not prevent, the publication of opinions which that society shall think pernicious, but this punishment though it may crush the author, promotes the book; and it seems not more reasonable to leave the right of printing unrestrained because writers may be afterwards censured, than it would be to sleep with doors unbolted because by our laws we can hang a thief. —Samuel Johnson
Note. From the chronological point of view this comment should have come at the top of all the others in this chapter. But it has been placed last because the opinion expressed by the learned doctor seems to strike a balance between the two extremes—censorship of books and complete freedom to authors and publishers to publish books. At the same time it is noteworthy that Dr. Johnson’s style of writing is syntactically no less involved than Milton’s.
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 the writers 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.
At the very outset Milton makes it clear that his aim in addressing the two Houses of Parliament is to promote the cause of freedom. This discourse by him, he says, may not succeed in attaining its purpose; but it will certainly show his desire to help and advance the cause of freedom. England, he says, has passed through a phase when the people suffered greatly on account of the dictatorial powers of the government under the early Stuarts; and, if the country was subsequently able to free itself from a dictatorial exercise of power, it was due firstly to the help given to the country by God and secondly to the members of the two Houses of Parliament and their faithful guidance and unshakable wisdom.
Having thus paid a compliment to the Parliament whom he is addressing in this discourse, Milton says that he wants them to reconsider an order which they have proclaimed. As honest and learned persons, it becomes their duty to reconsider an order which he believes to be unfair and unjust. This order pertains to the publication of books, pamphlets, tracts, etc. This order aims at regulating the business of printing, and it lays down that no book, pamphlet, or paper should be printed from now onwards unless it has first been approved and licensed by the authority constituted for -the purpose. This order, says Milton, seems to him to be a revival of the censorship which he and others had believed to have ended a long time back. Milton would like to offer some advice to both the Houses of Parliament on this subject and he proposes to do so under four different heads, namely (i) the hateful origin of licensing; (ii) the effects of the reading of books; (iii) the futility of the order which has recently been passed; and (iv) the harmful effects of this order on learning and on truth.
Harmful books, says Milton, should certainly be suppressed because they can do a lot of harm. But care has at the same time to be taken that good books are not suppressed or prevented from being published. Suppressing or prohibiting a good book is as wicked as killing a human being. “A good book is the precious life-blood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond,” says Milton. If a good book, which is a book containing some valuable truth, is suppressed or destroyed, it means the loss of that valuable truth which could have brought a great improvement in the life, not of one nation, but of many nations. The destruction of a good book is tantamount to the destruction of the fifth element which is more precious than the other four elements, namely fire, water, earth, and air. This fifth element consists of the “very breath of reason”. Killing a good book therefore means killing the ethereal fifth element (or essence) the loss of which would obviously be a tremendous loss.
Milton then says that he is not asking for unlimited freedom in the publication of books but that he is certainly opposed to the licensing order which has been proclaimed in this context. In the ancient Greek city of Athens, there were only two kinds of books about which the magistrates were required to be vigilant: blasphemous books and libelous books. Apart from these two categories of books, there were no restrictions on the publication of books. Protagoras was banished from Athens for writing blasphemous books. But no action at all was taken against the philosopher
Epicurus who taught that pleasure was the highest good; and no action was taken against the philosopher Diogenes who preached cynicism. In Lacedaemon, the other leading city of ancient Greece, the government and the people were also fairly liberal in their attitude to books and to the authors of books. Me ancient Romans, like the ancient Greeks, also disapproved chiefly of the publication of two kinds of books, namely these which defamed particular individuals, and those which attacked religious beliefs and the gods. The Roman authorities did not bother their heads about any other kind of books. It was because of this liberal attitude of the authorities that Lucretius was able to versify his epicurean philosophy without any action being taken against him. Not only that. Such a great Roman as Cicero subsequently edited Lucretius’s work even though he did not agree with Lucretius’s views. Later, when the Roman emperors had embraced the new Christian faith, they did not become any stricter with regard to the publication of books. Only those books were prohibited or burnt which showed their authors to be heretics; and such action was taken only under the authority of the emperor himself when it had been proved, after a due investigation, that the books in question were really of this objectionable kind.
It was only after the year 800 A.D. that any real restrictions on the writing of books came into existence. At about this time the Roman Popes took some of the political powers of the government in their own hands and in this way extended their authority over the lives and minds of the people.
It was now the Popes who began to decide what books should be burnt or prohibited; and they exercised this power in an arbitrary manner. But even they were not too drastic in their judgments, and they did not ban too many books till Pope Martin V issued a special order prohibiting not only the writing, but also the reading, of heretical books. In this way Pope Martin V tried to crush all opposition to the Christian Church and its doctrines. And he adopted this stern attitude because by this time men like Wyclifand Huss had begun to attack the Christian doctrines openly and in strong terms. This kind of thing continued until the Council of Trent and the Spanish Inquisition together built up a system of preparing and notifying lists of books which were thought to be objectionable, and which the faithful Christians were expected to avoid altogether. Such action by the Council of Trent and the Spanish Inquisition was certainly very tyrannical, and it hurt the feelings of many good authors very keenly. That is how the licensing of books began; and, of course, such licensing then became not only arbitrary but also over-strict. Authors had now to obtain what was called an Imprimatur (or a permit) for the printing and publishing of their books.
Milton then expresses his view that all kinds of opinions including the wrong and false ones should be available to all human beings so that the truth can be arrived at through a discussion of them. It is probably for this reason, he says, that God did not prescribe a particular diet for human beings and provided them with all kinds of food, leaving it to them to exercise their own judgment as to what kind of food to eat and how much of it to eat. Good and evil in this world, says Milton, exist inseparably, and they grow together in the same inseparable mixture. Our knowledge of good is interwoven with our knowledge of evil. So close is the inter-mingling that it often becomes very difficult for us to separate one from the other. Only when we know the nature of evil that we can understand and appreciate the nature of virtue; and only then can we show our capacity to make the right choice between them. It is only by reading books of all kinds that we can judge what is right and what is wrong. We would not know which books are false and misleading unless we go through them; and we can go through them only if authors and publishers enjoy complete freedom in the writing and publishing of books, pamphlets, tracts etc
It is said that an unrestricted reading of books can have harmful effects upon human -beings. For instance, it is said that if we read books indiscriminately, we would be infected by the evil which they contain, and that this evil would then spread to other people also. But if it be so, then all human learning must be removed, and all religious controversy must be forbidden because not only religious: discussions but religious books (including the Bible itself) contain detailed accounts and descriptions of impiety, wickedness, sensuality, disobedience to God, human grievances, human discontent with the divine governance of the world, and similar other forms of irreligious and unholy thoughts and deeds. The learned people, who go through books of religion and who discuss -religious and secular matters, are themselves likely to be infected by such accounts and descriptions contained in books including the Bible and other holy writings. It may be pointed out by someone that most of such books exist in foreign languages (like Latin) which the common people do not understand. But the infection can spread to the common people from the learned ones who would first catch the infection by reading books in Latin and other foreign languages. In short, all books of learning including the sacred ones would have to be banned. Obviously a ban on books like the Bible and on religious discussions will neither be proposed nor be tolerated by anyone and is therefore not feasible. There is yet another disadvantage of the licensing order which has been passed by the parliament. The men appointed to grant licenses for the printing of books would themselves have to go through the books first; and there would be a danger of these men being themselves infected by the false ideas which some of the books are likely to contain. There is no guarantee that these men would themselves prove to be incorruptible. Evil can then spread even from the licensers to the common people. An Answer to Plato’s Objections to Certain Kinds of Books Another objection which is raised against the granting of freedom to the people to read any kind of books is that people would then unduly be exposing themselves to temptation. –me answer to this objection is that books, which are thought to be objectionable, are not a temptation to all men. Such books can even serve the purpose of useful drugs, and they can become the means by which the lives of human beings can be maintained in proper health and can even be improved. The ancient philosopher Plato certainly proposed certain restrictive devices and methods to keep writers and authors under check. For instance, he suggested that poets should not be allowed to read out their poems to the people until the judges and the law- keepers had gone through them and approved of them. But Plato meant this restriction to be applied only to the kind of republic which he had described in his famous book of that name, and which did not actually exist anywhere
in the world. Besides, if Plato was really; serious about imposing such restrictions, he should first have proposed such a restriction on certain existing books such as the works of the Greek comic dramatist, Aristophanes, who had written books of slander against some of his own friends. Evidently Plato knew that the restrictions, which he was imposing upon the poets and other writers in his republic, would never take a practical shape because that kind of republic would never come into being anywhere. In the world. Besides, if books have to be prohibited so that they may not poison the minds of the readers, then a hundred other kinds of prohibitions must also be imposed upon the people to prevent them from being poisoned and corrupted in a hundred other ways. If the printing and publishing of books is to be controlled or regulated to improve civil life, then all kinds of recreations and pastimes such as singing and dancing must also be controlled or regulated because they too can mislead and corrupt human beings. Plato’s suggestion to impose restrictions on the publication of certain categories of books can never succeed because such a restriction would have to be supplemented with restrictions in many other spheres of life. With too many restrictions upon life and upon human activity, the world would become a ridiculous and boring place, and even then those restrictions will not fully serve the purpose for which they would be introduced.
Books should be freely available, and printers and publishers should therefore have full freedom to print and publish them so that people may read them freely and decide for themselves which books are good and which are bad. Whether a book teaches virtue or not, and whether a book contains some truth or not, can be decided only if people themselves have the freedom to go through them and if they are not banned at the very source. If a book is capable of doing even a little good to the people, then it is a book worthy of esteem because even a little service to society is preferable to the forcible prevention of evil. Two More Reasons for the Ineffectiveness of the Licensing Order If the purpose of the new licensing order is to prevent the emergence of religious sects and schisms through books, this purpose will also not be achieved because religious sects have been known to come into existence not so much through books as through unwritten traditions and beliefs. Christianity itself used to be only a sect at one time; and, when it began to spread, it did so not through any written or published books and pamphlets but through the spoken word. There is another reason why this licensing order will not prove effective. Those appointed to license books must be men not only of a high degree of education and learning but also of Sound judgment and integrity of character. Such men cannot easily be found. Besides, the licensers would have to work very hard because, the number of books submitted to them for their scrutiny and their approval would be very large. The licensers would find their work most disagreeable, tough, and boring, and therefore no men possessing any real ability or worth would come forward to accept this task for the sake of the meagre payments which they would receive.
Having demonstrated that the licensing order would not serve the purpose for which it is intended, Milton proceeds to deal with the harm which it is bound to cause. Firstly, this order would prove to be the greatest discouragement, and the worst kind of insult, to learned persons and also to the cause of learning. There are people who possess an inborn love of learning and who pursue learning not for the sake of any financial gain but for its own sake. These persons aim only at serving God and serving the cause of truth. Such persons feel’ satisfied only with the reputation and the good name which their pursuit of learning is likely to bring them. Books written by such persons can surely strengthen people’s faith in God, and can also promote the welfare of mankind in general. Bishops and other church dignitaries have often, in the past, opposed any move which could discourage learning„ and they should do so now also. No true lover of learning, who has written a book, would like to submit to the humiliation of seeking a licenser’s permission to publish that book especially when he knows that the licenser is by no means a man of better judgment or greater ability than he himself. This licensing order is no better than a schoolmaster’s rod which serves as a threat or a warning to a schoolboy to do his work with due care. An author always takes the utmost pains when he writes a book. He makes use of all his reason and his faculty of thought while writing it. If an author is still suspected of being irresponsible or unsound in his judgment, and if he is still required to obtain a licenser’s permission to publish his book, it amounts to his being treated in a most dishonorable and disgraceful manner. And then there is another consideration also. While the book has been submitted to the licenser, the author might then suddenly think of something new, something which he finds to be too precious to be missed. In such a case the author would have to rush to the licenser’s office in order to get back his book so that he may include the new material in it. All this would prove to be a most cumbersome procedure which no author can tolerate. Yet another consideration is that the licensers may not always accord their permission for the publication of those books which are beneficial to society because they are sure to prefer books which are likely to be received favorably by the reading public. The licensers would not judge books by their intrinsic merit. They would approve the publication of those books which suit the temper of the reading public and which are in harmony with the views and opinions already current and popular in the country.
Milton then points out some other implications of the licensing order. He says that this licensing order is a move towards a complete censorship of books, and therefore a move towards the cancellation of one of the basic privileges of the people. This licensing order, he says, will lead to a form of tyranny under which the authors would feel most miserable. This licensing order may also prove to be a nursing mother to religious sects; and it would certainly prove to be a step-mother to truth. This order would make it impossible for the nation to preserve even that much of truth as is already in its possession. Just as the bodily organs and the physical strength of a man can be maintained in their proper condition only if he takes regular exercise, in the same way the faith and the knowledge, which human beings possess, will thrive only by being exercised and being constantly put to use. Truth is like a fountain, the water of which has to be kept flowing and is not allowed to stagnate. All kinds of beliefs, including religious beliefs, must constantly be kept under review. People should be encouraged to develop within themselves the spirit of inquiry and an attitude of questioning because otherwise all beliefs will themselves become a kind of heresy. Even if certain beliefs are really true, they would become a kind of heresy if they are not examined form time to time, and not inquired into. Beliefs should not be allowed to stagnate. Books are one of the sure means by which the stagnation of beliefs, including the religious ones, can be prevented.
Some people practice their religion by proxy. Rely upon priests to perform the duty of prayer and worship on their behalf, treating the priests as their agents, and keeping them pleased in every way, while spending their own time in -the enjoyment of the pleasures of life and in adding to their wealth. Then there are people who, on coming to know that all things in the country are going to be regulated and placed under some kind of discipline, get ready to place themselves in the hands of the officials who are to frame the rules and regulations in that context. All such people thus become intellectually and spiritually lazy, and in this way they hinder the progress and advancement of knowledge. Books also, having been brought under the purview of rules and regulations, would no longer be available for the enhancement of the knowledge of the people who would become puppets in the hands of priests and officials. Thus this licensing order would become an instrument for the conversion of human beings into non-thinking puppets. The priests themselves would also suffer a heavy loss by the introduction of this licensing order. As fewer books would be published, their interest in reading would diminish, and their knowledge, which could have certainly been enlarged and refreshed by the unrestricted publication of books, would become stagnant.
Books are the repositories of truth and learning which are not commodities to be treated like commercial goods to subject books containing knowledge and learning to the scrutiny of licensers is to treat them as commodities to be approved and sold. It is a disgraceful punishment to an author to debar him from writing any books after one or more of his works have been adjudged by the licensers to be harmful to the readers and therefore prevented from appearing in print.
Milton next refers to some of his experiences in the foreign countries which he had visited. He had found the astronomer, Galileo, living in Italy under many severe restraints because his discoveries differed vastly from the beliefs which had previously been current. Galileo’s discoveries had been thought to be dangerous by the Franciscan and Dominican licensers of books. Milton had also found that the foreign authors were under the wrong impression that full freedom prevailed in England in the sphere of the publication of books. The foreign authors were surprised on being told by Milton that there were many restrictions on English authors too. And then Milton again says that, with the enforcement of the new licensing order, priests in England would once again become the arbiters of human conscience because the licensers have to be appointed from amongst them. Truth, says Milton, came into this world with Jesus Christ. As preached by Christ, Truth was something glorious to look at. But, when Christ was crucified, and when his devoted followers (namely the Apostles) had also died, a wicked race of cheats became active and began to undermine Christ’s message to mankind. At the same time, the seekers after truth had begun to collect the fragments of truth which had disintegrated after the death of Christ. But those seekers after truth would now be thwarted by the new licensing order. Books are indispensable for the propagation of truth and for the spread of knowledge, new as well as old.
The English nation, says Milton, has a sharp, penetrating, and fertile intelligence by means of which it can touch the highest levels of knowledge and truth and thus add to its happiness. But the new licensing order would only obstruct and hinder all that expected progress. If the English thinkers and theologians are allowed full freedom of thought and of the expression of thought, they can still carry forward that process of the renewal and rejuvenation of the Church which was started by the Reformation. Already, in the city of London, people are not only busy producing arms and weapons for the defense of the city against any possible Royalist attack, but also engaged in the pursuit of knowledge and learning. “There is a discernible ferment in the sphere of religious thought which would suffer a setback with the enforcement of the licensing order. The diversity of opinion, which now prevails here, should not cause any fear because religious sects and schisms would not increase as a result of this diversity but would find some sort of meeting-ground and achieve a harmony in their relations with one another. If such harmony is to be achieved, all restrictions on discussion and on the spirit of inquiry would have to be removed.
Milton recalls the freedom which the authors and publishers in England used to enjoy before this licensing order was passed. That freedom was really the nurse of all great wits in the country. In other words, that freedom was a source of inspiration and strength to the great intellectuals of this ‘ country. It was that freedom which had brought about a new awakening and a new illumination for the minds and the souls of the people here. That freedom had also shown the parliaments own love of freedom. But the new licensing order would only be taken by the authors and publishers to mean that Members of Parliament are no longer lovers of freedom, and have now become arbitrary and narrow-minded. Milton appeals to the Members of Parliament to prove that they still love freedom and to withdraw this order. The circumstances now prevailing demand that free discussion and debate are really needed at this juncture. Let the forces of math and the forces of falsehood clash; and it will be seen that truth can never be defeated by falsehood. Truth often assumes different forms; and it is wrong on the part of some people to sit in judgment upon the thoughts and the beliefs of other people. While it is essential to eradicate beliefs which are obviously and evidently false, such as many of the doctrines of Roman Catholicism, no restrictions should be placed on the free flow of knowledge and the free circulation of ideas. Moses had given to young Joshua the valuable advice that he should not feel jealous of the prophetic powers of others; and Christ had urged some of his followers not to punish those who differed with them. Christ had even said that he, who was not against him, was for him. In the light of such advice by Moses and by Christ, people should realize that those, who differ with them in their religious beliefs, are not necessarily their enemies. In other words, a spirit of mutual toleration is absolutely necessary in matters of religious belief. Unfortunately, says Milton, this licensing order seems to be a revival of the attitude of the Dominican friars who used to preside over the courts of the Inquisition. Milton also feels that some of the motives behind this licensing order are of a dubious kind, and remind him of the mischievous manner in which the Star Chamber used to function. Milton ends his discourse by saying that a good government should always be ready to redress speedily the errors which it commits, and that it would only be in the fitness of things for the two Houses of Parliament now to rise to the occasion and rectify the mistake which they had made by passing a licensing order in respect of the publications of books.