Summary of Areopagitica

A Summary of”Areopagitica”

Summary of Areopagitica: Milton’s Motivebehind This Address to Parliament

Summary of Areopagitica: At the veryoutset Milton makes it clear that his aim in addressing the two Houses ofParliament 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 desireto help and advance the cause of freedom. England, he says, has passed througha phase when the people suffered greatly on account of the dictatorial powersof the government under the early Stuarts; and, if the country was subsequentlyable to free itself from a dictatorial exercise of power, it was due firstly tothe help given to the country by God and secondly to the members of the twoHouses of Parliament and their faithful guidance and unshakable wisdom.

Milton’s Suggestion to Parliament to Reconsider Its Licensing Order

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.

The Suppression of a Good Book Means the Destruction of the Fifth Element

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.

The Liberal Attitude of the Ancient Greaks and Romans

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.

The Beginning (in 800 A.D.) of Tyranny and Arbitrariness

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.

A Free Discussion of All Kinds of Opinions

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

Even Holy Books Contain Accounts of Impiety and Wickedness

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.

The Good that Books Can Do to Human Society

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.

The Licensing Order, a Great Discouragement to Learned Persons

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.

The Licensing Order, Unkind to Truth like a Step-Mother

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.

Men as Puppets

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.

Not Commodities but Repositories of Truth

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’s Experiences in Foreign Countries

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 Potential Achievements of the English Nation

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.

The Need for Tolerance, and the Duty of Parliament

Milton recallsthe freedom which the authors and publishers in England used to enjoy beforethis licensing order was passed. That freedom was really the nurse of all greatwits in the country. In other words, that freedom was a source of inspirationand strength to the great intellectuals of this ‘ country. It was that freedom whichhad brought about a new awakening and a new illumination for the minds and thesouls of the people here. That freedom had also shown the parliaments own loveof freedom. But the new licensing order would only be taken by the authors andpublishers to mean that Members of Parliament are no longer lovers of freedom,and have now become arbitrary and narrow-minded. Milton appeals to the Membersof Parliament to prove that they still love freedom and to withdraw this order.The circumstances now prevailing demand that free discussion and debate arereally needed at this juncture. Let the forces of math and the forces offalsehood clash; and it will be seen that truth can never be defeated byfalsehood. Truth often assumes different forms; and it is wrong on the part ofsome people to sit in judgment upon the thoughts and the beliefs of otherpeople. While it is essential to eradicate beliefs which are obviously andevidently false, such as many of the doctrines of Roman Catholicism, norestrictions should be placed on the free flow of knowledge and the freecirculation of ideas. Moses had given to young Joshua the valuable advice thathe should not feel jealous of the prophetic powers of others; and Christ hadurged some of his followers not to punish those who differed with them. Christhad even said that he, who was not against him, was for him. In the light ofsuch advice by Moses and by Christ, people should realize that those, whodiffer with them in their religious beliefs, are not necessarily their enemies.In other words, a spirit of mutual toleration is absolutely necessary inmatters of religious belief. Unfortunately, says Milton, this licensing order seemsto be a revival of the attitude of the Dominican friars who used to presideover the courts of the Inquisition. Milton also feels that some of the motivesbehind this licensing order are of a dubious kind, and remind him of themischievous manner in which the Star Chamber used to function. Milton ends hisdiscourse by saying that a good government should always be ready to redressspeedily the errors which it commits, and that it would only be in the fitnessof things for the two Houses of Parliament now to rise to the occasion andrectify the mistake which they had made by passing a licensing order in respectof the publications of books.

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