On the Areopagitica: Why Milton’s Defence of Free Speech Remains Almost Unsurpassed but Not Secular

by Tauriq Moosa

As per various stories emerging concerning censorship, I thought it a good time to consider one of the greatest documents defending free speech.

ScreenHunter_10 Jan. 16 12.17In 1643, the English Parliament instituted the Licensing Order. This meant pre-publication censorship on all printed writings, including and aiming mostly at newspapers. This followed the abolishing, two years earlier, of the Star Chamber, which according to Kevin Marsh, “had been the monarchy's most potent tool of repression for centuries: a court that held secret sessions, without juries, and produced arbitrary judgments… all to please the king.” This blanket censorship, however, disappeared, requiring Parliament to take some action, thus the Licensing Order. But the next quilt of authority was simply knitted from the frayed threads of the previous.

Arrests, search and seizure of books, book burnings and all other classical depictions of authoritarian hatred were the outcome of this Order. The Stationer’s Company, a guild of booksellers, printers and so on, and established by Queen Mary in 1557, was put in charge of dealing out this Order. Hindsight makes those fires brighter and stupidity greater and fear lesser; curled pages to us invite anger at oppression, but in the eyes of the moralisers, it meant something called order.

The great poet, John Milton, delivered a speech in 1644, called Areopagitica (or, its full title Areopagitica: A speech of Mr. John Milton for the liberty of unlicensed printing to the Parliament of England). In it, he made an impassioned plea that rings out today, calling for free thought, speech and reason, for “when complaints are freely heard, deeply considered and speedily reformed, then is the utmost bound of civil liberty attained, that wise men look for.”

His most powerful argument is encapsulated in what is surely one of the most beautiful sentences ever written:

A man may be a heretic in the truth, and if he believe things only because his pastor says so, or the assembly so determines, without knowing other reason, though his belief be true, yet the very truth he holds becomes his heresy.

Here, Milton cut to the heart of the problem.

Read more »