John Milton. (1608–1674). Areopagitica.
The Harvard Classics. 1909–14.
The name of Milton’s speech on the freedom of the press was imitated from that of the “Logos Areopagiticos” of the Athenian orator Isocrates (B.C. 436–338), which was also a speech meant to be read, not heard. The oration of Isocrates aimed at re-establishing the old democracy of Athens by restoring the Court of the Areopagus, whence the work derived its title.
During the ascendency of Laud in the Church of England, his instrument, the Court of the Star-Chamber, had reenacted, more oppressively than ever, some of the restrictions imposed during the reign of Elizabeth on the printing of books. These restrictions disappeared with the abolition of the Star-Chamber in 1641, but very soon the Presbyterian majority in the Long Parliament began to pass orders framed with a view to enable them to suppress publications voicing the political and religious views of their opponents. Finally the Order of June, 1643, reproduced here, roused Milton to protest, and he issued his famous plea for unlicensed printing in the following year. As will be seen from the speech itself, he did his best to conciliate the Parliament by making cordial acknowledgment of its services to the cause of liberty, and he sought to persuade them to reverse their action by pointing out its inconsistency with these services. But it does not appear that it produced any immediate effect. While the Independents under Cromwell had the upper hand, the licensing laws were, indeed, very slackly enforced; but with the Restoration came the reenactment of most of the provisions of the Star-Chamber Decree. After being renewed several times for terms of years, they finally were allowed to lapse in 1694, and later attempts to renew them were unsuccessful.
But the importance of Milton’s pamphlet is not to be measured by its effect on the political situation which was its immediate occasion. In his enthusiasm for liberty, the master passion of his life, he rose far above the politics of the hour; and the “Areopagitica” holds its supremacy among his prose writings by virtue of its appeal to fundamental principles, and its triumphant assertion of the faith that all that truth needs to assure its victory over error is a fair field and no favor.