October 22, 2017
John Milton on CensorshipOn this day in 1644 John Milton published his pamphlet, Areopagitica, a Speech for the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing, to the Parliament of England. This was Milton's response to the Licensing Order issued by Parliament the previous year, whereby all authors were required to submit their works to a government censor prior to publication. The speech was built upon a series of practical and principled arguments, many of which are now famous. Since books would be published whether permitted or not, licensing is likened to "the exploit of that gallant man who thought to pound up the crows by shutting his park gate." Licensing was an indignity to England, being "a nation not slow and dull, but of a quick, ingenious and piercing spirit," well able to tell worthwhile books from trash. And perhaps most famously, "as good almost kill a man as kill a good book: who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God's image; but he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself, kills the image of God, as it were, in the eye." Having just returned from a visit with the imprisoned Galileo in Italy, Milton implored Parliament to not replace a Catholic tyranny with a governmental one: "Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely, according to conscience, above all liberties."
Parliament was unconvinced and the censorship law was not rescinded, but Milton's speech has become a monument to civil liberty and a hallmark of his talent for ringing prose, to go with that for poetry:
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