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Milton Research Paper


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Milton Research Paper

  1. 1. Cameron Irby Dr. Guernsey-Pitchford ENGL 4039 16 April 2015 Milton's Areopagitica and the Modern Argument of Censorship With the Internet gaining a new user every second or so, people have begun to wonder about the content that people have access to. Parents worry that their child will stumble upon something harmful to their well-being, and governments try to ensure that their secret files remain within their own servers and not on a Reddit sub-forum. Usually, the dominant authority will use the power of censorship, which is the deliberate deletion or prohibition of a particular item. In this case, parents will use things like web filters that block specific websites. The Internet is not the only case in which censors are used, however; it is only the most recent. For years, television stations and radio have frequently omitted words or phrases deemed unsuitable for the general public, and movies constantly figure out some way to digitally disguise or blur nudity in older films. Books are banned from the local libraries by school boards that decide that the content is not appropriate for young audiences. This is not a new topic. John Milton covered this exact scenario back in 1644 in Areopagitica: A Speech for the Unlicensed Printing, to the Parliament of England. To this day, Milton's argument against censorship holds water against the modern assertion for it. Having already discussed some of the context for the modern discussion of censorship, it is also important to analyze the historical time period that Areopagitica was created in. In 1644, England was in the midst of its civil war between the Royalists and Parliament. At the time,
  2. 2. Parliament had issued an ordinance that stated that publishers to have their works licensed by a government official. Licensers could choose to prohibit the work should it contain anything unsatisfactory to them, including things such as Royalist propaganda, anti-Anglican sentiments, and anything that they disagreed with personally. This was essentially Parliament-sponsored censorship in its most extreme fashion, and it was this unrestrained silencing of the presses that Milton believed should be stopped (Daniel 19). Milton's argument in Areopagitica has four key points. The first is that censorship is of Catholic origin. To a Protestant, this is obviously cause for alarm as anything remotely related to the Papacy might be a heresy. Milton explains that in the golden age of Antiquity, the magistrate of Athens would only condemn a book if it contained anything “either blasphemous and atheistical, or libellous” (Milton 720). Both make adequate sense, as religion has always been a sacred topic and anyone who wounds another man's reputation through lies should equally share the fate of his books. The idea that Milton describing the his recounting of the civilizations of Antiquity is that those nations were able to discern for themselves what to read. It was not until “the year 400 in a Carthiginian Council wherein bishops themselves were forbid to read the books of Gentiles,” thereby beginning the Catholic Church's grip on what books can be read by whom (Milton 723). The Council of Trent, as Milton explains, led to an even more rigorous burning and banning of books that they disapproved of. “Their last invention,” Milton wrote, “was to ordain that no book, pamphlet, or paper should be printed... unless it were approved and licensed under the hands of two or three glutton friars” (Milton 724). To anyone in Milton's England, this statement might have sounded like the ordinance that Parliament was considering of renewing. In Milton's mind, the best way to examine a book's worth is by simply publishing it. The people would do the work for the government. If, as Milton wrote, the book should have
  3. 3. something offensive to the people, “who denies but that it was justly burnt, or sunk into the sea?” (Milton 725). The problem of licensing is that the book is judged not by the community as a whole but rather a select group of individuals who have their own agenda to fulfill. The second point of Areopagitica is that every book, no matter its content, contains some merit and wisdom. As an example, Milton hearkens back to the days of Moses, Daniel, and Paul, who each studied the texts of the Egyptians, Chaldeans, and Greeks, respectively. Milton goes into greater detail with Paul, saying, “In Paul especially, who thought it no defilement to insert into holy scripture the sentences of three Greek poets” (Milton 726). If the man whose letters make up nearly two-thirds of the New Testament could read things by heathen Gentiles, then why are other Christians judged for doing so? He goes on to say that “God in that unapocryphal vision said without exception, 'Rise, Peter, kill and eat,' leaving the choice to each man's discretion. Wholesome meats to a vitiated stomach differ little or nothing from unwholesome, and best books to a naughty mid are not unappliable to occasions of evil” (Milton 727). By comparing the content of a book with something essential, in this case food, Milton not only provides a fantastic analogy but also offers a thought that tends to slip past those who always have their torches and pitchforks prepared if something they do not like comes into view. This thought is that the book does not inherently cause bad behavior. The person makes the choice. A murderer is just as likely to use the Bible as inspiration for a crime in comparison to a violent novel. Milton, however, does not completely rule out the existence of evil literature. He admits that there are works that can conceive vile thoughts and promote vicious acts, but he does not simply wish to burn them. He instead explains that “herein the difference is of bad books, that they to a discreet and judicious reader serve in many respects to discover, to confute, to forwarn,
  4. 4. and to illustrate” (Milton 727). Observe the list of things that one is able to do with a so-called “bad book.” We can discover the content within the book, explain how the author is wrong, tell others about the book's problems and heresies, and demonstrate why it is so. People, if they are taught well, have the capacity to understand and interpret what the books says without it adversely affecting them. Of course, as one researcher explains, “Milton doesn't say... how much error and untruth you have to read to gain the beneficial effects he describes” (Sullivan 58). He also does not indicate how learned one must be in literature or the ways of the world in order to discern truth from fiction. The third argument of Milton's Areopagitica attempts to appeal to the logic of its readers by explaining exactly why books cannot be banned though lack of license. Obviously, books are not the only thing that can promote unpopular beliefs and activities. Milton ponders why the books are the only things being targeted. What about things like music and architecture? Surely, those must also be licensed. He even provides a few theoretical ideas that Parliament could use, saying, “There must be licensing dancers, that no gesture, motion, or deportment be taught our youth, but what by their allowance shall be thought honest” (Milton 732). Those ideas, of course, were never meant to be taken seriously, but the point here is that books are not the entirety of a culture. Books are merely a single facet of it. Censoring books without doing the same to other activities would be unfair. Licensing all activities, on the other hand, would be tyrannical. By only licensing books that conform to the government's ideals, Milton argues, the censors would eventually become unqualified for the position. Think about it for a moment, and the logic works itself out. If censors prohibit bad things, then people would only publish what would be considered good in the eyes of the law. In a matter of years, there would be no more bad books out in the public, which means that now the censors have nothing to compare good
  5. 5. books to. If all books are good, then how can these censors determine what is bad? How, as Milton inquires, “shall the licensers themselves be confided in, unless we can confer upon them, or they assume themselves above all others in the land, the grace of infallibility and uncorruptedness?” (Milton 730). The system of licensing would inevitably lead to the licensers making themselves irrelevant, save for the power the people and the government provide them with. For the final point of Areopagitica, Milton describes the future of Britain should this edict pass. In this future, truth to the common man would be whatever he is told by authority. “If her waters flow not in a perpetual progression,” Milton explains, “they sicken into a muddy pool of conformity and tradition” (Milton 739). This was exactly the situation Europe had been struggling to exit throughout the Dark Ages. If licensing were to continue, time would cease to move forward, civilization would stop growing, and everything would stay the same. Worse still, the lack of knowledge gained through intellectual progress would breed ignorance within people, and they would be content to eat “the fruits which a dull ease and cessation of our knowledge will bring forth” (Milton 740). Through books come knowledge, and through knowledge comes progress, which will beget life. In fact, it is through the comparison of ideas and opinions that a singular truth is revealed. There will be wars both large and small waged over these ideas. Some may be fought with weapons, and others will be won with a pen. Out of those disputes and arguments, however, “comes a larger coherence, a better whole” (Sullivan 59). In Milton's mind, the ideal England is one that reads printed and written works, each one a description of the thoughts of a single individual, and decides for themselves what to make of it. Bela Mester summarized this feeling, saying, “What is in the books, that is -- or will be – in the minds” (373). Now that I have adequately described Milton's thoughts and reasoning behind his belief
  6. 6. in freedom of the press, I must now provide greater context on the scenarios that modern censorship occurs. While American history contains the occasional censor, Australia has had a more turbulent history with its printing presses, as described by Peter Coleman. Because of this, I will analyze key moments in Australia's history that affected free speech and free press in some way. Prior to the twentieth century, the only cases of direct censorship in Australia were directed towards newspapers and publications that advocated violent or anarchic acts. An example of this was the arrest of J.A. Andrews who was “charged with advocating incendiarism and murder in defense of the rights of the working class” (Coleman 36). For the most part, however, there was very little government oversight. This scene could easily be compared to the civilizations of Antiquity that Milton described in Areopagitica where the people decided what to read and what not to read. Once World War I entered reality, however, that grand age was no more. Like many countries, Australia, in an attempt to increase support for the war effort, censored any publications that advocated for a German takeover or a return to peace. In the years between the World Wars, the Australian government continued to use its power to ban books advocating Communism, such as Karl Marx's The Communist Manifesto (Coleman 37). Intriguingly, over half a million citizens petitioned the government to discontinue its censorship policy and succeeded, but the government resumed its policy during World War II. In the events after World War II the Australian government began actively censoring newspapers before they were ever published, claiming that it was acting “in defense of national security and public morale” (Coleman 37). This is one of the many arguments in favor of censorship, and it is perhaps the most convincing one. The logic here is simple; a government
  7. 7. cannot allow important information falling into the wrong hands. To do so could lead to innocent lives being at risk of harm. Milton, however, was under similar circumstances. In order to boost morale, Parliament censored the printing press by only giving licenses to publishers whose works they agreed with. On the one hand, they had a cause to uphold. They, too, wanted to protect its soldiers and its people or, at least, have the appearance of such. Milton, however, believe that Parliament was actually becoming that which they had fought so hard to dethrone. Parliament was so afraid of King Charles I and all of his supporters that, in a desperate bid for power, decided to reenact what Clay Daniel calls “Personal Rule” (25). Personal Rule is when a king or a power simply does what he, she, or it sees as proper. Milton saw it as tyranny. After all, kings, dictators, and Parliament can make anyone do what they want, including silencing the voice of the people. Political power and propaganda are not the only reasons for censorship in the modern age, however. As our world becomes more and more interconnected through social media and the Internet, we become exposed to numerous cultures and religions. Unfortunately, people often find out that things that are common in one country are often found offensive in another. In the case of movies, some countries are perfectly comfortable with nudity while others, such as America, find it obscene. In 1971, Philip Roth attempted to publish his book Portnoy's Complaint, which contained very coarse language and detailed accounts of sexual perversions, through Penguin Books in Australia. The Australian government, however, prohibited the sale of the book, but the juries that were overseeing the case “could not reach agreement in the prosecution of Penguin Books,” leading to the book becoming available legally (Coleman). The problem with this scenario is that there are multiple factions for each culture. One can see a taboo in one country, hop on a plane, and visit another country only to find that the
  8. 8. taboo is widely accepted there. These cultures have differing values and reasoning behind those values, be it tradition or an alternate train of thought. While Milton never went into great detail on the censorship of books coming from other countries in Areopagitica, he did discuss the need for knowledge. It is, after all, our Christian freedom to read whatever we so desire. He writes, “He that can apprehend and consider vice with all her baits and seeming pleasures, and yet abstain, and yet distinguish, and yet prefer that which is truly better, he is the true wayfaring Christian” (Milton 728). While the world may not be entirely Christian, we can still examine the quote and understand that we need not fear for our morality because of possibly offensive content. If a book tells its reader to burn down his neighbor's house, then he can either do what it says or not. By choosing not to, the reader proves that they are not only more intelligent than a book but also of high moral standard. Likewise, reading a book or watching a movie with graphic sexual content will not corrupt those who can observe and understand it. There is another factor to the morality angle that might actually add a point to the side of modern censorship, and that is the minds of our youth. Many advocacy groups attempt to prohibit books or other media because they are afraid that those forms of media will have an adverse affect on their little ones. One that comes to mind is the controversy of the Harry Potter series promoting witchcraft. While Milton never discusses the ramifications of vicious books and children, he did quip that an ignorant man, or in this case a child, can never be convinced by a book to do something against his morals “unless it were commended and expounded to him by some of that clergy” (Milton 730). In Milton's mind, a book that advocates bad deeds can only spread those ideas from human to human, not book to human. The only people who believed Harry Potter advocated witchcraft were those who were told that it did. The solution to the issue of a child's morality lies with his upbringing. Those that teach him correctly will be the ones to
  9. 9. thank, and those who lead him astray will be the ones to blame. Censorship in the modern era is a hot topic that will not disperse as long as we communicate. There will be those who want to hide things from others for fear of some disease of corruption amongst their youth. There will be some who, in the hopes of maintaining order, manipulate the presses to their desires. Others will want to ensure that no one in a far off country will be offended by what they produce. Despite this, there is only one thing that cannot change or be argued away, and that is truth. As long as we continue to write and create, we will cry out for the right to do so without limits, without chains, and without licenses. Milton made this very clear when he wrote, “Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties” (Milton 746). We cannot simply remain in ignorant darkness, so now we must follow the light of knowledge. Only then shall we advance towards the future.
  10. 10. Works Cited Coleman, Peter. "Censorship: Publish And Be Damned." Media International Australia 150 (2014): 36-40.Communication & Mass Media Complete. Web. 16 Apr. 2015. Daniel, Clay. "Why 'Areopagitica?'" South Atlantic Review 75.2 (2010): 19-33. JSTOR. Web. 16 Apr. 2015. <>. Mester, Béla. "Thoughts On Censorship And The Freedom Of Thinking In Early Modern Age." Philobiblon: Transylvanian Journal Of Multidisciplinary Research In Humanities 8-9.(2003): 365-384.Library, Information Science & Technology Abstracts with Full Text. Web. 16 Apr. 2015. Sullivan, Daniel. "Milton's 'Areopagitica' Freedom of Speech on Campus." Liberal Education 92.2 (2006): 56-59. ERIC. Web. 16 Apr. 2015. <>.