November 24

Published on this day in 1644, the tract entitled, Areopagitica: A Speech of Mr. John Milton for the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing, to the Parliament of England, is one of the noblest statements ever written concerning freedom of the press. This pamphlet, the finest prose work of one of the great poets of the language, was written in protest against an Act of Parliament requiring the licensing by an official censor of all books printed in England. Milton took the title from Areopagus, the hill of Ares, meeting place of the highest council. In reasonable tones, without cant or the slightest touch of hysterics—unique for a pamphleteering attack—Milton asked that Parliament reconsider its censorship ordinance. He quickly arrived at the splendid passage, which began:

“I deny not but that it is of greatest concernment in the Church and Commonwealth to have a vigilant eye how books demean themselves, as well as men; and thereafter to confine, imprison, and do sharpest justice on them as malefactors. For books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are; nay, they do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them. I know they are as lively, and as vigorously productive, as those fabulous dragon’s teeth; and being sown up and down, may chance to spring up armed men. And yet, on the other hand, unless wariness be used, 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. Many a man lives a burden to the earth; but a good book is the precious life-blood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life. ‘Tis true, no age can restore a life, whereof perhaps there is no loss; and revolutions of ages do not oft recover the loss of a rejected truth, for the want of which whole nations fare the worse.”

Milton closed with an appeal: “This I know, that errors in a good government and in a bad are equally almost incident; for what Magistrate may not be misinformed, and much the sooner, if liberty of printing be reduced into the power of a few; but to redress willingly and speedily what has been erred, and in highest authority to esteem a plain advertisement more than others have done a sumptuous bribe, is a virtue (honoured Lords and Commons) answerable to your highest actions, and whereof none can participate but greatest and wisest men.”

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