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Milton and Freedom of Speech

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Source: Richard Jebb's Introduction and Analysis of his edition of Areopagitica, with a Commentary by Sir Richard C. Jebb and with Supplementary Material (Cambridge at the University Press, 1918).


In June, 1643, came forth an Order of the Lords and Commons for the Regulating of Printing. In November, 1644, Milton’s Areopagitica was published as a protest against this Order.

It is a pamphlet in the form of a speech supposed to be addressed to the Parliament. Near the beginning, Milton says—“I could name him who from his private house wrote that discourse to the Parliament of Athens that perswades them to change the forme of Democraty which was then establisht.” The Areopagiticus of Isokrates (355 ) is a speech, supposed to be made in the ekklesia, about the Areiopagos—urging the restoration of its old powers. The Areopagitica of Milton is a speech to the English Areiopagos—the Parliament of the Commonwealth.

From the introduction of printing into England, the liberty of the press had been modified from time to time by royal proclamations.
In 1557 the Stationers’ Company of London was formed. The exclusive privilege of printing and publishing in the English dominions was given to 97 London stationers and their successors by regular apprenticeship. All printing was thus centralised in London under the immediate inspection of the Government. No one could legally print, without special license, who did not belong to the Stationers’ Company. The Company had power to search for and to seize publications which infringed their privilege.

In the next year Elizabeth came to the throne. It was resolved to continue the restrictions on the freedom of printing; but, as the Stationers’ Company, incorporated in Mary’s reign, was not thought a fit body to decide, under a Protestant Queen, what should or should not be published, it was determined to put the licensing power in other hands.

In 1559 the 51st of the Injunctions Concerning Religion provided that no book in any language—schoolbooks and certain classics excepted—should be printed without license from one of the following persons or bodies: (i) the Queen: (ii) Six Members of the Privy Council: (iii) the Chancellor of the University of Oxford: (iv) the Chancellor of the University of Cambridge: (v) the Archbishop of Canterbury: (vi) the Archbishop of York: (vii) the Bishop of London: (viii) the Bishop, being Ordinary, and the Archdeacon, of the place of publication.

In 1566 this order was ratified by a decree of the Star-Chamber.

In 1586 a new decree of the Star-Chamber provided: 1. That, in addition to the presses under the control of the London Company of Stationers, there should be one press at Oxford and another at Cambridge. (Hitherto the privilege claimed, through their Chancellors, by the Universities had sometimes been disputed by the London printers.) 2. That the power of licensing, formerly shared by eight different persons or bodies, should belong to two persons only, viz. the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of London, jointly or severally. Certain papers and books, however, were excepted from their censorship; viz. (1) official documents sent to the Queen’s printer: (2) law-books, which were to be licensed by the Chief Justices and the Chief Baron.

It was part of the duty of the Archbishop’s and the Bishop’s Chaplains to examine books intended for printing. If the book was approved, the licenser endorsed it, and the printing then began. Before the book was published, the publisher registered it, for 6d., in the books of the Stationers’ Company. He then had the copyright; or, in other phrase, the book was his “copy.” The book appeared with the words cum privilegio on the title-page, or with a copy of the licenser’s certificate. This is a translation of the Latin certificate prefixed to a book by Lord Herbert of Cherbury, printed in England in 1632: “I have read through the Treatise entitled ‘On Truth, as distinguished from Revelation, from the Probable, the Possible and the False.’ The book contains 227 pages already printed, and about 17 in ms.; in which I find nothing contrary to morals or to the truth of the Faith, to hinder it from being printed to the public advantage. William Haywood, Domestic Chaplain to the Bishop of London, Dec. 31, 1632.” [The book must have been licensed before one of the 227 pages could have been printed; though this formal certificate was not written until the printing was nearly completed.]

During the reign of James I and the earlier part of the reign of Charles I, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of London continued to be the sole licensers. From about 1627 to 1632 Laud, then Bishop of London, appears to have done almost all the work of the censorship, leaving little of it to Archbishop Abbot. About 1632 a division of the work seems to have been admitted. At that time books to be printed at the University presses were licensed by the Vice-Chancellors of Oxford and Cambridge; in certain cases, licenses were granted by the Judges or the Secretary of State; plays and poems could be licensed by Sir Henry Herbert, the Master of the Revels. It appears, however, that by 1637 either the licensing regulations had come to be less strictly enforced, or means had been found to evade them by the establishment of private presses.

37 July 11).
On July 11, 1637, the Star-Chamber published a decree for the purpose of confirming, with additions and explanations, the Star-Chamber decree of 1586. The new decree was framed by the Chancellor, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Bishop of London, the High Treasurer, the Chief Justices and the Chief Baron: it was proposed to the Court by the Attorney-General, Sir John Bankes. The preamble sets forth that “divers libellous, seditious and mutinous books have been unduly printed, and other books and papers without licence, to the disturbance of the peace of Church and State.” The decree of 1586 is to stand in force, “with these Additions, Explanations and Alterations” contained in 33 clauses. The most important of these are: (i) Clause 3. The licensers in general shall be the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of London, or their deputies: for books to be printed at Oxford or Cambridge, the Vice-Chancellor of the University. To certain special classes of books special licensers are assigned. (ii) Clause 4. Each licenser is to receive two ms. copies. One is to be returned (if the book is approved) to the publisher; the other kept by the licenser, as a guarantee against alteration of the text. (iii) Clause 6. No imported books shall be passed at the Custom House until they have been visited by the licenser. (iv) Clause 5. The right of keeping a printing-press shall be restricted to twenty master-printers of London, the King’s printer and the two University printers. (v) Clause 17. No one of the twenty-three licensed printers shall keep more than two presses, unless he has been Master or Upper Warden of the Stationers’ Company—in which case he may keep three, but no more. (vi) Clause 20. In order to keep down “secret printing in corners,” the Master and Wardens of the Stationers’ Company shall take care that, as far as possible, all journeymen printers are kept employed. (vii) Clause 25. The officers of the Company, or any two licensed master-printers appointed for the purpose, shall have power to search houses and shops; to see anything that may be printing there; and to demand the license. (viii) Clause 27. There shall be four, and only four, licensed type-founders.

When the Star-Chamber was abolished in 1641, the censorship of the press passed to the Parliament; and a board of twenty licensers, called the Committee of Examinations, was appointed. So long as the Presbyterians and the Independents had been making common cause against Prelacy, the Presbyterians had been loud in their complaints of the restrictions on the liberty of the press. But when Prelacy had been overthrown, and when the rivalry between Presbyterians and Independents in and out of Parliament had become pronounced, the Presbyterians, in their turn, became impatient for some control over authors and printers. The most advanced thinkers and writers, the men most able and most likely to make effective use of the press, were the friends of the Independents. The Presbyterians had still a majority in Parliament; and the result is seen in three Orders published between January, 1642, and June, 1643.

1642 (Jan. 29).
I. Order of the Commons, January 29, 1642. This merely directs the Master and Wardens of the Company of Stationers to see that no printer print or reprint anything without the name and consent of the author, under penalties.

1642 (March 9).
II. Order of the Commons, March 9, 1643. The Committee of Examinations, or any four members of it, shall have power to appoint searchers of any places where they suspect presses to be kept and employed in printing any “Pamphlet scandalous to his Majesty or the proceedings of both or either Houses of Parliament”; to seize the pamphlet and the printing-apparatus; and to bring the printers before the Committee.

1643 (June 14).
III. Order of the Lords and Commons, June 14, 1643. This is a fuller and stronger expression of the last order. The preamble refers to “the great late abuses and frequent disorders in printing many false, forged, scandalous, seditious, libellous, and unlicensed Papers, Pamphlets, and Books, to the great defamation of Religion and Government.” No book, pamphlet or paper shall henceforth be published or imported without license or without registration in the register of the Stationers’ Company. “The Master and Wardens of the said Company, the Gentleman Usher of the House of Peers, the Sergeant of the Commons House and their deputies, together with the persons formerly appointed by the Committee of the House of Commons for Examinations” are authorised to make diligent search for unlicensed presses; “and likewise to apprehend all Authors, Printers, and other persons whatsoever imployed in compiling, printing, stitching, binding, publishing and dispersing of the said scandalous, unlicensed, and unwarrantable papers, books and pamphlets as aforesaid, and all those who shall resist the said Parties in searching after them, and to bring them afore either of the Houses or the Committee of Examinations, that so they may receive such further punishments, as their Offences shall demerit.”

1644 (November).
The Areopagitica appeared in November, 1644. Milton’s protest was ineffectual. The Order of June, 1643, remained in force under the Commonwealth. At the Restoration, the Star-Chamber decree of July, 1637, was taken as the basis of the Licensing Act.
In 1685, the first year of James II, the Act was renewed, without debate, for eight years. In 1693, the fourth year of William and Mary, it was renewed, but after a debate, and only for two years;
its use having been lately discredited by the fact that Bohun, the licenser, had given his imprimatur to an anonymous book called King William and Queen Mary Conquerors—a snare laid for him by his enemy Blount.
It was an odd fate for the Areopagitica that, having failed in its own day, it should afterwards have become a weapon in the hands of Blount; who, in the course of his quarrel with Bohun, brought out two pamphlets both formed in great part of garbled extracts from the Areopagitica—“A Just Vindication of Learning and of the Liberty of the Press, by Philopatris”; and “Reasons for the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing.”
In 1695, after some resistance on the part of the Lords, the Act was allowed to expire and the press was finally emancipated.


The Areopagitica falls into six divisions:

  • I. Introduction.
  • II. The Origin of Restrictions on Printing.
  • III. The Use of Books generally.
  • IV. The Negative Argument against the Order.
  • V. The Positive Argument.
  • VI. Conclusion.

I. Introduction

Pp. 1-6. They who to states and governors... religious and civil wisdom.

No one, whether he is a public or a private man, can undertake anything for the general good without being strongly moved—by misgivings, or by hope, or by confidence. The very thought of this attempt has wrought the power within me to a passion—to the joy felt by all who try to advance their country’s freedom. The very fact that such an appeal as this is possible proves that already England has come on far towards a reasonable civil liberty; a liberty due, under God, to the Parliament; who can hear this praise without suspecting it of flattery. Let the supreme Council of the Commonwealth show how it differs from Prelates and Cabinet Ministers by listening in the spirit of old Greece to a sincere adviser, private man though he is, who has worked and thought. The new Order for regulating Printing is retrograde. I will discuss (1) the origin of the licensing-system: (2) the use of books generally: (3) the uselessness of the present Order: (4) its positive harmfulness.

II. Origin of the Restrictions on Printing

Pp. 6-15. I deny not, but that it is of greatest concernment... the harm that thence proceeds.

I grant that the behaviour of books, like that of men, must be watched. Books are not absolutely dead things; they have a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are. But then they are more than living; a good book is the precious life-blood of a master-spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life. The destruction of a good book ends not in the slaying of an elemental life, but strikes at that ethereal and fifth essence, the breath of reason itself,—slays an immortality rather than a life.

In old Athens and Rome, two kinds of writings only were kept down: (1) the blasphemous and atheistical: (2) the libellous:—while philosophy, though sceptical, and general satire had free scope. After the Emperors became Christian, heretical books, condemned by General Councils, were sometimes burned by their authority. Against other books no interdict is heard of till about 400 , when the Council of Carthage forbad Bishops themselves to read the works of heathens. But, as a rule, the early Bishops and Councils only recommended or censured books—they did not prohibit. About 800 the Popes began to claim the power of burning or forbidding books. Martin V [1417-1431 ] was the first Pope who punished with excommunication the reading of heretical books, having been driven to a stricter policy by Wicliff and Huss. Leo X [1513-1521 ] followed this policy. Then the Council of Trent and the Spanish Inquisition perfected the system by establishing the Index Expurgatorius and like catalogues. Lastly, they forbad the printing of any book which had not received the imprimatur of several censors.” A book by the Florentine Davanzati bears four such imprimaturs. This system was borrowed by the English Prelates—not from any ancient State, nor from the modern practice of any reformed Church or City, but from the Council of Trent and the Inquisition. Under this system a book is in a worse plight than the souls who after death come before Rhadamanthus: it is judged before its birth, and has to pass the ferry backward into light. It may be said—The origin of licensing is bad; the thing itself may be good. But the contrivance is so obvious that, if it had been good, it would not have been overlooked by the best and wisest Commonwealths in all ages.

III. The Use of Books generally

Pp. 15-25. Not to insist upon the examples... while thus much hath been explaining.

Moses and Daniel and Paul were skilled in all manner of heathen learning; yet the lawfulness, or advantage, of such learning was at least debated by the Fathers of the early Church; though a great majority of them were in favour of allowing it. At last Julian the Apostate forbad Christians to study heathen learning, and then it was felt that this was a greater blow to the Church than the persecutions of Decius or Diocletian. Jerome, in a feverish dream, fancied himself chastised for reading Cicero. On the other hand Dionysius of Alexandria, a Father of the Church in the third century, was bidden to read all books that came to his hands, and to judge for himself. The command—“Rise, Peter, kill and eat”—is for the food of the mind as well as the body. The knowledge of error, as John Selden has taught, helps the knowing of truth. Temperance in material things is of the greatest moment to human life; and yet God has entrusted this temperance to every man’s own judgment. Good and evil grow together in this world almost inseparably; and, as Psyche had the task of sorting the seeds, man has the task of sundering the good from the evil. Untried virtue is not pure, it is only blank. Spenser, a better teacher than even Scotus or Thomas Aquinas, makes Guion pass through the Cave of Mammon. Three objections are made to unrestricted reading. (1) First, the danger of infection. To this it may be answered that some of the best books are the frankest, and some of the worst the most plausible. A wise man can get gold out of dross; why should he lose the gain of his wisdom, in order to give the foolish a safeguard which will not hinder his folly? (2) It is said—We must not incur needless temptation; and (3) We must not employ ourselves with vanities. One answer will serve for both objections: to wise men hurtful books are not temptations nor vanities, but drugs which temper wholesome medicines.

IV. The Negative Argument against the Present Order

Pp. 25-33. See the ingenuity of Truth...whereof it bears the intention.

It has been shown that there is no good precedent for licensing; and if it is said that it is a newly invented precaution, the answer is that it is so obvious an one that it can have been neglected only because it was disapproved. Plato, indeed, was for restricting reading in his ideal Commonwealth. But in practice he did not keep his own precept: he saw that this particular restriction would be useless without all the other restrictions of his imaginary City. It is vain to shut one gate while others stand open. If reading is regulated, then music, conversation, every incident of social life must be regulated too. The real art of government, elsewhere than in an Utopia or an Atlantis, is to discern where coercion and where persuasion should be used. Passions have been implanted in human nature because, rightly tempered, they are ingredients of virtue; and it is vain for human government to affect a rigour contrary to the manner of Providence and of Nature.

Everything we hear or do is our book. But, supposing that the restriction of printed books were enough in itself to keep out evil, the Order of Parliament cannot even do this. Writings which it aims at repressing are still circulated. If the Order is to be effectual, a complete list must be made of unlicensed books already in circulation, an index on the model of Trent and Seville. Yet even then the Order would be fruitless. It could not prevent sects or schisms; had not Christianity spread itself over Asia before a written Gospel or Epistle was seen? It cannot mend manners; for what are the manners of Italy and of Spain? Lastly, there is this practical difficulty:—No man, studious, learned, judicious enough to be a competent licenser will endure the drudgery. The present Licensers make no secret of their weariness. Future Licensers will be either ignorant, imperious and remiss, or venal.

V. The Positive Argument against the Order

Pp. 33-50. I lastly proceed from the no good it can do...cold, and neutral, and inwardly divided minds.

a. Learning is discouraged.—When Prelacy was threatened at first, its friends urged that, with it, learning would fall. But this Order is the real downfall of learning. No really learned man, with any spirit, could brook being made a schoolboy again and put under the ferule of a tutor. When a man writes for the world, he puts forth his strength and strives to master his subject: is he, in spite of years, industry, proved knowledge and ability, to be baffled, unless he approves himself to the hasty glance of a licenser without leisure and perhaps without knowledge? Or if, after his book has been licensed, a new thought strikes him—as happens to all writers—shall he be debarred from improving his own work, unless he make a new trip to the licenser? No one would read these licensed books, which would necessarily be made up of hackneyed commonplaces. Then, if the work of a deceased author is to be reprinted, must this too be revised? Would John Knox’s works, for instance, have to pass the licenser?

b. Next, the whole nation is insulted.—Are twenty men enough to estimate all the genius and the good sense of England? Is there to be a monopoly of knowledge; are the products of all English brains to be stamped like broadcloth and woolpacks? The affront is not to the educated alone: the common people are just as much wronged by the notion that they are too giddy to be trusted with a flighty tract.

c. The Ministry is discredited.—Is it the result of all their labours that the people for whom they work are so unprincipled that the whiff of every new pamphlet can stagger them out of their catechism? Are the Ministers afraid to face a single adverse tract, unless they are entrenched in the stronghold, the St Angelo, of an imprimatur?

(This picture of the discouragement which learned men will suffer is not fanciful. In Italy learning is oppressed in the same way: in Italy I saw Galileo grown old, a prisoner to the Inquisition; and I heard Italians lamenting the servile state of letters, and congratulating me for living in a land of philosophic freedom—just when England was groaning most under the prelatical yoke: but these congratulations seemed omens. And when the deliverance did begin, men of letters here called to me, as the Sicilians invoked the upright quaestor against Verres, to stand up for them against this tyranny. And now that the yoke is being put on again, it is the common talk that the Presbyters are going to become new Prelates. The evils of Prelacy have been taken off the land at large only to be heaped upon its literature; for now the Licenser is Archbishop over a great Province of books. So it seems now that the press was to be free only till the Bishops had been overthrown; that done, it is to be in bondage again. Nor can the Presbyters say that this Order keeps down sects; on the contrary, by stirring up opposition, it becomes a nursing mother of sects.)

d. The Order is hostile to truth:—(i) First, as tending to efface knowledge already gained. The waters of truth have been likened to a fountain; but they will stagnate now into a muddy pool of conformity and tradition. The man of business, chiefly anxious to keep up appearances, and the man of pleasure, anxious to be saved trouble, will give up the attempt to think in religion and will become the merest formulists. The clergy will sink into indolence, secured by the Licenser from any assault upon received opinions. But men with a good conscience and a real love of truth ought to wish for open discussion. (ii) Secondly—the Order is hostile to truth as preventing any addition to knowledge. Truth was once incarnate on earth; but it has been hewn in pieces by Falsehood, and the pieces have been cast to the four winds; and as Isis sought for the limbs of Osiris, slain and mangled by Typhon, so the friends of truth are even now looking for the scattered members. Do not be hinderers of the search. We boast of our light: but the sun keeps the stars from being seen: and there is danger lest we have looked so long on the splendour of Zuinglius and Calvin that we are blinded to other lights of truth. The golden rule in Theology, as in other sciences, is to look for what we know not by the light of what we know.

VI. Conclusion

Pp. 50-65. Lords and Commons of England...whereof none can participate but greatest and wisest men.

a. The character and present spirit of the English nation.—Let the Lords and Commons of England consider what a nation it is whereof they are the governors; a nation of high genius and great energy. From far-back times until now the people of this island have been honoured by other peoples. And what is above this, the favour and love of Heaven seem to have been with England. The Reformation was begun in Europe by an Englishman; and if the Prelates had not put down Wicliff as a schismatic, perhaps neither Huss nor Jerome of Prague, no, nor Luther or Calvin would ever have been known. Now a second epoch of reformation is beginning, and again the opportunity of leading it is offered to Englishmen. For behold this great city; the forges of the armourers are not busier in it than the brains of the toilers for truth. Let us not give the names of sect and schism to this new, manifold eagerness for light. While the temple is in building, the stones must be hewn in many shapes. The Enemy watches, and hopes that our divisions and subdivisions will undo us. He knows not that these are but branches springing from one strong root. When I see this city, beset with the perils of war, full within of men quietly following great thoughts, I feel how thoroughly they trust their rulers, and I recognise an omen of victory and of renewed youth for this great nation.

b. A plea for toleration.—If you would crush the knowledge thus daily springing up, you must first suppress yourselves. It is your free government which has made this free spirit. If you would have us slaves, you must be tyrants. And then,—who will stand by you? Not the men who are now fighting against unjust taxation. Remember the advice—rather, the dying charge—of one who died for the Church and the Commonwealth. Lord Brook bids us to bear with all men who would live purely, however much they are spoken against and how widely soever they differ from us. And this is the very time when the battle between Truth and Falsehood must be fought out: the temple of Janus is open. Leave Truth free to fight, and do not doubt the issue. What means the freedom given by Christianity but a deliverance from slavish care for forms? Some schisms may be too lightly made; some doctrines are not to be tolerated; but there are other differences which need not hinder the unity of spirit if only the bond of peace were found. A system of suppression is always apt to put down truth. When a kingdom is shaken to its foundations, then false teachers, it is true, are busiest; but great teachers also are raised up. If, enslaved to a rigid system, we stop the mouths of these, we shall prove ourselves not defenders but persecutors of truth. Since this Parliament met, many unlicensed books have been published—some by Presbyterians. If any authors of such books are among those who seek to re-establish the licensing system, these suppressors ought first to be suppressed themselves.

c. The Order of the House in 1643 compared with its former Order in 1642.—The Order of 1642 provided merely that no book should be printed unless the name of the printer and of the author, or at least the printer’s, were registered. Nothing could be fairer than this. If a book comes out in breach of this rule, let it be burned by the hangman. But the new Order is in the very image of the Star-Chamber decree—one of the worst tyrannies of the late court. As to the means by which this Order was made to supersede the former, those who ought to know hint that trade-interests were at work. Booksellers who wished to keep up a monopoly misled the House by a pretence of securing copyright to poor members of their guild. In these tricks, however, I am not skilled; I only know that a good government is hardly more safe from mistakes than a bad one; but a good government will be sooner moved to redress a wrong by a plain warning than a bad government by a bribe; and to give such redress, is a virtue in which none can share but the greatest and wisest men.

Last modified April 10, 2014