John Milton on the tyranny of government licensed printing (1644)

John Milton

The English revolutionary poet and pamphleteer John Milton (1608-1674) wrote one of the greatest defences of the freedom of speech, Areopagita, in 1644. Here he compares the censoring of ideas in books to restrictions on the free trade of goods:

Truth and understanding are not such wares as to be monopolized and traded in by tickets, and statutes, and standards. We must not think to make a staple commodity of all the knowledge in the land, to mark and license it like our broad-cloth and our woolpacks. What is it but a servitude like that imposed by the Philistines, not to be allowed the sharpening of our own axes and coulters, but we must repair from all quarters to twenty licensing forges?

Milton makes many fine points in this classic defence of the freedom of speech and printing which he wrote in 1644 during the English Revolution. One point was to expose the hypocrisy of Parliament which continued the King’s policy of requiring prior approval by a panel of bishops and church leaders before any book could be published, even though they had vigorously opposed this when in opposition. Parliament merely wanted to have their own men in a position to censor their opponents, or as Milton put it “to make room for others into their seats under another name.” Another important point were the many parallels he drew between the free circulation of books and ideas and the free circulation of goods. Both kinds of “free trade” had great benefits for ordinary people and so should be deregulated from government control. A third very fine point was the idea that books were like living and thinking creatures and that censorship was like killing reason itself: “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.”