Areopagitica: Milton on the Tyranny of Licensing Books

In 1638, John Milton left England for a Grand Tour of Europe, traveling through cities such as Paris, Nice, and Genoa. In Florence, he writes, "I found and visited the famous Galileo grown old, a prisoner to the Inquisition, for thinking in astronomy otherwise than the Franciscan and Dominican licensers thought." Galileo was under house arrest for publishing Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, in which he argues that the earth revolves around the sun. The Inquisition was having none of it. Galileo, accused of heresy, was forced to recant.
Milton recalls this meeting in Areopagitica (1644), his denunciation of England's licensing act (1643), which specified that books must be approved by government officials before publication. Evoking his visit to Galileo, Milton observes that "this kind of inquisition tyrannizes." His pamphlet opposes the licensing act with four key arguments that Sarah Skwire succinctly summarizes in her essay for Econlib

First, he says, the kinds of people who invented this type of pre-publication censorship are not the kinds of people that the Parliament wants to be. Second, reading is beneficial, regardless of the quality of the book. Third, the order won’t actually do anything to fight against “scandalous, seditious, and libellous books.” And lastly, that the order will discourage learning and make Englishmen stupid.    

Here I want to show why Milton's arguments remain relevant nearly four centuries later. One reason is that Milton conveys why books are more than just pages covered with words: "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, the image of God, as it were in the eye." Good books capture something divine.  

Of course, some books are not good. Yet even that failure does not justify licensing. One reason is that if books "be found mischievous and libellous, the fire and the executioner will be the timeliest and most effectual remedy that man's prevention can have." One has not only the right to publish but the responsibility to accept the consequences.

More importantly, even bad books can be valuable for moral development. Let's return to Milton's emphasis on reason. In "Of Education," published a few months before Areopagitica, Milton delineates his plan of a school for young men. Central to that proposal is cultivating in pupils "that act of reason which in ethics is called 'Proairesis': that they may with some judgment contemplate upon moral good and evil." Students should be given the tools to make reasoned choices and cultivate virtue. 

This value informs Areopagitica, where Milton argues that all books are useful, even bad ones, which may "to a discreet and judicious reader serve in many respects to discover, to confute, to forwarn, and to illustrate." To be able to choose the right path, we must have knowledge of both sides: "I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race, where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat." That choice is removed by government licensers.

Furthermore, the judgment of such hired judges should be trusted no more than general readers:  

if learned men be the first receivers out of books, and dispreaders both of vice and error, how shall the licensers themselves be confided in, unless we confer upon them, or they assume to themselves above all others in the land, the grace of infallibility and uncorruptedness?

The individuals most qualified to write and judge new work are the least likely to become licensers, who are commonly "ignorant, imperious, and remiss, or basely pecuniary." When such people start prohibiting, he warns, "there is aught more likely to be prohibited than truth itself." Through arguing and writing, we share opinions, and "opinion in good men is but knowledge in the making."

Milton's allusions to seventeenth-century licensers and scientists may seem far removed from our world. The United States government, for instance, does not control whether a book will be published. Yet concerns about what is published, particularly online, seem to be rising globally in governments and research foundations, with an increasingly complex lexicon—"misinformation," "disinformation," "malinformation"—that varies by organization. 

Applying such labels empowers foundations and government divisions, yet, as Milton observes in his time, "truth and understanding are not such wares as to be monopolized. . . .  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." Moreover, Milton insists, allowing only licensed books to be published insults ordinary readers, treating them like silly or vicious people. Ironically, Milton argues, trying to suppress new opinions encourages the rise of sects and schisms and keeps true knowledge away.

Milton's concerns are still relevant. Areopagitica reminds us to be wary of strategies to limit what we read. This protection is only another form of tyranny—just as the Inquisition was "protecting" people when it put Galileo under house arrest and forced him to recant his heretical views. Centuries later, it is Galileo whom Stephen Hawking and Albert Einstein credit for the birth of modern science, and it is Milton who shows us why it is not books we should fear but those who warn us not to read them.