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John Milton: Excerpts from Areopagitica (Norton version)

Vocabulary: bowdlerization, Cavalier, roundhead, epic, Puritan interregnum

Introduction: What was the Licensing Act of 1643 and why did John Milton oppose it? What problem did John Milton have with his education while he was at Cambridge? In 1654, what physical affliction affected John Milton but did not stop him from making poetry?

Lecture or Handouts: During the time John Milton lived, what two religious groups were trying to kill each other in warfare? What is the name of the general who established temporarily the commonwealth and drove the monarch and his supporters into exile? The Licensing Act of 1643 is in some ways similar to what famous list of banned books from the medieval period? What political body is the intended audience of Areopagitica?

Identify the Following Characters, Objects, and Images from Areopagitica: Osiris, the sad friends of Truth, the running stream versus the stagnant pond, the Licensing Act of 1643.

Reading Questions:

  • Areopagitica
  • Why is censoring a book worse than killing a man, according to Milton? Explain his logic.
  • According to Milton, what part of reason is killed when a book is destroyed?
  • What myth is Donne alluding to when he mentions "those fabulous dragon's teeth . . . [that] may chance to spring up armed men?
  • What is Milton's counter-argument to those who quote King Solomon's statement that "much reading is a weariness to the flesh," and hence people shouldn't read too much?
  • What is Milton's counter-argument to those people who point approvingly to the story of St. Paul's converts who burnt their books of Ephesian witchcraft after converting to Christianity as an argument in favor of censorship?
  • What Biblical parable of Jesus does Milton allude to when he refers to good and evil "growing up together" in the "field of this world"? What conclusion does he draw about those people who want to uproot the evil [books]?
  • What is Milton's argument about freedom and knowing good or evil? How does he make a connection between freedom and Adam's first sin and the need for freedom of the press?
  • What is the significance or meaning of Milton's comparison between truth and a streaming fountain (as opposed to a motionless pool)?
  • According to Milton, why or how does truth become a "heresy" if a person only believes things because his pastor or his government tells him so? Why does Milton find that dangerous?
  • What is the legend about Osiris's death in Egyptian mythology? How does Milton connect this myth to the idea of recovering truth?
  • According to Milton, what three things always accompany the desire to learn?

Passages for Identification in Areopagitica -- be able to discuss or explain Milton's argument in each one, and identify the author as Milton and the source of the text as Areopagitica. The version below may have slightly different, archaic spelling than the text we used in class.

A. I deny not, but that it is of greatest concernment in the Church and Commonwealth, to have a vigilant eye how Bookes demeane 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 doe contain a potencie of life in them to be as active as that soule was whose progeny they are; nay they do preserve as in a violl the purest efficacie and extraction of that living intellect that bred them. I know they are as lively, and as vigorously productive, as those fabulous Dragons teeth; and being sown up and down, may chance to spring up armed men.

B. And yet on the other hand, unlesse warinesse be us'd, as good almost kill a Man as kill a good Book; who kills a Man kills a reasonable creature, Gods Image; but hee who destroyes a good Booke, kills reason it selfe, kills the Image of God, as it were in the eye.

C. Many a man lives a burden to the Earth; but a good Booke is the pretious life-blood of a master spirit, imbalm'd and treasur'd up on purpose to a life beyond life. 'Tis true, no age can restore a life, whereof perhaps there is no great losse; and revolutions of ages do not oft recover the losse of a rejected truth, for the want of which whole Nations fare the worse. We should be wary therefore what persecution we raise against the living labours of publick men, how we spill that season'd life of man preserv'd and stor'd up in Books; since we see a kinde of homicide may be thus committed, sometimes a martyrdome, and if it extend to the whole impression, a kinde of massacre, whereof the execution ends not in the slaying of an elementall life, but strikes at that ethereall and fift essence, the breath of reason it selfe, slaies an immortality rather then a life.

D. But some will say, What though the inventors were bad, the thing for all that may be good? It may be so; yet if that thing be no such deep invention, but obvious, and easie for any man to light on, and yet best and wisest Commonwealths through all ages, and occasions have foreborne to use it, and falsest seducers, and oppressors of men were the first who tooke it up, and to no other purpose but to obstruct and hinder the first approach of Reformation.

E. Solomon informs us that much reading is a wearines to the flesh; but neither he, nor other inspir'd author tells us that such, or such reading is unlawfull: yet certainly had God thought good to limit us herein, it had bin much more expedient to have told us what was unlawfull, then what was wearisome. As for the burning of those Ephesian books by St. Pauls converts, tis reply'd the books were magick, the Syriack so renders them. It was a privat act, a voluntary act, and leaves us to a voluntary imitation: the men in remorse burnt those books which were their own; the Magistrat by this example is not appointed; these men practiz'd the books, another might perhaps have read them in some sort usefully.

F. Good and evill we know in the field of this World grow up together almost inseparably; and the knowledge of good is so involv'd and interwoven with the knowledge of evill, and in so many cunning resemblances hardly to be discern'd, that those confused seeds which were impos'd on Psyche as an incessant labour to cull out, and sort asunder, were not more intermixt.

G. I cannot praise a fugitive and cloister'd vertue, unexercis'd & unbreath'd, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race, where that immortall garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat. Assuredly we bring not innocence into the world, we bring impurity much rather: that which purifies us is triall, and triall is by what is contrary.

H. Many there be that complain of divine Providence for suffering Adam to transgresse. Foolish tongues! When God gave him reason, he gave him freedom to choose, for reason is but choosing; he had been else a mere artificial Adam, such an Adam as he is in the motions. We ourselves esteem not of that obedience, or love, or gift, which is of force: God therefore left him free, set before him a provoking object, ever almost in his eyes herein consisted his merit, herein the right of his reward, the praise of his abstinence. Wherefore did he creat passions within us, pleasures round about us, but that these rightly temper'd are the very ingredients of virtue? They are not skilfull considerers of human things, who imagin to remove sin by removing the [subject] matter of sin . . . .

I. Truth is compar'd in Scripture to a streaming fountain; if her waters flow not in a perpetuall progression, they sick'n into a muddy pool of conformity and tradition. A man may be a heretick in the truth; and if he beleeve things only because his Pastor sayes so, or the Assembly so determins, without knowing other reason, though his belief be true, yet the very truth he holds, becomes his heresie.

J. Truth indeed came once into the world with her divine Master, and was a perfect shape most glorious to look on: but when he ascended, and his Apostles after Him were laid asleep, then strait arose a wicked race of deceivers, who as that story goes of the Ægyptian Typhon with his conspirators, how they dealt with the good Osiris, took the virgin Truth, hewd her lovely form into a thousand peeces, and scatter'd them to the four winds. From that time ever since, the sad friends of Truth, such as durst appear, imitating the carefull search that Isis made for the mangl'd body of Osiris, went up and down gathering up limb by limb still as they could find them. We have not yet found them all, Lords and Commons, nor ever shall doe, till her Masters second comming; he shall bring together every joynt and member, and shall mould them into an immortall feature of lovelines and perfection. Suffer not these licencing prohibitions to stand at every place of opportunity forbidding and disturbing them that continue seeking, that continue to do our obsequies to the torn body of our martyr'd Saint.

K. It is not possible for man to sever the wheat from the tares, the good fish from the other frie; that must be the Angels Ministery at the end of mortall things. Yet if all cannot be of one mind, as who looks they should be? this doubtles is more wholsome, more prudent, and more Christian that many be tolerated, rather then all compell'd. .

L. Where there is much desire to learn, there of necessity will be much arguing, much writing, many opinions; for opinion in good men is but knowledge in the making.


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