Sometimes it’s the 400-year-old articles that speak most clearly.

John Milton’s Areopagitica, a treatise from the early days of the English parliament, was inspired by a 1643 law that required new books, pamphlets, and papers to be reviewed and licensed by the new English government before publication and reprinted only when approved. In this tract, Milton, argues that censorship stifles communal debate, learning, and knowledge-making, undermines a people’s search for truth, and binds them to state-authorized conclusions.

via Southern Methodist University's Bridwell Library.

First page of Areopagitica, via Southern Methodist University’s Bridwell Library

When Milton wrote, England was in the midst of its second civil war and developing the doctrine of parliamentary supremacy over the tradition of divinely appointed monarchy. Parliament was controlled by Protestants, Presbyterians specifically, and their chief antagonists were Catholic and Puritan. King Charles I, enthroned at the time, had a Catholic wife and was perceived as unsupportive of the Protestant Reformation in mainland Europe.

Milton references Catholic churchmen and rulers uncharitably throughout Areopagitica, playing to readers’ prejudices in order to increase their support (the Christian epistle to the Romans does the same). But these references also work to describe a particular kind of governance: people of all and no religious background have presided over tyranny and the non-Catholic king was accused of doing so throughout his reign until Parliament had him executed in 1649 as a traitor. The Parliament that passed the Ordinance for the Regulating of Printing was not Catholic, but Protestant, and in this pamphlet Milton describes them as grasping, controlling, and well out of their rightful lane.

In the passages below, Milton explains why open discussion is essential and why prejudging variant opinions and those who are different is both unwise policy and philosophically weak.

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. Under these fantastic terrors of sect and schism, we wrong the earnest and zealous thirst after knowledge and understanding which God hath stirred up in this city. What some lament of, we rather should rejoice at, should rather praise this pious forwardness among men, to reassume the ill-deputed care of their religion into their own hands again. A little generous prudence, a little forbearance of one another, and some grain of charity might win all these diligences to join and unite in one general and brotherly search after truth, could we but forego this prelatical tradition of crowding free consciences and Christian liberties into canons and precepts of men…

And if the men be erroneous who appear to be the leading schismatics, what withholds us but our sloth, our self-will, and distrust in the right cause, that we do not give them gentle meetings and gentle dismissions, that we debate not and examine the matter thoroughly with liberal and frequent audience; if not for their sakes, yet for our own? — seeing no man who hath tasted learning but will confess the many ways of profiting by those who, not contented with stale receipts, are able to manage, and set forth new positions to the world. And were they but as the dust and cinders of our feet, so long as in that notion they may yet serve to polish and brighten the armoury of Truth, even for that respect they were not utterly to be cast away. But if they be of those whom God hath fitted for the special use of these times with eminent and ample gifts, and those perhaps neither among the priests nor among the pharisees, and we in the haste of a precipitant zeal shall make no distinction, but resolve to stop their mouths, because we fear they come with new and dangerous opinions, as we commonly forejudge them ere we understand them; no less than woe to us, while thinking thus to defend the Gospel, we are found the persecutors. —John Milton

Howard Chandler Christy's "Scene at Signing of the Constitution of the United States" (1940)

“Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States” (1940) by Howard Chandler Christy

History is recursive when we fail to learn its lessons. The British aren’t the only people to have faced state censorship; they are again today, and so is the United States. But the United States was born  more than a century after the English Civil Wars and the 1643 ordinance to “regulate” publishing. The US’ founders were no stranger to English history or the religious, political and ideological persecutions that run through it.

So it was no accident that the Western hemisphere’s newest republic diverged from England on its definition of “treason,” provided that “no religious test” could qualify a person for state office, and ranked as fundamental the rights of free speech, free exercise of religion, free assembly, and a free press.

In England, the principle of a free press was not secured until 50 years after Areopagitica, yet there are questions about both individual censorship and press freedom in the UK today. (Also see this summary of the UK’s reach from AP.) And these questions are not just for professional commentators and specialists, but also for every ordinary person who values liberty—their nation’s and their own.

Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties. —John Milton

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