Areopagitica by John Milton (and Adam and Eve’s Choice in Paradise Lost)

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I was once on this site accused of being a book banner because I disliked a book and I was not nice in the comments on this site. When I started a discussion post about it last year, you were all quick to give your opinions on what it means to be a book banner, and to reassure me that I didn’t sound like one. Nevertheless, I have often thought about “book banning” and what does it mean in this day and age.

Reading about the English civil war, the Interregnum, and Restoration England this month has put censorship into perspective. In John Milton’s day, censorship was a reality. In fact, books were required to be licensed by the government. As both a political and religious man who happened to disagree with much of what was happening at various times, Milton certainly did not want to have to get his writings government approved.

Milton’s response to the licensing issue, “Areopagitica,” was praised in a book I read as the best prose in the English language, so I thought I’d read it for my Milton in May project. I am glad I did because to my surprise it was both an engaging read and completely relevant. It reminded me strongly of Paradise Lost and I found it to be a good companion read to that.

The title comes, I learned from the Milton Reading Room, from a tract by Isocrates called Areopagiticus: “Isocrates’s tract, which outlines a program for political reform, specifically mentions the degradation of the judges of the Court of the Areopagus, the highest court in Greece.” The Greek court is thus compared to England’s parliament. Apparently, it also references a speech by Paul in the New Testament (I would not have made that connection on my own).

I intended to write this post about Milton’s views of censorship. There is so much in this 30-page essay. But as I sought out quotes, I kept being drawn to Milton’s commentary on freedom to choose in general, Adam’s choice in Eden, and other aspects that seemed to clarify Milton’s latter purposes in writing Paradise Lost: to “justify the ways of God to man.”

For example, Milton writes about the need for both good and evil in the world. (Quotes come from the Milton Reading Room copy online. Hence, there are no page numbers.)

It was from out the rinde of one apple tasted, that the knowledge of good and evill as two twins cleaving together leapt forth into the World. And perhaps this is that doom which Adam fell into of knowing good and evill, that is to say of knowing good by evill. As therefore the state of man now is; what wisdome can there be to choose, what continence to forbeare without the knowledge of evill? He that can apprehend and consider vice with all her baits and seeming pleasures, and yet abstain, and yet distinguish, and yet prefer that which is truly better, he is the true wayfaring Christian. (italics added)

So Adam, before he had received the “knowledge of good and evil,” could not really know good. And he can only be a good man if he’s been challenged to choose between good and evil. He couldn’t do that in the garden before he’d received the knowledge of the two. A little later, Milton adds:

[M]any there be that complain of divin 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 bin else a meer artificiall Adam, such an Adam as he is in the motions. We our selves 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 vertu? They are not skilfull considerers of human things, who imagin to remove sin by removing the matter of sin; for, besides that it is a huge heap increasing under the very act of diminishing, though some part of it may for a time be withdrawn from some persons, it cannot from all, in such a universall thing as books are; and when this is done, yet the sin remains entire.

I really like these quotes. Sorry they are long, but I think Milton says it so well.

“Areopagitica” has so much in it. The bottom line is that I need to reread it. Maybe as a part of Banned Books Week, I’ll read it for the great censorship discussion and share some of the details with you. It is very well done. At this point, I just can’t stop seeing it as a parallel to Milton’s later Paradise Lost (which I am, of course, still reading). I’ll leave you with one more Milton quote, this time a short one:

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

Reviewed on May 26, 2010

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • This is excellent. You’re right, some of the same ideas are there in Paradise Lost, which I don’t think I had realized.

    Whether he quite meant it the way we see it, Milton was one of the great defenders of human autonomy.

    This actually fits in with the Hamsun novel, doesn’t it? That character might be pushing his idea of autonomy too far! But if he’s going to succeed, or starve, he’s going to do it in his own way.
    .-= Amateur Reader´s last post on blog ..It would be impossible to mention any author, the tone of whose works is so thoroughly healthy and pure as Sir Walter Scott’s =-.

    • Amateur Reader, good point about the Hamsun novel. I wonder if today people would be allowed to starve themselves quite so much. At some point a wandering homeless person would be checked in to the hospital. He was pretty determined to survive his way though, so maybe the fact that no one really knew was his way of keeping his autonomy.

    • Bluestalking, I did read Pilgrim’s Progress in January 2009. Thoughts here. In short, I appreciated the historical context and it’s historical and religious impact, but found it painfully didactic, boring, and horribly written. But that was my perspective a long time ago. I’m determined to reread it some day and give it another chance.

  • Rebecca, I love that you are having a Milton read-a-long. I’ve always meant to read Paradise Lost, but haven’t gotten to it yet. I didn’t join the fun this time, but I hope you consider doing with with some other “tough” works in the future.
    .-= Jessica´s last post on blog ..Newspaper Blackout, by Austin Kleon =-.

  • I stumbled into your site while working on a research paper for my masters program at BYU, and I wondered if you could lend some insight. Have you found any scholarly sources that directly compare/contrast Paradise Lost with Areopagitica? I’m arguing that the passages containing a vision of and commentary on the Tower of Babel in Paradise Lost (Book XII) should be read not merely as a general theodicy, but one particularly concerned with God’s forcibly restricting the flow of knowledge. A key element will be a contrast to the claim in Areopagitica that it is “against the manner of God and nature” to forcibly restrict the flow of knowledge; in confounding man’s language, God personally censors man’s communication. Further, prior to the fall, God licensed (and did not license) certain information for distribution by Gabriel to Adam and Eve, which contradicts a prominent claim in Areopagitica.

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