On August 13, 1644, a Presbyterian clergyman, Herbert Palmer, preaching before the two houses of Parliament, proposed that Milton’s treatise on divorce should be publicly burned. It was not, but Palmer’s complaint may have led the Stationers’ Company, composed of the English booksellers, to point out to the Commons (August 24) that books and pamphlets were violating the law requiring them to be registered and licensed by the company. This law was as old as the reign of Elizabeth, but on June 14, 1643, Parliament had reinforced it with an ordinance specifying
that no . . . book, pamphlet, paper, nor part of any such . . . shall . . . be printed . . . or put to sale . . . unless the same be first approved and licensed under the hands of such . . . persons as both or either of the . . . Houses shall appoint for the licensing of the same, and entered into the Register Book of the Company of Stationers according to ancient custom. 61
Any violation was to be punished by the arrest of the authors and printers concerned.
Milton had regularly neglected to register his prose publications. Though The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce appeared two months after the ordinance, he ignored the requirements. Perhaps he was persona grata to the Parliament because he had supported it in its conflict with the King; in any case it let him alone. But that ordinance remained over his head, and over the heads of all authors in Britain. It seemed to Milton impossible that literature could prosper under such censorship. Of what use to depose a king and a censorious episcopacy if Parliament and Church were to continue inquisition over the speech of Englishmen? On November 24, 1643, he sent forth, unregistered and unlicensed, the noblest of his prose works: Areopagitica: A Speech of Mr. John Milton for the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing, to the Parliament of England.* Here is no invective, no vituperation; the “speech” is kept to a high level of language and thought. Milton respectfully asks Parliament to reconsider its censorship ordinance as tending to “the discouragement of all learning . . . by hindering and cropping the discovery that might be yet further made both in religious and civil Wisdom.” And he proceeds in a famous and magnificent passage:
I deny not but that it is of greatest concernment in the Church and Commonwealth to have a vigilant eye how books demean 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 do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are; nay, they do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them. I know they are as lively, and as vigorously productive, as those fabulous dragon’s teeth; and being sown up and down, may chance to spring up armed men. And yet, on the other hand, unless wariness be used, 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. Many a man lives a burden to the earth; but a good book is the precious life-blood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life. ’Tis true, no age can restore a life, whereof perhaps there is no loss; and revolutions of ages do not oft recover the loss 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 public men, how we spill that seasoned life of man preserved and stored up in books; since we see a kind of homicide may be thus committed, sometimes a martyrdom, and if it extend to the whole impression, a kind of massacre; whereof the execution ends not in the slaying of an elemental life, but strikes at that ethereal and fifth essence, the breath of reason itself, slays an immortality rather than a life. 62
He cites the intellectual vitality of ancient Athens, where only those writings were censored which were atheistical and libelous; “thus the books of Protagoras were by the judges of the Areopagus commanded to be burnt, and himself banished the territory, for a discourse beginning with his confessing not to know ‘whether there were gods, or whether not.’” Milton praises the government of ancient Rome for allowing much freedom to writers, and then sketches the growth of censorship in Imperial Rome and the Catholic Church. This licensing ordinance, he feels, smacks of “popery.” “What advantage is it to be a man, over it is to be a boy at school, if we have only scaped the ferula to come under” another Imprimatur? 63 Governments and their licensers are fallible; let them not enforce their preferences upon the people; rather let the people choose and learn, even if by costly trial and error:
I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversaries, but slinks out of the race. . . . 64 Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties. 65 . . . Though all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play upon the earth, so Truth be in the field, we do injuriously, by licensing and prohibiting, to misdoubt her strength. Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter? 66
However, Milton does not ask for complete tolerance of publications; he believes that atheism, libel, and obscenity should be outlawed, and he refuses toleration to Catholicism because it is an enemy of the state and is itself intolerant. 67 A state otherwise free in thought and speech must, other things equal, grow into greatness.
Methinks I see in my mind a noble and puissant nation, rousing herself like a strong man after sleep, and shaking her invincible locks. Methinks I see her as an eagle mewing her mighty youth, and kindling her undazzled eyes at the full midday bloom . . . 68
Parliament paid no attention to Milton’s plea; on the contrary, it legislated with increased severity (in 1647, 1649, and 1653) against unlicensed printing. Members of the Stationers’ Company protested that Milton had not registered the Areopagitica; the House of Lords appointed two justices to examine him; we do not know the result, but apparently he was not molested; he was a useful voice for the triumphant Puritans.
In February, 1649, only two weeks after the execution of Charles I, Milton published a pamphlet on The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates. It accepted the social-contract theory that the authority of a government is derived from the sovereign people, and that “it is lawful . . . for any who have the power, to call to account a tyrant or wicked king, and, after due conviction, to depose and put him to death.” 69 A month later the Council of State of the revolutionary government invited Milton to become its “secretary for foreign tongues.” He put his epic aside, and for eleven years gave himself to the service of the Puritan Commonwealth and Cromwell’s Protectorate.