*Areopagitica, by John Milton, 1644


John Milton

John Milton

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Areopagitica

by John Milton, 1644

Areopagitica reiterates the title of an oration delivered to the Athenian assembly by Isocrates (436–338 BCE). The Greek patriot and teacher of rhetoric, who rarely spoke publicly himself, pleaded for the reinstitution of the ancient court of the Areopagus, named for Ares, god of war, and essentially a council of nobles. But John Milton (1608– 74) would also expect his readers to have in mind St. Paul’s address to the Council of the Areopagus (in Acts 1722–23). There the God of Christianity is proclaimed as the true object of the pagan altar to an unknown god.
Milton’s tract, published rather than delivered, Ciceronian in style and redolent with the cadences of spoken English, is a plea to the English Parliament for the withdrawal of a new order for the licensing of book publication. Parliamentary reforms in the early 1640s had abolished Archbishop Laud’s elaborate and repressive licensing measures and the courts of the Star Chamber and the High Commission that enforced them. Now Milton saw the new licensing measure, brought in as Presbyterian discipline and authority prevailed in Parliament over Congregational, as dangerously retrograde.
Milton’s target was not accountability for the printed word (in which he staunchly believed), let alone for obscene or pornographic materials, but front-end censorship of religious ideas, his own Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce (August 1643) being an egregious target of the new measures. (His vision was not, however, wide enough to include toleration of Catholic writing, which he regarded as radically destructive of true religion and of the state itself.)
Areopagitica follows closely much of the standard rhetorical prescription for classical oration (narration, proposition, proof, etc.). It also runs through a considerable range of tones of address, first assuming the rationality, honor, and goodwill of its parliamentary audience, and pleading for sober attention to “the voice of reason.” Then it turns blisteringly polemical and, at the same time, staunchly patriotic in its mocking attack on censorship as Italianate and Catholic, reminiscent of Inquisition, inappropriate to a “nation not slow and dull, but of a quick, ingenious, and piercing spirit…not beneath the reach of the highest that human capacity can soar to.” Pragmatism raises the problem of the censor, beleaguered by tedium and contamination. Idealistically the concept of the life of the reading intellect as a moral purifying by trial finds context in the spirit of Milton’s “reforming of reformation itself.” It also waxes heroic, celebrating the purifying effects of moral trial: “I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and seeks her adversary, but slinks out of the race where that immortal garland is to be run for not without dust and heat.” Quintessentially protestant, it privileges individual conscience, without which a man may be a “heretic in truth”: “There is not any burden that some would gladlier post off to another than the charge and care of their religion.”
Areopagitica, like almost everything Milton wrote, situates its concerns mythologically within the cycle of fall and recuperation, which Milton characteristically reconstructs as the vitiation and reclamation of God’s creation. The writing of books thus becomes a kind of reiteration of the creative act, and censorship thus mindlessly counters creation and Creator alike: “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.” Milton’s fall of man is quintessentially a fall of reason, Adam’s and Eve’s fall being an act of disobedience to God that is also constructed as an act of allowing their reason to be clouded by their appetites. Areopagitica construes man as morally adequate in a world unprotected by “a perpetual childhood of prescription” by virtue of the continuity of man’s prelapsarian freedom of choice. “For reason is but choosing,” Milton proclaims, in phrasing that in the later Paradise Lost (1667; 3.108) becomes God’s defense of Adam’s sufficiency, since “Reason also is choice.”
Areopagitica’s power as an essay depends in large measure on its projection from more primal bodies of mythology drawn by Milton from the classics. Thus the fall is seen to reiterate an ananagnorisis (recognition) in which Truth, like Osiris, is torn apart, and the reclamation of man’s original state comprehends the obligation “to unite those severed pieces which are yet wanting to the body of Truth.” Elsewhere man’s restoration becomes a mythic reawakening in which the fall vanishes into nothingness like a nightmare past: “Methinks I see a noble and puissant nation rousing herself like a strong man after sleep, and shaking her invincible locks.” (Blake’s conception of his audience as Albion, the giant sleeping form of the English nation, needful of a similar rousing from a state of mental and moral torpor, is obviously in Milton’s debt.) Similarly, Milton’s “eagle muing her mighty youth, and kindling her undazzled eyes at the full midday beam” constructs his vision on the folklore eagle that can gaze unblinkered at the sun and also on Plato’s account of man’s emergence from the cave (Republic, Book 7). Also reiterated here is the primal myth of a cosmos snatched from darkness that informs the Genesis creation account, reconstructed by Milton into an analogy of man’s mental state in which “those also that love the twilight” are condemned to a state of intentional selfdamnation.
And finally there is the appropriating of the Gospel’s reiteration of a primal myth of salvation as a harvest for which “the fields are white already.”

RICHARD SCHELL

See also Pamphlet Editions
Areopagitica, 1644; many subsequent editions, including in Milton’s Complete Poems and Major Prose, edited by Merritt Y.Hughes, 1957, Complete Prose Works, vol. 2, edited by Ernest Sirluck, 1959, and Selected Prose, edited by C.A.Patrides, 1974

Further Reading
Achinstein, Sharon, Milton and the Revolutionary Reader, Princeton, New Jersey:
Princeton University Press, 1994
Barker, Arthur E., Milton and the Puritan Dilemma, 1641–1660, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1971 (original edition, 1942)
Corns, Thomas N., The Development of Milton’s Prose Style, New York: Oxford University Press, 1982
Dowling, Paul M., Polite Wisdom: Heathen Rhetoric in Milton’s “Areopagitica”, Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield, 1995
Haller, William, Liberty and Reformation in the Puritan Revolution, New York: Columbia University Press, 1963 (original edition, 1955)
Hunter, G.K., “The Structure of Milton’s Areopagitica,” English Studies 39 (1958): 117– 19
Kendrick, Christopher, Milton: A Study in Ideology and Form, New York: Methuen, 1986
Parker, William Riley, Milton: A Biography, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2 vols., 1968; revised edition, 1996
Stavely, Keith W., The Politics of Milton’s Prose Style, New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1975
Wolfe, Don M., Milton in the Puritan Revolution, New York: Humanities Press, and London: Cohen and West, 1963 (original edition, 1941)

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