Speaking freely

Quote from Milton’s ‘Areopagitica’ as it appeared in many Everyman editions

“This is true Liberty where free born men
Having to advise the public may speak free,
Which he who can, and will, deserv’s high praise,
Who neither can nor will, may hold his peace;
What be juster in a State than this?”

Euripides, ‘The Suppliants’ (transl. Milton)

Social media, mainstream media and politics are all full of news, discussions, assertions about and denials of freedom of speech. But arguments surrounding it are nothing new, because John Milton – yes, that John Milton – waxed lyrical about it nearly four centuries ago.

Areopagitica; a Speech of Mr. John Milton for the Liberty of Unlicenc’d Printing, to the Parlament of England. Milton wrote his tract Areopagitica after the passing of the Licensing Act of 1643, which had given Parliament the power to censor books before publication, a power he did not approve of.

Not a text I remember anything about when I was studying the Tudors and Stuarts for Advanced Level at school, I only really registered Areopagitica when reading Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop (1978): she quotes a key sentence from the tract – “A good book is the precious life-blood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life” – as justifying the availability of books expressing varying opinions. It remains a clarion call in 2022.


Title page ‘Areopagitica’ (1644)

Milton prefaced his tract with a quote from Euripides’s The Suppliants, a play about the women of Argos begging permission from Creon of Thebes to bury their men slain while besieging Creon’s city. “True Liberty,” it asserts, exists when “free born men … may speak free.” This is the epitome of the truly just state which Milton actually does approve of.

He first acknowledges that it’s right that Parliament should oversee printed material: “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.” But he clearly fears that a too close and narrow vigilance will stifle anything innovative or not seen as orthodox:

[It] will be primely to the discouragement of all learning, and the stop of Truth, not only by disexercising and blunting our abilities in what we know already, but by hindring and cropping the discovery that might bee yet further made both in religious and civill Wisdome.


He sees books as having a life akin to that of individual thinkers whose thoughts are contained within their covers. Destroying books or preventing their birth is a kind of murder, he suggests: for if humans are images of God, then books are like the reflections of human beings as seen mirrored in the eye of the beholder.

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 [phial] 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. 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. 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.

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. 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.

Milton quote at the entrance to Main Reading Room at New York Public Library

If a publication and its contents are lost forever, then, like a deceased person – however insignificant or even unworthy they may have seemed – there’s no bringing it back to life: “’Tis true, no age can restore a life whereof perhaps there is no great 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.”

He will go on to reproach the Licensing Act of the previous year by comparing this Puritan censorship with that practised by the hated Catholic Church since the Middle Ages, but for now he emphasises the notion of book homicide as a great injury to “the breath of reason” which is the quintessence – the fifth essence –that is, the universal element that exists above earth, air, fire and water:

“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.”

Article 10

Londres, le Parlement. Trouée de soleil dans le brouillard, Claude Monet (1904)

Milton’s basic argument therefore gives books an almost mystical quality, but at its core it also promotes freedom of speech, albeit hedged with responsibilities (which, for him, had a religious basis). But in this, the third decade of the 21st century, a similar quality which was enshrined in the UK’s Human Rights Act 1998 is currently being challenged and almost certainly threatened by the Conservative government, who want to abolish it and replace it with a watered-down version guaranteeing fewer rights and allowing for greater worker exploitation.

The Act, which was passed in the second year of Tony Blair’s Labour government, set out the fundamental rights and freedoms that everyone in the UK is entitled to. Incorporating the rights set out in the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) into domestic British law, it actually came into force in the UK in October 2000. Here’s what Article 10 of the Act declares:

Article 10 protects your right to hold your own opinions and to express them freely without government interference.

This includes the right to express your views aloud (for example through public protest and demonstrations) or through:

– published articles, books or leaflets
– television or radio broadcasting
– works of art
– the internet and social media

The law also protects your freedom to receive information from other people by, for example, being part of an audience or reading a magazine.

Article 10 specifies freedom of expression, which encompasses more than just freedom of speech but includes modern modes of publishing which go beyond what Milton envisaged. Its two sections balance rights with responsibilities, differing in many respects from libertarianism which holds that people should be free to think and behave as they want without limits placed on them by governments (my emphases in bold):

1. Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers. This Article shall not prevent States from requiring the licensing of broadcasting, television or cinema enterprises.

2. The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary.


Today, in 2022, after a dozen years of Conservative governments – in coalition or on their own – have seen policies of austerity, followed by the inhumanity of ‘hostile environments’ for immigrants and asylum seekers, the madness of Brexit and the mismanagement of the pandemic, with inflation at record highs, a cost of living crisis and a green agenda shown to be merely lip-service. Driven by corruption and cronyism the government have left much publicly-funded arts provision (through grants, for example, or funding for local authorities) shrunk virtually out of existence. Library services have been major casualties but by no means the only ones: many schools are now in the control of consortiums who determine maximising of profits and the creation of a docile workforce as their prime objectives.

John Milton

Milton might be dismayed to discover that in this respect not much had changed in the intervening four centuries: he would recognise the same “discouragement of all learning, and the stop of Truth, not only by disexercising and blunting our abilities in what we know already, but by hindring and cropping the discovery that might bee yet further made … in Wisdome.”

It would all be very dispiriting, were it not for the accumulated availability of books – should a body know where to find them. So let us remember and constantly repeat Milton’s admirable tenet: 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.

British Library. Areopagitica.
Wikisource. Areopagitica (1664)
https://en.m.wikisource.org/wiki/Areopagitica_(1644) https://milton.host.dartmouth.edu/reading_room/areopagitica/text.html
Equality and Human Rights Commission. The Human Rights Act, Article 10.

14 thoughts on “Speaking freely

  1. One thing, it occurs to me, has changed radically since Milton’s time: the rise of literacy and education for all, including women and people of color. They were not even supposed to read “good books,” let alone produce them. This brings voices to the table that were simply never able to speak up before, and though conservative forces are fighting mightily against it, trying to turn back the clock and restore the reign of wealthy white men, it’s my conviction that those who want to survive into the future need to be willing to let go of those old forms and conceive of a new world order that is not based on dominance and suppression.

    Milton values a good book over a human life. But each human being IS a book, is a precious life-spirit, even those considered unworthy of preservation by a hierarchical culture. I think that is the troubling, uncomfortable, chaos-provoking truth that we are wrestling with now, as we collectively write the book of our own time. Whether a higher principle of universal love and compassion can replace the old hierarchical structure is the question now. We all have to decide what our role in that story will be.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. “But each human being is a book, is a precious life-spirit.” This, among the many truths you articulate, is one that particularly strikes me and appeals to me, especially in conjunction with your final sentence. I agree with all you say, but it depresses me immeasurably that there are selfish powerful people stirring up culture wars to maintain control, to our cost.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. And the fact that they do that is a betrayal and a killing of their own precious life-spirit. But you can’t tell them that, you just have to survive as best you can, and educate where you can (above all yourself), and try to see the whole even where evil is cutting everything to bits. I’m going to keep trying to see further than the enemy, if that’s all I can do.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. For sanity’s sake I try to distract myself as much as possible with positive activities from the wicked things they say and do, but I still need to keep a handle on what’s being done, supposedly in our name – and then I have to rant. It’s always good to know I’m not crying into the void.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Areopagitica–a text I’m familiar with only indirectly so far (quoted in readings at University), and yet one I am still to get to. But sadly, the state of free speech is much the same across the globe–dissent not allowed its place, divisiveness, things in turmoil.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Both Wikisource and the other link (‘John Milton’s Reading Room’) have the text in full – it didn’t take me long to whizz through it to find the bits I found relevant. And yes, hardy anywhere on the globe is free from the pernicious dead hand of those with malign agendas. ☹️


  3. Nice piece. I “did” this at university, many years ago, and find myself quoting the idea that we have to read the bad stuff to appreciate the good stuff (a v reductive summary of bits of it, I know) and even keep the bad stuff in archives, about once every few years, so something I’m very glad I read and studied at the time!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Liz. The key to issues like this is – as I’m sure you well know – education, but not the force-fed stuff that passes for it in too many institutions.

      What could help is teaching philosophy and critical analysis right from primary school level upwards: there’s not enough teaching about how to think, and far too much insistence on not-thinking.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m pleased you found it worthwhile, Karen, thanks. I find it mind-numbing to think there are voters (and TV reporters always seem to find them, don’t they?) who swallow any kind of guff fed to them by populist politicians, even if (a) it contradicts what they said yesterday (or even two minutes ago) and (b) it goes against anything that smacks of logic. I’m glad I’m “woke” and not sleepwalking my way to hell.

      Though I think hell is stalking steadily towards us anyway.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Great post. Important subject.
    And now I’m having flashbacks to the heavy green tome – Witherspoon and Warnke’s anthology of “Seventeenth-Century Prose and Poetry”. Cost a fortune. weighed a ton and was full of – well – the 17th century – Bacon, Burton, Bunyan and Brown. And Milton. And racy stuff like “The Country Wife”.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah, clearly a beach read then, Josie! But thank you, I occasionally feel a rant coming on, one that I normally reserve for Twitter but as it had a literary source I thought it deserved an airing here.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Sadly, a very apposite post given the shocking news about Salman Rushdie. On the upside, perhaps we have more access to good books than ever, especially older ones, by their availability online. It doesn’t make up for the loss of libraries as a part of communities, but at least those who want to explore literature still can. I’d add a clause to the Freedom of Expression rule: only people who have read at least twenty classics in their lives shall be permitted to have an opinion on anything… 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I second your last proviso – twenty classics read, analysed and reviewed before the equivalent of a school-leaving certificate can be issued and access to social media granted.

      And yes, I scheduled this long before the shocking attack on Rushdie and the death threats (along the lines of “you’re next”) against the likes of J K Rowling. I’d even adapt the famous phrase “With great power comes great responsibility” and say “With any power comes great responsibility”.

      Liked by 1 person

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