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Historical Perspectives

Areopagitica, or the Uses of Literacy according to John Milton

Aeropagitica, ou ce que lire veut dire selon John Milton
Pierre Lurbe

Résumés

Le plaidoyer de Milton Pour la liberté de la presse, sans autorisation ni censure, Areopagitica, a aujourd’hui le statut d’un classique de la réflexion contre la censure. Pourtant, le livre était passé inaperçu lors de sa publication, et la tolérance de la diversité d’opinions que Milton défend reste strictement circonscrite : ni les catholiques, ni ceux qui font preuve d’impiété ou professent des vues contraires aux bonnes mœurs, n’y ont part. Malgré cela, la dynamique qui porte l’œuvre dépasse ses limites explicites. C’est à un véritable éloge de la souveraine liberté du lecteur que se livre Milton, et à une célébration du livre comme plus puissant « moyen de résistance du sens à la mortalité » (G. Steiner).

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  • 1 Areopagitica, A Speech of Mr. John Milton for the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing, to the Parlament (...)
  • 2 Stephen B. Dobransky, “Milton’s Social Life,” in Dennis Danielson (ed.), A Cambridge Companion to M (...)
  • 3 John Milton, Pour la liberté d’imprimer sans autorisation ni censure. Présentation par Frédéric Her (...)

1In modern times, Aeropagitica; a Speech of Mr. John Milton For the Liberty of Unlicenc’d Printing, To the Parlament of England1 has acquired a quasi iconic status as a forerunner of modern conceptions of toleration and intellectual freedom, and has been hailed as a “landmark argument against censorship”.2 It was even recently published (in French translation) in a collection daringly entitled « Les Livres qui ont changé le monde » [The books that changed the world].3 Yet on both scores, these views certainly deserve to be qualified.

  • 4 Christopher Hill, Some Intellectual Consequences of the English Revolution, Madison: University of (...)
  • 5 « Aucun autre écrit de l’époque qui ait survécu n’y fait référence », F. Herrmann, op.cit., 8.

2For one thing, a book that virtually fell dead-born from the press when it was first published hardly qualifies as a “book that changed the world”: if no one was aware of its existence, let alone its contents, there was precious little chance that it would make any impact at all. This is all the more paradoxical as the 1640s and 1650s were marked by a public debate the intensity and the audacity of which were quite unprecedented, what Christopher Hill calls “the whole fantastic outburst of radical ideas and actions, spreading into all spheres of life and thought.”4 Yet even though pamphlets were bandied about and polemics were raging, no response to Milton’s Areopagitica has been traced in the extensive literature that has survived from the period.5

  • 6 “During Milton’s first years as secretary he worked more as a censor than translator. For over te (...)
  • 7 “If he be of such worth as behoovs him, there cannot be a more tedious and unpleasing Journey-work (...)

3For another, a mere five years after the publication of Areopagitica, Milton was appointed Latin Secretary of the newly-formed Commonwealth and Free State, a position he was to retain for the next eleven years. As such, one of his main duties was precisely to act as a censor, a task he performed with some alacrity. In his early years in this office, he spent most of his time licensing publications,6 a task he had described in Areopagitica as unbearable drudgery, and as unworthy of truly great minds.7 But even in the pamphlet itself, Milton had made it quite clear that this much vaunted liberty of unlicensed printing was certainly not meant to be universal:

  • 8 Ibidem, 218-220.

Yet if all cannot be of one mind, as who looks they should be? this doubtles is more wholsome, more prudent, and more Christian that many be tolerated, rather then all compell’d. I mean not tolerated Popery, and open superstition, which as it extirpats all religions and civill supremacies, so it self should be extirpat, provided first that all charitable and compassionat means be us’d to win and regain the weak and the misled: that also which is impious or evil absolutely either against faith or maners no law can possibly permit, that intends not to unlaw it self: […].8

  • 9 “For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins.” Mat (...)
  • 10 In this respect, John Locke later in the century proved to be a far more coherent defender of toler (...)
  • 11 J. Milton, op. cit.,140.

4In Milton’s scheme, toleration, like salvation,9 extends to “many”, but is not proffered to all. For even though it could be argued that Catholics are excluded from toleration for political reasons — the challenge they represent to “civill supremacies”—, their exclusion is based first and foremost on religious ones: the alleged superstitious nature of Catholicism,10 that commonplace of Protestant polemic. At least Catholicism was a clear, well-defined target. But what of “that [...] which is impious or evil absolutely either against faith or maners”? The wording is vague enough to allow the potential censor or licenser to cast his net far and wide, and to use his discretionary power to prevent the publication of books which in his view fit this category. Furthermore, even after publication, books are liable to be prosecuted if they are found to be in breach of the law, on the grounds of blasphemy or libel: “I deny not, but that it is of greatest concernment in the Church and Commonwealth, to have a vigilant eye how Bookes demeane themselves as well as men; and thereafter to confine, imprison, and do sharpest justice on them as malefactors.”11 It seems therefore somewhat paradoxical that the “liberty of unlicensed printing” for which Milton pleads in Areopagitica, should in fact be hedged in in such a way that it seems somewhat threatened from the start, on Milton’s own terms.

  • 12 Idem; my italics.

5This, however, would be to take too pessimistic a view of the matter. For if one looks at the global economy of Milton’s plea, and at the respective weight, within the book, of the case for censorship and of the case against, there is little doubt that the latter outweighs the former to a considerable degree. What is more, Areopagitica should be read, as Milton himself invites us to do, as a powerful celebration of the very act of reading:  “I shall now attend with such a Homily as shall lay before ye, first the inventors of it to bee those whom ye will be loath to own; next what is to be thought in generall of reading, what ever sort the Books be; [...].”12 These two aspects will be considered successively.

  • 13 Ibidem, 136.
  • 14 Ibid., 210.
  • 15 E. M. Forster, “The Tercentenary of the ‘Areopagitica’” [1944], in Two Cheers for Democracy, Londo (...)
  • 16 “The bad motive is the desire of the authorities to suppress criticism, particularly of themselves, (...)

6The arguments that Milton musters against the preliminary licensing of books are well-known and their logic can be conveniently summed up. The core argument that Milton uses is of a historical kind, and can only be made sense of when one remembers that he was addressing the Presbyterian-controlled “Lords and Commons of England”,13 at a time — the autumn of 1644 — when, to put it mildly, the Royalists were very far from having lost the Civil War. Much of the south-west and the north were still in the hands of Charles’s supporters, and with the king in Oxford, everything seemed to be ready for a march on London. Milton gives us a vivid, striking picture of the embattled town: “First, when a City shall be as it were besieg’d and blockt about, her navigable river infested, inrodes and incursions round, defiance and battell oft rumour’d to be marching up ev’n to her walls, and suburb trenches; […].”14 As ever in a time of national emergency, the embattled Presbyterian authorities had restored pre-publication censorship through the Licensing Order of 14 June 1643. In such a situation, to take up E. M. Forster’s words, “The good motive is the desire of the authorities to safeguard and strengthen the community, particularly in times of stress.”15 But Milton was far more concerned with the “bad motive”16 than with the good one. He found the restoration of censorship all the more galling, as this seemed to signal the return to the bad old days of Archbishop Laud, whose punitive censorship legislation of 1637 had been abolished in July 1641.

  • 17 J. Milton, op. cit., 134.

7What was at issue therefore was far more than what Milton viewed as a potentially lethal measure. The restoration of pre-publication censorship amounted to a self-renunciation by Parliament of its own cause (“civill liberty”) and to embracing that of its enemies (“tyranny”17); what was at stake was the soul of England. Things looked even worse when placed in their proper historical perspective. As Milton argued, censorship was a comparatively recent, Catholic, invention, the like of which had never existed in ancient times:

  • 18 Ibidem, 148.

After which time the Popes of Rome, engrossing what they pleas’d of Politicall rule into their owne hands, extended their dominion over mens eyes, as they had before over their judgements, burning and prohibiting to be read, what they fancied not; yet sparing in their censures, and the Books not many which they so dealt with: till Martin the 5 by his Bull not only prohibited, but was the first that excommunicated the reading of hereticall Books; for about that time Wicklef and Husse growing terrible, were they who first drove the Papall Court to a stricter policy of prohibiting.18 

  • 19 “In a word, that this your order may be exact, and not deficient, ye must reform it perfectly accor (...)

8The context in which Catholic censorship was first enforced is particularly relevant: it is in order to crush the incipient Reformation, as embodied by “Wicklef and Husse”, that the “Papall Court” adopted tougher methods of control. In this respect, the seventeenth-century Laudian Church of England, with its elaborate rituals and the alleged Catholic leanings of the archbishop himself, appeared as the direct heir of the fifteenth-century Roman Church: by reinstating the kind of state censorship that Laud had enforced in the 1630s, the Presbyterian Parliament, to all intents and purposes, was in fact implementing a Roman Catholic policy.19 The self-contradiction that this involves was such that it was meant to be a salutary shock to the promoters of the Licensing Act, but Milton musters other forceful arguments to demonstrate the inanity of pursuing a policy of censorship.

  • 20 Twenty-first-century readers can only wince when reading this account, which Milton meant to be pur (...)

9What he highlights with particular vividness is the inner contradiction that dooms all attempts at censorship from the start: while on the one hand the urge to control is unstoppable and knows no bounds — for why should it stop at the licensing of published material only? —, the means of control, on the other hand, are necessarily limited and finite: it would take an infinite, or at least an indefinite number of censors to police every single aspect of citizens’ lives. This, essentially, is a self-defeating endeavour, the sheer absurdity of which Milton exposes with dazzling wit and a quasi-Swiftian logic:20

  • 21 J. Milton, op. cit., 170.

If we think to regulat Printing, thereby to rectifie manners, we must regulat all recreations and pastimes, all that is delightful to man. No musick must be heard, no song be set or sung, but what is grave and Dorick. There must be licencing dancers, that no gesture, motion, or deportment be taught our youth but what by their allowance shall be thought honest; for such Plato was provided of; It will ask more then the work of twenty licencers to examin all the lutes, the violins, and the ghittarrs in every house; they must not be suffer’d to prattle as they doe, but must be licenc’d what they may say. And who shall silence all the airs and madrigalls, that whisper softnes in chambers? The Windows also, and the Balcone’s must be thought on, there are shrewd books, with dangerous Frontispices set to sale; who shall prohibit them, shall twenty licencers? The villages also must have their visitors to enquire what lectures the bagpipe and the rebbeck reads ev’n to the ballatry, and the gammuth of every municipal fidler, for these are the Countrymans Arcadia’s and his Monte Mayors. Next, what more Nationall corruption, for which England hears ill abroad, then houshold gluttony; who shall be the rectors of our daily rioting? and what shall be done to inhibit the multitudes that frequent those houses where drunk’nes is sold and harbour’d? Our garments also should be referr’d to the licencing of some more sober work-masters to see them cut into a lesse wanton garb. Who shall regulat all the mixt conversation of our youth, male and female together, as is the fashion of this Country, who shall still appoint what shall be discours’d, what presum’d, and no furder? Lastly, who shall forbid and separat all idle resort, all evill company?21

  • 22 Ibidem, 166.

10In a word: “And he who were pleasantly dispos’d could not well avoid to lik’n it [this cautelous enterprise of licencing] to the exploit of that gallant man who thought to pound up the crows by shutting his Parkgate.”22

  • 23 Ibid., 172.
  • 24 This rejection is unambiguously spelt out in Paradise Lost: “Not free, what proof could they have (...)
  • 25 « Or, ce que je dy ne doibt sembler advis etre estrange : c’est que Dieu non seulement a préveu la (...)

11Over and beyond this type of argument, the properly theological approach looms very large in a work whose addressees were themselves steeped in theological learning. Milton’s premiss is that God made man — Adam — a rational and free creature, endowed originally with the ability to make choices for himself: “many 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.”23 It is unlikely that such an idiosyncratic view could have gone down well with the orthodox Calvinists he was addressing, for this implied a rejection of the doctrine of predestination24 and went against Calvin’s own view concerning Adam’s sin.25 Contrary to sound Protestant theology, Milton argued therefore that in spite of the Fall, man had retained his dignity as a free creature, a freedom that was utterly inconsistent with the forced injunctions of censors. Being submitted to the edicts of a licenser is demeaning for authors, whose authority is precisely denied by those who have authority over them:

  • 26 The adjective has rich echoes, referring as it does to Archbishop Laud’s claim to the historic titl (...)
  • 27 J. Milton, op. cit., 182.

And how can a man teach with autority, which is the life of teaching, how can he be a Doctor in his book as he ought to be, or else had better be silent, whenas all he teaches, all he delivers, is but under the tuition, under the correction of his patriarchal26 licencer to blot or alter what precisely accords not with the hidebound humor which he calls his judgement.27

  • 28 Ibidem., 158.

12But it is no less demeaning for the reader, who finds himself “under a perpetuall childhood of prescription,” whereas God “trusts him with the gift of reason to be his own chooser [...].”28 Censorship turns out to be at odds with God’s own plan for mankind, which is to make human beings rational, responsible, and accountable for their own actions; such permanent political, intellectual and spiritual tutelage is therefore not to be borne.

13Nor do the evil consequences of censorship stop here. For Milton, the full consequences of the apparently purely mundane, technical task which is pre-publication licensing can only be grasped if the whole of human history is taken into account, and viewed in the light of the ultimate meaning of all things at the end of time: the ultimate prospect has to be eschatological. The change of scale is sudden and vertiginous, as Milton gives his reader a bird’s eye view of the history of mankind, from the beginning to the end:

  • 29 Ibid., 200-202. This extremely complex passage would deserve a commentary of its own. It blends di (...)

Truth indeed came once into the world with her divine master, and was a perfect shape most glorious to look on: but when he ascended, and his Apostles after Him were laid asleep, then strait arose a wicked race of deceivers, who as that story goes of the Ægyptian Typhon with his conspirators, how they dealt with the good Osiris, took the virgin Truth, hewd her lovely form into a thousand peeces, and scatter’d them to the four winds. From that time ever since, the sad friends of Truth, such as durst appear, imitating the carefull search that Isis made for the mangl’d body of Osiris, went up and down gathering up limb by limb still as they could find them. We have not yet found them all, Lords and Commons, nor ever shall doe, till her Masters second comming; he shall bring together every joynt and member, and shall mould them into an immortall feature of lovelines and perfection. Suffer not these licencing prohibitions to stand at every place of opportunity forbidding and disturbing them that continue seeking, that continue to do our obsequies to the torn body of our martyr’d Saint.29

  • 30 “… truth itself; whose first appearance to our eyes blear’d and dimm’d with prejudice and custom, (...)
  • 31 “… and who knows whether it might not be the dictat of a divine Spirit ... ,“ ibidem, 184.

14This apocalyptic story is to be connected with Milton’s account of the conflict between Catholicism and Protestantism, which has truly cosmic proportions. The Catholics are cast as the “wicked race of deceivers” who have mangled and dismembered the body of truth, the Protestants as the “sad friends of Truth”, who try and collect all the disjecta membra to make truth whole again. Yet the recovery of these scattered limbs cannot be left to the discretion of a single church or party: out of a concern for conformity, it is in permanent danger of failing to recognize the truth,30 and of silencing through censorship those who are in fact its divinely-appointed witnesses.31 In one of the most deliberately provocative passages of the book, Milton argues that far from being nefarious, schisms and divisions are salutary, and vital to the task of recovering truth:

  • 32 Ibid., 208.

Yet these are the men cry’d out against for schismaticks and sectaries; as if, while the Temple of the Lord was building, some cutting, some squaring the marble, others hewing the cedars, there should be a sort of irrationall men who could not consider there must be many schisms and many dissections made in the quarry and in the timber, ere the house of God can be built.32

15However, the “schismaticks and sectaries” are in fact not allowed to stray too far from the fold. Even though the boundaries are pushed significantly further out, compared to the narrow compass allowed by orthodoxy, they are still there. Toleration according to Milton is restricted to those who belong to the Protestant fold; however numerous and diverse the sects may be, they still retain a family likeness. Differences and variations are allowed, but within clearly specified limits, so as to retain due proportion when it comes to building the temple of the Lord:

  • 33 Idem; my italics.

And when every stone is laid artfully together, it cannot be united into a continuity, it can but be contiguous in this world; neither can every peece of the building be of one form; nay rather the perfection consists in this, that out of many moderat varieties and brotherly dissimilitudes that are not vastly disproportionall arises the goodly and the gracefull symmetry that commends the whole pile and structure.33

16In a passage like this, the difference between modern conceptions of freedom of expression, and the rather limited view that Milton takes of the matter, comes into glaring focus. However, this statement needs to be qualified in the light of what Milton tells us about books and the experience of reading, a central concern in Areopagitica.

17Properly speaking, books are objects like no other. All man-made artefacts are inert things, whose duration, even if they often outlast men’s lives, cannot be described in terms of “life”: things last, but they cannot be said to live. In this respect, books escape all the usual classifications. In a sense, they are inert, or even “dead”, to take up the word Milton uses — for a book that languishes unread on a shelf is as good as dead —; yet even though they are not “alive” in the usual sense of the word, they have something of life in them:

  • 34 Ibid., 140.

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 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.34

  • 35 Ibid., 140-142.
  • 36 To take up the title of George Steiner’s classic study, Real Presences, Chicago: University of Chic (...)

18A book is simultaneously the expression of a “living intellect”, of a particular person whose life is concentrated, and prolonged, in its pages, and a witness of divine inspiration; a book is the meeting-point between the infinite and the finite, making it inextricably divine and human at the same time. There is something of the mystery of the Incarnation in a good book: “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.”35 Because of the divino-human character with which they are endowed, books have the status of “real presences”,36 the persecution of which is little short of sacrilegious:

  • 37 J. Milton, op.cit., 142.

We should be wary therefore what persecution we raise against the living labours of publick men, how we spill that season’d life of man preserv’d and stor’d up in Books; since we see a kinde of homicide may be thus committed, sometimes a martyrdome, and if it extend to the whole impression, a kinde of massacre, whereof the execution ends not in the slaying of an elementall life, but strikes at that ethereall and fift essence, the breath of reason it selfe, slaies an immortality rather then a life.37

19Yet how far do these considerations actually take us? Not very far from where we left off, it seems. If anything, these powerful, lyrical assertions only serve to confirm what has already been stated concerning Milton’s views on toleration and censorship. In the same way as sects are fine as long as they remain within the pale of Protestantism, the books that deserve to be preserved from the ill-considered judgment of a licenser are “good” books (the adjective is used repeatedly, and with some insistence, in the quotation above). This strongly suggests that a distinction has to be made between good books and bad books, and that the latter can — and sometimes must — be controlled and censored, because they cannot claim to be either “the image of God”, or the “progeny” of a superior soul; as such, they are fair game for licensers.

20But can we really leave it at that? Is the distinction highlighted above between good and bad books, as implied by Milton himself, really tenable, if the whole of Areopagitica is taken into account? However certain it is that Milton did believe in the existence of a hierarchy between excellent, indifferent, and downright bad books, his argument turns out to be in fact a good deal more subtle than this.

21For there is one tacit assumption that lies at the very heart of all attempts at censorship, an assumption that Areopagitica does not mention as such and in so many words, but one that is nevertheless implied by the logic that underlies Milton’s most powerful argument. To put it succinctly, this naive assumption, which is premised on the crudest kind of psychology, is that a reader’s response to a text is entirely predictable, and entirely dependent on the nature of the book itself. Therefore a “bad” book, whether on account of its alleged immorality or of its politically subversive character, is bound to deprave its readers or to turn them into political subversives. The implied postulate is that there is a unilateral, unequivocal relationship between the book and its reader: the book “pours” its contents into the reader, much as the contents of a vessel are poured into an empty container. But ultimately, the task of the censor is futile not simply because of its self-contradictory nature — the unresolved tension between the boundless urge to control and the finite means at the censor’s disposal —, but because readers’ responses to books (or essays, or plays, or paintings, or any work of art) can never be controlled or predicted with any degree of certainty. Even if we imagine — for the sake of argument and so as to make a thought experiment — a state with enough censors to actually police all human activities —something Milton himself does not grant, even for argument’s sake —, there would still be no foolproof guarantee that its citizens would respond in required fashion to the official productions of all sorts being fed to them. Even if there are books that are better than others, and conversely books that are worse, what matters in the end is how readers read, or the uses to which they put their literacy:

  • 38 Ibidem, 166.

And again if it be true, that a wise man like a good refiner can gather gold out of the drossiest volume, and that a fool will be a fool with the best book, yea or without book, there is no reason that we should deprive a wise man of any advantage to his wisdome, while we seek to restrain from a fool, that which being restrain’d will be no hindrance to his folly. For if there should be so much exactnesse always us’d to keep that from him which is unfit for his reading, we should in the judgement of Aristotle not only, but of Salomon, and of our Saviour, not voutsafe him good precepts, and by consequence not willingly admit him to good books; as being certain that a wise man will make better use of an idle pamphlet, then a fool will do of sacred Scripture.38 

  • 39 Acts 10: 9-16.

22The truly relevant distinction therefore turns out to be that between the good, discriminating readers, and the bad ones, between the “wise men” and the “fools”. To the wise reader, any book can be turned into food for thought; the comparison between food and thought is all the more apposite in this case as Milton backs up his argument with a key passage from the Acts of the Apostles,39 in which God expressly abolishes the distinction between pure and impure foods for the true believer:

  • 40 J. Milton, op.cit., 156-158.

Read any books what ever come to thy hands, for thou art sufficient both to judge aright, and to examine each matter. [...] For books are as meats and viands are; some of good, some of evill substance; and yet God in that unapocryphall vision, said without exception, Rise Peter, kill and eat, leaving the choice to each mans discretion. Wholesome meats to a vitiated stomack differ little or nothing from unwholesome; and best books to a naughty mind are not unappliable to occasions of evill. Bad meats will scarce breed good nourishment in the healthiest concoction; but herein the difference is of bad books, that they to a discreet and judicious Reader serve in many respects to discover, to confute, to forewarn, and to illustrate.40

  • 41 “It is not forgot, since the acute and distinct Arminius was perverted meerly by the perusing of a (...)
  • 42 G. Steiner, op.cit., 7.

23Reading is the most intensely intimate, personal experience, one which no amount of censorship can ever hope to control; reading is about exploring uncharted territory, and taking the chance of encountering an entirely unexpected, life-changing experience.41 Milton’s Areopagitica is a passionate plea for the unlicensed freedom of the reader, and a celebration of books as the most potent means of “resistance of meaning to mortality”.42

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Bibliographie

CALVIN Jean, Institution chrétienne, Paris : Jacques Pannier, 1936-1938 [1541].

LOCKE John, A Letter concerning Toleration, Huddersfield: Printed for the Editor, by J. Brook, 1796 [1689].

MILTON John, Aeropagitica; a Speech of Mr. John Milton For the Liberty of Unlicenc’d Printing, To the Parlament of England, London, 1644.

MILTON John, Pour la liberté de la presse sans autorisation ni censure. Areopagitica, traduit et préfacé par Olivier Lutaud, Paris: Aubier-Flammarion, 1969.

MILTON John, Areopagitica, in John Milton, eds. Stephen Orgel and Jonathan Goldberg, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1991, 236-273.

MILTON John, Pour la liberté d’imprimer sans autorisation ni censure. Présentation par Frédéric Herrmann, traduction par Guillaume Villeneuve, collection « Les livres qui ont changé le monde », Paris : Le Monde/Flammarion, 2009.

MILTON John, Paradise Lost, in John Milton, eds. Stephen Orgel and Jonathan Goldberg, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1991, 355-618.

DANIELSON Dennis (ed.), A Cambridge Companion to Milton, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003 [1989].

DOBRANSKY Stephen B., “Milton’s Social Life,” in Dennis Danielson (ed.), A Cambridge Companion to Milton, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003 [1989], 1-24.

FORSTER Edward Morgan, “The Tercentenary of the ‘Areopagitica’” [1944], in Two Cheers for Democracy, London: Edward Arnold and Co, 1951, 62-66.

HILL Christopher, Some Intellectual Consequences of the English Revolution, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, and London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1980.

STEINER George, Real Presences, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, and London: Faber and Faber, 1991 [1989].

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Notes

1 Areopagitica, A Speech of Mr. John Milton for the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing, to the Parlament of England, London 1644. The book was published in November of that year. A good modern edition has been provided by Stephen Orgel and Jonathan Goldberg: Areopagitica, in John Milton, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. However, in this paper, quotations will be made from the older, bi-lingual edition by Olivier Lutaud, which contains a faithful, unmodernized reproduction of the original spelling of the book: John Milton, Pour la liberté de la presse sans autorisation ni censure. Areopagitica, traduit et préfacé par Olivier Lutaud, Paris: Aubier-Flammarion, 1969.

2 Stephen B. Dobransky, “Milton’s Social Life,” in Dennis Danielson (ed.), A Cambridge Companion to Milton, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003 [1989], 13.

3 John Milton, Pour la liberté d’imprimer sans autorisation ni censure. Présentation par Frédéric Herrmann, traduction par Guillaume Villeneuve, collection « Les livres qui ont changé le monde », Paris : Le Monde/Flammarion, 2009.

4 Christopher Hill, Some Intellectual Consequences of the English Revolution, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, and London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1980, 7.

5 « Aucun autre écrit de l’époque qui ait survécu n’y fait référence », F. Herrmann, op.cit., 8.

6 “During Milton’s first years as secretary he worked more as a censor than translator. For over ten months, between 17 March 1651 and 22 January 1652, for example, the name ‘Master Milton’ is entered regularly in the Stationers’ Register as licenser of one of the government's newsbooks, Mercurius Politicus. According to the Council’s Order Books, Milton prepared only seven letters and wrote two translations during his first year as a government employee. If these records are complete, he found himself mostly policing the papers of people the government thought suspicious.” S. B. Dobransky, op.cit., 16.

7 “If he be of such worth as behoovs him, there cannot be a more tedious and unpleasing Journey-work, a greater losse of time levied upon his head, then to be made the perpetuall reader of unchosen books and pamphlets, oftimes huge volumes.” J. Milton, op. cit., 178.

8 Ibidem, 218-220.

9 “For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins.” Matt. 26:28, Authorized Version; my italics.

10 In this respect, John Locke later in the century proved to be a far more coherent defender of toleration than Milton was. However debatable it may appear to us today, his case for the exclusion of Catholics from the scope of toleration rested at least entirely on political grounds, and took no account of purely speculative arguments: “These therefore, and the like, who attribute unto the faithful, religious, and orthodox; that is, in plain terms, unto themselves ; any peculiar privilege or power above other mortals, in civil concernments; or who, upon pretence of religion, do challenge any manner of authority over such as are not associated with them in their ecclesiastical communion: I say, these have no right to be tolerated by the magistrate; as neither those that will not own and teach the duty of tolerating all men in matters of mere religion. […] Again, that church can have no right to be tolerated by the magistrate, which is constituted upon such a bottom, that all those who enter into it, do thereby, ipso facto, deliver themselves up to the protection and service of another prince. For by this means the magistrate would give way to settling a foreign jurisdiction in his own country, and suffer his own people to be listed, as it were, for soldiers against his own government.” John Locke, A Letter concerning Toleration, Huddersfield: Printed for the Editor, by J. Brook, 1796 [1689], 55.

11 J. Milton, op. cit.,140.

12 Idem; my italics.

13 Ibidem, 136.

14 Ibid., 210.

15 E. M. Forster, “The Tercentenary of the ‘Areopagitica’” [1944], in Two Cheers for Democracy, London: Edward Arnold and Co, 1951, 62.

16 “The bad motive is the desire of the authorities to suppress criticism, particularly of themselves,” ibidem.

17 J. Milton, op. cit., 134.

18 Ibidem, 148.

19 “In a word, that this your order may be exact, and not deficient, ye must reform it perfectly according to the model of Trent and Sevil, which I know ye abhorre to do,” J. Milton, op. cit., 176.

20 Twenty-first-century readers can only wince when reading this account, which Milton meant to be pure fantasy, but whose real life equivalents, in the last century and in this one, are all too present to their minds.

21 J. Milton, op. cit., 170.

22 Ibidem, 166.

23 Ibid., 172.

24 This rejection is unambiguously spelt out in Paradise Lost: “Not free, what proof could they have given sincere / Of true allegiance, constant faith or love,/ Where only what they needs must do, appeared, / Not what they would? what praise could they receive? / What pleasure I from such obedience paid, / When will and reason (r

eason also is choice

/ Useless and vain, of freedom both despoiled, / Made passive both, had served necessity, / Not me. They therefore as to right belonged, / So were created, nor can justly accuse / Their maker, or their making, or their fate, / As if

predestination

overruled / Their will, disposed by absolute decree / Or high foreknowledge; they themselves decreed / Their own revolt, not I: if I foreknew, / Foreknowledge had no influence on their fault, / Which had no less proved certain unforeknown. / So without least impulse or shadow of fate, / Or aught by me immutably foreseen, / They trespass, authors to themselves in all / Both what they judge and what they choose; for so / I formed them free, and free they must remain, / Till they enthrall themselves: I else must change / Their nature, and revoke the high decree / Unchangeable, eternal, which ordained / Their freedom, they themselves ordained their fall.” Paradise Lost, Book 3, 103-128, in Orgel and Goldberg (eds.), op.cit., 404-405.

25 « Or, ce que je dy ne doibt sembler advis etre estrange : c’est que Dieu non seulement a préveu la cheute du premier homme et en icelle la ruine de toute sa postérité, mais qu’il l’a ainsi voulu », Jean Calvin, Institution chrétienne, t.III, ch.8, Paris : Jacques Pannier, 1936-1938 [1541], 78-79.

26 The adjective has rich echoes, referring as it does to Archbishop Laud’s claim to the historic title of patriarch of the west, but also to the political tradition known as patriarchalism, of which Robert Filmer was the prime exponent in seventeenth century England. Although his Patriarcha was first published only in 1680, it had been written in the early 1630s and was circulated in Royalist circles.

27 J. Milton, op. cit., 182.

28 Ibidem., 158.

29 Ibid., 200-202. This extremely complex passage would deserve a commentary of its own. It blends different, heterogeneous influences, ranging from apocryphal literature to gnosticism and neoplatonism. See Olivier Lutaud’s illuminating commentary in his edition of Areopagitica, op.cit., 63-66.

30 “… truth itself; whose first appearance to our eyes blear’d and dimm’d with prejudice and custom, is more unsightly and unplausible then many errors,…, “J. Milton, op. cit., 220.

31 “… and who knows whether it might not be the dictat of a divine Spirit ... ,“ ibidem, 184.

32 Ibid., 208.

33 Idem; my italics.

34 Ibid., 140.

35 Ibid., 140-142.

36 To take up the title of George Steiner’s classic study, Real Presences, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, and London: Faber and Faber, 1991 [1989].

37 J. Milton, op. cit., 142.

38 Ibidem, 166.

39 Acts 10: 9-16.

40 J. Milton, op.cit., 156-158.

41 “It is not forgot, since the acute and distinct Arminius was perverted meerly by the perusing of a namelesse discourse writt’n at Delf, which at first he took in hand to confute,” ibidem, 164.

42 G. Steiner, op.cit., 7.

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Pierre Lurbe, « Areopagitica, or the Uses of Literacy according to John Milton »Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], Vol. XI – n° 1 | 2013, mis en ligne le 30 mai 2013, consulté le 31 janvier 2023. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/lisa/5195 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/lisa.5195

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Pierre Lurbe

Université Paul-Valéry – Montpellier 3, France. Pierre Lurbe is professor at the Université Paul Valéry—Montpellier 3. His doctoral dissertation was devoted to the Irish philosopher John Toland (1670-1722); he specializes in the study of religious and political ideas in the 17th and 18th centuries. Recent articles include:“Le chien, les souris et le rat: un débat théologique à l’époque de Guillaume III”, in Y. Migoubert (ed.), Pierres gravées, chiffres d’une voix. Mélanges In Memoriam Michel Viel, Paris : Editions du relief, 2011, 297-313; “John Toland’s Nazarenus and the original plan of Christianity,” in F. Stanley Jones (ed.), The Rediscovery of Jewish Christianity: From Toland to Baur, Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, History of Biblical Studies 5, 2012, 45-66.

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