The Documents

Advancing the Rights of Humanity




Short Description

Areopagitica is a protest against an ordinance of British Parliament, which sought to license—and, in turn, censor—all printing. This publication was printed in open defiance of the law and without license. The printer of Areopagitica is considered less courageous than its author, as he has never been identified.

Remnant Trust Description

“He who destroys a book, kills reason itself”: Exceptionally rare 1644 first edition of Milton’s Areopagitica, the most famous of all defenses of freedom of the press. The extraordinarily rare first edition of the greatest of Milton’s prose works.

Milton wrote his Areopagitica in direct response to the clerical outrage-and attempt to revive the censorship laws-that had greeted his Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce the year before, and this work is in effect a protest against an ordinance of Parliament, which sought to license all printing. Areopagitica was printed in open defiance of the law, without license, and the printer of Areopagitica might have been rather less courageous than its author, as he has never been identified.

“The vulgar reaction to his English-language book on divorce made Milton wish he had written it in Latin and he gave Greek titles to his next pamphlets. The meaning of Areopagitica would be clear enough to the readers he wanted to reach. Named after Areopagus, the hill near the Acropolis where the governing council of ancient Athens met, it was cast as an oration... Milton pleaded for reform in England to liberate the book: For books are not absolutely dead things, but... do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them. I know they are a 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 precious life-blood of a master-spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life.”

Despite Milton’s eloquence the licensing act was not repealed. But the issue remained alive and Milton’s plea became an endless refrain. “Jefferson made Milton one of his heroes and always put the Areopagitica on his reading list for young disciples.”

“What we owe to Milton first and foremost is the isolation of the freedom of the press from all other forms of toleration, especially religious tolerations, disputed and advocated at the time; it is this, and the vigour of the matchless prose in which it was advocated, that give Milton’s works their life today.”