(p. C14) Today, Milton is best known for “Paradise Lost.” Long before writing that epic poem about the fall of man, however, he was a polemicist who participated in the political controversies of his day.
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A bill in Parliament demanded that printers receive government approval for their publications, in part to guard against the supposed heresies of Milton and his fellow authors. For Milton, this licensing scheme was an illiberal outrage—and he said so in “Areopagitica,” which is now widely regarded as the world’s first important essay in defense of free speech.
The 1644 treatise takes its peculiar name from the Areopagus, a rocky mount just below the Acropolis in Athens. The ancient Greeks gathered there for debates and trials. It’s also the site of Paul’s sermon in Acts 17. Milton presented his essay in the form of a speech, though he never delivered it. That’s probably just as well: At nearly 18,000 words, it would have taken about three hours.
“Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties,” wrote Milton, in a line that has echoed across centuries.
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A minor curiosity of “Areopagitica” is Milton’s brief mention of visiting “the famous Galileo grown old, a prisner to the Inquisition, for thinking in Astronomy otherwise then the Franciscan and Dominican licencers thought.” This is the only record of a meeting between the era’s greatest scribe and its greatest scientist, and it would have happened when Milton traveled to Italy in 1638.
For the full review, see:
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the review has the date May 6, 2022, and has the same title as the print version.)
A recent edition of Milton’s book is:
Milton, John. Areopagitica and Other Writings. New York: Penguin, 2016.