Areopagitica Questions

John Milton’s Prose


Note: The standard divisions of a classical oration are as follows:

  • The exordium (which may introduce the speaker/writer and prepare us in some intriguing way for the topic to come).
  • The narratio (which sets forth the basic facts, the main issue).
  • The confirmatio or probatio (which serves as the main body of the argument, the “get down to business” part).
  • The refutatio (which deals with the possible objections of others; this part may be partially mixed in with the confirmatio, as in the present text).
  • The peroratio (the conclusion, which gives us a positive view of the speaker, amplifies and reinforces points already made, and rouses the audience’s emotions towards a certain course of action, or towards acceptance of the argument.)

Of possible interest since Milton’s tract is an important document in the intellectual history of free speech: “Milton’s Areopagitica and the Modern First Amendment” by Vincent Blasi, Corliss Lamont Professor of Civil Liberties at Columbia University.

1. From 717-20 first full paragraph of Areopagitica (beginning of essay through “… hath caught some of our presbyters” on 720 second column bottom) how does Milton prepare his audience and set forth the basic arguments that he will be making? How do his strong remarks about the “living” quality of books sum up the importance of the issue at hand, which is freedom of thought and liberty to publish?

2. From 720 column 2 last paragraph – 725 column 2 bottom of Areopagitica (“In Athens, where books and wits were ever busier …” through “… until I can dissect one by one the properties it has”), what lessons does Milton draw from the Greeks, Romans, and early Christians regarding how to deal with troublesome books and tracts? In addition, to what two historical events does he trace the development of unjust censorship? Why might that kind of historical tracing seem like an effective strategy to Milton, considering his audience?

3. From 725 column 2 last paragraph to 729 column 1 first full paragraph of Areopagitica (from “But I have first to finish …” through “And this is the benefit which may be had of books promiscuously read”), Milton shifts to a key part of the argument: “what is to be thought in general of reading books” (725 column 2 bottom), whether of the good or bad sort, and whether there is more “benefit or … harm” in reading them. How does he address the first part of this issue, the one regarding the benefit in reading all sorts of material? In responding, consider especially his remarks about “temperance” (727 column 2 middle), as well as his justly famous comments on the relationship between good and evil, on the quality of a “warfaring” Christian , and on the superiority of an active rather than a “fugitive and cloistered” virtue (728-29).

4. From 729 column 1 middle – 731 column 1 middle Areopagitica (from “But of the harm that may result hence …” through “… but hindered forcibly they cannot be by all the licensing that sainted Inquisition could ever yet contrive”), Milton deliberates on the harm that is said to result from reading books of dubious standing. What flaws does he expose in the logic of those who would prevent us from reading such books freely?

5. From 731 column 1 middle to 734 column 2 bottom of Areopagitica (“Which is what I promised to deliver next: that this order of licensing conduces nothing to the end for which it was framed …” through “…this Order cannot conduce to that end whereof it bears the intention”), Milton explains why the Licensing Order of 1643 is bound to fail in its aim. What evidence does he offer for his conclusion: what sort of beehive, so to speak, are the censors disturbing when they think to regulate all kinds of discourse? What basic principle do such censors simply not understand, according to Milton?

6. From 734 column 2 bottom – 742 column two middle of Areopagitica, (from “I lastly proceed from the no good it can do …” through “… neutral and inwardly divided minds”), Milton shifts into his main argument’s final section, which concerns the “discouragement and affront” (735 column 1 top) to learning that the Licensing Order of 1643 presents. How does he reinforce this claim about the widening social and intellectual effects of an insistence on pre-licensing British publications? In responding, consider at least one of the striking analogies and figures Milton offers: his comparison of books to “wares” or commodities (736 column 2 bottom — 737 column 1 top); his assertion that “A man may be a heretic in the truth” (739 column 2 middle); the analogy of the wealthy man who finds religion a hindrance to his pleasures (739 column 2 bottom – 740 column 1); and the remarkable passage incorporating the legend of the Egyptian god Osiris as a figure for the fragmented quality of postlapsarian apprehension of truth (741 column 2 last paragraph -742 column 1 middle; “Truth indeed …” through “the torn body of our martyred saint”). What does one or more of these passages add by way of insight into the matter Milton is discussing?

7. From 742 column 2 middle (beginning “Lords and Commons of England …”) to the end of Areopagitica, Milton offers what we may call his peroration or concluding segment, which also contains some general refutation of possible objections to his overall argument. What self-image does Milton try to inculcate in addressing his parliamentary audience, and his audience of English people more generally? What points in this section most strongly sum up the case he has been making all along, and why do you find them the most effective?

8. General question, not for a presentation but fine for the journal: Merritt Hughes provides brief information about Milton’s unusual title for the present prose tract, which traces back to the speech “Areopagiticus” by the Greek rhetorician Isocrates (but see also the New Testament’s Acts 17:18-34 featuring Saint Paul’s answer to “certain Epicurean and Stoic philosophers” in Athens). What is the significance of this Greek connection for Milton’s argument? Consider the reputation of the Court of the Areopagus that Hughes addresses. Time permitting, it would also be worth considering Aeschylus’ third play The Eumenides in the trilogy The Oresteia, which partly concerns the founding of the Athenian justice system, an issue that necessarily alludes to the Areopagus Council itself.

9. General question, not for a presentation but fine for the journal: Milton favors liberty of conscience in religious and political matters, and his 1644 tract Areopagitica is considered an important document in the history of freedom of speech and of the press, but a careful reading of it suggests that he wasn’t necessarily arguing in favor of absolute liberty of expression, no matter what the topic or view. Milton may not have been so friendly towards certain kinds of expression in modern American society, just as he had no patience with, say, atheism. What’s your own view regarding the borders or parameters of acceptable speech and expression? We all know the famous example of “shouting ‘Fire!’ in a packed theater,” but that hardly sums up all that can be said on the issue of free speech and responsibility. What limits do you favor, if any, and why so or why not? In responding, you might find Columbia U Professor Vincent Blasi’s essay “Milton’s Areopagitica and the Modern First Amendment” useful as background.

10. General question, not for a presentation but fine for the journal: Does the development of strongly partisan, seemingly mutually exclusive interpretive communities on the Internet and on cable television pose a challenge to the notion that passionate argumentation will eventually lead to recognition of the truth? If so, how? If not, why not? Moreover, is that precisely what John Milton is even arguing, or does it perhaps not capture the most important dimension of his argument in Areopagitica? In responding, as with the previous general question you might find Columbia U Professor Vincent Blasi’s essay “Milton’s Areopagitica and the Modern First Amendment” useful as background.

Edition: Milton, John. Complete Poems and Major Prose. Ed. Merritt Y. Hughes. Hackett: 2003. ISBN-13: 978-0872206786.

Copyright © 2013 Alfred J. Drake. All rights reserved.