Areopagitica: Milton’s Stance on Censorship and Licensing


Bust of John Milton / National Portrait Gallery, London


Lecture by Dr. John Rogers / 10.01.2007
Professor of English
Yale University

Introduction: Areopagitica

From cover page of Areopagitica / Wikimedia Commons

With Areopagitica, we find ourselves in the middle of the English Revolution, sometimes called the Puritan Revolution. It’s in this period that Milton increasingly begins to adopt, or assume, Saint Peter’s confident and denunciatory rhetoric. He adopts it as his own, Milton does. He writes a series of treatises in support of — this is really out there, and he alienates a lot of his natural, organic base with these actions — Milton writes a series of treatises in support of the right to divorce, divorce for reasons for incompatibility, and he continues to assist the Puritan left, the progressive movement, in overthrowing the hierarchical structure of the Church of England. The bishops, also called prelates — those church officials essentially appointed by Archbishop William Laud, whom we looked at last time — were replaced in the early 1640s by means of the success of the Puritan revolutionaries and were replaced by presbyters: ministers who were chosen by individual congregations. Milton was able to think of this new form of church government as the most reasonable form of church government because it seemed to be the product of individual choices. It seemed to be the product of individual decisions made by the rational, churchgoing English public.

By the time we get to 1644, this is the year that Areopagitica appears, we’re well into the English Revolution. This is the year in which we have two dominant groups in the new revolutionary Parliament. You have the conservative, Anglican royalists. They’ve already been ousted. They’re no longer a central component of the political scene. You have left the Presbyterians and the Independents, and at this point the Presbyterians are in firm control. Now as with most political groups who suddenly find themselves — and this is just an ancient piece of wisdom that I’m sharing with you, but it’s something obviously that you will have heard before — as with most political groups who suddenly find themselves in possession of a measure of power, the ideas and values of the Presbyterians, who had of course started out as radicals, were beginning to harden into something like a new orthodoxy with this new aggregation of political power. They began laboring to suppress and laboring to stamp out forces that opposed them, whether those forces were on the right or on the left.

Now of course, the presbyters had seized control in the first place because they disapproved of the tactics of suppression and intervention that had been deployed by the bishops, or the prelates, of the old church. But the new Presbyterian Party soon developed its own methods of employing state power to control and regulate the church. This is just a general historical irony that surely at some point besets all revolutionary movements, and it’s an irony that particularly appalled John Milton. It’s in recognition of what we can think of as this time-honored historical irony that Milton writes such a memorable line, a wonderful line, in his sonnet on the new Presbyterian regime. It’s the poem of the “… New Forcers of Conscience…” which ends with that line, you’ll remember: “New Presbyter is but Old Priest writ Large.” The Revolution has essentially become a revolution in name only. Priests, these are the bishops of the old system, have changed their name to presbyters, perhaps, and they look like revolutionaries, but they’re manipulative, controlling actions haven’t essentially changed at all. And for the Presbyterian Party in 1644, it turns out there are in fact a number of factions to control and to manipulate and to regulate. The new Presbyterian orthodoxy soon developed its own methods of employing state power to control, to regulate, and to manipulate the church. That’s where we get this rousing line, “New Presbyter is but Old Priest writ Large.”

Parliamentary Factions During the English Revolution

William and Mary sign the Bill of Rights / Wikimedia Commons

I mentioned the various factions in Parliament that the Presbyterian Party had to confront: the Independents who are to the left of the Presbyterians. We can count John Milton as a supporter of the Independents. The Independents resented the new authoritarianism of the Presbyterians, and they supported, or at least they tolerated, a new phenomenon — a relatively new phenomenon on the English cultural landscape. This is the freedom of the printing press. It’s a freedom that, of course, Parliament had pushed for, but now that they’ve got it there is some misgiving. From 1641 to 1643, there had been an unprecedented explosion of printing and publishing in England. Every conceivable Protestant sect was publishing treatises of theological speculation and publishing treatises of religious propaganda at an extraordinary rate. It’s really a remarkable thing that happens in the mid-century.

Religious propaganda of course — and this is always the case — unregulated religious propaganda only breeds more unregulated religious propaganda and more religious division. By the end of the period there was an unprecedented number of new religious groups. Some of these groups born at this moment still exist. We still have the Quakers, we have the Baptists, but there are, of course, many groups thriving in the 1640s that have absolutely faded from the religious scene: the Ranters, the Familists, and the Muggletonians. These are churches of almost every imaginable stripe, and they’re springing up and, from a mainstream perspective, they’re quickly eroding the authority of the Church of England. It was becoming absolutely impossible, in fact, or at least much, much harder, to claim that there was a single expression of religious truth to which the English nation could consensually subscribe. And suddenly there are dozens and dozens of competing expressions of religious truth, and so you have a new proliferation of new religions and new religious ideas that comes about as the immediate product of the freedom of the press. It’s in this decade, in fact, that we have the first newspapers. The printed word begins to take on — assumes a political and a cultural importance that it had never had before.

The proliferation of religious texts and the proliferation of religious sects produced what was widely seen to be a potentially anarchic political situation in the early 1640s. It’s in response to what was deemed to be the chaotic condition of English religious culture that the Presbyterian-led Parliament issued in 1643 the Licensing Act. The Presbyterians needed to halt the endless generation of dangerous religious propaganda and continued what they felt on some level was the continued metastasis of Protestant sects. This is a recurring rhetoric, this notion that there is a cancer in the body politic. Parliament enacts through this legislation a mechanism for the state control of the press. Books now have to be licensed. They have to be preapproved by the state before they can actually be published.

In the controversies that are leading up to the Licensing Act, one of the authors most frequently mentioned as posing a special threat to the well-being of the English nation is our very own Milton. The treatises that he had written in favor of the right to divorce for reasons of incompatibility in the earlier 1640s had scandalized his contemporaries and had especially scandalized his Puritan contemporaries on the left. Milton was particularly singled out as one of these dangerous new voices that had to be stopped. In a sermon that was preached to Parliament in August of 1644 by Herbert Palmer, it’s Milton whose name is cited as one of the as one of those figures most dangerous to the state.

Areopagitica: Freedom of the Press, Censorship and Licensing

Sketch of John Milton / National Endowment for the Humanities

My guess is that maybe not all of you but some of you will have heard about, or perhaps actually have read snippets from, today’s reading: this amazing treatise, long before you got to it last night, Areopagitica. This is without question one of the English language’s most powerful and most rousing expressions of the freedom of the press and actually of a kind of libertarian philosophy in general. The argumentative logic of Areopagitica rests on a distinction between external compulsion, on the one hand, and internal discipline on the other, internal discipline looking something like an internalization of the discipline and the authority of the monarch. We have the compelling, official authority of the new state licenser, and Milton pits that external state of power against the powers of reason and against the powers of conscience that, of course, were seen to govern human action from within — an internalized authority. It’s, of course, not just John Milton who’s authorized to determine his own actions. Everyone, according to the logic of Areopagitica, everyone has the potential to assume the inner authority of conscience and self-discipline. Everyone has potentially a licenser within himself, and so there’s no need — there’s no logical need for a state licenser.

Milton argues that there’s no authority that can rightfully exist outside of the conscience of the individual. Even religious truths, which, of course, are the most potent forms of knowledge that we have — even religious truths have to be subjected to the final arbiter, who is the individual’s conscience and the individual’s power of reason. Milton is taking the argument at so many points in Areopagitica as far as he can possibly go. This is page 739:

A man may be a heretic in the truth [Milton writes]; and if he believe things only because his pastor says so, or the Assembly so determines, without knowing other reason, though his belief be true, yet the very truth he holds becomes his heresy.

Think of that, “though his belief be true.” Expand in your minds the implications, the possible consequences of this. Any belief is heresy if you haven’t managed to determine that belief for yourself, if you haven’t managed to determine that belief on the basis of your own conscience or through the powers of your own faculty of reason. You can be a heretic in the truth if you accept a belief, however true that belief turns out to be at the end of time, when we enter the pearly gates and we finally get the last word. You’re a heretic because you’ve accepted that belief only because it’s been handed to you by an external authority, an external authority like a pastor or a bishop or a member of the state assembly or a lecturer in the English department for that matter. It is your obligation, Milton argues in this remarkable treatise, to determine for yourself what will constitute truth. All truths have to be acquired directly by the individual.

It’s perfectly impossible, I think, to imagine a stronger statement than this of the authority that Milton gives, the intellectual self-possession that he ascribes, to the individual. I think you can see why Areopagitica has been memorialized for centuries now as one of the central precursors, well, to a number of things. One of them would be the eighteenth-century enlightenment. It’s subsequently seen as one of the precursors of the First Amendment to the American Constitution. It’s here in Areopagitica that we find one of the first expressions of the idea that an individual’s freedom to read and the individual’s freedom to write is more important, it outweighs in value, the state’s right to limit the individual’s freedom to read and the individual’s freedom to write. Whatever danger a particular text may pose to the state is outweighed by the greater harm of the official elimination of that text or by the greater harm of the punishment of the author.

In light of what we have to concede is the extraordinary achievement of Areopagitica, and in light of its reputation as one of the foundational texts for the principle of the freedom of speech, readers have been puzzled — and they have been rightly puzzled — by the fact that nowhere in Areopagitica does Milton explicitly denounce censorship. Milton doesn’t denounce censorship at all, although it comes up. In fact, he even claims — and he does this explicitly in Areopagitica and you might have caught this — he even claims to be in favor of censorship in a number of cases. Milton’s argument in this treatise is directed exclusively at licensing. Licensing differs from censorship in some important ways. Indulge me in making this important distinction. We know what censorship is. Censorship is the banning of books that have been published and that have been deemed by the state authorities to be dangerous or harmful in some way. Censorship would involve the burning of books, the prohibition of any further editions of those books, or perhaps even a punishment — by imprisonment, say — of the author, or maybe the printer or the publisher of the books. That’s censorship, utterly straightforward.

Licensing, on the other hand, is an action that precedes censorship. According to the 1643 Licensing Order against which Milton is directing this treatise, Areopagitica, a book has to be sent to the licensing office for approval before it can be published. The licensing agent reads the book and determines whether or not to print it at all or license it to appear in print. This isn’t simply a distinction without a difference. Milton places an enormous amount of weight on this distinction. Censorship only comes into play once a text has actually been in circulation for a while, only after a number of readers have found a published text to pose a threat. Only after that point can a text actually be censored. The book has to be tested. It has to be tried by the public, by a reading public, before it can be censored. It’s censorship by consensus almost. And the truth of whether a book should or should not be censored is something that’s come about through the diligent effort of a group, rather than a single arbitrary judge like the state licenser.

Milton devotes a lot of time in Areopagitica to making a number of attempts to distinguish licensing from censorship. You can see him actually making this distinction. What I am interested in here, and I think what a lot of readers are interested in when they approach Areopagitica, is why this treatise, which does in fact permit the practice of censorship — why it can so easily be read as an argument against censorship. In fact this treatise is often described, or maybe even most commonly described, as the Western tradition’s greatest argument against censorship. Obviously, there’s something going on in this text that has produced this confusion, or we could think of it as a misreading. This is of some interest to us. This is where Milton speaks of the importance of censoring dangerous books. Milton explains that the Licensing Order of 1643 is ineffective, it’s useless because, and I’m quoting here, “[This o]rder avails nothing to the suppressing of scandalous, seditious, and libellous books, which were mainly intended to be suppressed.” Milton’s striking such a strange authoritarian note here that it’s easy to skip over it. It seems unaccommodatable almost. Look at the next paragraph:

I deny not, but that it is of greatest concernment in the church and the 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.

We know, of course, that this is an argument for censorship, not an argument for licensing, because the punishment of the books and the implicit punishment of the men who write those books occurs after their appearance in print. Milton then goes on to explain — and I want you to look closely at this — Milton goes on to explain why books need to be brought to justice, why books need to be punished essentially, like criminals in Milton’s personifying rhetoric. So Milton continues:

For books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are; nay, they do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them.

The ostensible purpose of this sentence at this point, as I take it, in Milton’s argument is to explain the importance of censorship; but surely this sentence has an entirely different effect on us as readers, a different effect than the syntax or the logic of this sentence may demand. The scandalous, seditious and libelous books that need to be brought to justice in this remarkable sentence are suddenly revealed to have a soul. However dangerous books are, in a lot of ways these books look like good Christians. In fact, they’re better than good Christians because books are the purest, the most rarified extract of the originary goodness of the author: an absolutely unfallen, perfect creation.

It’s important to understand that clearly something very strange has happened here. This sentence, which by the logic of the argument should be demonstrating to us the importance of bringing bad books to justice, seems to be doing something else. In making this point, Milton has just made us, I think, almost utterly unwilling to effect this justice that he himself has called for. Which of us would want to punish the purest efficacy of a living intellect? It doesn’t make sense. In the simplest possible terms, you could say that Milton’s sentence, Milton’s argument here in this paragraph, has gotten away from him. There’s a sense in which you can see this happening all the time in Areopagitica. It’s as if a gap has opened up, a gap between the official argument of the treatise — and that’s an argument that permits censorship — and the rhetorical figures or the metaphors, Milton’s elaborately construed language, which he uses to illustrate that argument. The metaphors, or the rhetorical world of the treatise, seem so often to be against censorship. It’s fairly easy to see that, at least in this case, Milton’s rhetoric and his imagery begin to undo, begin to unravel, the logic of the argument. It’s a process of undoing and undermining that really eats away at the argument, we could argue, throughout the entirety of Areopagitica.

One of the most remarkable things about this text is that it’s invariably the soaring, libertarian rhetoric that we end up noting, that we end up remembering, and that sticks with us.

Milton’s Narrative of the History of Truth

Charles Robert Leslie ‘A Scene from Milton’s ‘Comus’’, exhibited 1844 | Inspired by John Milton’s masque, Comus (A Mask Presented at Ludlow Castle, 1634).

This is where Milton gives us his celebrated narrative of the history of truth. This is one of those highly and elaborately rhetorically ornamented passages. So in Milton’s argument against licensing, Milton explains the importance of the coexistence — and it’s very moving, it’s an argument for diversity — the coexistence of so many conflicting opinions and beliefs. As I’ve suggested before, his more conservative contemporaries were appalled by the proliferation of religious sects in mid-seventeenth-century England. It would have been perfectly reasonable for them, his opponents, to assume that only one set of religious beliefs could actually represent the truth, that there was only one possible manifestation of divine truth. One has roommates, one has parents, in our own day and age, who of course share such a belief in the absolute singularity of the truth. Sometimes one has parents or roommates who not only believe that there is a single truth but, of course, that they are themselves in possession of it. It’s just this limited and, for Milton, restrained, or constrained and reductive, notion of a single truth that he devotes so much of Areopagitica to attacking. So this is page 741:

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 straight arose a wicked race of deceivers, who, as that story goes of the Egyptian Typhon with his conspirators, how they dealt with the good Osiris, [the wicked deceivers] took the virgin Truth, hewed her lovely form into a thousand pieces, and scattered them to the four winds. From that time ever since, the sad friends of Truth, such as durst appear, imitating the careful search that Isis made for the mangled body of Osiris, went up and down gathering up limb by limb still as they could find them.

With this utterly original fable about the fragmentation of what we think of as religious truth, Milton goes out of his way — this is remarkable. He’s actually enacting, and he’s enacting it rhetorically, the fragmentation of religious culture in seventeenth-century England.

One of the most intriguing aspects of this amazing passage is the fact that the fragmentation that Milton is describing, and on some level even enacting, is something that he seems to be celebrating here. With the ascent of Christ, the lovely form of the virgin Truth is hewed into a thousand pieces and scattered to the four winds. The violence of this action, of course, we can’t deny, but it gets more complicated than that. The Eyptian goddess Isis seeks out the mangled body of her lover, Osiris, because of her powerful affection for him and because of her desire presumably to see him whole again. There’s also though, I think, a hint here that part of the pleasure behind Isis’ search involves the process of reassembling her lover, the process of gathering him up limb by limb — the act of gathering. Present participles in general in Areopagitica being probably the most important form of speech, the act of gathering him may be more pleasurable, more desirable, than actually having him fully reconstituted. It’s likewise, I think, part of our pleasure in this crazy world of disparate and confusing truths — if we imagine ourselves in the seventeenth century — it’s part of our pleasure to read, to sort out, and to reassemble the various manifestations of truth. That’s our common project here, in fact, in an English department, say. The sad friends of Truth in this fable have gone up and down, gathering up Truth limb by limb still as they could find them.

We have not yet found them all, Lords and Commons, nor ever shall do, till her Master’s second coming. He shall bring together every joint and member, and shall mould them into an immortal feature of loveliness and perfection.

Surely these last two sentences come as a surprise: “we have not yet found them all… nor ever shall do.” We’ll never find Truth in her entirety, at least not until the Second Coming, and who knows when that will be? I think that for Milton, in this passage the fact that we never shall do is just as well, because it’s the labor of reading, it’s the labor of researching, and it’s the labor of assemblage, rather than the actual finished product, that motivates and spurs the Miltonic individual.

Milton wants us to get us to feel the excitement as we read a passage like this, and the language that he uses in this passage is itself a kind of demonstration of the pleasure of the process of intellectual assemblage, of intellectual collation, of various diverse ideas. As readers, it’s our duty, it’s our obligation, to sort out and to reassemble. As we read this passage, we sort out Christian myths from Egyptian myths, or let’s say we sort out from what with Milton be Christian truth from Egyptian myths. The fact that they’re put on the same plane here suggests that both perhaps are either truths or both perhaps are myths. We sort out the similar confusion of gender roles, which is truly remarkable, as we balance the masculine Christ with the feminine Truth with which the masculine Christ is identified here. We have to balance the mysteriously female Isis’ search for her lover Osiris. There are so many entities in this passage that seem to be mysteriously conjoined in some kind of hermaphroditic unity. We have to image the relation of the female Osiris with the implicitly male reader’s search for his lost lover, which is the feminine Truth. Milton’s infusing this passage with a powerful sense of — I don’t know, what can we call it? — of gender nonconformity and cultural relativity. Christianity emerges from this passage as just one truth out of many, and it’s almost as if we are being given our choice as readers – we’re being given our choice of which set of myths is the most attractive, the most believable. Maybe ultimately here, we’re being given a choice as to which set of myths is the most desirable.

As I mentioned, the official purpose of the tract is the political subject of licensing. Milton’s responding to an immediate set of historical circumstances. He wants to explain the usefulness, the value, and, in fact, the beauty of religious controversy; but when you read an intensely poetic, highly ornamented passage like the one that we’ve just looked at, I think you can see why Milton was so interested in this contemporary problem of religious diversity in the first place. Contradictions and inconsistencies in contemporary religious society are so much like, or at least look so much like, the contradictions and inconsistencies that we find in a work of literature, that we find in a poem. And Milton’s defense of controversy seems in a lot of ways continually to be slipping in to something like a defense of poetry, or certainly a defense of his own poetic practice. One of the structural elements that lends Areopagitica its curious power is a carefully crafted network of images that Milton has employed to structure the thing. I’m thinking particularly of the images describing the activity of reading.

One of the central images here is the image of eating. Reading is continually being described in terms of eating and digestion. We have already encountered on some level the importance of the figure of eating to John Milton. Think of Comus. The lady’s refusal to drink of Comus’ cup was just the first of Milton’s attempts to bring the action of ingestion to the very center of a literary work. Paradise Lost will be filled with the activity of eating. Milton devotes more than a few lines — and it’s shocking — to the process whereby the heavenly angels not only eat food but they also digest it; and Milton lets us know, whether we want to know or not, how those angels actually excrete the food they have taken in. But the most central act of eating, of course, in Milton’s great epic obviously has nothing to do with angels. It’s the eating of the forbidden fruit by Adam and Eve. It’s because this action of eating is so absolutely central to the plot of Paradise Lost that we are obliged to spend — let’s spend the rest of our time here focusing on Milton’s consideration in this treatise, in the Areopagitica of 1644, of the problem that we will find haunting Paradise Lost: the problem of the eating of the fruit, and the problem of God’s prohibition — God’s censorship — of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God’s licensing? We’ll see.

This is the left-hand column. Milton’s quoting Dionysius Alexandrinus in this passage. He tells us that Dionysius Alexandrinus wrote, “‘Read any books whatever come to thy hands, for thou art sufficient both to judge aright and to examine each matter.'” Dionysius compares this command to read everything, to read everything you possibly can, to Saint Paul’s command in the Epistle to the Thessalonians, which is: “Prove all things. Hold fast to that which is good.” Prove here means “to test, to try all things.” Paul’s making a claim here for the individual’s — this is certainly how Milton was able to read it — a claim for the individual’s capacity to make a moral judgment after some period of trial, or after some period of experimentation. Milton elaborates on this claim that we should read and prove anything we want, for we are sufficient to judge aright.

He’s moving on here:

… [H]e might have added [Milton tells us] another remarkable saying of the same author: “To the pure, all things are pure”; not only meats and drinks, but all kind of knowledge whether of good or evil; the knowledge cannot defile, nor consequently the books, if the will and conscience be not defiled. For books are as meat and viands are — some of good, some of evil substance, and yet God, in that unapocryphal vision, said without exception, “Rise, Peter, kill and eat,” leaving the choice to each man’s discretion.

We should be able to read whatever we want, just as we should be able to eat whatever we want. Milton’s language — the image here is of this [laughs]– it’s kind of a combined gastronomic and literary freedom. This is the freedom of the smorgasbord, of the public library/smorgasbord, or Atticus [bookstore and café] for that matter, a place where you can eat and read — although not in the same — actually, [laughs]they don’t let you eat around the books. You get my point though. We should be able to try all things, to prove all things, and then decide whether or not we actually like it, whether it brings us some sort of pleasure or wisdom. This array of choices is more than just a luxury for Milton. It’s absolutely constitutive of the ideal of freedom, of our freedom; because if we don’t try everything, if we don’t give ourselves an opportunity to decide for ourselves, then, of course, someone will invariably be making those decisions for us.

It shouldn’t be difficult to see a kind of problem that is beginning to arise in Milton’s text here. I suggested just a minute ago that one of the relevant stories that is always lying behind Milton’s discussion of human choice is the story from the Book of Genesis about Adam and Eve’s choice to eat the forbidden fruit. And so much of Areopagitica involves Milton’s bringing together competing images and traditions and arguments. As we’ve already seen, he interweaves Christian figures with pagan figures. He positions pro-censorship argument alongside anti-censorship rhetoric or metaphor, and there are dozens of moments in which it’s just these opposites that are being asked to coexist in some kind of peace. But nowhere in Areopagitica do the conflicts seem so pronounced, or so painful, or make us wince so much as the tension that arises between the Genesis story of Adam and Eve — God knows why Milton feels compelled to bring this story up — the tension between the story of Adam and Eve and Milton’s own impassioned argument against licensing.

As I’ve just noted, Milton quotes Paul’s dictum that “to the pure, all things are pure.” If you’re pure, not only are meats and viands pure (meats and drinks), but all kinds of knowledge, whether of good and evil. You just have to extend for a little bit this Pauline philosophy of freedom to the situation of the unfallen Eden of Adam and Eve to see a kind of [laughs] logical trouble that Milton is getting himself in to. The Genesis story of God’s peremptory prohibition of the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is the strongest analogy that I can think of to the licenser’s peremptory prohibition of a book. Obviously, Milton isn’t able to make this analogy explicit. It would completely dash any logical sense that Areopagitica still retains. It’s nonetheless always there, this tension. God’s forbidding of the fruit removes from Adam and Eve any capacity for choosing and deciding, and you can see Milton worrying in Areopagitica about the uneasy relationship of his own argument to this central text in divine scripture. From page 728:

Good and evil we know in the field of this world grow up together almost inseparably; and the knowledge of good is so involved and interwoven with the knowledge of evil, and in so many cunning resemblances hardly to be discerned, that those confused seeds which were imposed on Psyche as an incessant labour to cull out and sort asunder, were not more intermixed. It was from out the rind of one apple tasted, that the knowledge of good and evil, as two twins cleaving together, leaped forth into the world. And perhaps this is that doom which Adam fell into of knowing good and evil, that is to say, of knowing good by evil.

Isis and Nephtys over Osiris / Wikimedia Commons

There are so many things to say about this passage. One thing that I’ll just throw out now is that it’s a remarkable description of the modern world of moral uncertainty. Like Isis, whom we saw piecing together the body of Osiris, or like the sad friends of Truth picking up the torn limbs of that beautiful virgin, we are left to cull out and sort asunder the confused seeds of good and evil.

Now on one level of this passage, Milton’s describing this modern condition as the product of the Fall. It’s too bad that we live in this world. This is the doom which Adam fell into, this is the fallen condition to which we’ve all been consigned; but the passage is so much more complicated than that because good and evil seem to have been mixed up in the apple before the Fall. There was good in that forbidden fruit as well as evil. This is that doom which Adam fell into: of knowing good and evil — that is to say, of knowing good by evil. Adam at the Fall didn’t simply come into a knowledge primarily of evil. Adam, by tasting the apple, came into a knowledge of good, and he was only able to know this good by means of the experience of the knowledge of evil.

There are a lot of perspectives discernible or extractable from this treatise, Areopagitica, from which the fallen state seems in so many ways, maybe in every way, superior to its unfallen counterpart. We will see Milton returning to all of these questions in Paradise Lost. We will even see Milton place in the mouth of Eve the next sentence in this passage, or at least a paraphrased and, of course, versified version of this sentence. This is when Milton tells us:

I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat.

You’ll find Eve in Book Nine of Paradise Lost voicing essentially this same sentiment when she’s explaining to Adam why she needs to work separately. This is the argument that really, of course, puts her at risk of Satan’s temptation. To so many readers it has seemed that Eve is actually quoting Milton’s much earlier writing, Areopagitica, in her defense, and it has an incredibly unsettling effect. Evil has to be challenged. It has to be confronted. It has to be tasted before it can be conquered. It can’t simply be avoided. This is Eve’s and Areopagitica’s argument. We will never be virtuous simply because we cloistered ourselves or segregated ourselves from any temptation. Virtue is to be fought for and raced for, not without dust and heat.

Moving from Areopagitica, which has to be Milton’s most important and consequential work in prose, to Paradise Lost, which is, of course, Milton’s most important work of poetry, we see the disjunction between the two works, this disjunction at least with respect to their treatment of the Fall, should dramatize the nature, or just the enormity, of a lot of the conceptual problems and conflicts that Milton is tackling here. As a faithful Christian, of course – and I’m not going to try to deny this – as a faithful Christian, Milton believes that the Fall is only to be lamented and that Adam and Eve should not have eaten the apple. As a believing Christian, Milton believes that the omnipotent God had every right to license, to prohibit, that apple; but it’s a measure that we have to take seriously. It’s a measure of Milton’s ambition and his intellectual courage that enables him to set out to justify a God who can inflict upon his creatures such a seemingly arbitrary act of licensing.

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