Milton: Preventive regulation of knowledge is a crime.


Adam and Eve, 1901. Hans Thoma

“Areopagitica”, published by Milton the 23rd of November, the year of 1644. An opposition to a parliamentary order issued in 1643 that hindered freedom of expression and risked the press’ capacity to favour debate and distribution of information. This order was issued as “Order of the Long Parliament for the Regulating of Printing”  and it was published just eight months after the beginning of the First English Civil War. The monopoly over printing and publication in English lands had been ceded -by royal proclamation- to the Stationers Company of London since 1557, requiring a special printing license from everyone that did not belong to the company and in 1641 the functions of licensing and censorship were passed to the Parliament. However, the order of the 14th of July of 1643 was a particularly restrictive expression of it’s predecessor -published March the 9th, same year. The situation at the moment was this:

  1. Everything that is to be printed must first be analyzed by an official designated by both or either House of Parliament.
  2. Any private printing is illegal.
  3. A Committee of Examinations is designated and put in charge searching Printers involved in unlicensed or scandalous printing.
  4. Independent of the content, the printing apparatus may be confiscated and dismantled if it’s involved in unlicensed printing.

Therefore, the functions of edition, printing and publication is centralized in a single organism (The Stationers’ Company of London) with the declared purposes of

  1. Preventing the publication of any literary work for profit without the consent of the owner and
  2. Avoiding the release of slanderous, seditious or scandalous information.

Milton arguments that such a control is detrimental to human knowledge without even accomplishing it’s stated purposes and that, to be coherent, it should act retrospectively prohibiting fundamental works of literature -The Bible included among those works with obscene and blasphemous content. What happens, says Milton, is that the idiot can learn badly from the purest of sources and the wise man can learn properly both from the most corrupt and the purest of sources. Besides, the liberty to choose on his own account corresponds to every man. This is an argument founded in a christian principle: that our state is that of knowing good through evil since Adam’s original sin. The virtue that originates from the naive ignorance of evil is excremental, therefore, of no value. Regulation of knowledge can’t be preventive and every legislative measure in the field of knowledge must be executed after the fact -once the offensive work of literature, already in circulation, is detected. Otherwise a crime as bad as the murder of a man is committed.

The defense of the liberty of the press that Milton presents -disobeying the legislation over licenses, by the way- was effective only years later in 1693 with  Charles Blount’s “Just Vindication of Learning” where he retakes the miltonian arguments. It’s the year of 1695 when The Parliament decides not to renovate this legislation, permitting the decentralized publication of literary works without preventive intervention from the State. The religious arguments he presents, by the way, do not require religious foundation and such foundation even rarefies them for seculars in current times. An ethic of virtue is more that enough to talk in favour of the knowledge of evil and neither is a religious foundation necessary to justify liberty; in fact, it complicates matters. We need only think of that scene from Life of Brian where the members of The People’s Front of Judea agree on the right of every man to gestate babies, just as women do. The right, as much as the liberty to do so, is irrelevant and absurd as long as the faculty to do so is absent. To grant humans the liberty of knowing and doing evil God has to grant the respective faculties; it then becomes unavoidable to ask ourselves why would God give such faculties. Finally, if Milton’s defenses of knowledge and expression are still valid today in a non-religious context it is precisely because they don’t require the religious bases from which he starts off his arguments.


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