Thursday, May 25, 2017

Areopagitica (Milton Journal)

A bland, boring book cover; what were you expecting?


Areopagitica was a hard read for me. Why probably has to deal with Milton’s Latin background but also maybe some of the language of the time. It felt very disorienting. The beginning, for example, felt like I was thrown into an already present debate; perhaps because I am used to formal academic writing, not having any kind of preamble about what a tract is going to be about was more obtuse than it would have otherwise been.

                In any case, the actual text was certainly fiery. It was ripe with righteous metaphors, powerful condemnations, and spirited animosity barely disguised as formal rhetoric; it was like the seventeenth century equivalent of “sorry, not sorry”. In a word—Milton Unchained!

                Regarding the passage that appeared on page 725, though, that was Milton at his best. Logically, the argument he made is classic and straddles both sides while slyly putting forth a strong defense of his own position. Combining logic with ethics, then, Milton attacks the idea of censorship from a primal footing and returns the burden of proof to his adversaries: if censorship is such a fantastic idea, then why is it that only the minds of most wicked intent seem to be able to utilize it to any definitive end?

                “I am of those who believe it will be a harder alchemy than Lullius ever knew to sublimate any good use out of such an invention.” Burn! Milton took off his intellectual glove and smacked some ignorant fools up! …at any rate, he makes a cogent argument, bases it on history, and then subdues its more mangled elements in a veneer of philosophy and ethics. This is why this passage is so crucial, because it confronts the core issue; that, yes, censorship can be used for good, but it more likely to be made for evil.

                In many respects, it reminds me of arguments in certain Leftist circles about the nature of censorship. About whether reactionary works should be censored and what the risks associated with censorship. Milton, then, sounds much like an ardent Trotskyist raging against the degeneracy of Stalin’s Russia. I suppose I could go on with this point, but I think the example speaks for itself.