OUR national poets understood how much freedom matters. Milton! you should be living at this hour: England has need of you – William Wordsworth sighed at the dawn of the nineteenth century. In the second decade of the twenty-first, when British journalists are rounded up by the police in dawn raids and both a senior Labour politician and the editor of a national newspaper have publicly floated the idea of the state licensing journalists, John Milton is due another resurrection.
The author of Paradise Lost might seem an unlikely champion of Grub Street, but literary greatness in Britain could hardly help being influenced by our liberal political traditions. Indeed, both Milton’s Latinate verse and his passion for liberty grew from the same root – his classical education. Milton’s hymn to the freedom of the press, Areopagitica, published in 1644, had an epigraph from the ancient Greek tragedian Euripides and a text that called on legislators to defend our tradition of free expression. For Milton, knowing our debt to Athens and Rome clarified British freedom as much as the contrast to continental despotism.
In the summer of 1643, Parliament reinstituted state censorship in Britain. Milton responded by setting down for all time why such an action diminished the growth of knowledge, insulted the nation’s citizens and broke with all that was greatest in our history.
“Lords and Commons of England, consider what nation it is whereof you are, and whereof you are the governors: a nation not slow and dull, but of a quick, ingenious, and piercing spirit.” He adds, “Nor is it to the common people less than a reproach; for if we … dare not trust them with an English pamphlet, what do we but censure them for a giddy, vicious, and ungrounded people; in such a sick and weak estate of faith and discretion, as to be able to take nothing down but through the pipe of a licenser.”
Milton saw that licensers despised everyone else but luxuriated in their own pride, imagining they could judge what the public should read: “‘I know nothing of the licenser, but that I have his own hand here for his arrogance; who shall warrant me his judgment?’ ‘The state, sir,’ replies the stationer, but has a quick return: ‘The state shall be my governors, but not my critics; they may be mistaken in the choice of a licenser, as easily as this licenser may be mistaken in an author.’”
This was no academic question for Milton. He had seen the alternative first hand: “In other countries, where this kind of inquisition tyrannises… I have sat among their learned men, for that honour I had, and been counted happy to be born in such a place of philosophic freedom, as they supposed England was, while themselves did nothing but bemoan the servile condition into which learning among them was brought… There it was that I found and visited the famous Galileo grown old, a prisoner to the Inquisition, for thinking in astronomy otherwise than the Franciscan and Dominican licensers thought.”
With the classical languages and liberal education in abeyance, Milton is as little read today as liberty, it sometimes seems, is respected in modern Britain. But behind his unfamiliar turn of phrase he reminds us that understanding our heritage helps us appreciate fully why it is so important to fight to preserve it. If some of today’s journalists have shamed their profession, those who call now for a muzzled press, with every member licensed the way dogs once were, insult us all.