PITTSBURGH — Just when we need it the most, fresh inspiration about the value and virtue of a free press is here. It’s from the year 1644.
The 375th anniversary of John Milton’s “Areopagitica” is occurring at a time when the press is under siege — from the White House, from purists at both ends of the political spectrum, from remorseless economic forces who have replaced profits with losses and depleted reporting staffs at all but a handful of news outlets.
And yet this anniversary is cause for two cheers — not three, as we will see — for Milton and for his famous tract.
Often cited in law school First Amendment classes as a foundational tract for the notion of press freedom, “Areopagitica” is a manifesto for intellectual exchange, unfettered expression and vigorous public debate. In its pages, Milton demands “liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.” He embraces “Much arguing, much writing, many opinions.” He endorses the struggle of ideas and ideals, urging, “Let (Truth) and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the (worse), in a free and open encounter?”
Milton’s pamphlet begins with a frontispiece quote from Euripides arguing, “This is true Liberty when free born men/Having to advise the public may speak free.” Above all, “Areopagitica” is an argument against pre-publication censorship, a position the Supreme Court generally has supported, most significantly in the Pentagon Papers case in 1971.
Along with Roger Williams’ “The Bloudy Tenent of Persection” and Henry Robinson’s “Liberty of Conscience,” both considered important tracts in the battle for free expression, these works were part of a network that a century and a half later would lead to the passage of the First Amendment, which combined freedom of the press with freedom of religion — and it is that combination that sets modern American views of fundamental rights of expression apart from the views that prevailed in Milton’s time.
“It is a tract that gets misread,” said David Scott Kastan, a Yale scholar specializing in the relationship between literature and history in early modern England. “Everyone wants to read ‘Areopagitica’ as an argument against censorship. But there are some things that in Milton’s mind are so far beyond the pale that they have to be censored. Milton rises to his best when he argues that there should never be any pre-publication censorship. But at the same time, he’s all for burning Catholic books.”
That’s why “Areopagitica,” despite its exalted place in the Western canon, rates only two cheers.
For Milton, though not for those who quote “Areopagitica” as the final word on press freedom rather than as a first draft, completely free expression is off the table:
“I mean not tolerated Popery and open superstition, which as it extirpats (i.e., destroys) all religions and civil supremacies, so it self should be extirpat.” For these, Milton says: “the fire and the executioner will be found the timeliest and most effectual remedy.”
So in the end, we must recognize that “Areopagitica” is not so much a political document as a religious document, and as such is not an uncompromising and uncompromised expression of the great faith of free expression. Like much in our own time of controversy, contention and complexity, it is the nuances that matter — and it is the nuances that are blunted if not buried as our civic conversation veers into incivility.
“We want our great writers to guarantee our best selves, but they never quite do that,” said Kastan. “They never can fully escape the limitations of their own moment or tell us what we should think. They do, however, tell us what we should think about — and the contradictions of their thinking alert us, if we read well, to the genuine difficulties of the issues, and perhaps provoke us, as (Samuel) Beckett says, to ‘fail better.’”
In our own moment — with an explosion of information that cannot be curated — we must understand that even John Milton can’t simplify our task. He, and “Areopagitica,” can only present us with our own challenge, in these pages and in pixels across the internet. So two cheers for Milton. And a challenge to all of us 375 years after “Areopagitica,” which sets for us an ideal, and the hard work ahead.
David M. Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Follow him on Twitter at @ShribmanPG.