David Adler: Milton's 'Areopagitica' a treatise on speech

June 19, 2014 

David Adler

Summer reading lists abound. They target teens, teachers and toddlers, the sports crowd, the beach crowd and the couch crowd. Everyone touts a list. Bill Gates and Bill Clinton have lists. The American Library Association has a list. The New York City Public Library has a list. National Public Radio has a list. There are even summer reading programs for those interested in civic education, which is a good thing, given the civic literacy deficit that plagues our nation.

Lists that would nurture "civics" should include the masterful work of the 17th Century English poet John Milton, whose "Areopagitica" represents, in many ways, the cornerstone of the tradition of freedom of speech. Milton's eloquent, unsurpassed plea for freedom of speech, unrestricted by licensing requirements, exerted a great influence on those who framed our First Amendment.

Written in 1644, in the chaos of the English Civil Wars, "Areopagitica" is a powerful, impassioned, beautifully written pamphlet that takes dead aim at the practice of prior restraint, a virulent form of censorship that required governmental approval of newspapers, books and essays before they could be published. Milton acknowledged that bad ideas might circulate among the people, and even wield influence, but the proper response was not less speech, but more. Censorship precluded robust discussion and debate, and paved the way for governmental manipulation of knowledge and, ultimately, public opinion.

Milton's memorable argument for the right of the people to publish freely and to energetically engage in debate as a means of correcting heretical ideas and promoting governmental accountability summoned truth - knowledge, facts and evidence - as an antidote for false doctrines. In a famous passage, Milton wrote: "And though all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play upon the earth, so Truth be in the field, we do injuriously by licensing and prohibiting to misdoubt her strength. Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?"

What does "Areopagitica" say to us today? It reminds those who would compete in the marketplace of ideas that mere belief is not knowledge, and that for beliefs to prevail in the competition to win the minds of fellow citizens, they must be backed by facts and evidence. It is a reminder, moreover, that in a republic it is persuasion, grounded on reason, and not demagoguery that deserves respect and victory.

Milton's landmark work, which has informed Supreme Court opinions, including Justice Louis Brandeis' famous warning - "the greatest menace to freedom is an inert people" - reminds us as well that free speech is the remedy for poor, misguided governmental practices and policies. Freedom of speech can expose the poverty of thought that shapes laws and programs. Given protection, speech is an effective tool for the correction of many governmental and societal ills.

Four centuries later, Milton's "Areopagitica" deserves a wide audience. It opens a window into a world in which ideas, based on merit and expressed by rich and poor alike, can wield influence and speak truth to power. It will tutor those interested in the pillars of republicanism, and it ought to be required reading for government officials who may be tempted to use their powers to silence opposition and to prevent challenges to their positions.

Members of the Osher Institute and various book clubs will delight in its absorbing narrative. They, like many others, will find it a valuable summer companion to the entertaining and enlightening works of such talented Boise-based writers as Anthony Doerr, Heather Parkinson Dermott and Clay Morgan.

David Adler is the Cecil D. Andrus professor of public affairs at Boise State University, where he serves as director of the Andrus Center for Public Policy.

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