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The name of Milton's speech on the freedom of the press was imitated from that of the “Logos Areopagiticos” of the Athenian orator Isocrates (436–338 B.C.), which was also a speech meant to be read, not heard. The oration of Isocrates aimed at re-establishing the old democracy of Athens by restoring the Court of the Areopagus, whence the work derived its title.
During the ascendency of Laud in the Church of England, his instrument, the Court of the Star-Chamber, had reenacted, more oppressively than ever, some of the restrictions imposed during the reign of Elizabeth on the printing of books. These restrictions disappeared with the abolition of the Star-Chamber in 1641, but very soon the Presbyterian majority in the Long Parliament began to pass orders framed with a view to enable them to suppress publications voicing the political and religious views of their opponents. Finally the Order of June, 1643, reproduced here, roused Milton to protest, and he issued his famous plea for unlicensed printing in the following year. As will be seen from the speech itself, he did his best to conciliate the Parliament by making cordial acknowledgment of its services to the cause of liberty, and he sought to persuade them to reverse their action by pointing out its inconsistency with these services. But it does not appear that it produced any immediate effect. While the Independents under Cromwell had the upper hand, the licensing laws were, indeed, very slackly enforced; but with the Restoration came the reenactment of most of the provisions of the Star-Chamber Decree. After being renewed several times for terms of years, they finally were allowed to lapse in 1694, and later attempts to renew them were unsuccessful.
But the importance of Milton's pamphlet is not to be measured by its effect on the political situation which was its immediate occasion. In his enthusiasm for liberty, the master passion of his life, he rose far above the politics of the hour; and the “Areopagitica” holds its supremacy among his prose writings by virtue of its appeal to fundamental principles, and its triumphant assertion of the faith that all that truth needs to assure its victory over error is a fair field and no favor.
BEING THE OCCASION OF
WHEREAS divers good Orders have bin lately made by both Houses of Parliament, for suppressing the great late abuses and frequent disorders in Printing many, false forged, scandalous, seditious, libellous, and unlicensed Papers, Pamphlets, and Books to the great defamation of Religion and government. Which orders (notwithstanding the diligence of the Company of Stationers, to put them in full execution) have taken little or no effect: By reason the bill in preparation, for redresse of the said disorders, hath hitherto bin retarded through the present distractions, and very many, aswell Stationers and Printers, as others of sundry other professions not free of the Stationers Company, have taken upon them to set up sundry private Printing Presses in corners, and to print, vend, publish and disperse Books, pamphlets and papers, in such multitudes, that no industry could be sufficient to discover or bring to punishment, all the severall abounding delinquents; And by reason that divers of the Stationers Company and others being Delinquents (contrary to former orders and the constant custome used among
the said Company) have taken liberty to Print, Vend, and publish, the most profitable vendible Copies of Books, belonging to the Company and other Stationers, especially of such Agents as are imployed in putting the said Orders in Execution, and that by way of revenge for giveing information against them to the Houses for their Delinquences in Printing, to the great prejudice of the said Company of Stationers and Agents, and to their discouragement in this publik service.
It is therefore Ordered by the Lords and Commons in Parliament, That no Order or Declaration of both, or either House of Parliament shall be printed by any, but by order of one or both the said Houses: Nor other Book, Pamphlet, paper, nor part of any such Book, Pamphlet, or paper, shall from henceforth be printed, bound, stitched or put to sale by any person or persons whatsoever, unlesse the same be first approved of and licensed under the hands of such person or persons as both, or either of the said Houses shall appoint for the licensing of the same, and entred in the Register Book of the Company of Stationers, according to Ancient custom, and the Printer thereof to put his name thereto. And that no person or persons shall hereafter print, or cause to be reprinted any Book or Books, or part of Book, or Books heretofore allowed of and granted to the said Company of Stationers for their relief and maintenance of their poore, without the licence or consent of the Master, Wardens and Assistants of the said Company; Nor any Book or Books lawfully licenced and entred in the Register of the said Company for any particular member thereof, without the licence and consent of the owner or owners thereof. Nor yet import any such Book or Books, or part of Book or Books formerly Printed here, from beyond the Seas, upon paine of forfeiting the same to the Owner, or Owners of the Copies of the said Books, and such further punishment as shall be thought fit.
And the Master and Wardens of the said Company, the Gentleman Usher of the House of Peers, the Sergeant of the Commons House and their deputies, together with the persons formerly appointed by the Committee of the House of Commons for Examinations, are hereby Authorized and required, from time to time, to make diligent search in all places, where they shall think meete, for all unlicensed Printing Presses, and all Presses any way imployed in the printing of scandalous or unlicensed Papers, Pamphlets, Books, or any copies of Books belonging to the said Company, or any member thereof, without their approbation and consents, and to seize and carry away such Printing Presses Letters, together with the Nut, Spindle, and other materialls of every such irregular Printer, which they find so misimployed, unto the Common Hall of the said Company, there to be defaced and made unserviceable according to Ancient Custom; And likewise to make diligent search in all suspected Printing-houses, Ware-houses, Shops and other places for
such scandalous and unlicensed Books, papers, Pamphlets, and all other Books, not entred, nor signed with the Printers name as aforesaid, being printed, or reprinted by such as have no lawfull interest in them, or any way contrary to this Order, and the same to seize and carry away to the said common hall, there to remain till both or either House of Parliament shall dispose thereof, And likewise to apprehend all Authors, Printers, and other persons whatsoever imployed in compiling, printing, stitching, binding, publishing and dispersing of the said scandalous, unlicensed, and unwarrantable papers, books and pamphlets as aforesaid, and all those who shall resist the said Parties in searching after them, and to bring them afore either of the Houses or the Committee of Examinations, that so they may receive such further punishments, as their Offences shall demerit, and not to be released untill they have given satisfaction to the Parties imployed in their apprehension for their paines and charges, and given sufficient caution not to offend in like sort for the future. And all Justices of the Peace, Captaines, Constables and other officers, are hereby ordered and required to be aiding, and assisting to the foresaid persons in the due execution of all, and singular the premisses and in the apprehension of all Offenders against the same. And in case of opposition to break open
the Doores and Locks.
And it further ordered, that this Order be forthwith Printed and Published, to the end that notice may be taken thereof, and all Contemners of it left inexcusable.