"Kill a Man as Kill a Good Book"

On this day in 1644 John Milton published his pamphlet, Areopagitica, a Speech for the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing, to the Parliament of England. This was Milton’s response to the Licensing Order issued by Parliament the previous year, whereby all authors were required to submit their works to a government censor prior to publication. The speech was built upon a series of practical and principled arguments, many of which are now famous. Since books would be published whether permitted or not, licensing is likened to “the exploit of that gallant man who thought to pound up the crows by shutting his park gate.” Licensing was an indignity to England, being “a nation not slow and dull, but of a quick, ingenious and piercing spirit,” and so well able to tell worthwhile books from trash. And perhaps most famously, “as good almost kill a man as kill a good book: who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God’s image; but he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself, kills the image of God, as it were, in the eye.”

Having just returned from a visit with the imprisoned Galileo in Italy, Milton implored Parliament not to replace a Catholic tyranny with a governmental one: “Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely, according to conscience, above all liberties.”

Parliament was unconvinced and the censorship law was not rescinded, but Milton’s speech has become a monument to civil liberty and a hallmark of his talent for ringing prose:

Methinks I see in my mind a noble and puissant nation rousing herself like a strong man after sleep, and shaking her invincible locks: Methinks I see her as an eagle muing her mighty youth, and kindling her undazzled eyes at the full midday beam; purging and unscaling her long abused sight at the fountain itself of heavenly radiance, while the whole noise of timorous and flocking birds, with those also that love the twilight, flutter about, amazed at what she means, and in their envious gabble would prognosticate a year of sects and schisms. What should ye do then, should ye suppress all this flowery crop of knowledge and new light sprung up and yet springing daily in this city, should ye set an oligarchy of twenty ingrossers over it, to bring a famine upon our minds again, when we shall know nothing but what is measured to us by their bushel?

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.