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 that 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.
These two cheers, moreover, come with an important academic finding, the identification of the London printers Matthew Simmons, Thomas Paine, and perhaps Gregory Dexter as the figures behind the brave act of bringing Milton’s words to the page. This is significant because the courage that fired Milton would have escaped notice had it not been for the courage of the printers who brought his ideas to the public.
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.
For nearly four centuries, the pamphlet has been cited, debated and sometimes derided. Its author was known from the start, but how it came to be printed has been a lingering mystery that a team of Carnegie Mellon scholars and researchers, using high-tech means to discover the origins of a work written in a low-tech era, have solved.
“This is significant because we have spent a lot of time thinking about the freedom of the press without thinking too much about the individuals who are responsible for the materials in which those ideas were expressed,” said Christopher N. Warren, who teaches 17th-century literature at Carnegie Mellon. “There are real flesh-and-blood humans who were making books and making arguments, risking their lives so they could give this idea attention.”
Using computer software that is sensitive to subtle differences in the peculiarities of letterpress printing, the CMU team examined pieces of damaged type, evaluated differing fonts and, with an eye to the mechanics of early modern print, attacked the mystery of a pamphlet deliberately designed to cloak the identity of its printer. “In early modern literary studies, we often say we value new ways of looking at old texts,” they wrote, “but here we mean that literally.” For example: Each page of “Areopagitica” used an average of 240 lowercase e’s and 3.7 uppercase C’s.
Warren, along with Pierce Williams, Shruti Rijhwani and Max G’Sell, harnessed computer technology that takes into account variations in inking levels and character appearances, among other elements, and their work led them to identify what they call “a sophisticated ideological program of clandestine printing” that in 1644 and 1645 included not only “Areopagitica” but also 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 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.