Since approximately the mid-twentieth century Milton’s Areopagitica has seemed less like an iconic proclamation of core values of western liberalism and more like a series of problems to be explained away. The large arguments of the tract substantiate the case for the exclusion of civil power from matters of conscience and belief and seemingly defend unlimited toleration of doctrine and perhaps discipline. They exclude the role of censorship and assert the right to freedom of speech: in Milton’s ringing sentence, ‘Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties’ (Areop., YP 2.560). Yet the toleration the tract actually demands from the Long Parliament is much more limited. The tract accepts that some texts should be suppressed for reasons of state and that, after they have published, all authors should be open to prosecution and their texts to confiscation and destruction; for some ‘the fire and the executioner will be the timeliest and the most effectuall remedy’ (Areop., YP 2.569). Milton proclaims that ‘a fugitive and cloister’d vertue’ is unmeritorious and


Areopagitica

Areopagitica

‘that which purifies us is triall, and triall is by what is contrary’ (Areop., YP 2.515). He argues that, when Truth and Falsehood ‘grapple’, ‘who ever knew Truth put to the wors, in a free and open encounter[?]’ (Areop., YP 2.561). Given such confidence, why then should Milton exclude from toleration ‘Popery, and open superstition’ and, even more mysteriously, ‘that also which is impious or evil absolutely either against faith or maners’ (Areop., YP 2.565). The first phrase has attracted most discussion, since it makes explicit the exclusion of Catholicism from toleration. Perhaps we should read it simply as a hendiadys. But it may have a wider significance. Milton previously had linked English episcopacy with Catholicism in its decline into ‘irrecoverable superstition’ manifest in its ’empty conformities, and gay shewes’ (RCG, YP 1.766), and the violent fantasy which ends Of Reformation certainly envisages ‘a shamefull end in this Life (which God grant them)’ for English bishops (RCG, YP 1.616); we may recall that William Laud’s trial was drawing to its vindictive conclusion as Areopagitica appeared. The second phrase is enigmatic. Ernest Sirluck simply interpreted it as a further part of the case against tolerating Catholicism (YP 2.180–1). Yet ‘impiety’ against faith implies, instead, some kind of blasphemous deviation from within the Protestant community. ‘Maners’ hints rather at acts of outrageous behaviour against accepted standards of propriety, a phenomenon which does not really suggest Catholic practices. The term surely suits better the sorts of transgressive conduct extremer sectaries were likely to get up to, the kinds of actions which culminated in Ranter and early Quaker enthusiasm for disrupting church services and which were already noted in some accounts of radical groups.

So how may the evident inconsistencies in the argument—the soaring generalizations and the significant exceptions—be addressed? Typically, Miltonists suggest Milton has adopted some subtle stratagem to achieve a defensible polemical objective. Reviewing the interpretations of Ernest Sirluck, Joseph Wittreich, John Illo, Annabel Patterson, and Christopher Kendrick, Abbe Blum summarizes the state of the argument thus:

current scholarship offers contradictory explanations for what appears to be contradictory in the tract. Milton is variously seen as a canny tactician who moderates his stance on toleration in order to convey the appearance of solidarity with those who could repeal the 1643 Licensing Act (especially Parliamentary groups and members of the Westminster Assembly—the latter then meeting to decide religious matters); a brilliant moral instructor who employs irony to move ethically upright, intellectually superior readers (who as kindred liberal Christians will affirm his rhetorical prowess); a conservative party-line Protestant spokesman for intolerance who constructs a conditional restricted freedom of expression tailored only for the elect. Most recently Areopagitica’s seeming contradictions have been interpreted as Milton’s ‘manifesto for indeterminacy,’ a conversion of various factions’ disagreements into a nonoppositional celebration of intellectual energy, and finally and quite differently, as the product of a self-validating, monistic ethos which registers the tensions deriving from a bourgeois problematic.

I would contend that several of the most illuminating of recent accounts succeed by actually subordinating the ostensible argument of the tract to the identification of some larger ideological appeal. Thus, in a radical celebration of workers by hand and brain, Michael Wilding sees, ‘running throughout the Areopagitica‘, a ‘structural contrast between the dignity of labour, manual and intellectual, and its opposite, the lazy, loitering easy life readily imaged in the beneficed clergy or Roman church’.2 For Stanley Fish, in classic Fishean mode, ‘the tract becomes at once an emblem and a casualty of the lesson it teaches, the lesson that truth is not the property of any external form, even of a form that proclaims this very truth’, and ‘a (self-consuming) emblem’ at that. Sharon Achinstein’s Habermasian reading sees the tract as advocacy for a redefinition of the appropriate arena for debate and a new engagement of the private reader in the processes of civic decision-making and discussion; it constitutes ‘a significantmomentin the conceptualization of the public sphere’.⁴ For David Norbrook, as he works to establish the early history of secular republicanism in England, this is ‘Milton’s major contribution towards the celebration of the public sphere’, imperfectly simulating a classical Athenian form, and calling for ‘a recovery of the political potential of Greek democracy’.Rather against the trend, my intention is to return to the narrow, surface argument, and to come at its apparent inconsistencies somewhat differently. I shall not defend its polemical ingenuities, as once I did, because, frankly, they are not that ingenious; most modern readers, I suspect, see through them readily enough. But I am reluctant to attribute simple incompetence to a tract that contains some of Milton’s most brilliantly figurative prose, and which, quoted selectively, anticipates with a resounding magniloquence the principles of western liberalism articulated by John Locke and inscribed in the American constitution. What, then, is going on inside Areopagitica?

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