“The Best Effects of Any Books Is That It Excites the Reader to Self-Activity –Thomas Carlyle”
This essay “Books” is an extract from Areopagitica: a speech of Mr. John Milton for the liberty of unlicensed Printing to the Parliament of England. It was printed in 1644. It is a great defence of the liberty of the press. The essay is an argument in favour of freedom of expression and against censorship and much of it forms the basis of the modern viewpoint on control of the press. It has an inherent quality of fervour. The text has wisdom, logic and universal application of its argument.
The Liberty of Unlicensed Printing:
Milton agrees that the Church and the Commonwealth must have a vigilant eye on the books published in the country. Some of the books not only degrade themselves as well as men and their life. Thereafter they should confine and imprison them and accomplish sharpest justice on them as someone who does illegal things. It is the duty of the government to deny license for such bad books and send the harmful writers to prison by accurate judgment.
Milton remarks that the books are not absolutely dead things; they also contain the power of life in them. They have a potency of life in them; they are as active as that of the soul produced them. Books preserve the living intellect as like as the vial that conserve the purest usefulness that bred them.
According to Greek Legend, Cadmus came from Phoenicia to Boeotia in search of his sister Europa. He had killed an enormous dragon from the dead dragon’s teeth a lot of armed men sprang up and they fought till five were left. With these Cadmus founded Thebes. Likewise, Milton proclaims, innumerable unworthy and dangerous books come up as armed men that sprang from the fabulous dragon’s teeth sown on the earth. He appeals to the licensing authorities to follow the selective history of licensing.
Good Book: Precious Lifeblood of a Master Spirit
Milton cautions the book licensing authorities to be extremely cautious in their labour, unless great caution is used, the censoring of a good book is worse than killing a man, who is a reasonable creature. One who destroys a good book is equally kills reason itself, the image of God. The lives of many men in the world are quite useless. They do nothing which has any value at all. They live like a burden on the earth. Whereas, a good book is the precious lifeblood of a master spirit, it is preserved and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life.
No age can restore a life. Even then there is no great loss. Revolutions of ages do not recover the loss of a rejected truth. For the want of that truth, nations behave the worse
Books of greater importance are greater than the life of a man
The licensing authorities should be cautious in censoring (punishing) a book, which is the living labour of men moreover how they destroy that experienced life of men preserved and stored up in books. Censoring or un-licensing of books is nothing but a kind of homicide, the deliberate act of killing of one person by another, sometimes it is a martyrdom and sometimes a kind of massacre. The destruction of a good book ends not in the killing of a living thing but strikes at that ethereal and fifth essence, the breath of reason itself. According to Aristotle, besides the four elements, fire, water, earth and air, there is a fifth element, which is the mixture of the four, exists and that forms the mind.
The English parliament passed a Bill called Licensing Order on June 14, 1643, which required that all books should be approved be an official censor before publication. Milton strongly assaulted the officials of the censorship of books, which was in trend in the middle of the 17th Century, through his prose entitled Areopagitica. His love for books and the freedom of press is quite evident in the extract ‘Books’. In this essay Milton has used a classical argumentative structure. He could never tolerate any restriction on the freedom of thought and expression. He also declares that any suppression of reason and freedom is a great tyranny.