Banned Books Week: A re-read of Aeropagitica
When I was in college in 19(mumblemumble), I became obsessed with John Milton. My Milton professor was passionate and willing to help our class wade through the thick poetry and essays, and I loved how the history of the time was reflected in his writing.
For example, Milton was one of Oliver Cromwell’s allies, the dude who kind of overthrew King Charles I, cutting off his head and inspiring a Monty Python song. Since many people of the time believed that light was directly connected to God’s favor, when Milton started to go blind, his rivals said it was God turning His face from Milton for crimes against the crown (which many believed was divinely appointed). Thus, book 3 of Paradise Lost begins by invoking light as a muse:
HAIL, holy Light, offspring of Heaven first-born!
Or of the Eternal coeternal beam
May I express thee unblamed? since God is light,
And never but in unapproached light
Dwelt from eternity-dwelt then in thee,
Bright effluence of bright essence increate!
…and so on
But I’m not here to talk about Paradise Lost.
I’m sad that I haven’t read a lot of Milton since leaving college, and I no longer have Dr. Barbour to help me puzzle through the text. I feel that muscle has atrophied. But I think of his work often. And aside from Paradise Lost and L’Allegro and Il Penseroso, his pamphlet Aeropagitica was my favorite of his works because it was the most clever piece of verbal dancing that I had ever read.
Essentially, in 1643 English Parliament passed a law requiring all written works to be approved by the government before distribution. (Man. Imagine if self e-publishing had been around then. They would have died under the deluge of publications.) Milton didn’t like this, partly as the government weren’t in favor of his written arguments for divorce, so in 1644 he released Aeropagitica. It was an 18 page pamphlet against censorship, distributed without government approval.
He could have been beheaded for this. But remember the verbal dancing I mentioned? It is so cleverly written, so carefully written, that he survived the publication. It didn’t move the government to repeal the law, that didn’t happen until 1695 or so, but it’s still considered one of the most important works against censorship that exist.
So what is Aeropagitica about? I’m going to try to figure that out in future blog posts this week. But what I remember is that the basic, core argument is one cannot be virtuous if they are only offered virtuous texts. If I say to you, “Hey, today we can help the poor, or we can help the poor,” and then we go help the poor, can we really say you are an altruistic volunteer? You gave a lot of your time, but you didn’t know you had a choice to go ride roller coasters instead.
To break it down to food, if someone eats a cookie, and then later chooses a vegetable over a cookie because they know the cookie is bad for them and vegetables are healthy, says Milton*, then they are more virtuous than someone who didn’t even know cookies existed, since they made a choice between good and bad.
Cookies aren’t evil. This is just a metaphor.
Essentially you can’t understand good until you understand evil. There’s nothing to compare it to.
Now, in today’s censorship arguments, we argue that “good” and “bad” are relative. I hate censorship because I don’t want another person’s values deciding what I or my child read. I hate it because I believe that hiding things from people make it more likely that innocents will go seeking it out of curiosity. We argue that the law is too broad for the intricacies called for in deciding what to censor. These are all good arguments.
But this year, for Banned Books Week, I want to look at one of the original arguments, that you can’t tell me what is good and what is bad. I have to decide that for myself, or I will never understand it. It’s about choice, and when you take that away from me, you stifle me on an intellectual, spiritual, and deeply personal level.
So I’m going to try to read Aeropagitica again. Despite me calling it very cleverly written, I don’t mean it has Joss-Whedon-like dialogue. I mean it’s written to fool the government to thinking Milton was totally on their side, only had they maybe thought about this point, which is supported by the Greeks and the Bible, and please don’t cut his head off cause he’s just saying. It’s dense.
Wish me luck.
- Pretty sure this quote isn’t in the pamphlet. This is extreme paraphrasing.