Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Happy Birthday John Milton

Yesterday is the 400th birthday of John Milton - or today for the American readers of this blog . Why a mention in a library-focused blog? Because Milton, one of our greatest poets, was also the great pioneer of freedom of speech.

Milton's Areopagitica, written in 1644 during the English civil war, is an articulate and passionate case for the liberty of speech. The ideas were not new when Milton published them: the title comes from the name of a hill in Athens, and from a speech by Isocrates in the 5th century BC.

Many of the statements about freedom of speech that we all half-know are from this book, like this one

"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."

and this one

"I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race, where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat."

Milton believed that right will out, and access to good and bad argument was integral to this. He believed that freedom and choice we central to what it means to be human - "religion, if not voluntary, becomes a sin".

Areopagitica was written in the contest for freedom of religion that was fought between the armies of Parliament and of the King. Milton was a republican, a supporter of the "good old cause", the uprising of Parliament in the 1640s. He worked for the government of the Commonwealth in the 1650s, and was arrested on the return of the king in 1660. He was imprisoned for a time, but released. And went on to write his great poetic works.

Others are celebrating, too, although the Grand Paradise Lost Costume Ball would seem to miss the point of Milton. The program at Christ's College, Cambridge is more tasteful, quite reasonably, since Milton studied there 380 years or so ago. And for the domain name afficionados, Milton-L is there for you too. I guess for the rest of us, reading Milton is the best way to celebrate, and it is all online.

Happy birthday John, we owe you lots.

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