Milton begins his written speech for the liberty of unlicensed printing in England with a quote from The Suppliants, a play by the Greek tragedian, Euripides. “This is true liberty when free-born men / Having to advise the public may speak free,” Milton quotes. “What can be juster in a state than this?” Milton addresses his speech to the “High Court of Parliament,” which in 1643 passed a Licensing Order that mandated “no book, pamphlet, or paper shall be henceforth printed, unless the same be first approved and licensed by such.” Milton is fervently opposed to Parliament’s order—at least the part that requires pre-publication licensing. He supports the portion of the order that “preserves justly every man’s copy to himself,” and argues that “the utmost bound of civil liberty” is attained only when “complaints are freely heard, deeply considered and speedily reformed.” He begins with a look at censorship through the ages and asserts that the type of pre-publication censorship mandated by Parliament’s Licensing Order (a law Milton describes as an “authentic Spanish policy of licensing books”), was not seen until after the year 800. Until then, Milton contends, “books were ever as freely admitted into the world as any other birth: the issue of the brain was no more stifled than the issue of the womb.” Indeed, Milton contends, pre-publication licensing was born “from the most antichristian council, and the most tyrannous inquisition that ever enquired.” Of course, Milton is referring to the Roman Catholic Church and the Spanish Inquisition, and he is speaking directly to an overwhelmingly Protestant Parliament. The “inventors” of pre-publication censorship, Milton says, “be those whom ye will loath to own.”
Books and ideas weren’t censored in biblical times to such an extent either, Milton argues, unless they were found to be heretical or defamatory. The English Parliament meant to suppress books they considered bad, or evil, and Milton asserts this is not only impossible but an affront to God as well. “God uses not to captivate under a perpetual childhood of prescription,” Milton writes, “but trusts [man] with the gift of reason to be his own chooser.” Furthermore, good and evil are inextricably linked, within books and in man, so they are impossible to “sort asunder.” Milton claims “it was from out the rind of one apple tasted, that the knowledge of good and evil as two twins cleaving together leapt forth into the world. And perhaps this is that doom which Adam fell into of knowing good and evil, that is to say of knowing good by evil.” God never intended for humankind to live a life independent of evil, which is why he gave Adam “reason,” and “gave him the freedom to choose.” To eliminate evil means that each Christian’s virtue is left untested and “is but a blank virtue, not a pure.” Without evil to reject, Adam is “a mere artificial Adam, such an Adam as he is in the motions.” In addition to negatively affecting the virtue of Christians, Milton maintains that Parliament’s Licensing Order violates God’s divine authority and plan as well.
Milton continues his argument by pointing out how inadequate Parliament’s Licensing Order is, claiming that it “conduces nothing to the end for which it was framed.” The law means to spare citizens from evil, but it only seeks to regulate printed material. “If we think to regulate printing, thereby to rectify manners, we must regulate all recreations and pastimes, all that is delightful to man.” What about music, Milton questions, and the gestures and motions of dance? Surely these things can be evil as well and need regulation, he contends. There is even “household gluttony” to consider, and the “daily rioting” of gossip, which is most certainly to blame for the spread of evil. Milton argues that “whatever thing we hear or see, sitting, walking, traveling, or conversing may be fitly called our book,” and to suppress books only “is far insufficient to the end which [Parliament’s order] intends.” One cannot “remove sin by removing the matter of sin,” Milton posits.
Books “cannot be suppressed without the fall of learning,” Milton also claims, which too “hinders and retards the importation of our richest merchandise, truth.” According to Milton, both “faith and knowledge thrives by exercise,” and suppressing books hampers this exercise. Truth, the product of study and knowledge, “is compared in scripture to a streaming fountain; if her waters flow not in a perpetual progression, they sicken into a muddy pool of conformity and tradition.” Parliament’s Licensing Order does just that, Milton claims, by controlling and mandating what is read and learned. “A man may be a heretic in the truth; and if he believe things only because his pastor says so, or the assembly so determines, without knowing other reason, though his belief be true, yet the very truth he holds,” Milton warns, “becomes his heresy.”
Milton contends that truth “came once into the world with her divine master, and was a perfect shape most glorious to behold.” But truth did not retain its original shape, Milton claims, and the “lovely form” of “virgin truth” was “hewed” into thousands of pieces, and “scattered” from “the four winds.” Pursuit of knowledge is searching for bits and pieces of scattered truth, but all the pieces are yet to be found and likely never will be, “till her master’s second coming,” Milton says. Additionally, Milton cautions, when truth is bound, as it is by Parliament’s order, “she speaks not true” but instead “turns herself into all shapes, except her own.” It is not “impossible,” Milton contends, that truth “may have more shapes than one,” and he implores Parliament to lend equal weight to all shapes of truth and not “fall again into a gross conforming stupidity” which “is more to the sudden degenerating of a church than many subdichotomies of petty schisms.”
Of course, Milton maintains, he cannot “think well of every light separation” of the church, and while he argues for more Christian beliefs to “be tolerated, rather than compelled,” he does not mean to tolerate “popery, and open superstition, which as it extirpates all religions and civil supremacies, so itself should be extirpate.” While Milton argues against the pre-publication censorship of books, he supports the censorship and full eradication of the Catholic Church. Milton maintains that Parliament’s new practice of suppressing books “is the worst and newest opinion of all others; and is the chief cause why sects and schisms do so much abound, and true knowledge is kept at a distance from us.” He claims to know that “errors in a good government and in a bad are equally almost incident,” and he intreats Parliament “to redress willingly and speedily what hath been erred” in the passing of the Licensing Order of 1643.