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  • The most majestic of English poets was also a lofty and vigorous writer of prose. That vigor owes much to intensely personal circumstances: Milton’s several treatises on divorce derive from an unhappy marriage, Samson Agonistes from his blindness, and Areopagitica from attempts at censorship of his polemical works. Milton’s plea for the freedom of the press was addressed to the English Parliament, the modern equivalent of the Athenian Areopagus.

    The book was issued in defiance of all official regulation – unlicensed, unregistered, and without name of printer or publisher. Milton’s name alone is boldly printed on the title page. Never was an occasional piece so certain of immortality. It is largely owing to Milton’s prose that freedom of the press has come to be seen as a near-totemic absolute – an attitude that overturned the wisdom of centuries of political philosophers, going back to Plato and beyond, who remarked on the extreme dangers to society posed by irresponsible and unregulated public expression.

    The original book imaged for this digital edition:
    7 3/8 x 5 7/16 inches (187 x138 mm)
    Divorce and Freedom of the Press
    Despite the reception of Milton’s Areopagitica by contemporary readers as a defense of freedom of the press, the original pamphlet was in fact the result of the response to his controversial and unlicensed Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce the previous year. This work and others of the hundreds of political and religious books and pamphlets produced in the mid-1600s were condemned as illicit and unlicensed by The Stationers Company, and debate raged about how much control the government should have over printing. Milton’s eloquent tract was initially incidental in its contribution to the controversy, but offers insights into the rights of a book itself, independent of the intention of its author, which have been recalled many times since whenever freedom of speech or the press is threatened.