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Seventeenth Century

Eighteenth Century



Saif Patel
C35 Milton
Prof. Cirillo
April 21, '97

The Slaying of Immortality:
Freedom of Expression and Triumph of Virtue
in Milton's Comus and "Areopagitica"

        The martyred author of Utopia, Sir Thomas More—executed for treason against the king—is credited with the final words, "If I must live in a world in which I cannot act within my conscience, I do not wish to live!" Generations later, the fiery patriotism and explicit candor of Patrick Henry led him to utter the renowned "Give me Liberty or give me death!" Along the same lines of these two men, John Milton's "Areopagitica" argues that the essence of life is freedom to choose how one lives it. In another of Milton's works, the masque play Comus, the Elder Brother's statements concerning virtue establish some of the foundations for his argument in the work he wrote "in order to deliver the press from the restraints with which it was encumbered" (716).
        The root of Milton's assertions lies in his complete hope in the prevailing of virtue. In these two works, confidence in virtue and in the ability of good men to practice it is crucial. The first part of the Elder Brother's statement is, in fact, a comment on confidence, in response to his brother's question concerning the unfavorable odds stacked against the Lady, their sister. He says, "Yes, and keep [confidence] still,/ Lean on it safely . . . against the threats/ Of malice or of sorcery, or that power/ Which erring men call Chance" (584-588). The Elder Brother's remarks show that he believes in the triumph of the Spirit against all odds, including the Fates and Fortune. As he states, "this I hold firm;/ Virtue may be assail'd but never hurt,/ Surpris'd by unjust force but not enthrall'd," because it is founded upon the "will and arm of Heav'n" (588-600). Milton's argument in the "Areopagitica" holds true to these ideas also, that we must have confidence in virtue and its ability to triumph over all trials and temptations because—if it is truly of God—it will stand predominant over all evils. In outlining his argument, Milton reminds his audience over and over of the duty they have to trust in the virtue of their fellow men; just as God allowed Adam to have the choice to err, so must the state give men the right to choose, to try their own ideas of virtue.
        The Spirit describes:

great Comus . . . whose pleasing poison
The visage quite transforms of him that drinks,
And . . . night by night
He and his monstrous rout are heard to howl
Like stabl'd wolves, or tigers at their prey,
Doing abhorred rites to Hecate
In their obscured haunts of inmost bow'rs.
Yet have they many baits and guileful spells
To inveigle and invite th'unwary sense
Of them that pass unweeting by the way (Comus 522-539).

But yet, the Elder Brother has strong conviction that his sister is not among the "unweeting," just as Milton argues himself in the "Areopagitica," that it is improper to "be so jealous over [the common people] as that we dare not trust them with an English pamphlet," further commenting, "that this is care or love of them, we cannot pretend" (737). Rather than limit the experiences of a people to give the appearance of goodness, Milton gives greater regard to that which is developed, tried, and finally victorious over the temptations of life. In order for this to occur with men's ideas, just as with the trials of the world, however, there must be freedom in the licensing of publication without censorship, based on a trust of the people: "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 . . . [for] that which purifies us is trial" (728).
        In advancing his argument fully, Milton uses many rhetorical and allegorical devices, one of which is his equating the existence of a literary work to that of the life of a man:

For books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a
potency of life in them to be active as that soul was whose
progeny they are; nay, they do preserve as in a vial . . . that
living intellect that bred them . . . [and] unless wariness be
used, as good almost kill a man as kill a good book . . . who
destroys a good book, kills reason itself, kills the image of
God . . . slays an immortality (720).

Because books are the manifestation of intellect and ideas, Milton avers, Parliament does not have the right to take the opportunity of reading them away from the public. Even with literature which may not be considered "appropriate," Milton expresses the notion that it must be allowed to exist, to rescue men's false ideas of virtue from the cloisters of their closed and inexperienced minds, and allow these works to be "freely admitted into the world as any other birth" without the "envious Juno" blocking "the issue of the brain . . . [like] the issue of the womb" (725).
        Further, Milton establishes the history of righteous men as learned men, versed in all knowledge, "skilful in all the learning . . . which could not [possibly] be without reading . . . books of all sorts" (726). He goes on to say that the preservation of one's virtue necessitates knowledge of all kinds, like "Dionysius Alexandrinus . . . avail[ed] himself much against heretics by being conversant in their books," and whose doubt of the propriety of such was cleared with a personal revelation from God: "'Read any books whatever come to thy hands, for thou art sufficient both to judge aright and to examine each matter'" (727). The challenge and experience of life itself, for Milton, lies in this examination of all possibilities, including the trials of a Comus or of a heretical writer, for God himself does not keep man "under a perpetual childhood . . . but trusts him with the gift of reason . . . [for] there were but little work left for preaching, if law and compulsion should grow so fast" (727).
        Adam, Milton writes, "fell into [the doom] of knowing good and evil, that is to say, of knowing good by evil" for "what wisdom can there be to choose . . . without the knowledge of evil?" (728) It is "he that can apprehend and consider vice with all the baits and seeming pleasures, and yet abstain, and yet distinguish, and yet prefer that which is truly better, he is the true warfaring/wayfaring Christian" (728). Milton believes that his fellow men, like the Lady of Comus, can reflect the image in Spenser's allusion to the Aristotelian allegory of the Knight of Temperance in the Cave of Mammon, and must therefore be allowed to prove that they can "see and know, and yet abstain" (729). Without freedom and trial, there can be no reason or virtue. Milton expresses the idea of the virtue of temperance implicitly by referring to Aristotle, as explained in a note on the Greek philosopher's Nicomachean Ethics: "discourses on ethics have no effect on ordinary mankind and can inspire virtue only in men of generous temperament" (note 124, 730). Similarly, Milton posits that "knowledge cannot defile, nor consequently the books, if the will and conscience be not defiled"—well aware, of course, of his own conceptions of will and conscience as complementary elements of reason/virtue. (727) Thus, he explains pre-lapsarian Genesis, in which "God left [Adam] free," asking rhetorically, "Wherefore did he create passions within us, pleasures round about us, but that these rightly tempered are the very ingredients of virtue?" (733).
        Not only does Milton feel that virtue can stand up to trials, like the Elder Brother, but also, he feels that temptation is a necessary element of true virtue. This is why he believes

that this order of licensing conduces nothing to the end for
which it was framed . . . [for] Truth . . . when she gets a free
and willing hand, opens herself faster than the pace of
method and discourse can overtake her. . . . This Order will
miss the end it seeks . . . being first the greatest discourage-
ment and affront that can be offered to learning and to
learned men . . . the greatest displeasure and indignity to a
free and knowing spirit that can be (731, 734-735).

For Milton, this "distrust [in] the judgment and the honesty" of men is insulting, and contrary to natural principles, for "how much we thus expel of sin, so much we expel of virtue," affecting "a rigor contrary to the manner of God and of nature, by abridging or scanting those means" of freedom, annihilating both "the trial of virtue and the exercise of truth" (735, 733). Milton explains that "he who is not trusted with his own actions . . . has no great argument to think himself reputed"; also, "when a man writes to the world, he summons up all his reason and deliberation to assist him"; thus, infringing the right of the writer and the reader, the philosopher and the public, "cannot be but a dishonor and derogation to the author, to the book, [and] to the privilege and dignity of learning" (735). The state, Milton says—quoting the printer—"shall be my governors, but not my critics," because

if we be sure we are in the right, and do not hold the truth
guiltily . . . what can be more fair than when a man judicious,
learned, and of a conscience . . . publish to the world what
his opinion is, what his reasons, and wherefore that which is
now thought cannot be sound? . . . Christ urged it. . . . [This
Order] little differ[s] from that policy wherewith the Turk
upholds his Alcoran by the prohibition of printing (736, 741).

        In defiance of intellectual suppression, with complete trust and confidence in the freedom of expression and the triumph of virtue, Milton argues that "this Order" by parliament "is not the liberty which we can hope [for] . . . but when complaints are freely heard, deeply considered, and speedily reformed, then is the utmost bound of civil liberty attained that wise men look for" (718). "If every action which is good or evil in man," he writes, "were to be under pittance and prescription and compulsion, what were virtue but a name?" (733). Like the Elder Brother's speech in Comus, Milton's words in the "Areopagitica" hold that true virtue lies in temperance, and can be confidently trusted to stand fast in the face of base desires and evil. His words are a strong prelude to such as Voltaire, attributed with the saying, "I may not agree with what you have to say, but I will fight to the death for your right to say it!"

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Essay copyright ©1997 Saif Patel. Published by express written permission of the author.
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