Literary Persecution

John Milton, Areopagitica:

“In Athens where Books and Wits were ever busier then in any other part of Greece, I finde but only two sorts of writings which the Magistrate car’d to take notice of; those either blasphemous and Atheisticall, or Libellous. Thus the Books of Protagoras were by the Iudges of Areopagus commanded to be burnt, and himselfe banisht the territory for a discourse begun with his confessing not to know whether there were gods, or whether not: And against defaming, it was decreed that none should be traduc’d by name, as was the manner of Vetus Comœdia, whereby we may guesse how they censur’d libelling: And this course was quick enough, as Cicero writes, to quell both the desperate wits of other Atheists, and the open way of defaming, as the event shew’d. Of other sects and opinions, though tending to voluptuousnesse, and the denying of divine providence, they tooke no heed. Therefore we do not read that either Epicurus, or that libertine school of Cyrene, or what the Cynick impudence utter’d, was ever question’d by the Laws. Neither is it recorded that the writings of those old Comedians were suppresst, though the acting of them were forbid; and that Plato commended the reading of Aristophanes, the loosest of them all, to his royall scholler Dionysius, is commonly known, and may be excus’d, if holy Chrysostome, as is reported, nightly studied so much the same Author and had the art to cleanse a scurrilous vehemence into the stile of a rousing Sermon. That other leading city of Greece, Lacedæmon, considering that Lycurgus their Law-giver was so addicted to elegant learning, as to have been the first that brought out of Ionia the scatter’d workes of Homer, and sent the poet Thales from Creet to prepare and mollifie the Spartan surlinesse with his smooth songs and odes, the better to plant among them law and civility, it is to be wonder’d how muselesse and unbookish they were, minding nought but the feats of Warre. There needed no licencing of Books among them for they dislik’d all, but their owne Laconick Apothegms, and took a slight occasion to chase Archilochus out of their City, perhaps for composing in a higher straine then their own souldierly ballats and roundels could reach to: Or if it were for his broad verses, they were not therein so cautious, but they were as dissolute in their promiscuous conversing; whence Euripides affirmes in Andromache, that their women were all unchaste. Thus much may give us light after what sort Bookes were prohibited among the Greeks. The Romans also for many ages train’d up only to a military roughnes, resembling most the Lacedæmonian guise, knew of learning little but what their twelve Tables, and the Pontifick College with their Augurs and Flamins taught them in Religion and Law, so unacquainted with other learning, that when Carneades and Critolaus, with the Stoick Diogenes comming Embassadors to Rome, tooke thereby occasion to give the City a tast of their Philosophy, they were suspected for seducers by no lesse a man then Cato the Censor, who mov’d it in the Senat to dismisse them speedily, and to banish all such Attick bablers out of Italy. But Scipio and others of the noblest Senators withstood him and his old Sabin austerity; honour’d and admir’d the men; and the Censor himself at last in his old age fell to the study of that whereof before hee was so scrupulous. And yet at the same time Nævius and Plautus the first Latine comedians had fill’d the City with all the borrow’d Scenes of Menander and Philemon. Then began to be consider’d there also what was to be don to libellous books and Authors; for Nævius was quickly cast into prison for his unbridl’d pen, and releas’d by the Tribunes upon his recantation: We read also that libels were burnt, and the makers punisht by Augustus. The like severity no doubt was us’d if ought were impiously writt’n against their esteemed gods. Except in these two points, how the world went in Books, the Magistrat kept no reckning. And therefore Lucretius without impeachment versifies his Epicurism to Memmius, and had the honour to be set forth the second time by Cicero so great a father of the Commonwealth; although himselfe disputes against that opinion in his own writings. Nor was the Satyricall sharpnesse, or naked plainnes of Lucilius, or Catullus, or Flaccus, by any order prohibited. And for matters of State, the story of Titus Livius, though it extoll’d that part which Pompey held, was not therefore suppresst by Octavius Cæsar of the other Faction. But that Naso was by him banisht in his old age, for the wanton Poems of his youth, was but a meer covert of State over some secret cause: and besides, the Books were neither banisht nor call’d in. From hence we shall meet with little else but tyranny in the Roman Empire, that we may not marvell, if not so often bad, as good Books were silenc’t. I shall therefore deem to have bin large anough in producing what among the ancients was punishable to write, save only which, all other arguments were free to treat on.”

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