When I first glanced at the second reading list, I was excited to see Milton's name because of my love for Paradise Lost. Little did I know that Areopagitica is not a poem, but a political speech about the freedom of press. I'll admit I was a little disappointed when I learned this, but after reading Areopagitica I found myself very much in sympathy with Milton's views on censorship and I was also pleased to see that, while nowhere near as beautiful as his poetry, Milton's nonfiction prose wasn't without its eloquence.
Milton's speech was written against the Licensing Order of 1643, an order that would demand government approval of published works.
Milton's speech can be divided into four parts. In the first part Milton states that, although ancient Greek and Roman authors were persecuted for their works, it was only after their works had been "examined, refuted, and condemned" (not behind closed doors, but publicly), not before. During the Catholic Inquisition on the other hand, works were condemned before they were produced and distributed.
In the second part, Milton explains the importance of reading widely, even reading books considered heretical. Milton draws on the Biblical examples of Moses learning the wisdom of the Egyptians, Daniel's education in Babylonian thought, and Paul's familiarity with Greek religion and literature (including tragedies, the plays that Augustine condemned!). Milton believes that by reading viewpoints we disagree with we can know better why we disagree with them (and I would add whether we really do disagree with them) and he has faith in human reason, conscience, and free will to discern right from wrong. A good person will make good use of nearly any book and a bad person will make bad use of almost any book. This is the part of the speech where I wanted to leap up and yell, "Yes!". This idea of liberal education is an area where I often feel at odds with many of my fellow Christians.
In the third part, Milton discusses the futility of the order. The Bible itself is full of blasphemy, immoral acts, people doubting God etc. It has long struck me as amusing that some Christians react with such horror to things like violence and overt sexuality in media, while their own holy book has plenty of it. Milton also says that the censorship of books will not stop ideas from growing mentally and spreading verbally.
In the fourth part, Milton talks about the bad effect the order will have on society. Good intentioned authors will be censored by a volatile and arbitrary court (e.g. "Who watches the Watchmen?"). Also, without being exposed to foreign or novel ideas, the intellect of the nation will grow lazy and stagnant.
Areopagitica was one of the few Great Books that I agreed with 100%. Long live books and liberal education!