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MILTON PUBLISHES HIS “SPEECH FOR THE LIBERTY OF UNLICENSED
PRINTING" - ANALYSIS OF THE WORK-NOBLE PASSAGES OCCUR-
THE intolerance of the presbyterians, armed with the powers of a parliamentary majority, was now mimicking the most despotic acts of the prelacy: they attempted the forcible suppression of all opinions, political and religious, but their own, and even essayed the impossible task of damming up the great channel of mental communication by holding the press in control. Milton's enlightened mind was not slow to perceive that this course involved a fatuity analogous to that of the Eastern despot who lashed the waves, and threw fetters into the rebellious ocean. He further saw that the sufferings which this penal system inflicted on individuals were not to be compared with the evils of intellectual stagnation, political decay, and moral death which it shed on nations. To these sentiments we owe the masterpiece of Milton,—the “Address to the Parliament in favour of the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing," of which, in accordance with the plan of this volume, an analysis is now to be presented.
He commences with a stately eulogy upon the Parliament; he addresses himself to the recent order for the
regulation of printing: “That no book, pamphlet, or paper shall be henceforth printed, unless the same be first approved and licensed by such, or at least one of such, as shall be thereto appointed.” He proposes first to show them, that this originated from a party with whom they would not willingly be identified; secondly, that it would be powerless for the suppression of scandalous, seditious, and libellous books; and lastly that it would operate for the discouragement of all learning, and the effectual obstruction of national progress in every department of knowledge both secular and sacred. But while advocating the liberty of the press, Milton wisely guarded himself from approving an unseemly and dangerous license. “I deny not,” he says, “but that it is of greatest concernment in the church and commonwealth, to have a vigilant eye how books demean themselves as well as men; and thereafter to confine, imprison, and do sharpest justice on them as malefactors; for books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a progeny of life in them to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are; nay, they do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred, them. I know they are as lively, and as vigorously productive, as those fabulous dragon's teeth; and being sown up and down, may chance to spring up armed men. And yet, on the other hand, unless wariness be used, as good almost kill a man as kill a good book: who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God's image; but he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself, kills the image of God, as it were, in the eye. Many a man lives a burden to the earth; but a good book is the precious life-blood of a master-spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life. It is true, no age can restore a life, whereof, perhaps, there is no great loss; and revolutions of ages do not oft recover the loss of a rejected truth, for the want of which whole nations fare the worse. We should be wary,
therefore, what persecutions we raise against the living labours of public men, how we spill that seasoned life of man, preserved and stored up in books; since we see a kind of homicide may be thus committed, sometimes a martyrdom; and if it extend to the whole impression, a kind of massacre, whereof the execution ends not in the slaying of an elemental life, but strikes at the ethereal and fifth essence, the breath of reason itself; and slays an immortality rather than a life."*
Milton next presents an historical sketch of the restrictions which from the earliest ages of literature had been laid upon books. He shows that in Athens, these were confined to writings of a blasphemous or libellous character; that in Sparta no such control was exercised ; that in ancient Rome an almost entire freedom was allowed during the commonwealth. He states, however, that libels were burnt, and the makers punished by Augustus, and adds, “ The like severity, no doubt, was used, if aught were impiously written against their esteemed gods. Except in these two points, how the world went in books, the magistrate kept no reckoning." +
* Prose Works, vol. ii., p. 55.
+ Milton would appear in this instance to have forgotten the sappression of the licentious chorus in the Greek Drama thus mentioned by Horace:
"Successit vetus his Comedia, non sine multa
Epist. ad Pis. ver. 281–284. The testimony of Tacitus also, widely differs from Milton's statement touching the restraints on the expression of opinion, whether oral or written, during the earlier period of the Roman empire. In his exquisite biography of Agricola, he says :-"Legimus, cum Aruleno Rustico Paetus Thrasea, Herennio Senecioni Priscus Helvidius laudati essent, capitale fuisse : neque in ipsos modo auctores, sed in libros quoque eorum saevitum, delegato triumviris ministerio, ut monumenta clarissimorum ingeniorum in comitio ac foro urerentur. Scilicet illo igne vocem Populi Romani et libertatem Senatûs et
He next shows that the restrictions under the Christian emperors were no more severe, and indeed that the fetters reforged by the parliamentary ordinance were not imposed upon the intellect and conscience of men, until after the year 800. “ After which time,” he says, “ the popes of Rome, engrossing what they pleased of political rule into their own hands, extended their dominion over men's eyes, as they had before over their judgments, burning and prohibiting to be read what they fancied not; yet sparing in their censures, and the books not many which they so dealt with ; till Martin the Fifth, by his bull, not only prohibited, but was the first that excommunicated, the reading of heretical books; for about that time Wickliffe and Husse growing terrible, were they who first drove the papal court to a stricter policy of prohibiting. Which course Leo the Tenth and his successors followed, until the council of Trent and the Spanish inquisition, engendering together, brought forth or perfected those catalogues and expurging indexes, that rake through the entrails of many an old good author, with a violation worse than any could be offered to his tomb."*
After another humorous description of the system of licensing under the popes, he continues, “And thus ye have the inventors and the original of book licensing ripped up and drawn as lineally as any pedigree. We have it not, that can be heard of, from any ancient state, or polity, or church, nor by any statute left us by our ancestors elder or later; nor from the modern custom of any reformed city or
conscientiam generis humani aboleri arbitrabantur, expulsis insuper sapientiæ professoribus atque omni bonâ arte in exilium actâ, ne quid usquam honestum occurreret. Dedimus profecto grande patientiæ documentum : et sicut vetus aetas vidit quid ultimum in libertate esset, ita nos quid in servitute, adempto per inquisitiones et loquendi audiendique commercio. Memoriam quoque ipsam cum voce perdidissemus, si tam in nostra potestate esset oblivisci quam tacere."
Vita J. Agric. cap. 3. * Prose Works, vol. ii., p. 60.
church abroad; but from the most antichristian council, and the most tyrannous inquisition that ever inquired. Till then 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 : no envious Juno sat cross-legged over the nativity of any man's intellectual offspring; but if it proved a monster, who denies but that it was justly burnt, or sunk into the sea P But that a book, in worse condition than a peccant soul, should be to stand before a jury ere it be born to the world, and undergo yet in darkness the judgment of Radamanth and his colleagues, ere it can pass the ferry backward into light, was never heard before, till that mysterious iniquity, provoked and troubled at the first entrance of reformation, sought out new limboes and new hells wherein they might include our books also within the number of their damned.” He now proceeds to show, by instances, the innocuous and even beneficial effects resulting from the study of human error, and refers to the heathen learning of Moses, Daniel, and Paul, and the high ends it was made to subserve; and thence portrays the advantage derivable to the discipline and hardy training of virtue from occasional exposure to the temptation of intellectual error. “As, therefore,” he says, “the state of man now is; what wisdom can there be to choose, what continence to forbear, without the knowledge of evil? He that can apprehend and consider vice with all her baits and seeming pleasures, and yet abstain, and yet distinguish, and yet prefer that which is truly better, he is the true warfaring Christian. I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and seeks her adversary, but slinks out of the race, where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat. Assuredly we bring not innocence into the world, we bring impurity much rather; that which purifies us is trial, and
* Prose Works, vol. ii., p. 62.