Free Speech Upon the Rock Above the City: on John Milton’s Areopagitica, & my translation attempt

“Yet if all cannot be of one mind – as who looks they should be? – this doubtless is more wholesome, more prudent, and more Christian, that many be tolerated, rather than all compelled.”

– John Milton

Written as if transcribed post-deliverance in person through passionate speech, but in reality only ever a pamphlet to be read, John Milton’s 1644 call for the reversal of a licensing order and the resulting censoring of the written word when it was threatened by a recent parliamentary passing is a crucial piece of reading regarding the defence of the freedom of speech, of expression, and the freedom of the press.

The title – Areopagitica – comes from Areopagus, a large rock outcropping just outside of Athens, Greece. Milton used this because, in ancient times, the outcropping had been used as the seat for councils and tribunals; had been used for open and free debate.

After addressing those that might undo the Licensing Order of 1643, which required any author to have a governmentally approved license before their work could be published, Milton becomes Herodotus to take us through Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome, and on to Christian Rome and to the very time he was writing in, giving an historical demonstration of the lack of resort to censorship by so many, and the notable exception of one, a group fully behind the banning of speech and writing that they did not like: the Spanish Inquisition of the Roman Catholic Church, decried by Milton as “the most anti-Christian council and the most tyrannous inquisition that ever inquired.”

After highlighting history, he shows how the most wise and learned exposed themselves to all thought and argument, and that true virtue must come from facing and understanding, wholly, the temptation and content of vice, and making a choice. He shows that such a sweeping order would result in the Bible being banned, and that books and ideas considered infectious would infect nonetheless. And he shows that licensing will only hinder discovery of truth, and lead to harmful, lethargic conformity.

It was a piece needed for then and it is a piece needed for now. When one sees, amidst or from afar, the increasingly regular and violent spasms of online censoring that result from a mob mentality, from panicked yet ostensibly good intentions, from mere business savvy, from apathy, from social blackmail and bullying trailed by totalitarian shadow, from all these, from combinations of, and from much, much more, one feels as Milton so clearly felt.

You can read the piece here. However, if it is too much of a challenge and a difficulty, due to the old style of grammar, the long and compound sentences, and the outdated references and analogies, then read on here…

Translating English to English

*Update: the project discussed below is finished, see here*

When I opened up the copy I bought and began the first sentence of the first paragraph, I finally felt a significant measure of that which many may feel when attempting to read a good deal of the sentences and paragraphs, or entire essays, that I write. I got lost somewhere along the far side of one of the numerous commas within only the first few lines of just one sentence, and the combination of super-compound sentences (two comprised the opening paragraph of 13 lines) and olden-English resulted in me needing to read that opening paragraph three or four times to fully get it.

To me it reads clearly now, having read the whole piece and begun translating it, one paragraph at a time, into what I deem to be a more widely accessible English that yet strives to keeps Milton’s style where- and when- ever possible. To some it may merely take but one read with half-concentration, while to others it may remain an inaccessible mystery still after the fourth run through. Either way and all inbetween, here it is:

“They, who to states and governors of the Commonwealth direct their speech, High Court of Parliament, or, wanting such access in a private condition, write that which they foresee may advance the public good; I suppose them, as at the beginning of no mean endeavour, not a little altered and moved inwardly in their minds: some with doubt of what will be the success, others with fear of what will be the censure; some with hope, others with confidence of what they have to speak. And me perhaps each of these dispositions, as the subject was whereon I entered, may have at other times variously affected; and likely might in these foremost expressions now also disclose which of them swayed most, but that the very attempt of this address thus made, and the thought of whom it hath recourse to, hath got the power within me to a passion, far more welcome than incidental to a preface.” (Milton, 1644)

And so it goes. In an attempt to keep his point, his style, but make it more accessible and less likely to cause the reader to close, with quiet calm or frustrated rage, the page and never go any further, alienated from a text so brilliant and now, as ever, so needed, I turned the above paragraph into this:

“Consider, High Court of Parliament, those who take it upon themselves to speak to governors and to states, or those who wish for privacy and thus write, instead, whatever they can which they believe will advance the public good. I believe these people must be significantly altered and moved within their minds, for them to begin such an extraordinary task. Some beset by fear of failure, and others by fear of potential backlash and reaction. Some moved with hope, and others with confidence in what they have to write or say. And as I approached this subject, perhaps I was beset and moved by each of these at various times. I could begin by describing which of them influenced me the most, but simply the act of beginning my address, and thinking of this subject and of its intended audience, has filled me with my passion for it – a passion very welcome to this preface.” (Altoft, 2017)

Given the effort it required of me to traverse the first few paragraphs and get into the rhythm, the style, and the speech proper, every time that I was struck by the relevance, brilliance, and timelessness of Milton’s points and arguments – and that was more than once on each and every page – I also thought how terrible it was that this was not widely known and read, and how much worse it was that if one were somehow drawn to and made aware of the Areopagitica and picked it up, then the challenge of the language would reduce so vastly the chances of that person sticking with it and getting through the entire speech, absorbing its arguments and analogies, and then applying to our current strife.

I found many a commentary and study guide, and many an annotated text, but I could not find anywhere a simplified version, which I have seen done to Milton’s Paradise Lost, in the manner of those Shakespeare study websites that set the original text against a helpful, but usually cringe-worthy, modern language version. This added to the above stated frustration and concern that this piece was not being read, not being discussed, not being experienced.

Here is one more example. First, a paragraph of Milton:

“I deny not, 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 potency 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. ‘Tis 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.” (Milton, 1644)

And now me:

“I do not deny that there should be great concern in society for keeping a watchful eye on how books, just as with people, present themselves, followed up by appropriate justice and appropriate blame applied to them as culprits. For books are not absolutely dead things. They have life and soul in them to make them as active as their authors, and they perfectly preserve the minds of their creators. I know that they may act just as those fabled dragon’s teeth: teeth that, when scattered across the ground, rapidly sprouted armed men. And yet, because of this, without caution the destruction of a good book is little different to killing a man. One who kills a person kills a creature with the capacity for reason – destroys God’s reflected image. But one who kills a book kills reason itself – destroys the very image of God, as it is held in the mind.  A good book transcends the earth-bound human being, and must be secured as a treasure with a greater purpose. It is true that no amount of time can restore a life: perhaps this is not, ultimately, a great loss. It is also true that generations over the course of history rarely manage to recover a lost and rejected truth: in the face of this kind of loss, whole nations are hurt and hindered.” (Altoft, 2017)

My aim is to translate the piece in such a way that the resulting translation seems as if Milton himself had reluctantly agreed to simplify his original, refusing to give up his style, turns of phrase, and lengthy sentences entirely, but accepting the task of making it more accessible to more people. However, I wish it to still be a challenge to many, still there to push the boundaries of the reader’s comprehension and ability, yet giving them enough relief that they refrain from abandoning the attempt altogether.

I am going paragraph by paragraph and using some online resources that explain the references he makes that I do not understand, and, though I am spending as much time on it as it needs to ensure it is true to Milton and that the fundamental points and arguments are not being reshaped by me – a priority over having it done anytime soon – I hope to have it done, at least to first draft, by January 2018.

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