From “Areopagitica.” Milton wrote his tract in response to the Licensing Act of 1643, which had conferred upon Parliament the power to censor books before publication. Having devoted most of his energies in the 1640s to politics and pamphleteering, he began his masterwork Paradise Lost in the late 1650s. He was blind while composing it and died at the age of sixty-five in 1674.
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 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 lifeblood 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.
We should be wary therefore what persecution we raise against the living labors 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 that ethereal and fifth essence, the breath of reason itself, slays an immortality rather than a life.