Milton’s Areopagitica and the Christian Gamer

Nearly all of us are familiar with Milton’s Paradise Lost, having voluntarily read it–or, more likely, having been forced to read it in school at some point or other. But John Milton wrote far more than that, and while there is a special place in my heart for Paradise Lost, my favorite of his works is undoubtedly his Areopagitica. If you want to read the full text, you can find it here. I’ll endeavor to summarize the text in this post to spare you (mostly) the irregularities of spelling and unwieldy grammars of times long gone.

Areopagitica was written in 1644 (at the height of the English Civil War) against censorship, particularly the prepublication censorship of England’s Licensing Order of 1643, which required texts to be reviewed and licensed before they could be published. The censors were aggressive, and the punishments were severe. Keep in mind that this was a time when harsh physical punishments: time in the pillory, floggings, brandings, ear-clippings, and more were more common than imprisonment. For a more complete background on Areopagitica (as far as information on Wikipedia is “complete”), go here.

Those of you who have read Milton widely or who are familiar with his life and biography know that he was in many ways a radical–he was a Reformed Puritan and, at the vary least, probably not much fun at parties. He vehemently hated Catholicism. Scholars have sifted through his works and life to make arguments that he may have adopted some unorthodox religious views and interpretations. All of this is to say that my endorsement of (some of the ideas of) Areopagitica is not an endorsement of the man himself or the totality of his ideas. While I, personally, find aspects of both Calvinist and Catholic theology unworkable and potentially harmful, I have no ill will toward those who practice those versions of the Christian faith and do not (at least no longer) have the arrogance to presume that I have the truth of all things. Most important, this article is not about Milton in general or large-scale theological beliefs, so we can leave all of these issues for some other time.

We live in a time where there is much in Areopagitica that we ought consider. In America, we have extremists using all means possible to ban books in schools, often for reasons they’ve constructed themselves instead of based on reality. Elon Musk claims to be an absolutist when it comes to free speech, and then uses his ownership of Twitter to silence those he doesn’t like. Both of these are elements of a larger debate in American culture about the scope of and limits that might be placed on speech in a free society.

As an aside, since this gets bandied about so much: the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects individuals from infringement of free speech of citizens by the government. It does not apply to corporations or private individuals who do not want certain speech to occur in the forums over which they have control. There is a difference–a broad difference, between the right to say what you want and entitlement to be heard. Too many loud voices are currently conflating these things. A person should be protected from criminal punishment for uttering hate speech (provided that, as the law considers, it is not made with the intent to instigate criminal activity), but that person should also be ridiculed by society at large and not given a forum to spread groundless, harmful, and blatantly wrong ideas. Despite this mini-diatribe, this is not the point of this post, either. I hope you’ll allow a little authorial (in)discretion in this tangent.

I lured you here under the pretext that Areopagitica has something to offer Christian gamers; it is my intent to make good on that promise. To do that, we’re going to look at arguments–mostly religious based–about censorship in Areopagitica and see where it gets us.

Milton begins by reasoning that books are like those “fabulous Dragons teeth” of Greek legend that spring up warriors when planted–books can spur dangerous ideas and actions. I can’t disagree with this; I can think of many books that have spread harmful ideas to the detriment of humanity. But with this concession to the censors, he begins to deconstruct the reasons for the Licensing Order.

He urges caution in the censorship or destruction of books, saying:

…as good almost kill a Man as kill a good Book; who kills a Man kills a reasonable creature, Gods image; but hee who destroyes a good Booke, kills reason it selfe, kills the Image of God, as it were in the eye. Many a man lives a burden to the Earth, but a good Booke is pretious life-blood of a master spirit, imbalm’d and treasur’d up on purpose to a life beyond life.

For Milton (and I think he’s right), ideas are eternal; if we believe that we are creatures destined for an eternal life beyond this one, then ideas and knowledge are the only things we can take with us, and they ought to be treated as having that kind of value. For Milton, this militates for caution in deciding that a “Booke” is not “good.”

Some of Milton’s earliest arguments in the text are his best, and the ones which concern us (or me, at least) most. He writes:

…Read any books what ever come to thy hands, for thou art sufficient both to judge aright, and to examine each matter….Prove all things, hold fast that which is good….To the pure, all things are pure, not only meats and drinks, but all kinde of knowledge whether of good or evill; the knowledge cannot defile, nor consequently the books, if the will and conscience be not defil’d. For books are as meats and viands are; some of good, some of evill substance, and yet God in that unaprocryphall vision, said without exeception Rise Peter, kill and eat, leaving the choice to each mans discretion. Wholesome meats to a vitiated stomack differ little or nothing from unwholesome; and best books to a naughty mind are not unappliable to occasions of evill. Bad meats will scarce breed good nourishment in the healthiest concoction; but herein the difference is of bad books, that they to a discreet and judicious Reader serve in many respects to discover, to confute, to forwarn and to illustrate.

To put it plainly, the person strong in spirit is not corrupted by mere exposure. Quite the opposite; the exposure to different ideas allows one to test their beliefs and confirm what is and is not good, growing in understanding (and, I’d argue, compassion, which seems to me to necessarily accompany understanding).

Milton says further:

They are not skilfull considerers of human things, who imagin to remove sin by removing the matter of sin; for, besides that it is a huge heap increasing under the very act of diminishing, though some part of it may for a time be withdrawn from some persons, it cannot from all, in such a universall thing as books are; and when this is done, yet the sin remains entire.

From there, Milton reminds us that few arguments, texts or broad ideas are entirely good. It is a consequence of the limitations of human intellect that even our best ideas are often muddled with those that are mediocre, indifferent, or outright bad. He asserts that, were we to try to rid ourselves of all the bad by some means other than knowing good and evil and separating the good things from the bad things as they come, we’d have to do away with (or at least require licensing for) all good pleasures: music, art, dance, fraternization between men and women. For me, Areopagitica itself is an excellent example of this precept; I love it for the excellent points it makes, despite the points with which I disagree (such as Milton’s unreserved bigotry).

The next point is especially poignant. To summarize, Milton reminds us that the Bible itself is full of “untoward” stories: stories of violence and greed and corruption. And yet, when these kinds of stories are in Scripture, we view them as instructional, not corrupting. Why can that not be the case in other works?

Next, Milton flexes his classical muscles and looks to historic censorship in Greek and Roman culture for examples of what ought be banned. He settles on two major themes: atheism (represented by the books of Protagoras, Plato’s archetypal sophist, who wrote in ambivalence about the existence of the divine and in favor of the belief that all truth is relative) and libel (represented by Ben Jonson’s satirical Vetus Comoedia. He specifically mentions that neither Epicurus nor the school of Cynicism were censored in ancient Greece. For reference, Epicurus was a materialist who advocated for the pursuit of (moderated) pleasure free from fear and anxiety as the proper goal of life, while Cynicism advocated for “living naturally,” that is, in accordance with one’s nature–and rejecting common desires for wealth and power, as the desirable method of living. Milton seems to treat both as examples of “libertine” works that ought still be allowed. He continues with his historical review, but the argument flows from the above, so we’ll move along.

After this, Milton examines the role of the church (after the conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity) in censorship. He notes that books (of heretics) were not forbidden or burnt until they had been “examin’d” and “refuted” by church councils. This flows with Milton’s overarching argument: remember, he is not writing against the banning of books per se, but against the Licensing Order that created a system of pre-publication censorship. Milton is perfectly fine with books being burnt and banned if they are determined to be “blasphemous” and without redeeming quality; his caveat is that they should be subject to publication and public review of their ideas before the determination of banning is made. In this sense, of course, Milton’s advocacy against censorship does not go as far as would many today (myself included) or who would follow him historically.

He notes that the church councils mostly determined what books were “not commendable” but left the determination as to whether to read those books to the individual. And now his hatred of the Catholic Church rears its ugly head and he blames the pope and the church councils of the 16th century (the Counter-Reformation Council of Trent in particular) for going too far in efforts to censor. He laments in particular the Index Librorum Prohibitorum. In subsequent parts of the text, Milton argues that the Catholic Church’s prohibition of books (through the requirement of an imprimatur certifying that books were allowed by the Church) derived from a desire to generate revenue rather than any desire to direct the goodness of humanity.

Here, the argument turns toward the inadvisability of having a small group of licensers determine what is and is not fit to print–and this is the crux of Milton’s point. He haughtily reminds us (perhaps speaking of himself) that the licenser may be too stupid to understand the content of the writing and may censor it unjustly. He asserts that the whim (or personal leanings) of a single reviewer may cause a book to be banned when it should not be. In one of the key sentences of the text, Milton writes, “Truth and understanding are not such wares as to be monopoliz’d and traded in by tickets and statutes, and standards.”

After comparing England’s situation to those of other nations, Milton turns his argument to the ineffectiveness of censorship, writing that it, “…stops but one breach of license, nor that neither; whenas those corruptions which it seeks to prevent, break in faster at other dores which cannot be shut,” and following with the statement that, “The punishing of wits enhaunces their authority, saith the Vicount of St. Albans, and a forbidd’n writing is thought to be a certain spark of truth that flies up in the faces of them who seeke to tread it out.”

In other words, as my constitutional law professor liked to say, “sometimes more speech is better than less speech.” Sometimes speech needs to be dragged out into the light and ridiculed for its stupidity rather than forbidden if we want to take away its power. For a tangible example, investigate the background of the “Clan of the Fiery Cross” run of the 1940’s radio program Adventures of Superman, which exposed (and made fun of) the Ku Klux Klan, permanently damaging its reputation and reducing its membership.

In true Protestant fashion, Milton then argues that religion is a personal and continuing endeavor, a responsibility that may not be given away to another without consequence. He writes:

Truth is compar’d in Scripture to a streaming fountain; if her waters flow not in a perpetuall progression, they sick’n into a muddy pool of conformity and tradition. A man may be a heretick in the truth; and if he beleeve things only because his Pastor sayes so, or the Assembly so determins, without knowing other reason, becomes his heresie.

Maybe he goes too far in the supposed consequences of not heeding his warning, but I do think he’s correct that Christians have some responsibility, to the extent that they are able, to make their own determinations of what is and is not acceptable in the light of their faith. Milton follows the spiritual warning with a more practical one–the withholding of knowledge from the people can be a factor in dulling their overall inquisitiveness and intellect, and this should not be allowed.

After this, Milton returns to his previous thought, arguing that it is better to put ideas–especially religious ones–in the open where they may be fairly tested rather than spreading them by whispers. He then waxes polemic again to compare the Licensure Act to attempts by the Catholic Church to stamp out the Reformation; we’ll glide by these allegations and leave them to history.

In the following paragraph, Milton fulfills that obligation of all learned men of the 17th century: use of ancient myths and cultures to demonstrate one’s learnedness. He likens the Christian Truth to Osiris’ destroyed and scattered body, arguing that the truth shall not be fully known until the Second Coming, but that we nevertheless have the task of seeking out and reassembling all the truth that we can. Given the debate that persisted from at least the Renaissance as to whether it was proper for Christians to study pagan thought, Milton can only be drawing this comparison purposefully; by using pagan myth to illustrate his own argument, he thereby demonstrates the value of non-Christian thought, culture, history and myth to the Christian. He blames the religious who forbid non-Christian texts and ideas simply because they are not Christian as doing a disservice to all, writing:

They are the troublers, they are the dividers of unity, who neglect and permit not others to unite those dissever’d peeces which are yet wanting to the body of Truth….A little generous prudence, a little forbearance of one another, and som grain of charity might win all these diligences to joyn, and unite into one generall and brotherly search after Truth; could we but forgoe this Prelaticall tradition of crowding consciences and Christian liberties into canons and precepts of men.

In other words, as he said at the beginning of the tract, we need to continuously confront ideas that differ from our own to test the rightness of our beliefs.

Perhaps my favorite sentence of the whole work is: “How many other things might be tolerated in peace, and left to conscience, had we but charity, and were it not the chief strong hold of our hypocrisie to be ever judging one another.” These words remain as true today (in my own experience in the split within the United Methodist Church) as they were when Milton wrote them.

Milton concludes by returning to the his argument citing Acts 10 (“Kill, and eat.”) that God has given us freedom and knowledge to determine what is good and what is not, and that no good can come from the prepublication censorship of books.

Great. Well, what does all of this have to do with Christian gamers?

As it turns, out, one of the most popular posts on my blog, one that is read by someone almost daily, is my post on Christianity and Warhammer 40k. There seem to be a large number of Christians who are gamers who yet feel some guilt about playing in fantasy worlds, like the act of doing so is itself somehow blasphemous. To my mind, Areopagitica’s arguments address this directly. In summation:

  • Playing in fantasy worlds will not corrupt you in and of itself. That you are worried about such a thing should be taken as evidence that you know how to discern between what is real and what is not, and between what is good and what is not. Games allow us to safely explore alternate realities, cosmologies, situations and experiences. This is both fun and edifying. Gaming doesn’t threaten your faith; it strengthens it by exposing you to new and different ideas that you can then examine in light of your beliefs and convictions.
  • You should not rely solely on someone else telling you what is and is not acceptable in light of your faith. As a Weslayan, I’m a firm believer that spiritual questions ought be answered by resorting to Scripture, Reason, Tradition and Experience (Albert Outler’s Weslayan Quadrilateral). Don’t let someone tell you that Harry Potter or D&D is blasphemous simply because it isn’t overtly Christian. I’ve yet to meet someone whose exposure to either has lured them into demonaltry. On the other hand, I’ve had many discussions with Christians whose experiences in those or other created worlds have brought them increased understanding of their faith.
  • Few ideas, narratives or texts have solely good or bad ideas; you have to separate the wheat from the chaff. This is good preparation for actual living, where you’ll often have to judge between what is good and what is evil. And let me tell you, in the real world, some of those choices can be damned tough.
  • Sequestering oneself from all that may be disagreeable only results in stagnation. Exposure to the fantastic is mind-expanding in the best of ways.
  • Harmful ideas are rendered harmless by identifying, discussing, and rejecting them, not by hiding them.
  • At the end of the day, it’s your conscience, and not someone else’s, that you must confront and satisfy. Do what you think is best and have the humility to allow others to do the same.

Maybe you read through all of this and end up not agreeing with Areopagitica’s arguments or my conclusions. In such a case, I’d posit that you’ve proved the very point–the reading or experiencing of something by itself is not going to change you against your will.

I hope that this gives those of you who read it some comfort to lay some of these questions aside and to live a life that is both one of faith and one that is filled with wonder, the fantastic, and games.

Happy New Year.

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