Free Speech and Bad Meats The Domestic Labour of Reading in Milton’s Areopagitica

Does a healthy intellectual culture resemble a battlefield or a kitchen? Revisiting Milton’s Areopagitica, a tract often championed by today’s free speech absolutists, Katie Kadue finds a debt to the work of early modern housewives. In their labours to preserve food and transform it into wholesome cuisine, Milton saw an analogue for how the reading public might digest books — good and bad alike — into nourishing ideas.

September 27, 2023

A painting of books and manuscripts on a deskScroll through the whole page to download all images before printing.

Jan Davidsz de Heem, Still Life with Books and a Violin, 1628 — Source.

When free speech crusaders go looking for cultural authorities to bolster their arguments, John Milton is often at the top of the Google search results. Milton’s 1644 tract Areopagitica, written in response to a 1643 act authorizing prepublication censorship, was ignored by Parliament at the time but has gone on to exert an outsize influence on Western liberalism, particularly debates over whether bad ideas deserve a hearing. John Stuart Mill was a fan; Supreme Court opinions cite it; a line from it is emblazoned in gold on the wall of the New York Public Library. Milton’s text is often name-dropped in support of sweeping arguments for the freedom of speech: that in the battlefield of ideas, truth will win out; that the good will out-evolve the bad in a Darwinian struggle; that sunlight will disinfect ideas that, if left to molder in the dark soil, would spread insidiously underground.

Milton, most famous for writing an epic poem with a cosmic battle between good and evil at its heart, shares with our contemporary free speech rhetoricians a taste for the heroic: he thought that truth, in our fallen world, can only emerge through blood and tears, dust and heat. But as many scholars have pointed out, it requires some selective reading of Areopagitica — a sort of censorship, even — to make Milton into an unproblematic mouthpiece for free speech. For one thing, he had no problem with taking books off the market if they proved to be harmful post-publication, after their trial by readers.1 He also had a zero-tolerance policy when it came to “Popery”, because Catholicism “extirpats all religions and civill supremacies” and therefore “it self should be extirpat”, if other means of winning over “the weak and the misled” from Catholic clutches should fail.

A less-discussed complication to free speech absolutists’ embrace of Milton is that the images he uses to describe the struggle between good and bad ideas are much stranger than the clichés we rely on today, and that this struggle’s protagonist is not so much truth itself but a community of readers who must, working both individually and collectively, strive to restore truth’s scattered body to the unbroken form it took before humanity’s fall into sinful ignorance. The paradise of unfallen knowledge, once enjoyed in Eden only to be lost through a fatal error in judgment, needs to be regained through hard cognitive work, in ways that can sound more tedious than triumphant. Milton’s metaphors often take us not to an epic battlefield but to humble domestic workspaces.

Readers who turn to Areopagitica for fighting words might be disappointed to find that its overarching virtue is not the courage to enter into the flames of discourse but the much lamer — and tamer-sounding — virtue of temperance. “How great a vertue is temperance”, Milton exclaims, “how much of moment through the whole life of man?” Not, for most readers, his most inspired words. When it comes to reading, though, temperance is about being promiscuous instead of puritanical. It refers not to simple abstinence or restraint but rather to the active collection, from life experience as well as books, of “usefull drugs and materials wherewith to temper and compose effective and strong med’cins, which mans life cannot want.” This tempering, the mixing of diverse impressions, ideas, affects, and materials, is the recipe every Christian subject should follow, and it’s all part of God’s plan: “Wherefore did he creat passions within us, pleasures round about us, but that these rightly temper’d are the very ingredients of vertu?”

Women reading alone in half-lit roomsScroll through the whole page to download all images before printing.

Left: Pieter Janssens Elinga, Reading Woman, ca. 1650–1700. Right: Sara Svensson, Woman Reading, 1883 — Source: left, right.

Some of this metaphor’s strangeness arises from its affinity with a central activity of early modern housewives, who were tasked with mixing animal, vegetable, and mineral ingredients together to concoct home remedies in their kitchens — not the expected stomping grounds for anti-censorship warriors, then or now. The metaphor also calls to mind, blurring production and consumption, those combined ingredients’ digestion, which in early modern English shared a term with cooking: “concoction”. These ingredients may include bad books, which contain mild intoxicants; their false or harmful elements can train the reader’s immune response, like an inoculation, or work as a stimulant, prompting increased brain activity. The digestive metaphor explains why the publication of bad books should be nothing to worry about:

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 unapocryphall vision, said without exception, 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 forewarn, and to illustrate.

Preventing the publication of bad books is pointless because what matters isn’t the book, but the reader: just as someone with a weak stomach won’t be able to break down even the most healthful foods into nourishment, a bad person will get nothing out of even the best books. But here Milton’s metaphor itself breaks down, his polemical tract converted into a self-consuming digestive tract. “To the pure, all things are pure, not only meats and drinks, but all kinde of knowledge”. This implies that a strong stomach and a strong virtue alike can process any inputs that come their way, however polluted, much like, as Milton would later write in Paradise Lost, angels can alchemize coarse human food into ethereal substance. And yet, he’s forced to concede that even the healthiest constitution can’t do much with “bad meats”. (Milton’s eventual blindness was caused, he speculated, by vapors rising up from his stomach and clouding his eyes.) Still, he gamely continues, good people can do a lot with bad books, because of their capacity to convert these low-dose poisons into bioavailable material, making productive use of them “to discover, to confute, to forewarn, and to illustrate.” Books are like food, except when they’re not. The half-baked analogy is typical of Milton’s didacticism, which requires a judicious reader to exercise judgment rather than swallow a rhetorical morsel whole.

The careful selection and tempering that virtuous reading requires adds up to a lot of labor; like a woman’s work, the task of distinguishing good from evil is never done. In another famous passage, the virtue of the Christian reader is rendered as a brave (feminine) soldier confronting evil in combat, but virtue’s ordeal is equally described as the tedious and pointless sorting of wheat, barley, poppy seeds, peas, lentils, and beans into separate piles, the impracticable but rather unherculean task to which Venus puts her prospective daughter-in-law in Greco-Roman myth:

Good and evill we know in the field of this World grow up together almost inseparably; and the knowledge of good is so involv’d and interwoven with the knowledge of evill, and in so many cunning resemblances hardly to be discern’d, that those confused seeds which were impos’d on Psyche as an incessant labour to cull out, and sort asunder, were not more intermixt. It was from out the rinde of one apple tasted, that the knowledge of good and evill as two twins cleaving together leapt forth into the World. And perhaps this is that doom which Adam fell into of knowing good and evill, that is to say of knowing good by evill. As therefore the state of man now is; what wisdome can there be to choose, what continence to forbeare without the knowledge of evill? 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 wayfaring Christian. I cannot praise a fugitive and cloister’d vertue, unexercis’d & unbreath’d, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race, where that immortall 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 triall, and triall is by what is contrary.
Psyche looking discouraged amid piles of seedsScroll through the whole page to download all images before printing.

Detail from Giulio Romano’s fresco of Venus' first labour, in the Palazzo del Te in Mantua, Italy, ca. 1528. Note the army of ants who help Psyche with her sorting — Source.

The martial rhetoric celebrating a singular soldier sits uncomfortably with the menial, unglamorous work of careful inventory, which can take a village. (In the myth, Psyche is only able to complete her task because an ant feels sorry for her and recruits the whole colony to help.) Even the recovery of prelapsarian Truth is figured as a specifically feminized and ultimately collective enterprise, modeled after “the carefull search of Isis”, the Egyptian goddess, “for the mangl’d body of Osiris”:

Truth indeed came once into the world with her divine Master, and was a perfect shape most glorious to look on: but when he ascended, and his Apostles after Him were laid asleep, then strait arose a wicked race of deceivers, who as that story goes of the Ægyptian Typhon with his conspirators, how they dealt with the good Osiris, took the virgin Truth, hewd her lovely form into a thousand peeces, and scatter’d them to the four winds. From that time ever since, the sad friends of Truth, such as durst appear, imitating the carefull search that Isis made for the mangl’d body of Osiris, went up and down gathering up limb by limb still as they could find them. We have not yet found them all, Lords and Commons, nor ever shall doe, till her Masters second comming; he shall bring together every joynt and member, and shall mould them into an immortall feature of lovelines and perfection. Suffer not these licencing prohibitions to stand at every place of opportunity forbidding and disturbing them that continue seeking, that continue to do our obsequies to the torn body of our martyr’d Saint.

What had previously been figured as a private and interior practice of gathering ingredients from the world and converting them into individual virtue is now a public and collective effort. The “sad friends of Truth” can only work together to put “her lovely form” (she is personified as an allegorical woman as well as a male god) back together again if they are free to scour every corner of the earth, including the pages of books that Parliament’s censorious licensers would prevent from publication. The images Milton draws together here are themselves surprisingly promiscuous, crossing gender as well as confessional lines: the virtuous truth-seeker is to imitate not Christ but a pagan goddess; the Protestant reader is to fetishize Truth’s body parts as a Catholic might worship a collection of relics.

The bloody martyrs don’t stop there. In perhaps the pamphlet’s most well-known passage, from which the New York Public Library quotation was gleaned, Milton invokes a space that sounds a bit like a mausoleum, haunted by the souls of great men. Again we’re bombarded with dramatic and grandiose imagery:

For Books are not absolutely dead things, but doe contain a potencie of life in them to be as active as that soule was whose progeny they are; nay they do preserve as in a violl the purest efficacie and extraction of that living intellect that bred them. . . . A good Booke is the pretious life-blood of a master spirit, imbalm’d and treasur’d up on purpose to a life beyond life. . . . We should be wary therefore what persecution we raise against the living labours of publick men, how we spill that season’d life of man preserv’d and stor’d up in Books; since we see a kinde of homicide may be thus committed, sometimes a martyrdome, and if it extend to the whole impression, a kinde of massacre, whereof the execution ends not in the slaying of an elementall life, but strikes at that ethereall and fift essence, the breath of reason it selfe, slaies an immortality rather then a life.

Milton conjures a picture of books as both imbued with mystical powers and vulnerable to the all-too-human impulse for violent destruction. Master spirits living their best “life beyond life” lie in danger of homicide; ethereal quintessence, reason itself, and immortality are all, somehow, at grave risk of death. To defend the right of books to be published without prior licensing is to stand strong against the angry mob that would carelessly spill this precious life-blood and destroy this spiritual wealth.

These stirring notes are somewhat dampened, however, by a stubborn strain of ordinariness in Milton’s stock of images: these “not absolutely dead things” are “preserve[d] as in a violl”; “life-blood” is “imbalm’d and treasur’d up”, “season’d”, “preserv’d and stor’d up”. The repetitive references to preservation evoke the domestic rhythms of putting up preserves. Books are imagined as potent spirits, but the emphasis on storage solutions might locate them more comfortably in a home medicine cabinet, the domestic mingling with the epic as if both metaphorical registers were jostling together in the same glass vial. Or, put differently, the hyperbolic images of divine power and mass violence are repeatedly taken down to size, reduced into small-scale containers.

Images of women cooking and reading near kitchensScroll through the whole page to download all images before printing.

Left: frontispiece engraving from Hannah Woolley, The Queen-like Closet, or Rich Cabinet (London: Printed for Rich Lowndes, 1675). Right: frontispiece engraving from Hannah Glasse, The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (London: privately printed, ca. 1777) — Source: left, right.

The exemplary “good Booke” flickers in and out between the magical and the practical, between the alchemical and the merely medicinal. This kind of oscillation also appears in seventeenth-century descriptions of women’s pharmacopeia, such as this one in Ralph Knevet’s 1631 play Rhodon and Iris: “With limbecks, viols, pots, her Closet’s fill’d / Full of strange liquors by rare art distill’d”.2 Of course, what strikes this outside observer as “strange” or “rare” is perfectly perfunctory for anyone who knows her way around such a “closet”; the art of rarefying substances into simple waters or aquae compositae, where several ingredients were distilled and combined, was quite common. As the sixteenth-century advice author Thomas Tusser reminds his readers, every housewife should make sure she is fully stocked with a liquid library to stave off sickness:

Good huswiues prouide, ere an sicknes do come,
of sundry good things, in her house to haue some.
Good Aqua composita, Vineger tart,
Rose water & Treacle, to comfort the hart. . . .
Conserue of the Barbery, Quinces & such,
with Sirops that easeth, the sickly so much.3

In the context of domestic preservation, the tension in Milton’s metaphors starts to make more sense: the “life beyond life” that the spirits contained in books enjoy is secured not by a guarantee of immortality but by a contingent life support system. Their animation is suspended; their shelf life depends on the continued preservative labors of readers. It’s a bit like how, in his first published poem in 1630, Milton eulogizes Shakespeare by locating his tomb not in a bunch of “pilèd stones” but in the hearts and minds of readers who have kept his legacy alive: “Thou in our wonder and astonishment / Hast built thy self a live-long Monument”, the length of the monument’s life dependent on the lives of readers.4

An image of a battle in the woods, but the figures have been seemingly cut outScroll through the whole page to download all images before printing.

Samuel Middiman after Robert Smirke, “The Road by Gadshill - Prince Henry, Poins, Peto, Falstaff, etc.”, scene from Henry IV, ca. 1803 — Source.

Women in a library looking guilty amongst booksScroll through the whole page to download all images before printing.

Félix Henri Giacomotti, Forbidden Literature, 1886 — Source.

Milton thus translates what we might be tempted to read as a total transubstantiation (flesh to word) into a physical and approximate process, “the living labours of publick men” clinging to a vegetative existence as “not absolutely dead” books. Books are different from living things in degree rather than in kind, so that immortality is tempered into longevity, the forbidden fruit of idolatry refigured as the quince conserve of early modern domestic pharmacopoeia. Readers, too, will have to manage their expectations about what books can do for their souls. Reading, as much as writing, is in practice — and it really is about practice — closer to the everyday, merely life-prolonging concoction of medicines, home remedies, and human digestion than immortality-seeking experiments in alchemy.

The necessary but undignified work of refining useful material from dross, so that it could be made accessible and then preserved, was at the heart of early modern intellectual life, in the daily labors of scholars, editors, anthologists, and commentators who, like so many mythic ants, sorted choice seeds out of dusty manuscripts. The Dutch scholar Erasmus compared this work to digging for gold in a dunghill. Many compilers of early modern printed commonplace books and florilegia — collections of “flowers” of wisdom and rhetoric gathered from a variety of books — understood their work to be both vital to intellectual life and deadening in its banality. Theodor Zwinger, a physician and botanist as well as a compiler, made the analogy between bad books and bad plants clear: “There is no herb so vile that it does not contain something useful.” But he also called the work of compilation “Sisyphean” and “improbus”, the word Virgil famously uses to describe the unrelenting labor that conquers all in his Georgics.5 Anthologies were not meant to be retentive once and for all: their techniques of holding diverse pieces of textual material in variously organized suspensions, as if in vials, aimed to inspire rather than obviate similar repetitive labors in their readers. Their goal was to model and thus reproduce their own reproductive labor, to preserve material only so that it can be preserved again.

The tempering activity of continuously reforming and reformulating language and material may indeed result, eventually, in the restoration of truth in all (or at least, until the Second Coming, a good portion of) her glory, but truth can’t survive her day in the sun on her own. The free speech warriors of today who repeat the cliché that bad ideas must be uprooted and exposed to the purifying light of the sun could take some lessons in metaphor from Milton. The dark soil where, in this cliché, bad ideas have been driven underground to fester might be better understood as the laboratory for truth; like subterranean microorganisms, readers break down ideas from books, composting them into loam that’s both individually beneficial and collectively productive, so that truth — like a plant sprouting from that teeming, now nutrient-rich soil — may flourish. In this way, Milton’s conception of free speech in the 1640s anticipates the varied style, some twenty years later, of Paradise Lost. The critic Christopher Ricks notes that most modern critics have emphasized the power, the grandiosity, and the sublimity of Milton’s poetic style, but in Ricks’ account, that style is most notable for its delicacy, or perhaps, its power comes from its delicacy. As Ricks puts it, “the balance of Milton’s Grand Style” is “the result of a strength manifesting itself in innumerable tiny, significant, internal movements”.6 In the terms of Areopagitica, the strength of a reading public is the result not of the free circulation of ideas in itself, but rather of the careful, even microscopic, study of those ideas by readers. A healthy intellectual culture might look more like a gut microbiome than a battlefield.

Katie Kadue is the author of Domestic Georgic: Labors of Preservation from Rabelais to Milton (University of Chicago Press, 2021). She teaches English at SUNY Binghamton.

The text of this essay is published under a CC BY-SA license, see here for details.