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Quotations about Liberty and Power

About this Quotation:

Here speaks a true book lover. Milton thinks of bound books as though they were living, breathing creatures and that to censor, restrict, or “license them is like killing a man. Furthermore, they encapsulate the “seasoned life of man” by containing the thoughts and desires of the man who wrote them as well those of the man or woman who reads them. Perhaps he goes too far in his bibliophilia by likening the destruction of a book to killing “the image of God” by poking it “in the eye,” no less. For good measure Milton also inserts a good pun in his tirade by denying that by “introducing license, while I oppose licensing.” As a book lover myself I could only read this passage with some guilt as our task is to convert bound books into a digital form for transmitting via the internet. Is this a form of “book killing”? I hope Milton might have understood and appreciated our reasons for doing so.

15 May, 2006

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John Milton opposed censorship for many reasons but one thought sticks in the mind, that “he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself” (1644)

Read the full quote in context here.

When Parliament did not relax the law requiring the prior censorship of books after the English Revolution had broken out but in fact passed an ordinance requiring the licensing of the press in 1643, Milton urged it to reconsider:

…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.

The full passage from which this quotation was taken can be be viewed below (front page quote in bold):

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. 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 persecution 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 that ethereal and fifth essence, the breath of reason itself; slays an immortality rather than a life. But lest I should be condemned of introducing licence, while I oppose licensing, I refuse not the pains to be so much historical, as will serve to shew what hath been done by ancient and famous commonwealths, against this disorder, till the very time that this project of licensing crept out of the Inquisition, was catched up by our prelates, and hath caught some of our presbyters.

[More works by John Milton (1608 – 1674)]