John Milton. Picture: Getty
Milton's Aeropagitica is a text that passionately defends the right of men to express their thoughts through the printed word, but it is also a demonstration of how the influence of government in the protection of free speech allows for an easier separation of church and state in both spiritual and political areas. Milton's demonstration of the history of free speech shows that free speech, while granted to those living God's true law, was restricted by corrupt churches such as the Catholic church. He also reiterates that the Greek and Roman systems of government allowed for a broad spectrum of writings to flourish, suggesting that the glory of the classical ages can only be accessed through a willingness to allow all opinions to flourish. His desire to allow for a wide variety of opinions demands a willingness to hear out different political and religious perspectives, something that would not be accepted in England for many decades yet.
Interestingly, before Milton put out this pamphlet he had released others on the defense of divorce, a radical and not well accepted idea for the time, thus turning popular and Parliamentary opinion against him. None the less, he appealed to Parliament to "respond to history as a dynamic process where an ideology of conflict may have regenerative rather than tragic consequences in the present and future ages of reformation" (Loewenstein, 79). Milton fully recognized that his ideas were divisive and conflictive, but he argued that from a historical and religious standpoint, such has always been the case amongst the true followers of Christ as well as the wise citizens of Rome. With his double appeal to both God and Caesar (that is, secular Classical heritage and Christian scriptural history) he is able to access the hearts of almost all the Protestant leaders in England.
Milton had helped the Protestants come into power in the Parliament, but when they extended their powers to try and quell the more radical of their opponents, he must have felt obliged to defend those whose viewpoints he did not necessarily agree with. The courage to fight against the taking away of the freedom of speech and press no matter the opponent is something that can be recognized and applauded by people of all ages, which is why this is such a universal text. Milton's views seem to have influenced writers such as John Locke and John Stuart Mills as well as current political opinions.
Loewenstein, David A. "Areopagitica and the Dynamics of History." Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 28.1, The English Renaissance (1988): 77-93. Print.