Increase your understanding of ancient Greek place names famous in English history

At the Wording Desk

Areopagus is a hill in Athens, named in ancient Greek Ἄρειος πάγος areios pagos ‘the Martian hill’, that is, a hillock in Athens which originally held an altar for the worship of the Greek god of war, Ares. Ares was Mars to the Romans, although Mars as a word is, if not cognate with Ares, at least closely associated with Ares very early in Roman history. Later Mars’ Hill or the Areopagus was a meeting place where the most powerful judicial court of the city of Athens held its open-to-the-public sittings. Areopagus was once used in English to mean ‘any high tribunal.’

Areopagitica < Latin Arēopagīticus, < Greek Ἀρειοπαγῑτικός ‘pertaining to the Hill of Mars [and its judicial assemblies]’

Naturally some of the greatest Athenian lawyers and masters of rhetoric spoke here, including the orator Isocrates who, in the fifth century BCE, after the council had lost much of its power, gave an impassioned speech seeking to restore its ancient importance, a speech known as Isocrates’ ‘For the Areopagus.’

The word is best known in English to students of rhetorical prose, because John Milton named his famous tract in defense of English free speech after that of Isocrates.

Areopagitica: A Speech of Mr. John Milton for the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing to the Parliament of England is a tract printed as a pamphlet by the poet John Milton against censorship. Milton’s 1644 Areopagitica stands as a high prose mark in persuasive argument in the history of English eloquence. Everyone writing English prose in any mode of suasion ought to peruse it for inspiration.

the opening passage of Milton's Areopagitica, 1644

Quotation from Isocrates
Ἰσοκράτης τῆς παιδείας τὴν ῥίζαν πικρὰν ἔφη, γλυκεῖς δὲ τοὺς καρπούς.
(transliteration) Isokrates tes paideias ten rhizan pikran ephee, glykeis de tous karpous
(translation) Isocrates said that the root of education is bitter, but the fruits are sweet.”

Quotations from Milton's Areopagitica
“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.”

“Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.”

“For books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul whose progeny they are; nay, they do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them.”

“A good book is the precious lifeblood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life.”
(This quotation is displayed over the entrance to the Main Reading Room of the New York Public Library.)

Miltonic Addendum
Comprising the informative passage below and a Miltonic quotation from a blog named “areopagitica,” posted by K.

Milton “argued for the free exchange of ideas and knowledge. There were limits to his ideas of freedom of the press but he sketched out, in ringing tones, his belief that liberty and progress were dependent on the search for knowledge, truth and understanding.

Milton’s ideas came out of that anxious and hopeful period in English history when parliament was at war with the king. He wrote this pamphlet three years before the Putney Debates in which, for the first time, the idea of one man one vote was advanced, and five years before the execution of Charles I and the establishment of the English Commonwealth. It was a period of immense danger, of grief and the separation of families. It was also a time when individuals questioned authority and took responsibility for debating the future of the country.

Areopagitica shows the excitement of debate at the time, when so many people were willing to look outwards and think questioningly about the world, risking their own safety to enter in a debate about the government of their country. Key questions hinged on liberty and what we would now call “human rights”:

‘Behold now this vast City: a City of refuge, the mansion house of liberty, encompast and surrounded with his protection; the shop of warre hath not there more anvils and hammers waking, to fashion out the plates and instruments of armed Justice in defence of beleaguer’d Truth, then there be pens and heads there, sitting by their studious lamps, musing, searching, revolving new notions and ideas wherewith to present, as with their homage and their fealty the approaching Reformation: others as fast reading, trying all things, assenting to the force of reason and convincement. What could a man require more from a Nation so pliant and so prone to seek after knowledge. What wants there to such a towardly and pregnant soile, but wise and faithfull labourers, to make a knowing people, a Nation of Prophets, of Sages, and of Worthies. We reck’n more then five months yet to harvest; there need not be five weeks, had we but eyes to lift up, the fields are white already. Where there is much desire to learn, there of necessity will be much arguing, much writing, many opinions; for opinion in good men is but knowledge in the making.’ [J. Milton]

Milton lost and the cause he loved - the Commonwealth - faded. After eleven years, Charles II was invited back by parliament. The leaders of the Commonwealth were hanged, drawn and quartered for their part in the execution of the king. Milton was lucky to survive.

But the ideas of Milton and his contemporaries lived on. In the nineteenth century, working-class radicals were among the most enthusiastic readers of Milton

Reading Milton was my introduction to Britain’s radical past. I read most of Milton for pleasure - I loved the exhilaration of his language as well as his engagement with the ideas of his time. It didn’t matter that some was difficult. I took what I could from a first reading and returned later, for more. Milton may have slipped from the public consciousness but I don’t think he’ll be forgotten forever.”

Bill Casselman’s final reminder:  To any who seek examples of authoritative expository prose in English, I recommend reading Milton’s poetry too. Close perusal and reading aloud of Milton’s epic Paradise Lost lets a reader/speaker understand how to imbue semantic thrust and sonic supremacy into English sentences. The stern majesty of Milton’s poetic diction is like no other writer’s in English.

Bill Casselman, Feb 21, 2017

Text copyright 2017 by William Gordon Casselman


Bill Casselman