Two Conceptions of Free Speech in Ancient Athens

I’m really enjoying ‘Clear and Present Danger: The Free Speech Podcast’ hosted by Jacob Mchangama. Its a comprehensive tour of the concept of freedom of expression. It begins in ancient Athens and there are episodes on the Romans, early Christianity, freedom of thought in the Islamic world, and how heresy was persecuted in medieval times.

One crucial piece of information about the concept of freedom of expression, which I think is desperately relevant to our modern debates and disputes, comes in the first episode. Mchangama points out that there are actually two philosophical idea embedded in the Athenian conception of free speech and which drove their democracy.

  • The first is isegoria (in Greek: ἰσηγορία) which is equality of speech. Everyone in the polity is equally entitled to speak.
  • The second is parrhesia (in Greek: παρρησία) which means ‘license’ to say what one pleased; to speak freely and boldly.

Here’s the episode.

In modern free speech debates, isegoria seems to be the underlying concept behind the recognition that we need diversity of thought. It is important that we hear from all corners of society, including minorities and marginalised groups.

On the other hand, in the contemporary arguments, parrhesia is related to controversial and offensive speech.

Some of the most (to my mind) frustrating free speech controversies are when one of these concepts is given primacy, perhaps to the exclusion of the other. Many ardent free speech defenders talk as if controversy and offence were everything, not realising how one group (say, a bunch of people on Twitter) enthusiastically exercising its right to parrhesia might actually be an effective way of suppressing other people’s participation in the online conversation, violating the principle of isegoria.

This fascinating Atlantic Magazine article by Teresa M Bejan (associate professor of political theory at Oriel College, Oxford) elaborates on both concepts:

The two ancient concepts of free speech came to shape our modern liberal democratic notions in fascinating and forgotten ways. But more importantly, understanding that there is not one, but two concepts of freedom of speech, and that these are often in tension if not outright conflict, helps explain the frustrating shape of contemporary debates, both in the U.S. and in Europe—and why it so often feels as though we are talking past each other when it comes to the things that matter most.

Read the whole thing. My favourite parts include the fact that Athenian democracy took proactive steps to include poor people by paying them to attend the assembly and take part in juries; and how the modern understanding of free speech also includes another Greek concept, that of logos or reason.

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