Two Concepts of Free Speech, from Classical Athens to Today’s Campus

James Kierstead

As the Oxford political theorist Teresa Bejan reminded us a few years ago now in The Atlantic, the Greeks had two concepts of free speech. The first, isēgoriā (ἰσηγορία) could more literally be translated ‘equality of public speech’, whereas the second, parrhēsiā (παρρησία), is more directly focussed on the license to say whatever you want: the prefix comes from pās (πᾶς), ‘all’ or ‘everything’, so that parrhēsiā is,at root, the freedom to say anything.

Bejan argued that we risk misunderstanding today’s deplatformers and anti-free-speech campaigners unless we realize that they’re more concerned about isēgoriā than parrhēsiā. “What they care about,” writes Bejan, “is the equal right to speech, and equal access to a public forum in which the historically marginalized and excluded can be heard and count equally with the privileged.” Bejan thinks that a convincing defence of parrhēsiā on college campuses can and should be mounted, but only if we reconnect with the egalitarianism that she thinks undergirds both isēgoriā and parrhēsiā.

I’m basically in agreement with Bejan on this – that “the alternative” to defending expressive liberty “is to allow the powers-that-happen-to-be to grant that liberty as a license to some individuals while denying it to others.” But I also think there’s more that we can get out of the Classical Greeks’ two concepts of free speech, especially if we go back to the world they emerged from and examine the ways in which they were used and the spaces they were associated with. Once we do that, we should be in a position to develop a more nuanced conception of which types of speech norms should be encouraged or defended in different contexts. Isēgoriā, I will argue, does have its claims in certain spaces, and it does make sense to encourage it in the seminar room in particular. But it’s parrhēsiā that we will ultimately need to defend if we want to keep free speech alive, within the academy and in society as a whole.

Room for debate? The chamber of the Oxford Union.

Even before Athens’ Classical democracy was up and running, parrhēsiā and isēgoriā had emerged from slightly different contexts. Parrhēsiā was particularly associated with a tradition of satirical poetry written in iambs and often aimed at tyrants, the sole rulers who came to power in a clutch of city-states across the Greek world in the 6th century BC. Isēgoriā, by contrast, had long been associated with formal political bodies such as assemblies and councils, and with the ability of every man who qualified for them to have his say on the affairs of the polis (πόλις, city-state) on an equal basis with his peers.

These historical differences carried on into the Classical period, with the two values always being associated with slightly different spaces and institutions. According to his student Plato, Socrates expressed puzzlement about why the Athenians only listened to experts when it came to things like ship-building, but were willing to listen to any man – including poor and low-born men such as shoe-makers and carpenters – when it came to making decisions about the direction of the city-state. Demosthenes stresses that it’s in the Athenians’ own interest to listen to everyone who wants to offer advice, because that will mean they have a variety of proposals to choose from. Both of these passages show the importance that the ideal of equal public speech – isēgoriā – had in the Assembly, the most important decision-making body in democratic Athens.

Athens with the Pnyx in the foreground, the site of Assembly meetings in the Classical period.

Parrhēsiā, for its part, was more likely to be found as part of ordinary social life: the philosopher and orator Isocrates, for instance, describes it as having an important part to play in education, since it allows the sort of honest feedback from acquaintances which can help a man improve himself. Unlike isēgoriā, parrhēsiā didn’t really flourish in the formal political institutions that ran the democratic city-state; but it did flourish in the theatre, especially the comic theatre.

That the comic theatre was a place where parrhēsiā thrived is something we hear from the ancient sources themselves. Isocrates complains (almost certainly inaccurately) that, even though Athens is a democracy, there is no parrhēsiā except “here in the assembly – for the most moronic and narcissistic people – and in the theatre for producers of comedy.” The legal speech-writer Lysias describes the defendant in one case as doing things that are too shameful to mention – “although you hear of them from the comic poets every year” (Fragment 53). And in the ideal city of Plato’s Laws, comedy is regulated in order to keep kakēgoriā (‘bad public speech’) under control.

Red-figure calyx-krater from Southern Italy depicting comic actors in their costumes, attributed to the ‘Dolon Painter’, c. 400-390 BC (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA).

Nobody who’s seen or read the plays of Aristophanes will be surprised at this association between comedy and unhindered, sometimes even offensive, free speech. His eleven surviving plays – the only complete examples we have of the hard-hitting, no-holds-barred genre of ‘Old Comedy’ – are brimming with obscenities, both scatological and sexual. Actors wore an exaggerated paunch and an outsized phallus as part of their costumes, and acted out defecation and sexual acts on stage. Characters shifted from mock-tragic at one moment to broadly orgiastic the next, creating an effect that probably has its closest modern analogy in fast-moving, nothing-is-off-limits cartoons like South Park or Family Guy. And the plots can be similarly outlandish – a farmer who’s had enough of the Peloponnesian War drawing up his own private peace-treaty with Sparta (Acharnians); women bringing the war to an end through a coordinated sex-strike (Lysistrata); a man flying to the abode of the gods on a giant dung beetle (Peace).

The new Old Comedy?

Aristophanes’ plays were also bracingly political – here the modern analogy would be something like John Oliver’s or Bill Maher’s shows, though Aristophanes can be even more hard-hitting (and considerably more offensive). In a few passages where he seems to address his audience directly, Aristophanes appears to defend himself, claiming that what he was doing was helpful to the democracy he lived in. We don’t know exactly what the Athenians thought about that; but they didn’t seem to have any trouble with bawdy satire having a prominent place in their public culture. The Festival of Dionysus was, after all, a major civic and religious event, and a centrepiece of the Athenian festival calendar.

Why was this sort of unhindered free speech seen as salutary in democratic Athenian society? Perhaps because parrhēsiā, as a character in Euripides’ Suppliants implies, allowed the weaker members of society to have their say, permitting them to push back and hold their own against wealthier and more powerful citizens, if only every now and then. But parrhēsiā didn’t just help people lower down on the social hierarchy speak up against their supposed betters. It also allowed intellectuals to speak up against the reigning orthodoxies of the day. Socrates in Plato’s dialogue Gorgias, for example, encourages one of his interlocutors to speak frankly, adding that he is “clearly saying things now which others think, but don’t want to say out loud.” And Aristotle describes the “great-souled man” as “a frank speaker” (parrhēsiastēs), since “hiding things is characteristic of people who are afraid, and who care less for the truth than for opinion.”

These, then, were the Greeks’ two concepts of free speech, and what came to seem their natural habitats: isēgoriā, or equality of public speech, which was associated with formal political institutions and democratic deliberation; and parrhēsiā, the license to say anything, even (or especially) if it went against the current, which had its stronghold in the ribald comic theatre of playwrights like Aristophanes. Nobody would argue that the Athenians lived up to these ideals perfectly, and there are ongoing scholarly controversies about what the effective limits of free speech were in Athens – which was, we should bear in mind, a more traditional and religious society than our own. But my argument here isn’t that democratic Athens was a free-speech utopia that we should emulate in every respect. Rather, it’s that the Greeks’ two concepts of free speech can help us think about the contemporary debate about free speech in universities.

Jürgen “Ideal Speech Situation” Habermas

In some ways, this shouldn’t seem very radical, because isēgoriā, at least, is an ideal that would find a ready home in modern discourses about free speech, at least within the academy. One of the principles most often held up by recent theorists of liberal democracy is deliberation, in the somewhat technical sense of genuinely reasoned and open discussion. In one of the most well-known versions of this ideal, Jürgen Habermas’ “ideal speech situation,” the best sort of discussion is imagined as one in which everyone is able to propose or question any idea whatsoever, without feeling intimidated or coerced by anyone else. The idea that everyone should be equally able to have a say – isēgoriā, in other words – is obviously central.

And deliberative ideals of this sort are clearly something which have a place on college campuses, especially in classes and seminars. In these contexts we might well want to try to make sure everyone taking part in a discussion has a roughly equal chance to have a say. Most academic seminars, in any case, run on a series of implicit norms that the vast majority of participants are happy to go along with. These include waiting your turn to speak; not engaging in ad hominem attacks; and trying to express criticisms politely.

These kind of seminar norms aren’t a bad thing at all. Indeed, they clearly embody isēgoriā and related deliberative values in their concern for equality and for reasoned discourse. But these values can’t be the only ones informing the way we have conversations on campuses; still less can they be the only norms we have for speech outside of universities (not least because, though we academics are sometimes liable to forget it, not every conversation is a seminar). We also need to honour the unrestricted license to express ourselves, even in a way which rubs some people up the wrong way – which the Greeks called parrhēsiā. And, in fact, it’s parrhēsiā that has to be our bedrock free speech value, both on campus and off, if we’re going to preserve everyone’s right to have their say.

Why? Because even though sometimes everyone will be in agreement that something someone said was disrespectful, that won’t always be the case. People often disagree about whether something was impolite or not; and it can be easy to perceive or present something someone has said as disrespectful even when what has really bothered you isn’t the way they’ve expressed themselves but the content of what they’ve said. In other words, claims about respect, politeness, and so on, are easily weaponized against legitimate expression; and they’re especially easily weaponized in environments like contemporary universities, where an enormous political imbalance of academic and administrative staff effectively gives one side free rein to decide what counts as offensive and what doesn’t.

Is this offensive? Piss Christ, photograph by Andres Serrano of a crucified Christ suspended in his own urine, 1987 (winner of an award from the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art, Winston-Salem, NC, USA)

Isēgoriā and its modern descendants provide us with some excellent ideals to aspire to, but, short of a few minimal and practical measures such as banning direct personal abuse, it’ll never be possible to do away completely with complaints about people being disrespectful and impolite. These kinds of claims emerge virtually inevitably from conflict, and conflict is itself an inevitable feature of doing things together with other humans, who have an irritating tendency to look at the world in different ways – and to want to express these different perspectives.

We might still want to encourage the narrower set of values associated with isēgoriā in our classes and seminars. Personally, I believe we should. But the ease with which claims about disrespect can be employed to shut others up means that they shouldn’t form the basis of disciplinary procedures; instead, we should have formal rules that defend a much more generous notion of free expression.

In a previous attempt to formulate this idea, I suggested that universities should look to encourage civility as a soft norm, but also protect free speech via hard rules (for example, against scholars being sacked for ordinary political expression). Teresa Bejan is right that both of the Ancient Greek ideals we have looked at here are, at bottom, bound up with a commitment towards free and equal speech. Not all concepts of free speech are created equal, though, and the Greeks’ two concepts of free speech are different in significant ways. Ultimately, it’s the broader, more general claims of unrestricted free speech that we will have to defend if we want to have a hope of halting the gradual erosion of our expressive freedoms in our universities and beyond.

James Kierstead is Senior Lecturer in Classics at Victoria University of Wellington and the moderator of Heterodox Classics, a Heterodox Academy community.

Further Reading

E.R. Dodds’s Sather Lectures, published as The Greeks and The Irrational (Berkeley, CA, 1951) were influential in a number of ways; most relevant here is Dodds’s claim that the Classical Athenians turned against their intellectuals under the pressures of plague and war. K.J. Dover, “The freedom of the intellectual in Greek society,” Talanta 7 (1975) 24–54 (accessible here) surveyed the evidence for the persecution of intellectuals in Athens and concluded that much of it was late and unreliable. More recently, J. Filonik, “Athenian Impiety Trials: a Reappraisal,” Dike 16 (2013) 11–96 (accessible here) similarly concludes that trials like that of Socrates were more the exception than the rule – which doesn’t mean, of course, that they never happened.

Jürgen Habermas’ influential theories of liberalism and democracy are dispersed throughout a large and forbiddingly difficult body of writing. For his ideas on the public sphere, start with The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, trans. T. Burger and F. Lawrence (MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 1989) [German original, 1962]. For his “ideal speech situation” (Ideale Sprechsituation) see especially “Discourse Ethics: Notes on a Program of Philosophical Justification,” in Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action, trans. C. Lenhardt and S. Weber Nicholsen (MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 1990) [German original, 1973].

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