What Does Ancient Athens Have to Do With University Protesters?


Today, free speech is under attack as if we have learned nothing from our experiences over the last century. In our universities, students protest for “safe places”—not realizing that university education is not supposed to give them the comfort of the womb but instead prepare them for the real world. The real world does not worry about trigger warnings. As the AAUP warned us in 2014, “The presumption that students need to be protected rather than challenged in a classroom is at once infantilizing and anti-intellectual.” Attacks on speech are now so prevalent that it is newsworthy when university students sign petitions favoring free speech.

If universities should teach their students anything it is the history of freedom of speech. We have learned that we are not free if there is a heckler’s veto. If the hecklers do not like the message, they should avert their ears, not silence the speaker.

Over 2,400 years ago, in the cradle of democracy, the Athenians believed that freedom of speech made their armies more courageous, stronger, not weaker. Three primary ancient Greek figures—two historians, Herodotus, Thucydides, and one playwright, Aeschylus—developed the first philosophical arguments favoring free speech and opposing government regulation, even in time of war.

We sometimes refer to Herodotus as the father of history. Of course history existed before Herodotus, and people wrote about it, but they wrote more in the sense of chronicling events, writing lists (there was a battle; a king lost, another king won, and so forth). Herodotus was interested in why things happened; what caused nations or leaders to do one thing or another. Admittedly, he relied on oral recollections, rumors, and legends, which is why others call him the father of lies. Herodotus wrote the history of the Persian Wars (499-479 BC) in The Histories, which is still in print, two and one-half millennia later. I should be so lucky with any of my books.

In his Histories, Herodotus sought to understand and explain why Athenians could win victories over the more numerous Persians in the first part of the fifth century B.C. His answer was that Athenians fought as free people, not as slaves. It is not that the Athenians were braver than the Persians were, or that their archers were more accurate, or their weapons more advanced. Instead, Herodotus argued, when the Athenians were under despotic rulers, they “were no better in war than any of their neighbors, yet once they got quit of despots they were far and away the first of all,” because “when they were freed each man was zealous to achieve for himself.” Freedom made the Athenians braver.

Thucydides also wrote only about the history of events, but he focused on events that occurred during his lifetime. Unlike Herodotus, Thucydides sought to confirm what happened through eyewitness accounts and written records. He did not rely on rumors and legends. That is not to say that Thucydides was as careful as modern historians are when quoting people. Thucydides wrote what these people might have said, what they really meant.

His History of the Peloponnesian War included long speeches that historical figures possibly delivered. Thucydides tells us that a custom of the times was for a prominent figure to give a funeral oration. In book 2 of his History, he gives us the famous Funeral Oration of Pericles. Although Thucydides presents this speech as if it were a verbatim transcript of Pericles’s discourse, Thucydides does not want us to believe that it is so. Instead, he wrote what he thought Pericles really intended, what was “called for in the situation.”

Thucydides tells us that Pericles maintained that the Athenians were stronger because they were free. Athens was not a formidable city-state in spite of free speech but because of free speech. Pericles’s famous funeral oration argued:

Our city is thrown open to the world, and we never expel a foreigner or prevent him from seeing or learning anything of which the secret if revealed to an enemy might profit him. We rely not upon management or trickery, but upon our own hearts and hands. . . . The great impediment to action is, in our opinion, not discussion, but the want of that knowledge which is gained by discussion preparatory to action. For we have a peculiar power of thinking before we act.

The third major figure is Aeschylus, the playwright. Yes, a playwright. Let us not sell short those who are our poets and artists. It is no accident that the Communists suppressed art as well as politics and religion. When the people finally overturned the Communist dictators of Eastern Europe beginning in late 1989, they regarded freedom of expression as a premier right. The Czech revolution, for example, began in the theatres, and that country’s first freely elected president since World War II, Václav Havel, was a writer and playwright.

In the play The Persians, Aeschylus echoed Herodotus and Thucydides. Aeschylus said that the Greeks were victorious because, “Of no man are they the slaves or subjects.” Art reflects life, and Aeschylus, in his play, reflected what many Athenians believed—Greeks should celebrate their victory not as a victory of Greeks over Persians but a victory of free men over slaves. I.F. Stone (yes, the same I.F. Stone who was a Vietnam war dissenter) tells us in his book, “The Trial of Socrates,” that the “victors at Salamis were men elevated and inspired by the freedom to speak their minds and govern themselves.”

Herodotus, Thucydides, Aeschylus—all embraced this ancient truth. People who are free are people who work more intensely because they work for themselves, not for a master. It is for that same reason that it takes many hunting dogs to catch one fox: the fox works harder because he is self-employed.

America has been slow to learn this lesson. It took well over a century before we broadly embraced the principle that free speech and the right to dissent are essential for a free people. Other countries have been even slower to learn these ancient truths. When they begin to embrace free speech, they have looked to us as the model of protecting speech. When we restrict speech, foreigners use our restriction as support to justify their own restrictions.

Back when there was a Soviet Union, on April 8, 1989, the Presidium of the USSR Supreme Soviet adopted legislation making it a criminal offense to “discredit” a public official. Soviet reformers immediately attacked this legislation. In defense of the legislation, the Soviet old guard published an article in Nedelya, the Sunday supplement to Izvestia, with a circulation of millions. (Nedelya, 1989, No. 15, p. 19). This article, in an effort to support this restriction, listed dozens of foreign laws punishing disrespect for public officials or public symbols. In particular it listed 18 U.S.C. § 700, punishing “Desecration of the Flag of the United States” and what is now 21 Penn. Code §2102 punishing desecration of state and local flags.

Andrei Sakharov, speaking to the Congress of People’s Deputies (Izvestia, May 29, 1989, p. 6) attacked the April 8, 1989, legislation because it limited free speech:

The Edict of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR [was] adopted on April 8. [It] contradicts the principles of democracy. There is a most important principle, which is formulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948, and by such an international organization as “Amnesty International.” This is the principle that no actions connected with persuasion, unless they are connected with violence or with a call to violence, can be the subject of criminal prosecution. This is a key principle lying at the base of a democratic political system. And this key word “violence” is lacking in the language of the Edict of April 8. . . .

Eventually, the United States Supreme Court, on free speech grounds, invalidated state and federal laws that prohibited desecrating the flag, in Texas v. Johnson and United States v. Eichman.

The Soviet Union, in 1991, prosecuted Valeria Novodvorskaya for insulting Mikhail S. Gorbachev. She called him a “hangman,” “red fascist,” and other things. At the trial, she said Gorbachev was a “bald coward.” The Moscow court acquitted her of slandering Gorbachev, but it did convict her “insulting the state flag,” and sentenced her to two years of correctional labor. (Gorbachev was and is bald.)

Now, a Turkish court is considering the prosecution of Dr. Bilgin Ciftci. His crime: he said that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reminds him of Gollum, the slimy character from the Lord of the Rings. The judge has not seen the movie, but apparently there is no need to do that. The court asked a group of “experts” (two academics, two psychologists and an expert on movies) to testify whether the comparison is an insult. Maybe the judge should read the book.

As for President Erdogan, he has one of the worst records in contemporary times for imprisoning journalists. Over 1,800 Turkish journalists lost their jobs due to their anti-government views in the dozen years of his rule.

America is still the beacon of free speech, but there is no law of nature that guarantees our beacon will continue to shine. When we restrict speech, as many university activists now demand, other countries will use our example to justify their own repression.

  • Dom Greco

    Very well written and timely article. The passages that I found most memorable are:

    • “Today, free speech is under attack as if we have learned nothing from our experiences over the last century.”

    • “The presumption that students need to be protected rather than challenged in a classroom is at once infantilizing and anti-intellectual.”

    At the conclusion of my reading the article I wondered:

    Is there some book or article that has been published that would provide a reader with the history and background of when, why, and how universities in the US have gone from the free speech of the 1960s to the current attack on free speech, with its trigger warnings, restrictions on speakers on campus who hold unpopular views, etc.?

    If there is such a publication, citation to or identification of this publication would be most helpful and appreciated by me and I anticipate other readers, so that the interest aroused by this article could be pursued in further depth.