Free Speech | Jacob Mchangama

Summary of: Free Speech: A History from Socrates to Social Media
By: Jacob Mchangama


Embark on an immersive journey through the gripping history of free speech in our summary of ‘Free Speech: A History from Socrates to Social Media’ by Jacob Mchangama. This fascinating tale of hard-fought liberties takes you from ancient Athens, the Roman Empire, and the Medieval Inquisition to the Enlightenment era and the modern world. Along the way, you will witness the rise and fall of champions of free speech, from Socrates and Martin Luther to Baruch Spinoza and the Weimar Republic. Reflect on the persistent challenges to this fundamental right and the potential consequences of neglecting it in today’s society.

Athens: Free Speech and Democracy

Throughout history, speaking against power bearers was a hazardous endeavor until one unique city-state, Athens, emerged in ancient Greece. Athens’ democratic system, based on free speech, flouted the status quo, resulting in groundbreaking advancements. Though relatively lenient in permitting citizens’ criticisms, Athens executed its most notorious critic, Socrates, for impiety, demonstrating that even the most open societies can sacrifice free speech to protect their principles.

For most of human history, expressing dissent against rulers and powerful figures was a perilous act. Generally, ancient civilizations crafted laws that shielded the upper echelons from criticism, reinforcing strict social hierarchies perpetuated by divine right concepts. However, a small ancient Greek city-state, Athens, broke the mold by adopting a democratic system centered around free speech.

The Athenian form of democracy, which allowed citizens (freeborn men) to propose, debate, and vote on laws, exhibited an exceptional egalitarianism for its time. While it had significant shortcomings, such as excluding women and enslaved people, this democratic foundation led to unprecedented protections for free speech. Citizens could openly scrutinize the state and democracy itself. Even Athens’ theater culture saw no bounds when it came to criticizing venerated figures, as exemplified by Aristophanes mocking the god Dionysus in his play The Frogs.

This permissive attitude and open dialogue in the public agora contributed to the city’s cultural success. The intellectual blossoming that occurred during this time led to critical advancements in philosophy, science, and medicine, which wouldn’t have been feasible in a more restrictive society. Yet, even Athens had its boundaries. An accusation of impiety, or profaning religious rites, carried a severe punishment of death.

Socrates, who embodied the Athenian spirit of questioning and is widely regarded as the founder of Western philosophy, ultimately fell victim to these limitations. This unkempt, peculiar-looking man spent his days questioning prominent Athenians, exposing their ignorance, and often irritating them. At age 70, he was charged with impiety for corrupting the youth and disrespecting the gods – a crime that led to his death by consuming poison in the form of hemlock.

Many questions have arisen as to why Athens decided to execute its most famous thinker so late in his life. Rebellion attempts that temporarily overthrew the democratic system in previous years might have alarmed the Athenian population. Their fear of rising anti-democratic sentiments potentially made them less tolerant of Socrates’ criticism.

The trial and execution of Socrates serve as a reminder that even in the name of defending democratic values, open societies can jeopardize the very bedrock of democracy – free speech. This tale from ancient Greece resonates with modern society, as we must strive to protect the essential principle of free speech while upholding democracy.

Censorship’s Historical Grip

The ancient Athenian ideals of free speech and democracy were stifled for centuries with the rise of Rome and the Christianization of Europe. A large portion of ancient literary works were lost due to religious orthodoxy, which led to the period known as the “Dark Ages.” Even so, intellectual developments such as universities emerged in the Islamic world and Europe. However, the Catholic Church launched the Medieval Inquisition, a rigid, bureaucratic persecution system that sought to eradicate heretical ideas. The true threat to freedom of speech and thought lies not in orthodoxy itself but rather in the unchecked power of a single institution.

The influence of ancient Athens’ cherished values of free speech and democracy waned over the centuries, only to be rediscovered two millennia later. As Rome grew in power and Christianity spread throughout Europe, an all-encompassing religious orthodoxy replaced the free-thinking spirit that previously proliferated parts of the ancient world. This strict religious climate led to the destruction or neglect of 90 percent of ancient literary works, giving credence to the label “Dark Ages.”

Despite the era’s infamous reputation, the “Dark Ages” did not signify a complete void in history. Intellectual advancements, even amidst the suppression of unconventional ideas, laid the groundwork for future developments. Emerging universities in both the Islamic world and Europe served as centers of inquiry, drawing inspiration from ancient thinkings and going on to challenge the Church’s authoritative religious orthodoxy.

Initially, the Catholic Church tolerated these academic institutions. While heresy laws existed as far back as the Roman Empire, persuasion was the Church’s primary method of handling dissenting views, rather than outright persecution. However, by the late eleventh century, the growing popularity of pagan ideas within universities signaled a shift in the Church’s approach towards eradicating what they deemed heretical.

Throughout the twelfth century, the Catholic Church relied heavily on the Inquisition, an extensive network of independent tribunals explicitly created to eliminate and punish heresy. These courts hardly upheld contemporary legal standards, with Inquisition magistrates serving as prosecutors, judges, and jurors. Although the Church professed that the Inquisition took place out of “love” for lost souls, convicted heretics faced execution by burning.

Efficiency was crucial in eradicating heresy swiftly. Therefore, the Inquisition targeted entire communities rather than individuals. Communities would be given a grace period during which inhabitants could either confess their sins or accuse others in exchange for leniency. Unfortunately, this policy fostered fear and often prompted false confessions or false accusations driven by personal vendettas.

The Inquisition’s pursuit of widespread dissent necessitated innovative strategies for information management. As a result, it produced a vast archival network complete with indexes, becoming history’s first pan-European surveillance system. This bureaucratic structure—often referred to as the “machinery of persecution”—has since been adopted and repurposed by various political and religious regimes to impose their worldview.

Contrastingly, the Islamic world during the same era never experienced anything similar to the Inquisition. This discrepancy is not due to increased tolerance but rather because no central religious authority akin to the Catholic Church was capable of enforcing orthodoxy throughout the Islamic world.

This historical example illustrates that the true menace to freedom of speech and thought is not necessarily orthodoxy itself, but the concentration of power within a single authority. As power consolidates, the controlling entity can manipulate information and enforce its version of the truth, endangering the liberties held so dear by societies around the world.

Gutenberg & Luther’s Inadvertent Revolution

The invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in the mid-fifteenth century marked a turning point in history. It catapulted literacy rates and made information accessible like never before, but it also set in motion an unexpected revolution: the Protestant Reformation, driven by Martin Luther’s challenge to the Catholic Church. Their combined efforts contributed to the dissemination of new religious sects and debates about the freedom of speech, revealing a universal phenomenon where those who champion their own ideas often struggle to accept the same rights for others.

Johannes Gutenberg’s ingeniously crafted printing press in the fifteen century instigated a wave of transformative change in Europe. Suddenly, his invention made knowledge available to the masses at a fraction of the cost, catalyzing an incredible surge in literacy, economic growth, and innovation throughout the continent. But, like any disruptive technology, it carried unanticipated consequences.

Initially, the printing press garnered support from Europe’s rulers and was even hailed as a divine art by the church. But as its true potential to challenge established norms became clear, concerns grew among the ruling class. This tension reached its peak when a certain opinionated monk named Martin Luther entered the fray.

In 1517, Luther penned a scathing letter to the archbishop of Mainz, condemning the church’s practices and questioning its credibility. Although he was not the first to critique the institution, the power of Gutenberg’s printing press lent unparalleled influence to his message. Luther’s ideas reached a massive audience, sparking the Protestant Reformation and challenging the authority of the Roman Catholic Church in ways that no one before him had.

It turns out that Luther and the printing press shared a fortuitous, if controversial, alliance. Evidence suggests that cities peppered with printing presses were more likely to adopt Protestantism, thanks to the unbridled dissemination of challenging ideas enabled by this new technology. However, it didn’t take long for the Catholic Church and state authorities to retaliate, banning Luther’s works in a futile attempt to salvage their formidable positions.

Ironically, the same Martin Luther who wielded the power of the printed word to undermine authority later sought to control its influence once he achieved it. Encouraging the masses to scrutinize the truth for themselves paved the way not just for religious freedom but also for countless other reforms and intellectual pursuits. Luther himself recognized the risks of his creation and urged for a more cautious approach, stressing the importance of obedience to authority. But Pandora’s box had been opened, and even Luther couldn’t control the whirlwind of new ideas he initiated.

One of the most intriguing aspects of Luther’s journey is how it highlights a near-universal human tendency. Having used the force of free speech to undermine the authority of the church, he grappled with the freedom of self-determination for others once in a position of influence himself. We often find ourselves tempted to defend our own right to express ideas without restriction, while, paradoxically, resisting the same liberty for others – revealing the deeply-rooted tension surrounding the concept of free speech.

The printing press’ impact on society, and Martin Luther’s Reformation, is a testament to the transformative power of new technologies and ideas. Yet, their journey serves as a cautionary tale about the oftentimes uneasy relationship we have with the freedoms we seek to claim for ourselves while circumscribing them for others. Ultimately, understanding this duality is essential if we wish to resist the temptation to champion freedom of speech selectively and embrace the spirit of true openness.

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