On Misconceptions Generated by Translating Parrhesia and Isegoria as "Freedom of Speech"
AuthorLu, Chin-Yu Ginny
AdvisorGroves, Robert W.
MetadataShow full item record
PublisherThe University of Arizona.
RightsCopyright © is held by the author. Digital access to this material is made possible by the University Libraries, University of Arizona. Further transmission, reproduction or presentation (such as public display or performance) of protected items is prohibited except with permission of the author.
AbstractThe ancient Greek terms parrhesia and isegoria are both frequently translated as "free speech" or "freedom of speech". Translating these terms in a straightforward fashion as "free speech" obscures a number of significant differences among what are in truth three very distinct concepts. These dis-analogies may appear unimportant at first glance, but when we understand the central role these concepts play in their respective cultures – more specifically, in their political and legal systems – it becomes clear that small differences in meaning can make a big difference in our ability to grasp the nature of Athenian civic culture. I will outline the most salient of these dis-analogies, and the mistaken conceptions of Athenian political culture that can, and do, result from them. In particular, though the idea of freedom features prominently in parrhesia and isegoria, what freedom amounts to in Athens is sometimes nearly antithetical to what it amounts to in modern liberal republics. Ancient Athenian freedom was the freedom of opportunity. In the case of parrhesia, it was a custom or value which was not a feature of government or law, but part of the Athenian character. The fact that Athenians valued free speaking was formalised in political practice under the democracy through the equal opportunity to address the political assemblies known as isegoria. There was in Athens no explicit or implied protection against the negative consequences of what one said. In contrast, "freedom of speech" means that the individual is protected against the negative consequences of speaking, in particular protected against action by the government to suppress speech and to punish speech after the fact. This difference in what having "freedom" with respect to speech amounts to, makes the translation of isegoria as "freedom of speech" nearly always systematically misleading, and so we should refrain from doing so in any context in which such confusion might be generated. This misunderstanding is compounded by the frequent translation of parrhesia as "freedom of speech" or "free speech". Parrhesia is the name for a certain mode of speech, namely speech which is direct and truthful, and risks negative consequences. As such, it has both positive and negative connotations, and correspondingly was only valued in contexts in which direct truthful speech would be preferable to other modes of speech. Parrhesia was never formalised as isegoria was, since isegoria was a political privilege while parrhesia was merely a mode of expression. In contrast, free speech is legally protected. Speech which is not believed to be valuable is protected, in order to ensure that valuable speech is not suppressed by the powerful through the instruments of government.
Degree ProgramGraduate College