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D.M. Carter “Citizen Attribute, Negative Right”

December 8, 2013 Leave a comment

Carter, D.M. 2004. Citizen Attribute, Negative Right: A Conceptual Difference Between Ancient and Modern Ideas of Freedom of Speech. – Ineke Sluiter; Ralph M. Rosen (eds). Free Speech in Classical Antiquity. Boston; Leiden: Brill, 197-219.

Under modern democracies, freedoms are conceived of as negative rights, and these include a right to Freedom of Speech. The Athenians, on the other hand, while they conceived of political freedom in terms very close to a negative right, thought of free speech as something very different: a characteristic of citizens, an attribute, which was a sort of side effect of their political enfranchisement. (198)

Isêgoria appears earlier in the literature. Its meaning differs from parrhêsia with respect both to the context in which it was often used, and to its meaning: it was a term more likely to be used in a political context, and it held connotations more of equality than freedom. It could be political in meaning as well as context, in that it could be used synonymously with democracy: this is the case in its earliest use, at Herodotus 5.78. Parrhêsia, on the other hand, is the word writers in a non-political context are more likely to choose and, I shall argue, represented more a by-product of democracy than democracy itself. (199)

If isêgoria primarily suggests equality of speech, usually in a political context, parrhêsia is a term, more closely connected with ideas of freedom, that can be used equally of social and political discourse. This freedom can be both a good and a bad thing, either a desirable privilege (as it is often in Euripides and Demosthenes—see below) or something likely to cause offense. (201)

The pejorative sense of parrhêsia can be explained to some extent if we consider the composition of the word: literally, to speak with parrhêsia is to say everything, which might mean everything, good and bad. (201)

Isêgoria meant the equal opportunity to speak that one had under democracy: the most formal, as well as the most obvious, expression of this came, ideologically if not actually, in the Assembly. Parrhêsia meant a tendency to say everything, uninhibited by any fear. This might be the fear—no longer present under democracy—of tyrannical authority (Athenian ideas of the effect of tyranny on free speech are discussed below); it might also be the fear of the usual rules of discourse that prevent shame for the speaker or offense for the listener. (202)

However, I am not aware of any accounts of historical tyrants restricting free speech. Why should such evidence be hard to find? Because, I would suggest, to speak with parrhêsia is to be freed from one’s own sense of fear: a tyrant sees little need actively to discourage free speech when his very person is discouraging enough. Crucially, the subjects of tyranny who in Plato’s imagination operate free speech are only the bravest (νδρικ1τατι), the ones who felt most confident to do so. Because parrhêsia is only an attribute, and not anyone’s right, it is not so much something a tyrant actively restricts, as something his subjects are indisposed to exercise. (211)

Parrhêsia under democracy, therefore, depended not on a freedom from censorship protected by law but on the confidence in giving one’s own opinion that came naturally with democratic citizenship. (214)

Since parrhêsia was a matter of confidence, not right, it was not confined to citizens, but could be adopted by others, simply as a result of residence in Athens. (215)