The best books on freedom and freedom of speech in Ancient Greece

Paul Anthony Cartledge Author Of Democracy: A Life
By Paul Anthony Cartledge

Who am I?

My Democracy book was the summation of my views to that date (2018) on the strengths and weaknesses of democracy as a political system, in both its ancient and its modern forms. I’d been an activist and advocate of democracy since my undergraduate days (at Oxford, in the late 1960s – interesting times!). As I was writing the book the world of democracy suddenly took unexpected, and to me undesirable turns, not least in the United States and my own U.K. An entire issue of an English-language Italian political-philosophy journal was devoted to the book in 2019, and in 2021 a Companion to the reception of Athenian democracy in subsequent epochs was dedicated to me.


I wrote...

Democracy: A Life

By Paul Cartledge,

Book cover of Democracy: A Life

What is my book about?

Democracy today, globally, is in crisis—both in the liberal democratic West and in the vast tracts of the globe where authoritarianism or dictatorship are the preferred modes. All democracies today are representative, not direct, and inclusive. The word democracy and the original forms of democracy were invented in Ancient Greece, together with the fundamental concepts of freedom to participate and freedom of political speech. But ancient democracies were direct and exclusive. What if anything can we learn from an accessible study of the ways ancient Greeks did democratic politics? What has immediately prompted me to choose this book and theme is, of course, the near-murder of Salman Rushdie, a victim of the frighteningly illiberal current that dominates especially in non- or anti-democratic cultures today.

The books I picked & why

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Freedom: Volume I: Freedom In The Making Of Western Culture

By Orlando Patterson,

Book cover of Freedom: Volume I: Freedom In The Making Of Western Culture

Why this book?

I have met Orlando only once, alas, at the university where he has taught for many years (Harvard), he is both a novelist and historical sociologist. For a Black scholar originating from Kingston, Jamaica, to write approvingly of forms of freedom that he believes ‘made’ Western culture, when that culture arguably in both its ancient Greek and its modern Euro-American modes was also based on slavery, is in itself very remarkable. This is the first of a two-volume study.

Freedom: Volume I: Freedom In The Making Of Western Culture

By Orlando Patterson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Freedom as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This magisterial work traces the history of our most cherished value. Patterson links the birth of freedom in primitive societies with the institution of slavery, and traces the evolution of three forms of freedom in the West from antiquity through the Middle Ages.

The Discovery of Freedom in Ancient Greece

By Kurt A. Raaflaub, Renate Franciscono (illustrator),

Book cover of The Discovery of Freedom in Ancient Greece

Why this book?

Kurt, a Swiss-German scholar who spent much of his career in Germany and the United States (Brown University), is an old and beloved friend of mine but I would have chosen this book even if he had not been. Its origins go far back, to the author’s Habilitationsschrift (Free University, Berlin, 1979), but it was completely updated for its English reincarnation. Its seven chapters take the story of Greek freedom, both internal and external, both political and cultural, from its origins in the 8th century BCE down to the Roman conquest and occupation of Greece in the 2nd century.

The Discovery of Freedom in Ancient Greece

By Kurt A. Raaflaub, Renate Franciscono (illustrator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Discovery of Freedom in Ancient Greece as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Kurt Raaflaub asks the essential question: when, why, and under what circumstances did the concept of freedom originate? To find out Raaflaub analyzes ancient Greek texts from Homer to Thucydides in their social and political contexts.

Free Speech in Classical Antiquity

By Ineke Sluiter (editor), Ralph Rosen (editor),

Book cover of Free Speech in Classical Antiquity

Why this book?

Coincidentally this scholarly collection of essays appeared in the same year as my 2nd Book Pick. The original versions of the papers were delivered at ‘Penn’ (the University of Pennsylvania, Professor Rosen’s home) at the second ‘Penn-Leiden Colloquium on Ancient Values’ (Leiden being Prof. Sluiter’s base). Free speech had two distinct terms and expressions in ancient Greece, one more expansive than the other. Parrhesia could be understood as frankness of expression, not necessarily political. Isegoria, on the other hand, was narrowly political and applied only to adult male free citizens: it’s best translated exactly as equal freedom of public political speech. One reviewer of the collection picked up on the existence of a rivalry between an official/state version of historical facts and the—more truthful—version given by an individual writer, explicitly referencing Salman Rushdie.

Free Speech in Classical Antiquity

By Ineke Sluiter (editor), Ralph Rosen (editor),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Free Speech in Classical Antiquity as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This book contains a collection of essays on the notion of "Free Speech" in classical antiquity. The essays examine such concepts as "freedom of speech," "self-expression," and "censorship," in ancient Greek and Roman culture from historical, philosophical, and literary perspectives. Among the many questions addressed are: what was the precise lexicographical valence of the ancient terms we routinely translate as "Freedom of Speech," e.g., Parrhesia in Greece, Licentia in Rome? What relationship do such terms have with concepts such as isegoria, demokratia and eleutheria; or libertas, res publica and imperium? What does ancient theorizing about free speech tell us about…

The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life

By Bettany Hughes,

Book cover of The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life

Why this book?

I have collaborated with Bettany over many years—in her scholarly documentary filmmaking, including programmes on Socrates of Athens (469-399). Socrates never wrote or published in written form a word of his philosophy, yet through his immediate and succeeding disciples (above all Plato and Aristotle) has been hugely influential. But was he a democrat, as his fellow Athenians understood that term? In 399 a jury of 501 of his peers, chosen randomly by lot, delivered their resoundingnegativeverdict, and condemned him to death by hemlock poison for being undemocratically irreligious and for teaching his pupils undemocratic values. Plato violently disagreed, and the debate over Socrates has continued ever since. Since it can be made to appear that he was convicted by an illiberal jury on grounds of his use of (democratic) freedom of speech, his condemnation has often been used as a stick to beat the ‘tyranny of the mob’. Bettany’s book will help us to come to a more balanced view.

The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life

By Bettany Hughes,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Hemlock Cup as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.


Free Speech: A History from Socrates to Social Media

By Jacob Mchangama,

Book cover of Free Speech: A History from Socrates to Social Media

Why this book?

Jacob is the founder and executive director of Justitia, a Danish think-tank. He had the brilliant idea of organising and presenting a lengthy and probing podcast series, Clear and Present Danger: A History of Free Speech, and that is the basis of this book—written by himself but adopting and adapting the originally oral contributions of his many online guests. Of whom I was one of the first, since he chose to begin at the beginning with ‘Ancient (that is, Greek) Beginnings’. Rather than free speech being a danger to democracy, it has unique, universal, and enduring importance, as a liberating and equalising principle and force throughout history and around the world. But it also has costs. Was Socrates justly condemned? Jacob thinks not, but I tend to take the side of the majority of his judges.

Free Speech: A History from Socrates to Social Media

By Jacob Mchangama,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Free Speech as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A global history of free speech, from the ancient world to today.

Hailed as the "first freedom," free speech is the bedrock of democracy. But it is a challenging principle, subject to erosion in times of upheaval. Today, in democracies and authoritarian states around the world, it is on the retreat.
In Free Speech, Jacob Mchangama traces the riveting legal, political, and cultural history of this idea. Through captivating stories of free speech's many defenders - from the ancient Athenian orator Demosthenes and the ninth-century freethinker al-Razi, to Mary Wollstonecraft, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and modern-day digital activists - Mchangama…


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