Free Speech Book Summary - Free Speech Book explained in key points
Listen to the Intro

Free Speech summary

Jacob Mchangama

A History from Socrates to Social Media

4.4 (129 ratings)
27 mins

Brief summary

Free Speech by Jacob Mchangama explores the value of unrestricted free speech and how it has been threatened and curtailed throughout history. The book argues that free speech is essential for democracy and must be protected, even when it is unpopular or offensive.

Table of Contents

    Free Speech
    Summary of 6 key ideas

    Audio & text in the Blinkist app
    Key idea 1 of 6

    Ancient Beginnings

    For most of human history, speaking truth to power was not advisable. Judging from the records of ancient law codes that have managed to survive, most ancient civilizations protected the ruling elite from the speech of their inferiors rather than the other way around. 

    From ancient Egypt to ancient China, surviving moral codes explicitly prohibit speaking out against those of a higher station. Such prohibitions on speech were designed to preserve the rigid social hierarchies that existed in ancient societies, where those on top were often seen to rule by divine right.

    All the more remarkable then that one society was able to buck the trend: a small city-state in ancient Greece called Athens. By the fifth century BCE, Athens shined like a beacon of free speech through the tyrannical fog of history. Free speech was baked into the city’s mode of government at its core. It was a democratic system where the citizens themselves – that is, freeborn men – were expected to propose, debate, and vote on the laws that governed them. 

    While the Athenians’ concept of democracy suffered from several major shortcomings by modern standards with the exclusion of women and enslaved people, it was still exceptionally egalitarian for its time.

    Athenians enjoyed extensive protections for free speech. In political debates, citizens were free to criticize the state and even democracy itself. And, in Athens’ famous theater culture, no one – not even the gods – was spared from satire, as Aristophanes proved when he made Dionysus out to be a fool in his famous play The Frogs.

    The Athenian leniency toward speech was responsible for its cultural success. The free discussion of ideas in Athens’ public agora allowed for a vibrant intellectual spirit to blossom. This period saw great advancements in philosophy, science, and medicine that would likely have been impossible under a more oppressive system.

    However, even Athens had its limits. The charge of impiety – that is, profaning the sacred religious rites of the Eleusinian Mysteries – was a serious crime, punishable by death. That’s something that Athens’ most audacious thinker would discover the hard way.

    If you were to wander the marketplace in Athens in the late fifth century BCE, chances are you’d find yourself accosted by a man with a peculiar limp, bulging frog-like eyes, and an upturned nose. He’d likely be barefoot, wearing the same robes he wore every day and used as a blanket at night. This bedraggled figure is Socrates, and he’s widely considered the founder of Western philosophy.

    Socrates was notoriously annoying. He spent most of every day dragging prominent Athenians into verbal sparring matches, where he would lead them down logical dead ends and reveal their ignorance. Eventually, even tolerant Athenians became tired of this act.

    At the ripe old age of 70, Socrates was indicted for the crime of impiety; he’d allegedly profaned the gods and corrupted the youth of Athens with his ideas. He was found guilty and sentenced to death by drinking poisonous hemlock.

    Historians have often debated why Athenians decided to execute Socrates so late in life, when he’d been speaking freely for decades. We may never know for sure, but it seems likely that a couple of coup attempts that had briefly overturned Athens’ democratic system in the preceding years had put its citizens on edge.

    It’s possible that the fear of a resurgent antidemocratic movement rendered Athens’ citizens far less tolerant of dissent and spurred them to finally silence Socrates who could sometimes be critical of democracy.

    If this is true, then the trial of Socrates reveals a valuable lesson about democracy that we moderns would do well to remember: in the name of protecting democratic values, the most important one of all – free speech – is often the first to be sacrificed.

    Want to see all full key ideas from Free Speech?

    Key ideas in Free Speech

    More knowledge in less time
    Read or listen
    Read or listen
    Get the key ideas from nonfiction bestsellers in minutes, not hours.
    Find your next read
    Find your next read
    Get book lists curated by experts and personalized recommendations.
    Shortcasts New
    We’ve teamed up with podcast creators to bring you key insights from podcasts.

    What is Free Speech about?

    Free Speech (2022) traces the history of this world-defining idea. It provides a soapbox for some of free speech’s greatest proponents and highlights key events that pushed the idea forward from ancient times to the present. Offering an evenhanded treatment of the costs and benefits of free speech throughout history, it’s a powerful retort to all those forces that threaten to erode free speech today.

    Who should read Free Speech?

    • Passionate defenders of free speech who could use more argumentative ammunition 
    • Students preparing for campus debates on whether free speech should be limited
    • Anyone on the left or right seeking insight into modern-day debates on free speech

    About the Author

    Jacob Mchangama is the founder and director of the Danish think tank Justitia and has won many awards for his work promoting free speech and human rights. He’s the host of the podcast Clear and Present Danger: A History of Free Speech, and he’s also published work on the subject of free speech for major publications including the Economist, the Washington Post, and Foreign Policy.

    Categories with Free Speech

    Book summaries like Free Speech

    People ❤️ Blinkist 
    Sven O.

    It's highly addictive to get core insights on personally relevant topics without repetition or triviality. Added to that the apps ability to suggest kindred interests opens up a foundation of knowledge.

    Thi Viet Quynh N.

    Great app. Good selection of book summaries you can read or listen to while commuting. Instead of scrolling through your social media news feed, this is a much better way to spend your spare time in my opinion.

    Jonathan A.

    Life changing. The concept of being able to grasp a book's main point in such a short time truly opens multiple opportunities to grow every area of your life at a faster rate.

    Renee D.

    Great app. Addicting. Perfect for wait times, morning coffee, evening before bed. Extremely well written, thorough, easy to use.

    People also liked these summaries

    4.7 Stars
    Average ratings on iOS and Google Play
    29 Million
    Downloads on all platforms
    10+ years
    Experience igniting personal growth
    Powerful ideas from top nonfiction

    Try Blinkist to get the key ideas from 7,000+ bestselling nonfiction titles and podcasts. Listen or read in just 15 minutes.

    Start your free trial