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Free Speech summary

Jacob Mchangama

A History from Socrates to Social Media

4.4 (150 ratings)
27 mins

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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.

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    Free Speech
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    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.

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    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.

    Free Speech Review

    Free Speech (2020) by Jacob Mchangama explores the importance of free speech in society and why it should be protected. Here's why this book is worth reading:

    • Through thorough research and analysis, it unveils the historical significance of free speech, offering insights into its evolution and impact on society.
    • It examines controversial case studies and legal battles that have shaped our understanding of free speech, making the book both informative and thought-provoking.
    • With its thoughtful examination of the limits and challenges of free speech, it encourages readers to critically evaluate their own beliefs and engage in meaningful discussions.

    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.

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    Free Speech FAQs 

    What is the main message of Free Speech?

    The main message of Free Speech is the importance of protecting and preserving the freedom of expression.

    How long does it take to read Free Speech?

    The estimated reading time for Free Speech varies depending on the reader's speed. However, the Blinkist summary can be read in just 15 minutes.

    Is Free Speech a good book? Is it worth reading?

    Free Speech is a thought-provoking and informative book that sheds light on the significance of free speech. It's definitely worth reading.

    Who is the author of Free Speech?

    Jacob Mchangama is the author of Free Speech.

    What to read after Free Speech?

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