Aristotle, Liberalism, and the Enemies of Free Speech

Dec 08 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

“It is dangerous,” wrote Aristotle to a Macedonian friend near the end of his life, “for an immigrant to stay in Athens.” Ironically, like America of the 21st century, Athens was a stronghold of liberal ideas, the western birthplace of democracy. The Athenian historian Thucydides wrote of the virtues of free speech in the fifth century B.C.E. when the authors of the Jewish Bible were extolling just its opposite: repression born of  hate and intolerance. Thucydides records the words of an Athenian, Diodotus, that “Haste usually goes with folly, anger is the mark of primitive and narrow minds.” Diodotus, reminds one modern historian, “went on to outline the dangers of using emotional rhetoric to frighten or manipulate an audience into reacting rashly.”[1]

It is this devotion to democracy and free speech – free speech a very liberal idea in itself – that made Athens, or at least the idea of Athens, justifiably famous and admired throughout history, just as America has been admired for its own devotion to these ancient ideas. But America like Athens has also become unfriendly to immigrants, and home to the enemies of free speech, hate, intolerance, and emotional rhetoric used to frighten and manipulate audiences against the Other in their midst.

Athens had managed – barely – not to shame itself when an angry Alexander the Great had demanded the surrender of ten anti-Macedonian orators – men we would today call politicians, in the wake of a near revolt in 335 B.C.E. But now, with Alexander dead of fever in Babylon, his tutor, student of the great Plato, the famous scientist and benefactor of Athens, Aristotle, a man with tablets in Athens and sacred Delphi celebrating his deeds, was persona non grata in the birthplace of democracy. As so often happens in times of crisis, liberalism was on the run.

Aristotle, who had previously found the liberal atmosphere of Athens a welcoming home for his new school, now found himself harassed by reactionary xenophobes motivated by a racist form of Hellenism and a warped sense of Athenian Exceptionalism. Aristotle, a Greek – a Hellene – who had done so much for Athens, so much for philosophy and for science, fled Athens just ahead of a cup of hemlock, writing that he “would not let the Athenians sin twice against philosophy.” The speech he had written for his own defense in court seemed less to be depended upon than his own two feet. Athens’ first sin, of course, had been the politically-motivated judicial murder of Socrates eighty years before, another man who had wound up on the wrong side of reactionaries.

Athens may not have killed Aristotle like it killed Plato, but by fleeing Aristotle did not manage to save Athens from itself, or make its sin any less. It had driven the great man out of the polis on account of racial hatred, that he was tutor to the Macedonian Alexander, friend to Antipater who ruled Macedon in the king’s name, but also on account of his marriage to Pythias, daughter of Hermias, ruler of Atarneus in western Anatolia (now Turkey). Hermias, a Greek himself but not an Athenian, had become for Athenian haters an effeminate, depraved barbarian (the Other is always depraved), a eunuch and former slave, and Aristotle, who had enjoyed his patronage, guilty by association, an enemy to all “real” Athenians.

If you can see the parallels between Athens of the fourth century B.C.E. and our own time, it is because they are there to be seen. Liberalism is not something that can survive without being defended, fought – and sacrificed – for. Greed, selfishness, the baser instincts of humankind, including racism and exceptionalism, crop up again and again throughout the history of democracy, and it is no surprise that time and again democracies and liberal ideas have fallen victim to demagogues and plutocrats stirring the mob for their own gain. We might compare the Athenian haters of the fourth century B.C.E. to the Tea Partiers of today. They certainly served the same function, channeling and expressing hate for politicians trying to build their own base of support, part of a symbiotic relationship between who frighten and stir hate and those who fear and hate.

But Athens was not America. The Athenian democracy, however much it deserves to be lauded, was an early stage and its liberalism did not extend to slaves or much to women, though women fared better than they would later under Christian auspices (the status of slaves was not to improve until after the secular European Enlightenment two thousand years later). The Athenian constitution was not the carefully constructed U.S. Constitution, which benefited from the lessons of history – including Athens’ own. The American Constitution ought to be stronger, more resistant to attack. It ought better to weather the vicissitudes of political and economic instability.

And so we might have thought. But Aristotle would suffer the same abuse here as he suffered in Athens twenty-four hundred years ago, and on account of the same reasons: racism and exceptionalism (fear and hatred), and because he was a man who cared more about what the world around him had to say and less about what one author calls “Forms of things like Goodness and Justice shining down from a distant realm.”[2] He was a liberal on the run because he was a free thinker and a scientist who had tutored a king who had visions of a united world of mixed race, culture and religion stretching from deepest Asia to the shores of the Atlantic.  And Athens was in the grip of a conservative reaction, an appeal to Athens’ lost greatness – to a sort of idealized, mythical Athens that had never really existed. Again, you might see the parallels.

At the first sign of an appeal to lost greatness, the first chatter about “real” this and “real” that, be prepared for the mobs. They are forming. And the wealthy men who benefit most will be standing behind them. We’ve seen it ourselves.

We need to be careful not to kill Aristotle too, metaphorically or his memory. We too must not sin against philosophy. We, with the lessons of history before us, like Diodotus must be aware of the dangers of those who would use rhetoric to arouse fear and hatred of the other in our midst, to close our minds to reason and enslave them to emotion. It has happened before and many times, democracy and liberals ideas have lost, trod by iron heels into dust in the margins of history, but it need not happen again, if we are aware, and if we care. Liberal ideas can prevail. They have survived fear, hate and ambitious rich men, after all, for nearly three thousand years. There is no reason the year 2012 should see the end of them. No reason at all, if we are determined to protect them.

Image from Wikimedia Commons. Bust of Aristotle. Marble, Roman copy after a Greek bronze original by Lysippos from 330 BC.


[1] Charles Freeman, A.D. 381: Heretics, Pagans, and the Dawn of the Monotheistic State (Woodstock & New York: The Overlook Press, 2009), 29.

[2] James Romm, Ghost on the Throne: The Death of Alexander the Great and the War for Crown and Empire (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011), 68.




7 responses so far