Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.07.49

Arlene W. Saxonhouse, Free Speech and Democracy in Ancient Athens.   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2006.  Pp. x, 235.  ISBN 0-521-81985-7.  $70.00.  

Reviewed by John Lombardini, Politics, Princeton University (
Word count: 2873 words

Arlene Saxonhouse's latest book is an engaging and insightful investigation into the relationship between free speech and democracy in both ancient Athenian and contemporary discourse. Methodologically, Saxonhouse seeks to better understand this relationship by disentangling the discussion from contemporary issues surrounding free speech and democracy, and in particular, from the language of contemporary liberalism that understands both free speech and democracy in terms of individual rights and protections. Saxonhouse hopes that by examining the theoretical relationship between free speech and democracy within the ancient Athenian context we can open up alternative interpretive paths, gaining not only new perspectives on ancient authors, but also innovative approaches to contemporary issues and dilemmas. Saxonhouse argues that there is a theoretical link between free speech and democracy in their common rejection of shame: free speech involves a rejection of shame as a limit to what one can say, while democracy, for Saxonhouse, involves a rejection of deference to hierarchy and the limiting chains of the past. Nevertheless, there is a fundamental tension between free speech and democracy in practice, insofar as any regime requires some form of shame as the social emotion that binds political communities together. Saxonhouse explores these congruities and tensions between free speech, shame, and democracy through readings of Herodotus, Plato, Thucydides, Aristophanes, and Euripides, with a strong emphasis on the connections between Socratic philosophy and Athenian democracy. While many of her points are controversial, and not everyone will agree with all of her historical analysis and textual exegesis, Saxonhouse's interpretive framework allows her to produce fresh and provocative readings that more than justify her mode of analysis.


The main body of Free Speech and Democracy in Ancient Athens consists of eight chapters divided into four parts. The first part (containing chapters one and two) serves as the introduction to the book. Chapter one illustrates the distinctions between the ancient Athenian and modern (read: Machiavelli forward) conceptions of free speech. Through an examination of the American debate over the Bill of Rights and the political thought of John Locke, Saxonhouse articulates a modern conception of free speech that focuses on free speech as a necessary tool to check the actions of an always potentially tyrannical government. This conception (which Saxonhouse contends is the framework within which free speech issues are debated in contemporary discourse) relies on a distinction between the 'people' and the government as their agent, a distinction that she rightly contends fits uneasily in democratic Athens. For the ancient Athenians, for whom the demos was the government, free speech was the "affirmation of the equality of participation and self-rule" (24).

Chapter two explains the conception of democracy that Saxonhouse employs throughout the book, a conception which emphasizes the freedom that allows those living in a democratic society to break free from the restraints of history, hierarchy, and shame; in other words, democracy relies on a certain form of amnesia, a forgetting of the inegalitarian chains of the past. Saxonhouse hopes that focusing on this species of freedom will enable her to distinguish democracy "from a liberalism and libertarianism that focus on the protection of rights from governmental interference and then from a constitutionalism that relies on the past to limit the present" while at the same time establishing a connection between democracy and Socratic philosophy in their common attempt to escape from the legacies of the past (15). For Athenian democracy, according to Saxonhouse, this break from the past occurred during the revolution of 508, and was most clearly embodied in the Cleisthenic reforms. By renaming citizens according to their demes and replacing the four original Ionian tribes with ten artificially constructed tribes, Cleisthenes moved Athens towards a democratic regime by eliminating some of the most powerful institutions that commanded deference to hierarchy. Drawing on the work of Sheldon Wolin, Saxonhouse seems to support the claim that any appeal to laws, such as appeals to a constitution in contemporary discourse or to the patrios nomos in 4th century Athens, represents the assertion of control over the present by the past, limiting the power of the people, and resulting in a moderation of democracy.1 Such a conceptual framework leads Saxonhouse to argue that democracy is not simply a break from past hierarchies, but a "politics of perpetual newness" (52).2

Part II (chapter 3) rounds out this understanding of democracy with a discussion of shame, or aidos. Through a reading of Protagoras' Great Myth Saxonhouse identifies aidos as necessary for the existence of the political world. Examining contemporary psychological accounts of shame along with analyses of shame in the Greek world (E.R. Dodds and Bernard Williams are important here), Saxonhouse explains that shame is a social emotion that connects us to other individuals. This means, of course, that there is an inevitable tension within democracy between a type of parrhesia that militates against shame-induced deference to hierarchy and an aidos that is essential for the creation of the political community. Aidos is also philosophically important for Saxonhouse, since, through a reading of the tale of Gyges in Herodotus, she identifies shame with the covering of what is true; in other words, reverence for laws and hierarchies might prevent human beings from discovering what is true.

Part III (chapters 4 and 5) provides a survey of the practice of parrhesia within democratic Athens and explores the tensions and problems created by this practice through a reading of Plato's Apology. In chapter four Saxonhouse provides us with her conception of parrhesia. Siding with some recent explorations of the concept (such as Monoson, Foucault, and Nehamas), Saxonhouse prefers to translate parrhesia as 'frank speech,' rather than as 'free speech' or 'freedom of speech,' since, whereas the latter two invoke the "passive language of rights," 'frank speech' preserves the "daring and courageous quality of the practice" as well as "the unveiling aspects of the practice that entailed exposure of one's true thoughts" (88). Athenian democracy, moreover, relied on its citizens exercising this type of parrhesia in the Assembly, rather than masking their true thoughts behind the veil of rhetoric. Parrhesia in this sense, as Saxonhouse reveals through a reading of the 4th century orations of Demosthenes and Aeschines, existed for the sake of the city, not for the sake of the individuals practicing it. The orators' defense of parrhesia, moreover, reveals the deterioration of its practice into deceptive oratory and flattering demagoguery, into forms of speech that harmed the city by covering and distorting the truth.

Chapter 5 offers a novel reading of Plato's Apology, arguing that we should interpret the trial of Socrates in terms of the tension between parrhesia and aidos. For Saxonhouse, Socrates' defense speech demonstrates that he is the true embodiment of parrhesia and the shamelessness that its practice entails. While Socrates, in practicing philosophy, does shame his interlocutors by revealing their ignorance, he himself is totally shameless when it comes to revealing his own ignorance. In fact, he revels in his own ignorance, revealing that he is not controlled by the same shame that motivates the actions of his fellow Athenians. He is an open, democratic man, who does not acknowledge the normal boundaries governing Athenian politics; he talks to anyone he comes across, rich and poor alike, and (a point that Saxonhouse does not mention but could only bolster her argument) to women (Aspasia and Diotima) and slaves (in the Meno) as well. Yet, rather than simply eliminate shame, Socrates seeks to internalize it, transforming shame from an emotion that moves one to revere the customs of the city towards an emotion that "takes one beyond his or her particular customs and traditions to the universal principles governing the cityless soul" (113). According to Saxonhouse, this new form of shame threatens the stability of an Athens that does not fully practice the parrhesia it purports to cherish.

Part IV (chapters 6, 7, and 8) examines the limits on the actual practice of parrhesia through readings of Aristophanes, Euripides, Thucydides, and Plato. Chapter 6 offers readings of Aristophanes' Thesmophoriazusae and Euripides' Phoenician Women, arguing that both explore the possibility that there is no truth for the exercise of parrhesia to uncover. In the first case, the disguises and deceptions engaged by the characters in the Thesmophoriazusae might reveal fundamental limits on what we can know. In the case of the Phoenician Women, the debate between Eteocles and Polyneices illustrates that the absence of truth would allow parrhesia to become simply another tool for the exercise of power. Both plays, moreover, point to how parrhesia was an exclusionary practice, one that did not allow certain classes of individuals to speak frankly in the political realm (despite the fact that they might have been given free reign on the tragic and comic stages). Chapter 7 investigates the very possibility of instituting the ideal of parrhesia into political practice through a reading of Thucydides' History and an analysis of his historical method. For Saxonhouse, the problems Thucydides encountered in the act of writing history mirror the challenges Athenian citizens faced during the process of democratic decision-making. Both Thucydides and the citizens of Athens had to rely on the inevitably unreliable and biased speeches of others in their respective activities, and both required some basic understanding of human nature in order to accomplish these tasks well. Saxonhouse explores these connections through readings of the Mytilinean debate, the debate over the invasion of Sicily, and the Syracusan debate.

In chapter 8 Saxonhouse offers a truly masterful reading of Plato's Protagoras. Rather than reading the dialogue as a work concerned with whether or not virtue can be taught, or a dialogue concerning the nature of virtue itself, Saxonhouse focuses on the tension between parrhesia and aidos, producing a novel and compelling reading. For Saxonhouse, Socrates emerges as the open, democratic practitioner of parrhesia, while Protagoras, despite his boldness in openly admitting himself to be a sophist, is limited in his practice of parrhesia by his fear of the powerful men of Athens. For example, while Socrates is indifferent to whether he speaks in private or in public, Protagoras is hesitant to speak in public for fear of punishment. Moreover, according to Saxonhouse, the dialogue also presents Socrates' attempt to find an alternative foundation for the political community while at the same time demolishing the traditional aidos. His solution is to replace content-laden sources of aidos drawn from a reverence for the past with contentless rules that allow for a democratic and philosophic forward-looking perspective. Rejecting Callias' interpretation of parrhesia as saying whatever one wishes, Socrates replaces aidos with eidos (she does not mean the Theory of the Forms), limiting the form of parrhesia without limiting its content, and thereby also reducing the ability of speakers to use deceptive speech. Another merit to this approach to the dialogue is that Saxonhouse is able to account for the apparent 'digression' towards the end of the dialogue concerning the interpretation of the poem by Simonides. For Saxonhouse, Socrates' reading of the poem, which plays with the ambiguity of speech, corresponds to the Socratic endeavor to free words from their conventional uses, allowing the philosopher to investigate the truth. Nevertheless, it also reveals that philosophy, like democracy, must impose some limits on its practice. Lurking behind such Socratic play with words is the danger that words could lose their meaning, disenabling speech as a medium for philosophizing.


The most rewarding part of this book is, without a doubt, Saxonhouse's rich and provocative exegesis of ancient texts. Approaching the texts of Plato, Thucydides, Aristophanes, and Euripides with an eye towards the tensions within the ancient practice of parrhesia allows her to be fresh and incisive, even if not everyone will agree with her readings. In her short conclusion, she demonstrates a rather keen awareness for some of the more obvious objections to her argument and offers some brief, but astute, responses to them. A bit disappointing, however, is the all-too-short discussion of Aristophanes and Old Comedy. One would expect more emphasis to have been placed on this aspect of Athenian democratic culture in a work dedicated to exploring the relationship between parrhesia and democracy. Moreover, one thing that is largely missing from Saxonhouse's readings of the Apology and Protagoras is any serious discussion of Socratic irony. While Saxonhouse does briefly mention Socratic irony in her conclusion, a fuller inclusion of Socratic irony in her discussion of the Platonic dialogues would seem to weaken her reading of the Apology, insofar as it would partially undermine the conflict between Socrates-as-ideal-parrhesiast and a democracy that only purports to cherish frank speaking.

One of the more substantial concerns I had with Saxonhouse's argument is the connection she makes between democracy and 'willing amnesia.' Saxonhouse admits in her conclusion that this is a somewhat odd approach to take in a work that is devoted to using ancient authors to help us think through contemporary problems. Her very methodology, in other words, presupposes that the past is not always a chain on the present, and that ancient texts and ancient practices can provide tools for the invigoration of the practice of democracy in the present and in the future. Even with this concession, however, it seems that there is an all-too-stark dichotomy running through the work between a reverence for the past that is almost always anti-democratic and a forward-looking democratic perspective, a dichotomy that, in Wolin's terms, views the growing institutionalization of democracy as necessarily an attempt to repress democracy. I would suggest, however, that Wolin's interpretation of democracy obscures the ways in which certain institutions within Athenian democracy actually served to solidify (and perhaps even make possible) some of the core practices and values of the democracy. An excellent example of this is the institution of Old Comedy, where Saxonhouse states "one finds the fullest expression of the freedom to speak frankly" (130). Organizing the dramatic festivals in Athens was a complicated affair, one that required large amounts of organization and official institutionalization. Yet, it was an institution that nurtured and celebrated the practice of parrhesia in a democratic culture that, according to Saxonhouse, was unable to fully implement this ideal in practice. Similarly, the tradition of celebrating the tyrant-killers Harmodios and Aristogeiton is a clear example of how a certain reverence for the past could potentially be democracy-reinforcing. Thus, while I still believe Saxonhouse's basic argument concerning democracy is convincing, a more thorough consideration of possible objections like these might have made her argument stronger and more nuanced.

Also, the distinction Saxonhouse draws between ancient and modern conceptions of democracy seems too stark. First, Josiah Ober has recently argued that we can discern certain 'quasi-rights' to liberty (the right to do what one wishes and especially to speak out in public), equality (of opportunity and political voice), and individual personal security (living without fear of being constrained by the actions of stronger persons within one's own society) as essential components of Athenian democratic culture.3 Moreover, Ober's contention that these 'quasi-rights' were preserved only by the collective action of the demos, calls into question Saxonhouse's earlier equation between rights and passivity. While Ober's claim is certainly a controversial one, it is at least useful as a means for interrogating certain assumptions about the differences between the ancients and the moderns that have become rather deep-seated in modern discussions. Second, the contentless restraints Socrates places upon the argument in the Protagoras seems to bear certain similarities, oddly enough, to certain contemporary procedural or formal accounts of democracy. Insofar as Saxonhouse stakes the usefulness of her analysis on freeing the debate concerning free speech from the contemporary language of liberalism, problems such as these might cause one to rethink some of the author's basic conceptual assumptions.

Last, while I would agree with Saxonhouse that there is a certain congruence between Athenian democracy and Socratic philosophy insofar as both sought to free themselves from past conventions, the points at which shame reappears in both practices seems to speak to a much deeper tension between them. As Saxonhouse argues, Socrates does not attempt to eliminate shame but to recenter it around the individual. If this is the case, then it seems that the Socratic internalization of shame is also an attempt to depoliticize shame, insofar as Socratic shame is unconcerned with the gaze of others. Thus, beyond any common espousal of parrhesia, the forms of aidos each practice requires are fundamentally different, perhaps pointing toward a deeper incompatibility between them.

On the whole, however, Free Speech and Democracy in Ancient Athens is an invigorating work that will be of interest to both classicists and political scientists/theorists alike. Most readers will agree with Saxonhouse's overall argument concerning the concept of parrhesia and its practice within Athenian democracy, as well as with her analysis of aidos. Moreover, her textual exegesis is strong and convincing; any disagreement will be confined to matters of interpretation, not those of scholarly error. While her provocative thesis about the congruence between free speech, democracy, and philosophy will undoubtedly be the source of much fruitful disagreement, even those who will not agree with all of Saxonhouse's conclusions will learn much from this book. In this sense, the work truly lives up to Saxonhouse's self-professed goal of opening up alternative ways of thinking about the issues raised by free speech.


1.   See S. Wolin, "Norm and Form: The Constitutionalizing of Athenian Democracy", in J. Euben, J. Wallach and J. Ober (eds.), Athenian Political Thought and the Reconstruction of American Democracy (Ithaca, NY, Cornell University Press, 1994).
2.   Saxonhouse is quoting Judith Shklar on Thomas Jefferson.
3.   J. Ober, "Quasi-Rights: Participatory Citizenship and Negative Liberties", in Athenian Legacies: Essays on the Politics of Going on Together (Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 2005).

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