Hi all, hope you are all keeping well. I have been thinking about free speech more or as it’s called the freedom of speech, specifically what’s good about it? What’s bad about it? Why is it important? I thought this was important to explore for myself because we are seeing that there are loud and powerful vocalisers out there pushing for the end of free speech, pressing on with policy to censor speech on the internet and in person. So, a good place to start I think in the exploration is with a brief history of free speech.
Freedom of speech aka the right to express opinions without government restraint is a democratic principal dating back to the ancient Greeks, appearing around the fifth century B.C. The word used “parrhesia” meaning “free speech” or “to speak candidly” or “uninhibited speech”. The principal became a fundamental part of Athenian democracy, everyone in Athens was free to openly discuss politics and religion—free to criticise government. The Athenians were the first culture in history to developed democracy, they even included the concept of “isegoria” meaning “equality of speech”—including the right to address government. “the herald… does not exclude from the platform the man whose ancestors have not held a general’s office, nor even the man who earns his daily bread by working at a trade; nay, these men he most heartily welcomes, and for this reason he repeats again and again the invitation, ‘Who wishes to address the Assembly?’” (Aeschin. 1.27) (SIC) Eruipides declares in a play The Phoenician Woman “This is slavery: not to speak one’s thoughts…” driving home how important such a concept of free speech was to the Athenians. To the ancient Greeks free speech was imperative to democracy. In India is found the first declaration of religious tolerance 268-232 BC, the Mauryan King declares in stone “Growth in essentials can be done in different ways, but all of them have as their root restraint in speech, that is, not praising one’s own religion, or condemning the religions of others without good cause. And if there is good cause for criticism, it should be done in a mild way.” Laid down in the roman republic after expelling their last king was the principals of liberty, 509 B.C.E. The romans placed limits on free speech such as slander and libel making them punishable by death. The use of free speech is used in the defence of the roman republic against the dictator Julius Caesar who was widely by his contemporaries considered a threat to liberty. “War has no use for free speech” (Julius Caesar). In defence of the republic Cato the Younger “I, who have been brought up in freedom, with the right to free speech, cannot in my old age change and learn slavery instead”.
Free speech having its ups and downs took a very downwards trajectory with the first emperor of Rome Augustus, who introduced punishments for literary treason ordering illegal texts burned. His successor Tiberius convicts speech crime offenders to death and burns the entire works of seditious writers, no one was permitted to criticise the emperor or his government. In Tiberius’ empire all crime was treated as a capital offence. Censorship becomes a big apart of life, poets and writer’s critical of the emperor or of his predecessors and critical of any part of roman government are sentenced to death, all their works burned and banned. Then came the age of persecution, the polytheist heavily persecuted the monotheists of the new Jewish Christian sects then the Christians came to persecute the Pagane. The age of persecution impacted the daily lives of everyone encompassing all fields of liberty from learning to the liberty of consciousness. Lasting form the trial of Jesus to the age of Justinian. The start of Christian persecution is marked by a grate fire in Rome 64 AD, thought to be started by Nero he shifts the blame onto the Christians; beginning a series of persecutions of the Christians. Ending in 311 emperor Galerius declaring the freedom of religion with the Edict of Tolerance, Constantin became the first Christian emperor when he was baptised on his deathbed in 337. Shortly after Christianity became the state religion of Rome in 380, yet pagans and other heretics are still persecuted. “It is Our will that the people who are ruled by Our Clemency shall practise that religion witch the divine Peter the apostil transmitted to the Romans… The rest however, whom We adjudge demented and insane, shall sustain the infamy of heretical dogmas, their meeting place shall not receive the name of churches, and they shall be smitten first by divine vengeance and secondly by the retribution of Our own initiative, witch We shall assume in accordance with the divine judgment.” (Theodosian Code) (SIC). In 391 the library of Alexandria was destroyed, with more than 40,000 invaluable books being lost forever. In 529 Justinian I proclaims his empire one empire, one faith and one church he banns all heretics—pagans and non-orthodox Christians from becoming teachers. 539 he introduces the death penalty for blasphemy.
Meanwhile in the Islamic world Muhammad the founder of Islam and proclaimer of the Qur’ān 610 conquers much of the Arabian Peninsula and dies 632. Within thirty years the First Caliphate conkers the Middle East and North Africa. In 684 Caliph ʿAbd al-Malik makes one of the first attempts to purge the Caliphate from heresy, the belief in free will is singled out as particularly dangerous. The Abbāsid Caliphate Dynasty comes to rule the Caliphate ushering in what’s called the Islamic Golden Age lasting for about five centuries, marked as a time of grate social, scientific and philosophical progress. 754 the Graeco-Arabic translation movement is launched, translating almost all Greek philosophy and science into Arabic. Later in the 12th and 13th centuries the ancient thinkers are translated from Arabic to latten and from the Arabic world ancient ideas seep into European thought. 827 Ibn Al-Rawandi of Khorasan becomes one of the earliest Islamic sceptics none of his writings survive. Many Islamic golden age thinkers synthesize Plato and Aristotle into Islamic theology, often being accused of heretical thought—yet western philosophy becomes a vital part of the Islamic world. (Many Christian thinkers too find synthesis with Aristotle and Christian theology such as Tomas Aquinas.) 1258 marks the end of the Islamic Golden age, with the fall of Bagdad and subsequently Abbāsid Caliphate, the Islamic golden age was ended by the Mongolians.
The European middle age, in 800 Charlamagne puts into law that blasphemy is a capital offence and converts heathens by the sword. In 1200 Europe begins to see its first universities, with the rise of Master of Theology the universities and their associated masters assume the role of heresy police. Some number of academically related cases of heresy are taken to trial. One of the notable victims of these heresy laws is Master Amalric of Bene around 1206 having pantheistic views he is found guilty of heresy; he is excommunicated, and his followers are burned at the stake outside the gates of Paris. However, in most cases it was the books that were convicted not the person, writers were free to continue their careers if they revised their views and burned the problematic books. In 1215 the penning of the Magna Carta also known as the Grate Charter, King Jhon under pressure signed the document restricting or placing limits on the crown. The charter among other things guarantees the freedom of the church and promises justice for all, becoming a corner stone of British liberty. 1277 many of Thomas Aquinas’ propositions are condemned and banned by the bishop of Paris, a list of 219 forbidden propositions is issued revolving around the thoughts of Aristotle and Aristotelian philosophers. The medieval era in general was marked by book burning, declarations of heresy and inquisitions and executions along these lines. Human choice in the matters of religion were largely considered a moral threat to Christendom. In 1478 the Spanish inquisition begins, around 150,000 are persecuted with and estimate of 5,000 being executed before its end in 1834. 1492 Jews are expelled from the Kingdome of Castile and Aragon.
Along with the printing press in 1440 came a grater ability to spread knowledge and ideas, 1454 a German goldsmith Johannes Gutenberg prints his first bible. He had broken up the printing press into interchangeable bits, not before long this innovation became widespread. This aloud for the mass printing of a verity of books on a verity of topics. In 1486 an archbishop establishes a commission for censorship, a year later Pope Innocent VIII makes it necessary for pre-authorization before a text can be printed. Yet sentiments of free speech began to seep back into Europe “In a free state, tongues too should be free.” (The Education of a Christian Prince. (1516).
1517 Martin Luther is the first person to see his ideas spread widely with printing press, he publishes a list of theses criticizing the catholic church. He sells more than 300,000 books in 1520 after nailing a copy to a church door. In 1521 the Pope and the holy roman empire both try to stop this reformation in its tracks, the Pope excommunicates Luther and the Holy Roman Emperor banns the printing, selling, possession and reading of his work. Protestant literature and preaching was banned in Austria, Bohemia and hungry. By 1529 all over the Holy Roman Empire pre-publication censorship was introduced, texts had to be approved by an official censor before it can be printed. The reformation becomes the first testing ground for political cartoons. 1517 Niccolo Machiavelli makes a sweeping defence of the republican liberty and public speech “…a people is more prudent, more stable and of better judgment than a prince… The Prejudice which is entertained against the people arises from this, that any man may speak ill of them openly and fearlessly, even when the government is in their hands; whereas princes are always spoken of with a thousand reservations and a constant eye to consequences” (Machiavelli, Discourse on Livy) (SIC). 1560 Europe was gripped with witch hysteria, 100,000 are accused and 40,000 are tortured and killed.
With the reformation came questions, can people of different faith live together in the same state? Should social peace be based upon tolerance or intolerance? The Tudors of England reacted to the printing press with censorship and punishments, issuing lists of prescribed books, King Henry VIII also declares it an act of treason to call him a tyrant and a heretic in the 1520’s. Henries daughter Mary I issues a revised list of prescribed books and punishes slanderous writings with hand amputations, after Henry VIII had spirited England away from the catholic church Mary I tries to return it back to Catholicism. She burns around 300 heretics at the stake. Henrys second daughter Elizabeth I finishes her fathers work and concludes the English reformation, declaring England a protestant state. She makes it illegal to skip church and declares it treason to call her a bastard or usurper. 1542 the roman inquisition begins and for two centuries secret trials are held, around 50,000 of which 1,250 are executed. 1557 The Stationers’ Company in England is granted a monopoly by royal charter on the printing and selling of books, with the authority to search and confiscate unlicenced books and decide who can enter the print trade. Pope Paul IV issues the first papal index of forbidden books in 1559, the index was not formally abolished before 1966. 1568 The Edict of Torda is one of the edicts in Europe of religious freedom, issued in Transylvania. It recognised the legal status of Lutherans, Reformed, Catholics and even the persecuted anti-Trinitarians “Ministers should everywhere preach and proclaim [the Gospel] according to their understanding of it, and if their community is willing to accept this, good; if not, however, no one should be compelled by force if their spirit is not at peace,… no one is permitted to threaten imprison or banish anyone because of their teaching, because faith is a gift from God.” (The Edict of Torda) (SIC). Three years later the edict was expanded “the word of God shall be preached freely everywhere. No one, neither preacher nor listener, shall come to harm on account of his confession”. 1573 The Warsaw Confederation act was passed in Lithuania, it includes a clause of religious freedom “…we mutually promise to ourselves and our successors forever… that we who differ with regard to religion will keep the peace with one another, and will not for a different faith or change of church shed blood nor punish one another by confiscation of property, infamy, punishment or banishment…” 1579 the Dutch republic is born and becomes the vanguard of the enlightenment due to its liberal attitudes towards freedom of consciousness and freedom of speech. The de facto constitution of the Dutch republic declares “…each person shall remain free in his religion and that no one shall be investigated because of his religion…” (The Union of Utrecht, article 13) However, in practice the document allowed for individual providences to determine the degree of religious freedom they allowed. While the Reformed Church had a privileged position many other sects or interpretations and other faiths were banned or had severe restrictions placed upon them, it was more liberal in the sense of censorship and freedom of speech. This liberalism resulted in the flourishing of print, seeing some of the worlds first newspapers and appearance of books that were banned everywhere else.
1582 sees Dirck Coornhert’s Synod of Freedom of Conscience, a fictional discussion of free speech and freedom of conscious. According to Coornhert the truth is reached with God’s word, not the executioners sward. “Freedom has always consisted chiefly in the fact that someone is allowed freely to speak his mind. It has been only the mark of tyranny that one was not allowed to speak his thoughts freely. Therefore it is truly tyrannical to… forbid good books on order to squelch the truth” (the Remonstrant of Leiden aka Dirck Coorhert) He meant the line in terms of “good books” drawing his personal limit at notorious books or books that invite sedition. 1598 sees The Edict of Nantes by King Henry IV of France, it remains in force for 87 years, revoked by Louis XIV. Its stated “…we have permitted and herewith permit, those of the said religion pretended Reformed to live and abide in all the cities and places of this our kingdom and countries of our sway, without being annoyed, molested, or compelled to do anything in the matter of religion contrary to their conscience…” 1586 sees England give more power to the Stationers’ Company giving them extensive measures of control and licensing. In 1600 Giordano Bruno is burned alive for his work in cosmology, placing the sun as opposed the earth at the centre the universe. His work was revolutionary in the sense that it placed the earth in orbit of the sun. “It is proof of base and low mind for one to wish to think with the masses or majority, merely because the majority is the majority. Truth does not change because it is, or is not, believed by a majority of people.” (Gordano Bruno). 1632 the Astronomer Galileo Galilei is arrested with his most recent book promoting the heliocentric world view, as well as disrespecting the pope. In the Mughal Empire Akbar the Grate 1556-1605 was renowned for his religious tolerance, he abolishes the Jizya tax on non-Muslims, allows forced converts to re-convert and invites priests of different faiths to discuss their religious views and beliefs. “Formerly I persecuted men into conformity with my faith and deemed it to be Islam. As I grew in knowledge, I was overwhelmed with shame.” (Akbar the Great) His grandson the exact opposite of him an orthodox Muslim, reimposes the tax on non-Muslims and fires Hindu officials—as well as having Hindu temples razed to the ground.
In 17th century England a group of “radicals” demanded a written constitution guaranteeing free speech, liberty of conscience and democracy. The levellers. 1643 the British parliament established pre-publication censorship when it issues the Licensing Order, which prevent any contrary book, pamphlet or opinion to the Christion faith. This moved John Milton to write his famous argument in 1644 “Aropagitica” in defence of free speech, the licencing order was abolished in 1695. “Give me liberty to know, to utter and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties” (Areopapitica) Tomas Hobbes on the other hand was not a proponent of free speech, in 1651 he argues against press freedom saying that the sovereign should have absolute power to censor dangerous opinions to ensure peace and prevent civil wars. He did this in his book Leviathan “…it is annexed to the sovereignty to be judge of what opinions and doctrines are averse, and what conducing to peace; and consequently, on what occasions, how far, and what men are to be trusted withal in speaking to multitudes of people; and who shall examine the doctrines of all books before they are published.” (Leviathan). 1662 The English parliament establishes the licensing of the press act.
The 16th century Spanish and Portuguese globalize the inquisition, spreading the fight for orthodox religiosity against the heresy, blasphemy and apostasy to the Americas, Africa and Asia. 1492 the Spanish stumble upon the American continent by way of an explorer Christopher Columbus, within a generation the Spanish conquistadors subjugate the Aztecs, Mayas and Incas. Before long Spain’s American empire stretches from New Mexico to Argentina. Bringing with them Catholic missionaries, destroying temples, confiscating sacred imagery and banning native expression. By the whip their cultures are converted to monogamy and chastity, in the words of the Franciscan missionary’s conversion has to be reinforced by fear. The Portuguese inquisition is launched in 1536 and five years later King Joao III extends the inquisition to cover the whole of the Portuguese empire, lasting till 1821, calcifying the most serious crimes as Judaism, Lutheranism, Islam, heretical opinion, witchcraft and bigamy. 1560 and independent tribunal is set up in Goa, the institution covers all the eastern colonies from the East Coast of Africa to Malaysia. Brazil is under the jurisdiction of the central tribunal in Lisbon. 1571 the Spanish in the Americas open up the America’s first printing office, the church keeps printing on a tight leash and novels are forbidden. A strict index of forbidden books is enforced, 1571 Mexico’s inquisitor general launches a massive book purge, even the missionaries are caught with forbidden books in their possession. In the 1590’s antisemitism washes over Mexico City and people are burned to death, around 200 cases of illegal Judaism are investigated. 17th century British colonies begin centralising the government, officials or the law is punishable as seditious libel, religious speech is tightly controlled. Blasphemy is punishable by death and religious deserters such as Quakers are viciously persecuted in Puritan New England. In 1612 Virginias first governor Tomas Dale issues a list of offences known as Dale’s Laws, it punishes speech and thought crime such as blasphemy, heresy and lying by death. 1641 the colony of Massachusetts issues the Body of Liberty and makes it punishable by death to subvert or alter the frame polite or government fundamentality’s as well as heresy, blasphemy, and homosexuality. In 1685, the French government revokes the edict of Nantes and initiates a policy of religious persecution on the French protestants, in England King James II assumes the throne to the horror of the protestant majority in parliament. From their exile in the Dutch Republic, the French philosopher Pierre Bayle writes his ground-breaking work defence of religious tolerance “Commentaire Philosophique” and John Loke writes “Letter Concerning Tolerance” in latten. From hear the seeds of enlightenment begin to grow. (It’s been a long road.)
I will end this post here and conclude the “brief history of freedom of speech” in a few days and conclude with my own opinions and thoughts in the post after. This history in detail was made possible by the website www.freespeechhistory.com, I will use this to conclude this history. Pleas if you cannot wait feel free to view their sight where there is much more detail than I will provide here.
Stay well all, please feel free to comment and let me know your thoughts.