College Parrhēsia

Challenged by Socrates to demonstrate that aretē can be taught, Protagoras launches into a myth on the origins of the species (Plat. Protrag. 320c-323a). Epimetheus, shortsighted Titan that he is, forgot to provide humanity with a means of protection, and so Prometheus stole fire and technical wisdom for them. Yet humans still risked extinction because they could not cooperate. Zeus therefor dispatched Hermes with the gifts of shame (aidōs) and justice. He added a law that a shameless and unjust human should be killed (not just cancelled) as a social pest. With this myth, Protagoras shows how human society requires not only justice but also aidōs, the emotion that makes one sensitive to social values and inhibits deviation from them. Justice and shame underwrite the political art, the technē required for collective action. Protagoras’ myth passes over parrhēsia, the practice of honest self-expression. As Arlene Saxonhouse demonstrated in her book on free speech and democracy (2005), a tension exists between parrhēsia and aidōs. Both are necessary but push in opposite ways. Parrhēsia is also meaningfully different from “free speech.” It is not a right, but a practice and it has at least two sides, as David Konstan has shown (2012): forthright honesty or shameless license. This complexity of parrhēsia and its tension with aidōs provide a productive perspective on the complexities of the campus speech debates.

Others before me have used parrhēsia to think about the campus speech climate. Two related essays inspired this reflection. First, Teresa M. Bejan (Atlantic 2017) suggests that we can understand current campus speech conflicts as part of a long-term conflict between equality of speech (isēgoria) and frank speech (parrhēsia).(1) She makes her case with a longue durée approach to the ideas of equality and frank speech, arguing that “gray-bearded free-speech fundamentalists like” herself must recognize the fundamental principle of equality.(2) Following Bejan’s distinction between equality of speech and frank speech, Kierstead (Antigone Journal 2021) suggests that equality of speech, respecting the implicit norms of civility, belongs in the classroom while the shameless, unrestricted speech of parrhēsia requires institutional protections.(3) Both worry that unless we treat parrhēsia as a right, we risk undermining our freedom.

Since both are primarily concerned to protect a right to “free speech” on campus, parrhēsia looses its distinctive qualities, becoming just a Greek word for a right to free speech. Moreover, neither addresses the tension with aidōs. Saxonhouse lists two distinctive qualities of parrhēsia:

1) the daring and courageous quality of the practice; those who spoke openly in Athens may have been at risk of legal action if they spoke on behalf of proposals contrary to the established laws and if they questioned the fundamental principles of their system of government; and 2) the unveiling aspects of the practice that entailed the exposure of one’s true thoughts, the resistance to hiding what is true because of deference to a hierarchical social and political world or a concern with how one appears before the gaze of others, that is, shame. (88)

Two examples of the practice can help ground these abstractions. When Fredrick Douglass gave the commencement speech at Case Western Reserve University, he was not protected by Free Speech rights, which were not yet broadly established in law. Moreover, many Americans found his views on slavery offensive and even treasonous. Although afraid for his life, he spoke (Ulrich Baer, 2019: 72ff). In August 2017, several months after Bejan’s essay appeared, the Unite the Right rally invaded the campus of the University of Virginia: several hundred polo-wearing khaki-panted white-power hipsters chanted their claims that “the Jews will not replace us,” alluding to the great replacement theory. Those who come to parrhesia primarily from philosophy tend to associate it with truth and the great replacement theory is bullshit, racist nonsense. However, parrhesia does not reveal truth so much as one’s honest beliefs, beliefs that may at times conflict with ideas valued by different communities. One major difference: Unlike Douglass, the protestors had the legal right of Free Speech and the support of the ACLU.

The examples illustrate that we cannot discuss parrhēsia without considering both the content of the opinion and the context of expression. If we remain sensitive to the problems raised by the content and context of parrhēsia, its distinctive qualities can illuminate aspects of campus speech climate, both inside and outside the classroom.

One important aspect is “openness among friends,” where parrhēsia is found among comrades and brothers (Konstan, citing Nicomachean Ethics 1165a29). A paradigmatic example occurs in Hao Jingfang’s remarkable sci-fi novel Vagabonds. Struggling with understanding her place in society, Luoying reflects on how she can express herself with doctor Reini:

When she wanted to share her thoughts with someone, her ideal listener was someone like this, deep and not easily disturbed. Perhaps he wouldn’t necessarily give her useful guidance, but she knew he would not judge her. (Trans. Ken Liu)

The lack of judgment allows her to speak unrestrained by shame (aidōs), a freedom indispensable for Luoying at this moment because her thinking puts her in conflict with her community. Importantly, she needs this context because she is unsure what to think. Free speech discourse often presumes that opinions are fully formed. In fact, they are frequently uncertain, opaque, changeable. Essential to this aspect of parrhēsia is the restricted context of non-judgmental friendship. Most of us do not live-stream therapist visits (another space where one seeks non-judgmental openness).

The 2021 Campus Free Speech Report surveyed students on how comfortable they felt expressing their views on highly controversial issues (e.g., abortion, racial inequality) in academic and campus social contexts. The report reveals that for many students, aidōs inhibits their parrhēsia. This result should surprise no one. We expect that sensitivity to perceived community values will inhibit the expression of ideas in conflict with those values. The report is ideologically based on fundamentalist free speech principles: it treats any failure to honestly express one’s opinions as repression, as self-censorship. The inhibiting emotion of aidōs provides a better frame for restraining the honest expression of opinions. There are times when it is good not to give our opinions. In terms of the report, campus communities require some degree of self-censorship. And I find absurd the assumption that students should never experience aidōs about opinions on complex and controversial topics when speaking before other students. Certainly, there are contexts and cases where we might hope that students employ parrhēsia. Creating contexts where students can experience “openness among friends” might be a good way to incorporate more parrhēsia into colleges. We can call them safe spaces.

The Campus Free Speech report also explored parrhēsia in the classroom. The college classroom combines a possible negative peer judgment with the presence of the professor, who represents several aspects of authority (e.g., grading). This situation invokes another characteristic aspect of aidōs: respect for legitimate authority. In this case, parrhēsia requires the courage to disagree openly with authority. In episode 12 of Rookie Historian Goo Hae-ryung, Prince Dowon courageously critiques his father, the king, by telling him publicly that he has engaging in three of the six condemned behaviors. King and prince already have a bad relationship, and everyone treats his speech as dangerous and unwise. Prince Dowon’s courageous parrhēsia is somewhat undercut when he reveals that he spoke in this way to impress the Rookie Historian, the woman he loves. Still, a student must use parrhēsia to disagree openly with a professor in class, whatever motivates the courage.

Given this context, the results from the report surprised me. When asked, “How comfortable do you feel publicly disagreeing with a professor about a controversial topic,” students responded…

12% very comfortable
28% somewhat comfortable
36% somewhat uncomfortable
25% very uncomfortable

An impressive result! The logic of the report implies that the ideal would be 100% very comfortable, an impossibility given individual personality differences. While courage is good, we must remember that parrhēsia has another side (See Konstan) and such a degree of shameless license might not be a good thing for learning. The context and content of parrhēsia matters.

If we consider a question the Campus Free Speech report does not ask , we can perhaps understand better the tension between parrhēsia and aidōs in the classroom. Do faculty always practice parrhēsia in their classrooms. There might be some courage required to do so, depending on one’s tenure status. Even tenured faculty do not always practice parrhēsia in the classroom, often for good reason. Faculty must judge how to balance the open expression of their opinions with aidōs, reverence and respect for their students and the learning environment (Weber has useful points to make on this problem in Scholarhsip and Vocation).

Pundits who discuss college speech tend to oversimplify the issues, creating an unhelpful dichotomy between free speech and self-censorship. In reality, there is an unresolvable tension between parrhēsia and aidōs that requires tack and sophistication. And yet, we could do more to encourage student parrhēsia in our classrooms. We must remain sensitive to aidōs and maintain the learning environment for everyone in the class.

Perhaps the most common space for free speech discourse involves Invited speakers. Here, however, parrhēsia is less helpful. It may take courage to honestly speak one’s opinions, since a backlash might prove damaging to one’s reputation. Likewise, it may take courage to join a protest against a speaker, as students occasionally do. Many commentators reveal an intrinsic hostility to student protests, treating it not as parrhēsia but as illiberal censorship. Sarah Ahmed’s point is worth remembering: “By hearing student critique as censorship, the content of that critique is pushed aside” (Against Students). Those who argue for strict free speech rights, however, fail to see that the problems of competing parrhēsia cannot be resolved in advance by defining categories of speech. The unfortunate truth is that each situation requires examination of content and context.

The discussions about campus speech can be abstract and alarmist. It’s salutary to remember that most academic activity goes on without any fuss. Only extreme cases rile up the commentariat, who might want to consider whether the old axiom (hard cases make bad law) applies. This does not imply that everything is perfect. There are issues about speech on campus. I just think that they are not, ultimately, resolvable by the idea of free speech rights.

What can be done to encourage more parrhēsia? If I had the answers, I wouldn’t put them here. I’d start a substack newsletter and monetize myself into a fancy new car! I do think it would help if we could use the moral register less frequently when discussing political differences. I do think it would help produce an agonistic, rather than antagonistic, space for legitimate disagreement (alla Chantal Mouffe) if we could recognize the limits of legitimate dissent. Ulrich Baer suggests that such a limit:

Some things are unmentionable and undebatable, but not because they offend the sensibilities of the sheltered young. Some topics, such as claims that some human beings are by definition inferior to others, or illegal or unworthy of legal standing, are not open to debate because such people cannot debate them on the same terms. (117)

It would help if there was some agreement on where to draw a line between tolerating and condoning an opinion. We could all probably do a better job of listening instead of rushing to shout our opinions. These are probably utopian ideas, though hopefully in the spirit of the best utopias, as Richard Seymour describes them, “not prescriptions but imaginative placeholders for human desires.”


(1) I do not believe Greek usage supports the distinction drawn between isēgoria and parrhēsia. Although many modern scholars use isēgoria to refer to the ideal of equality of public speech, there is little evidence in Greek usage. J.D. Lewis admits that he has “not found a passage where ἰσηγορία (or its cognate forms) unequivocally refers to ‘the right of every citizen to address the assembly῾(1971). It is not surprising, then, that the two passages cited by Kierstead as examples of isegoria (Protagoras 319d; Dem.1.1), for example, do not use the word. Both lack of evidence and usage hamper any attempt to show that these words meaningfully diverge in this way. The Boomer Oligarch, for example, uses isēgoria to refer to equality between slaves and freemen, metics and citizens ([Xen.] Ath. Pol. 12), who emphatically do not have equal rights to address the assembly. Bejan and Kierstead’s arguments, of course, do not rest on Greek usage and isēgoria can serve as a useful shorthand, even if we must admit that these sharp distinctions do not go back to Ancient Greece.

(2) I was surprised when Bejan wrote of defeating modern proponents of isēgoria. Her perspective should not encourage vanquishing an enemy, but recognizing what she calls the genius of combining the positions of isēgoria and parrhēsia. Perhaps her belief that the two concepts are in conflict led her to such conflictual language. Or does she, in fact, think that students who want isēgoria need to be defeated?

(3) Kierstead tends to gloss over hard problems. For example, he states that “claims about respect, politeness, and so on, are easily weaponized against legitimate expression.” Well, yes, but how can one just pass over the hard problem raised by his discussion: what is legitimate expression? A similar issue arrises with his idea that universities “protect free speech via hard rules (for example, against scholars being sacked for ordinary political expression).” Fine, but what about “unordinary” political expression? Is there any sort of political expression that is beyond the hard rules? The difficulties cannot be rhetorically avoided so easily, and it remains unclear if his position recognizes a category of illegitimate expression.


Baer, Ulrich. 2019. What Snowflakes Get Right: Free Speech and Truth on Campus. Oxford University Press.

Konstan, David. 2012. “The Two Faces of Parrhêsia: Free Speech and Self-Expression in Ancient Greece.” Antichthon 46: 1–13.

Lewis, J. D. 1971. “Isegoria at Athens: When Did It Begin?” Historia: Zeitschrift Für Alte Geschichte 20 (2/3): 129–40.

Momigliano, A. 1973. ‘Freedom of Speech in Antiquity’, in P.P. Wiener (ed.), Dictionary of the History of Ideas: Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas. Vol. 2, 252–63. New York.

Saxonhouse, Arlene W. 2005. Free Speech and Democracy in Ancient Athens. Cambridge University Press.

Seymour, R., 2020. The twittering machine. Verso Books.




The online pseudonym of the other online pseudonym Leopold “Poldy” Bloom. Really, tho, who I am doesn’t matter.

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Maximus Planudes

Maximus Planudes

The online pseudonym of the other online pseudonym Leopold “Poldy” Bloom. Really, tho, who I am doesn’t matter.

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