The controversy over free speech is ultimately a disagreement about how words work and what they’re for. By considering the Greek Sophists, this essay explores the model of speech assumed by those who seek now to limit it. Whereas liberals see speech in terms of truth, proceeding like science, progressives see it in terms of power, exploding like war.
Free speech has been a fault line in our political landscape for the last few years, but in recent weeks the inevitable earthquake has happened. On one side of the widening chasm are those who endorse an open letter in Harper’s Magazine, signed by a dizzying array of public intellectuals, arguing that “the free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted.” Accordingly, let’s call them liberals. They believe that “the way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence them or wish them away.” Their view of speech is optimistic: when people discuss ideas openly, at least when they use reason to persuade rather than power to intimidate, bad ideas will be discredited as false, while good ones will be vindicated as true. Their model for political speech is the steady, self-correcting discourse of science.
They allude to several incidents – some famous, others obscure – where people have been punished for promoting the wrong ideas. That is illiberal, in their view, because information and ideas will not be exchanged freely so long as thinkers are afraid of falling afoul of censors. These censors, whom we may call “progressives,” are on the other side of the free speech chasm, and they are more pessimistic about it. The exchange of information and ideas is not oriented toward the truth; instead, it is a matter of “power: who has it and who does not.” They are suspicious of the signatories. The terms of the Harper’s letter, such as “open debate,” are to their ears “coded language to obscure the actual meaning behind their words.” Actually, liberals are trying to preserve the power “traditionally conferred to white, cis-gender people.” In effect, they are threatening “marginalized voices,” “particularly Black and trans people.”
But how? How does a call for free speech threaten anyone but the would-be autocrat? An example is instructive. One of the first critiques of the letter came from Emily VanDerWerff, a trans co-worker of one of the signatories, Matthew Yglesias, who is the co-founder of Vox. Another signatory was J.K. Rowling, considered by progressives to be anti-trans, so VanDerWerff interpreted the letter as granting cover to the anti-trans movement. Yglesias, she wrote in an open letter that circulated widely, had made her “feel less safe at Vox.” Rather than helping to brand Rowling as a threat to trans people, and thereby securing their rights and safety, Yglesias had helped legitimate her position, as if it were open for debate among reasonable people. Imagine if David Duke, or Holocaust deniers, had signed the letter. Positions that had been banished from decent company might now enter the discussion through the back door of free speech.
Let us summarize the two sides before probing their philosophical assumptions. Progressives, on the one hand, will refuse a platform to any ideas they deem oppressive of marginalized groups, because they consider the words themselves harmful. For even when those words have been exposed as false, thanks to that very platform, nevertheless the damage is done. Liberals, on the other hand, would welcome a debate, for instance, about the biological basis of gender. To their way of thinking, this is how you learn and disseminate the truth, whatever it might turn out to be. But even if the progressive position on gender (whatever it may be) were to prevail in such a debate, it is not a fight the progressive would welcome. If the liberal model of speech is science, the progressive model is war. You do not permit the enemy to invade in order to show you can beat him. You repel him before he crosses the border.
Liberals believe that you cannot reasonably decide whether any idea is the enemy – whether it really does oppress marginalized groups, or anyone else for that matter – unless you first submit it to the scrutiny of reason, preferably a debate with its best exponent. Is J.K. Rowling truly anti-trans? Is Steven Pinker really racist? The list of those deemed oppressive grows daily, but so too does the prohibition against discussing their ideas to see whether they have been properly understood, let alone to see whether they are true. So, the contest between the progressive and the liberal over free speech is, not surprisingly, a difference over speech itself. What is it? What is it for? Is it more like science or war? Only when there is some clarity on these questions, could we decide who deserves a platform to exercise it.
Let us go back to the beginning. Not to the fissure between progressives and liberals, whenever that occurred, but to the very beginning, to the first practitioners of free speech — the Sophists. “Sophist” was Ancient Greek for “wise man,” or perhaps “wise guy,” depending on your estimation of their craft. They were experts in the art of rhetoric, which gave them at least the appearance of being wise. In addition to speaking persuasively on any subject, they could teach others to do the same. This was a desirable skill in a democracy such as Athens, where oratory was necessary not only in politics but also in the courtroom. There were no lawyers; litigants had to speak for themselves. Sophists helped them win, by “making the weaker argument appear the stronger.” (1) To advertise this magical skill, and attract wealthy clients, they delivered demonstration-speeches. The best of these to survive is Gorgias’s Encomium of Helen (2).
Helen’s was the face that sailed a thousand ships. Paris, the handsome Trojan, had visited Menelaus, the virile Achaean. The ungrateful guest had departed in the night with his host’s beautiful wife, daughter of a god. In the old meaning of the word, this was rape: he took her away. But had she gone willingly? For many ancient Greeks, as for many today in some parts of the world, it would not have mattered. She was guilty no matter what her intention had been. Not for Gorgias, who spoke eloquently to exonerate her in the court of public opinion. By arguing persuasively in favor of a position so unpopular, he not only exemplified parrhesia (free speech), he demonstrated his own miraculous power of persuasion. If he could persuade the Greeks of Helen’s innocence, he could persuade anyone of anything.
“By introducing some reasoning into my speech,” he began, “I wish to free the accused of blame and, having reproved her detractors as prevaricators and proved the truth, to free her from their ignorance.” She may have been only a mythic character, but the truth would nonetheless set her free. Which truth? Gorgias begins in forensic fashion by laying out all the reasonable possibilities: “For either by Fate and decision of the gods and Necessity did she do what she did, or by force reduced, or by words seduced, or by love possessed.” In other words, either she was required to do what she did (whether by Fate, the gods, or Necessity), she was forced to do it (by Paris), or she chose to leave – under the influence of love or persuasive speech.
Love, according to Gorgias, can master the mind. Either it “has the divine power of the gods,” or “it is a disease of human origin and a fault of the soul.” Whatever its source and value, and whether it excuses marital infidelity – these are not our present concerns. We are trying to understand whether speech is a matter of power, and Gorgias argues that it is: “Speech is a powerful lord.” To make his case, he calls several witnesses, beginning with the audience of a tragic drama. Through the words of a skilful poet, they experience sorrow, pity and fear, among many other passions. Whether they want to or not, their bodies react as if stricken: their hearts race, their faces flush, salty water drips from their eyes. The skilful orator can do the same. Indeed, he can extend his effect from his audience to the people they attack. For his words can take a crowd from peace to war, a jury from indifference to enraged demands for execution.
Such a speaker is like a physician – or a poisoner, depending on your evaluation of his results – because “the effect of speech upon the condition of the soul is comparable to the power of drugs over the nature of bodies.” Consider that power. It does not matter how much or how little you know about drugs and human physiology. You may be an anesthesiologist with an intimate knowledge of both or you may be ignorant on this topic. Neither your knowledge nor ignorance will make any difference once the drugs enter your bloodstream: you go under. When Bill Cosby slipped his victims those sedatives, he bypassed their minds so that he could have his way with their bodies. “So also in the case of speeches,” says Gorgias: “some distress, others delight, some cause fear, others make the hearers bold, and some drug and bewitch the soul with a kind of evil persuasion.” They all bypass reason and knowledge. This is the secret of their power.
If speeches really do work upon the mind the way drugs work upon the body – according to Gorgias, “by means of the finest and most invisible body” – the only way to resist their power is to prevent them from entering your ears. For once they do, like sedatives in your bloodstream, they will begin to work their effects, whatever you may think about them. If you do not want to suffer those effects, some of which may be violent, just like the effects of poisons, you have to stop up your ears in the manner of Odysseus. Better still would be to ensure that the Sirens never sing, that the orator never speaks, that the text is never read. Trigger warnings for texts, de-platforming for speakers, and the campaign to “cancel” some thinkers as the modern equivalent of Sirens – this all makes perfect sense if Gorgias is right about language. But is he? Are words like drugs? Are they drugs quite literally?
Not if they are vehicles of truth and tools of reason. Consider a drug. It can be good or bad, right or wrong, which are ways of saying either it achieves the desired effect, or it does not, but it is never true – let alone false. You can understand a drug or not, so that your thinking and speech about it is true, but that does not make the drug itself true or false. It is a material substance with a molecular structure (“the finest and most invisible body”); it obeys the laws of chemistry. Its effects on the body are predictable by a combination of those laws and the properties of the human body. Knowing those laws, we can make predictions about it that are true or false, but it itself is never either. Similarly, Newton’s laws of motion are true, but the apple and the moon whose motions they describe are not. Material substances, no matter how fine or invisible, are not the sort of things that can be true or false. That is a category mistake.
To believe that words are drugs, then, you must deny that they can be vehicles of truth or falsity. Or rather, if you care to be consistent, you must make that denial. Gorgias seemed indifferent to consistency when he began his speech by asserting that his reasoning would prove the truth. And that is to be expected of a Sophist, who will care about consistency only if it is prized by his audience. By contrast, philosophers and scientists since antiquity have generally considered it to be of crucial importance, along with the orientation of reason towards truth. Indeed, it was Plato’s critique of the Sophists on these very points that disposed the Western intellectual tradition to those values. But Gorgias could not foresee that history, nor would he have cared. He sought converts among wealthy Athenians in his own time, and on these terms, he succeeded more than any other – save Protagoras.
However things appeared to them, he taught, this was how things were: “Human being is the measure of all things, of the things that are, that they are; of the things that are not, that they are not.” This attitude was at home in the courts and public assemblies for which he trained his students. For he was wise in shaping the opinions of citizens and jurors through speeches, recognizing that this wisdom did not require knowing any truths (as if there were any reality independent of the beliefs and perceptions of people). “The man whom I call wise,” he thus says in a dialogue of Plato, “is the man who can change the appearances – the man who in any case where bad things both appear and are for one of us, works a change and makes good things appear and be for him.” (3) This made him just like a physician.
What makes a physician good is the effect he has upon his patients: he chooses, for example, a drug that heals rather than one that has no effect, let alone one that harms. “The things which appear to him are what some people, who are still at a primitive stage, call ‘true,’” says Protagoras, but drugs are neither true nor false. When the good physician chooses one kind of drug over another, he knows “that the one kind is better than the others, but in no way truer.” (3) Protagoras applies this lesson to his own art, the craft of rhetoric. To an audience in the assembly or courtroom, the speaker is like a physician. He should choose the better words, not the truer ones. To someone who protests that truth matters – that the consensus of an assembly does not make a war prudent, any more than the consensus of a jury makes a verdict just – Protagoras has his motto: “Human being is the measure of all things.”
This version of Sophistry is benevolent, or at least presents itself that way. Even if Protagoras became rich and famous by this skill, he is here claiming that it can make life better for everyone. By foregoing a concern for truth, which is at best a distraction of the naïve, and at worst an ingenious cover for ambition, the Sophist can focus exclusively on improving political life, just as the physician who focuses exclusively on healing his patient will not care which physiological or pharmacological theory is true. If a drug works, the good physician uses it, regardless of what the medical theories say. If a policy brings peace and prosperity, the good politician advances it, regardless of what is supposed to be true and rational.
Gorgias’s Encomium of Helen exemplifies this Sophistic indifference to truth, but instead of trying to make things better for everyone, it was delivered for personal profit. Gorgias wrote it neither for the assembly nor the courts but for the marketplace. Arriving in Athens, where young noblemen were eager to make their name in politics and have their way in the courts, he needed to exhibit his wares. How better than to successfully defend the most indefensible defendant? By describing the power of words in such charming ways, his goal was not to provide an accurate account of speech, but instead to seduce students into his course. And it worked. Many of them were convulsed with hopes of success, paying him great sums of money, and making him a celebrity in the imperial city. Whatever good or ill they did this city, and whether they ever really cared, both Gorgias and Protagoras became stars.
But were they right? Was the Sophistic account of speech true? On its own terms, it cannot be. For if words are drugs, they are neither true nor false, so the Sophist account cannot have been either. What, then, would be the point of reasoning about it or anything else for that matter? Reason cannot be the way to discover its truth or refute it. To go through its motions would be self-deceptive. Instead, reason has another purpose. It can calculate the best means to achieve our desired effects, whether they be benevolent or selfish. You could reason, as Gorgias and Protagoras did, about how best to use words to achieve your goals: seduction, freedom, money, fame, power, justice, or whatever it is you desire.
In some environments, followers of the Sophists will still pay homage to reason and truth, wherever the one is still considered the route to the other. This is the official stance of most universities and news media nowadays. Pursuing their goals in these traditional, liberal environments still requires pretending that reason helps us learn the truth. But in progressive environments, where the Sophistic attitude to speech is at home, pursuing one’s goals demands contempt for reason, truth, and open debate. In these places, scare-quotes are the ready signals of this contempt: one speaks not of reason but of “reason,” not of truth but of “truth,” not of freedom of speech but of “coded language to obscure the actual meaning.” And the actual meaning is about power. It is always ultimately about power: power that has been “traditionally conferred to white, cis-gender people”; power that is being used to threaten “marginalized voices,” “particularly Black and trans people.”
If not in universities as a whole or traditional news media, where has the Sophistic attitude grown? First the academic departments influenced by critical theory and postmodernism, where reason and truth were exposed as rhetorical tricks for the consolidation of power (by the whole Western tradition, the Enlightenment, white supremacy, the logocentric hegemony of the cis-hetero-patriarchy – pick your poison). Next came the online revolution in media. As clickbait sites captured more of their market, and the rewards for objective reporting declined, traditional outlets kept hiring graduates of those fields that had been criticizing objectivity relentlessly for a generation. And finally, through them this summer, much of elite culture has fallen under the spell. For as Andrew Sullivan wrote prophetically two years ago: “We all live on campus now.”
With his contempt for those “still at a primitive stage,” Protagoras would have no trouble getting tenure in those fields, or for that matter employment in the media where social justice has eclipsed the traditional canons of journalism. What about Gorgias? If he is right, and words are drugs, then of course speech is a matter of power. To see why, compare listening to a speech with receiving a drug. If a physician writes you a prescription and a pharmacist prepares the drug, there is no violence: you take it yourself, persuaded by their expertise that it is good to do so. To violate you, the administration of the drug would have to be against your will, not for the purpose of doing you good, but for using you toward some other end.
If words are drugs, the Sophist cannot respect your autonomy by first persuading you to take them. Persuasion requires words, so it would be nothing but a gateway drug. As it turns out, according to the Sophistic view, the orator plies you with drugs the moment he opens his mouth, long before you grant him permission to influence your mind. If ever you grant him that permission, by listening to more of his speech, not to mention believing it, you will already be under the influence of his words, so your consent will be compromised. The orator may be a paternalistic physician and a benevolent pharmacist, administering his drugs as medicines, in an effort to help you. But he may also be a drug-dealer and poisoner, seeking to harm and exploit. In every instance, however, he seduces you with speech (“the finest and most invisible body”). When words are this powerful, and minds this weak, consent can never be secured.
Ironically, this is Gorgias’ very defense of Helen. Her mind was poisoned by the seductive speech of Paris. The irony is intentional: Gorgias is taking away the minds of his audience, just as Paris raped Helen. “What cause then prevents the conclusion,” he concludes, “that Helen similarly, against her will, might have come under the influence of speech, just as if ravished by the force of the mighty?” Speech is but an exercise of power, a violent one at that, for it is always pushing the mind one way or another without its consent. Reasoning is but the pursuit of desired goals, and truth is never really one of them, for it is not out in the world to be found, but instead something to be created by the orator himself. If human being is the measure of all things, Gorgias and Protagoras knew how to take our measure.
To assert the existence of objective truth, or to affirm reason as the way to discover it, is thus to deny that speech is merely a matter of power. This is the crux of the controversy over free speech and open debate. When Emily VanDerWerff wrote that Yglesias had made her “feel less safe at Vox,” her claim – which resonated loudly among progressives but made little sense to most liberals – evoked the Sophistic theory of language and power. Speech in itself is violence, not metaphorically, but literally, in the manner described by Gorgias. It enters the minds of readers and listeners the way a drug enters the body, without their consent. It leaves them powerless to resist, violating their sense of themselves, threatening their existence.
Indeed, in the progressive view, words are worse than drugs. When Bill Cosby administered that sedative to his victims, it affected them and them alone. A drug that enters one body does not, in normal circumstances, enter another. Ideas, by contrast, are transmissible. When a noxious idea enters one person’s mind, the harm does not always stop with her. The idea might grow in her and she might communicate it to another. But if her mind – her ideological immune system, so to speak – is strong enough, she may resist its influence, denounce its speaker, and impede its spread. That is presumably what happened to VanDerWerff when she read the notorious tweet of J.K. Rowling or the open letter that Yglesias had signed. That is the self-image of progressives: they are protecting themselves and the body-politic from the infection of noxious ideas.
To progressives, then, Gorgias underestimated the power of speech. Words are far more dangerous than drugs. They are more like viruses. If so, people like VanDerWerff are exactly what Protagoras thought himself to be: a political physician. The Sophists may have been the first practitioners of free speech, but their presuppositions would eventually produce a medical case against its exercise. And while many progressives have this altruistic goal, some progressives are seeking personal profit. Young elites, finding no place for themselves in the promised meritocracy, are no doubt looking to displace their more secure elders with whatever rationalization is at hand. Every political movement has its grifters. But most of the woke are sincere: they see injustice everywhere and want to fight it for the sake of a better society. The killing of George Floyd has only intensified their zeal.
Yet this zeal has very likely also been strengthened by the invasion of the novel coronavirus. This was never clearer than when epidemiologists made an about-face in June: one week they were scolding people for attending funerals, the next week they were encouraging them to participate in mass protests against racism. Admitting that the protests risked spreading the virus, they nonetheless justified them as a public health measure. In this way, all progressives – scientists or not – see themselves as epidemiologists resisting eruptions of mind-viruses wherever they occur: anti-trans, misogynistic, white-supremacist, whichever ideas seem to threaten justice as they understand it. While suppressing the speech of the malignant, the poisons and viruses that harm marginalized communities, these political epidemiologists also distribute antidotes and vaccines (e.g., White Fragility) to minimize their spread.
From this perspective, liberals who advocate free speech are as dangerous as Trump saying we should open everything up by Easter and expect sunlight to kill the virus. After all, that is the very analogy liberals use: bad ideas are not defeated by being pushed into dark corners of our society; they should instead be exposed to the sunlight of open debate and reason, the best disinfectant. But whereas to the liberals this is an analogy (words can be like viruses), to the progressives it is quite literal (words can be viruses, spreading from person to person, damaging public health, requiring epidemiological intervention). Who is correct? Which account is true? Which is more rational?
Simply to pose these issues without scare-quotes is to beg the question against the progressive. In other words, to present the two alternatives and to hope that the decision between them could be made by an assessment of their reasoning is already to tip one’s hand. According to the Sophistic account of language, positions cannot be true (or false). It rejects truth as an illusion of people at a primitive stage; or, in the lingo of the woke, as a tool of oppression. So likewise, for reason, free speech, and open debate. They are, at best, the hobgoblins of little minds; at worst, the instruments of invested power. And so progressives cannot, without hypocrisy, advance their position as superior thanks to its truth or rationality. Nor will they.
Clever Sophists never make so rookie a mistake. When they care to be consistent – when the people whom they wish to seduce prize consistency – such hypocrisy is easily avoided. They can take all their assertions of universal truth and rephrase them as reports of how things seem to them. Next time you encounter a progressive speaker or writer, notice the constant reference to perspectives. Because they believe there is no reality beyond appearances, they need never say that this or that is really so in any verifiable way; they assert instead that this or that is how things seem to them. Progressives speak less of “truth” (“with a capital T,” they sometimes add contemptuously) than they do of “my truth.” If ever they invoke “our truth,” they are not speaking of any independent reality. Instead, they are claiming to represent a group or community, rarely with any verifiable mandate, and usually by disregarding the diversity they claim to champion.
How often do progressives provide evidence that anyone is actually harmed by a debate or a letter or a tweet? What evidence could there possibly be that J.K. Rowling’s tweet really harmed trans people, let alone that Emily VanDerWerff was really made unsafe at Vox because her co-worker signed a letter that was also signed by J.K. Rowling? No evidence for those claims was ever produced; but neither were those precise claims made. To progressives, it was enough that VanDerWerff felt less safe. That appearance was the only reality that mattered. For if speech itself is violent, in the Sophistic manner, real harm was done by the words alone. Similarly, when Senator Tom Cotton published an editorial in The New York Times titled “Send in the Troops,” many claimed that it put Black staff at the newspaper in danger. But was there any serious investigation of the evidence for that claim before the Editor responsible for its publication was deposed? No, it was enough that it appeared so to them. On that ground, lived experience, the progressive position becomes invulnerable.
But there is a high cost to winning on the basis of feelings and appearances rather than reality and evidence. To see how high, consider the viruses upon which the progressive view of language is based. However viruses might appear to you, there is an intractable reality to them. Ignore them, re-name them, or try to enlist them as soldiers in a partisan battle – it does not make any difference to them. Regardless of your views, they will do what they will with your body. Besides blind luck, or a regime that has the will and the means to enforce a draconian quarantine, the only hope we have of defeating them is science. And science only works when its practitioners assume that there is an objective truth. It only works when they can speak freely about how this truth appears to them. And it only works when they can debate openly with each other about the correspondence between these appearances and reality.
By trusting lived experience above all, by rejecting truth and reason as pretenses, by suppressing inquiry and debate, by seeing everyone as either with them or against them, and by trying to cancel those who contradict their political narrative, progressives resemble no one so much as the quack physician of the American body politic they despise.
Trump has been, until this summer, the master of political appearances. To him, and the forty percent of the American electorate who have shared his outlook, there had not yet been a story he could not recast in his favor. With the novel coronavirus, finally, he has met an opponent who is not damaged by insults or lies, an enemy whose defeat does not depend on market shares or poll numbers. However he tries to make it seem, the virus keeps winning. Whatever he says, it keeps infecting. Many of his supporters continue to credit his strategy, according to which the exploding rate of infection can be attributed to excessive testing. If it seems like fewer people have been infected, then fewer people are infected. But some of the people who were formerly dazzled by this wizardry have pulled aside the curtain and seen him alone, fumbling on the stage of his bizarre daily briefings.
Faced with such Sophistry, progressives have decided to fight it on its own terms, joining populist conservatives in a war of words that is as indifferent to truth and reason as it is contemptuous of open debate and free speech (4). Meanwhile, as real infections mount and science offers the only real hope of salvation, liberals quietly imitate its method, believing that the truth can set us free. Many now consider their belief naïve. In just the same way, liberals of the Weimar Republic were naïve when they granted Nazis free speech. They too believed that noxious ideology would be discredited by patient reasoning. That is a terrifying comparison that no liberal should lightly dismiss. Whether we are in parallel circumstances, whether truth really can set us free, and whether liberalism is naïve: these are difficult questions for which only zealots have easy answers.
I have no easy answers, but in conclusion I can offer the story of Valery Legasov, the nuclear scientist whose story was dramatized by HBO’s Chernobyl. “To be a scientist is to be naïve,” says his character in the final scene of the series. “We are so focused on our search for truth, we fail to consider how few actually want us to find it.” Under Soviet Communism, so few wanted them to find the truth that scientists who investigated certain topics – the heritability of character traits, the weakness of Soviet nuclear reactors, whatever the regime considered antithetical to its narrative – were “canceled”. They lost their jobs, their freedom, and in some cases their lives. But although the scientists could be “canceled”, the truth could not. The result was eventually catastrophic for everyone, canceled and cancellers alike. It may be naïve to pursue truth for its own sake, hoping that it somehow liberates, but Legasov has this to say about it in the haunting final moments of the series:
It is always there, whether we see it or not, whether we choose to or not. The truth doesn’t care about our needs or wants. It doesn’t care about our governments, our ideologies, our religions. It will lie in wait for all time. And this, at last, is the gift of Chernobyl. Where I once would fear the cost of truth, now I only ask: What is the cost of lies?
- Protagoras, Fragment B6, p. 35 in eds. C.D.C Reeve and P. L. Miller, “Introductory Readings in Ancient Greek and Roman Philosophy”, 2015
- Gorgias, “Encomium of Helen”, pp. 36–38 in eds. C.D.C. Reeve and P. L. Miller, “Introductory Readings in Ancient Greek and Roman Philosophy,” 2015.
- Plato, “Theaetetus”
- Miller, P. L. “Truth, Trump, Tyranny: Plato and the Sophists in an Era of ‘Alternative Facts’” pp. 17–32 in eds. A. J. Torres and M. B. Sable, “Trump and Political Philosophy”,2018.