Drinking the hemlock
Socrates and free speech
in The free speech wars
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One recurring motif in claims about the illiberal cultures of universities has been the deployment of Socrates to delegitimise attempts at restricting ‘free speech’. To take just the most recent example, within an hour of the news that Jordan Peterson had been denied a visiting fellowship at Cambridge, one of his admirers had tweeted: ‘You have become Athenian jurors to @jordanbpeterson’s Socrates: you should drink the hemlock yourselves’. This image of the Greek philosopher operates in two mutually dependent ways. First, Socrates is the archetypal martyr for secular truth; the comparison heroises figures such as Peterson by equating their loss of a platform to a formal death sentence and equating their critics to the ignorant, irrational Athenian mob. Secondly, Socrates shows us that the only route to understanding lies through confronting of students with ideas that contradict their assumptions and make them feel uncomfortable. Both readings are profoundly anti-democratic, simply assuming the superiority of an enlightened genius over ignorant students who must be directed and discomfited and over the mass of the population. They are unhistorical and ideological, not least because of the lack of direct evidence for the historical Socrates – such interpretations carefully avoid too close an association with Plato, the main source for information about his teacher, not least because The Republic is notoriously tolerant of the idea of censorship. Then, as now, the concern of Socrates’ admirers was to privilege the speech solely of those who supposedly possessed superior understanding – themselves.

The free speech wars

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