The Marketplace of Ideas and the Agora: Herodotus on the Power of Isegoria

Popular discourse about freedom of speech tends to default to the metaphor of the marketplace of ideas, notwithstanding empirical evidence undermining this concept. Its persistence illustrates the profound attachment freedom of speech inspires, despite the difficulty of justifying it in epistemic terms. I suggest that the ancient Greek historian Herodotus offers a compelling alternative to the marketplace metaphor with his account of isegoria at Athens. In Herodotus’s telling, Athenian equal right of speech is worthwhile not because of its effects on speech but because of its effect on political culture; equal speech energizes the Athenians and Athens. He thus offers a nonepistemic defense of the right to speak, defending it instead in terms of power and belonging. Yet his account also highlights how Athenian equal speech unleashes political harms and therefore offers a way to defend free speech without minimizing its dangers. Herodotus thus helps us productively reframe contemporary free speech debates.

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License CC BY
Type Journal Articles
C-ID POLS 120 - Theory