2. Free speech in history

Historical origins of the idea of freedom of religion and  freedom of speech.

Great ethical systems in history that have supported freedom and tolerance remind us of the ubiquitous nature of natural rights.

Modern concepts of political freedom and personal liberty are not actually so modern after all. Ideas about tolerance for religious and political ideas emerged throughout human history. Around 2,500 years ago, great ethical systems emphasizing religious freedom flourished in China, India and Greece. Religious tolerance also emerged in the Roman Empire around 331 CD and the Islamic Empire in 622 C.E.
What you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others. –
Confucius, c. 500 BCE
CHINAConfucius Confucius (551 – 479 BCE), a philospher who taught that human institutions should be balanced towards the ideal society based on respect for others and a sense of duty to the society. Confucius supported government by a virtuous central authority, but saw that it was limited by natural morality. Later interpretations of his teachings (for example, from Mencius), argued that a king might be overthrown if he were to lose the “mandate of heaven” by taking action that was not correct. This implies that the just purpose of government is derived in large part from its protection of human welfare. Confucius’ best known idea is that “What you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others.” The idea is found in many other ethical and religious traditions. Confucius also said, “A wise man does not promote a person for what he says, neither does he undervalue what is said because of the person who says it.” As Chinese law professor Gu Chunde noted: “From this we can see that Confucianism protects freedom of ideology and speech, allowing the independent existence of speech, whether it is right or wrong. It encourages people to criticize the government.The concept of religious tolerance is also inherent in Confucian teaching, and probably influenced European Enlightenment thinkers when the “Life and Works of Confucius” was widely circulated in Europe in 1687,
King AshokaKing Ashoka desires that all religions should reside everywhere, for all of them desire self-control and purity of heart. — India 256 BCE
INDIA — Buddha (563-483 BCE), a revered religious figure, taught that the Eightfold Path could relieve human suffering. These precepts were: right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. “Right speech” involved abstaining from lying, from divisive or abusive speech, and avoiding idle chatter.  One of the best known adherents of Buddhism was King Ashoka (273 – 232 BCE). In 256 BCE, Ashoka issued the Seven Pillar Edicts promoting religious tolerance and Buddhist principles of compassion and justice. Good can be attained in different ways, Ashoka said, “but all of them have as their root restraint in speech, that is, not praising one’s own religion, or condemning the religion of others without good cause. If there is cause for criticism, it should be done in a mild way.”“But it is better to honor other religions for this reason: By so doing, one’s own religion benefits, and so do other religions, while doing otherwise harms one’s own religion and the religions of others. Whoever praises his own religion, due to excessive devotion, and condemns others with the thought ‘Let me glorify my own religion,’ only harms his own religion.”

The unexamined life is not worth living.  — Socrates, 399 BCE
GREECE  — One of history’s greatest martyrs to freedom of speech was Socrates, who was condemned for his outspoken criticism of life in Ancient Greece and was given a choice: live in exile or die by drinking hemlock. He chose the hemlock, and is seen in the painting by Jacques-Louis David.  His  crime was to have corrupted the youth of Athens with his free thinking. “I was really too honest a man to be a politician and live,” he is remembered for saying. Socrates lived at a time when classical Mediterranean civilizations aspired to a high degree of freedom. This was partly attained during the Golden Age of Pericles 443 – 429 BCE, in which uninhibited free speech, called parrhesia, was highly esteemed. When citizens attended assembly, heralds asked “What man has good advise to give the polis and wishes to make known?” Near the meeting place was the Areopagus, the market in Athens where the courts also met. Ares was the Greek name for Mars, the god of war. A major center of scholarship emerged from the Greek tradition in Alexandria, Egypt in the third century BCE. Scholars from all over the ancient world are known to have worked together in a spirit of mutual respect.

“You are sent … to regulate the condition of free cities… to a society of men who … breathe the spirit of manhood and liberty.” Pliny the Younger. c. 100 CE
ROME — Like their counterparts in Greece, Romans had a large measure of political freedom, including some freedom of speech, in the early years of the republic, although official state censorship began as early as 443 BCE with the establishment of the official office of “censor.” However, the end of freedom coincided with the end of the Republic, beginning with the reign of Julius Ceasar (49 B.C.) and even most limited political rights were lost. Roman foreign policy tended towards tolerance, allowing local cultures and leaders to remain intact after conquest, and to show tolerance for the free exchange of ideas. Pliny the Younger (c. 100  CE – statue to the left ) writing to a Roman consul departing for Greece said this: “Consider that you are sent … to regulate the condition of free cities … to a society of men who … breathe the spirit of manhood and liberty … Revere their Gods…(and) their ancient glory …Grant to every one his full dignity, privilege, and yes, the indulgence of his very vanity …”But the tolerance had limits. For instance,    early Christians were persecuted until the conversion of Emperor Constantine and the Edict of Milan, 313 CE, which proclaimed religious tolerance.

The fundamental and original nature of humanity is that individuals are free.  — Miraj
al-Suud ila nayl Majlub al-Sudan

From the Library of Congress  Ancient
Manuscripts collection

ISLAM — Religious tolerance was explicit in the Constitution (charter) of Medina, 622 CE. written by the Islamic prophet Muhammad to help bring together warring factions of Arabs and communities of Jews. It states that non-Muslim citizens have equal political and cultural rights as Muslims and specifically says that non-Muslims have the right of autonomy and freedom of religion. Religious tolerance is also found in the Qur’an, which states: “Whosoever will, let him believe and whosoever will, let him disbelieve” (Qur’an, 18: 29). The modern rejection of European political traditions by many Islamic nations is a complex problem deserving more discussion than is possible here; however, the historic understanding of the ideal of freedom in Islamic societies is becoming more appreciated in the 21st century. For example, a United Nations project to recover and preserve manuscripts from the Mali and Songhai Empires university, based in Timbuktu, has uncovered a center of Islamic culture and learning in the 14th through 17th centuries.
“TO ALL FREE MEN OF OUR KINGDOM we have also granted, for us and our heirs
for ever, all the liberties written out below, to have and to keep for them and their heirs, of us and our heirs”

— The Magna Carta,  June 15, 1215
English speaking people trace their basic guarantee of liberty to the Magna Carta of 1215. It came about following the Norman invasion of England in 1066, which created a two-tiered society with many inequities. By 1215, a group of English barons forced the Norman King John to sign the Magna Carta (Latin for great charter) in order to guarantee that they would be treated fairly. At first, these rights applied only to English nobles, but over time they were extended to all.The Magna Carta was the beginning of the end of absolute power for British monarchs, although attempts by James I and James II in the 1600s to restore absolute power resulted in two major political upheavals — the English Civil War (1642) and the Glorious Revolution (1688) .Fundamental rights such as trial by jury and due process were included in the document, but not free political or religious diversity. In 1275, for instance, Parliament outlawed “any slanderous News … or false news or tales where by discord or slander may grow between the King and the people …”

Leave a Reply