Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient and Modern: Socrates and Charlie Hebdo

Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient and Modern: Socrates and Charlie Hebdo

Article excerpt

What would the ancients have made of Charlie Hebdo ? The First Amendment tolerates the expression of opinions, however offensive, but not behaviour that can be construed as an outright threat. It is a distinction that Greeks and Romans might have applauded.

The comedies of Aristophanes (5th century bc) dealt with the issues of the day. They were characterised by language of Shakespearean inventiveness, covering the whole range of imaginable scatological, sexual and verbal abuse, aimed directly at named or easily recognisable individuals. Used in the street, such language would have met with a pretty instant, and probably violent, response. But, it seems, the conventions of public performance at the comic festival in honour of the god of theatre, Dionysus, made it permissible. Even the gods (including Dionysus) were lampooned (though never Athena).

But that does not mean that anything went. In 399 bc, Socrates was executed for 'refusing to recognise the gods recognised by the state, and introducing other, new divinities [and] corrupting the young'. …

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