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Ancient and modern

There were no safe spaces at the dawn of democracy

The culture of ancient Athens relied on rigorous separation of action and debate

19 March 2016

9:00 AM

19 March 2016

9:00 AM

Brilliant Oxford undergraduates argue that it is right to prevent us saying things they object to, because speech they do not like is the equivalent of actions they do not like. They had better not read classics, then. There is no safe space there.

Greeks made a clear distinction between logos (‘account, reckoning, explanation, story, reason, debate, speech’, cf. ‘logic’ and all those ‘-ologies’) and ergon (‘work, deed, action’). For a Greek, to reject logos was to reject the expression of thought; and so to close down any possibility of people giving an account or reason for why they were thinking and acting as they did; and therefore to prevent any way of combating them — except, of course, by force.


So striking at logos struck at the very heart of the political process. One of the consequences of the invention of democracy by Athenians in the late 6th century BC was that issues of importance to the community were settled not by conflict, but by debate. Democracy, in other words, was the way of determining outcomes peacefully, by logos. Preventing people speaking was to use force to close off argument. Reject logos and you destroyed democracy.

Likewise, when it came to action (ergon), the 5th-century BC statesman Pericles thought that one of the main strengths of Athenians was their willingness to debate before they acted. ‘We have the ability to judge or plan rightly in our affairs, because we do not think logos is an obstacle to ergon; no, it is rather the failure to use logos to foresee outcomes, before ergon has to be taken. We also combine resolve with our calculations (logismos) about the ergon in hand; for others, their ignorance produces recklessness, while logismos produces only dithering.’

On which note, a little resolve combined with logismos would be welcome from our spineless universities. It is sweet of the young to tell us what we can and cannot say, but most of us would prefer the law to make that decision, and if persuasion fails, for universities to invoke it.


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