January 09, 2009
The Marketplace of Ideas, 420 B.C.
Posted by Benjamin Means

This semester, I am teaching a seminar on liberty. The first part of the course examines different conceptions of liberty; the second part applies those ideas to a number of contemporary legal issues. (If anyone has taught a similar class before, I’d appreciate any suggestions). Naturally, we will cover J.S. Mill’s classic defense of liberty.  But I was surprised to find in Herodotus a much, much earlier defense of the idea that truth is best discovered through the clash of conflicting opinions.

According to Herodotus, when Xerxes first announced to his assembly his decision to wage war against the Greeks, a brave advisor offered a dissenting opinion with the following justification: “[I]t is impossible, if no more than one opinion is uttered, to make choice of the best: a man is forced then to follow whatever advice may have been given him; but if opposite speeches are delivered, then choice can be exercised. In like manner pure gold is not recognized by itself; but when we test it along with baser ore, we perceive which is the better.”

In the event, Xerxes went to war. He was at first “full of wrath” but then recognized the wisdom in his advisor’s words. So far so good.  Unfortunately for Xerxes, and the Persians, divine intervention made clear that the choice was not his to make – he was visited by a series of vivid nightmare visions demanding war with the Greeks and threatening him with dire consequences if he refused.

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