Parrhesia, Foucault, and Divergent Social/Political Contexts

In Fearless Speech, Michel Foucault explains the term “parrhesia,” and its origins in Greek discourse. Parrhesia, as Foucault suggests, refers to an account that is delivered by means of the most direct words and forms of expression that can be found (12). Moreover, it generally involves some form of danger to the speaker’s body or reputation. Ultimately, it seems that parrhesia necessitates the element of danger. Furthermore, one is encouraged to tell the truth as though it is a duty (19). As Foucault’s discourse continues, it becomes quite evident that there are two types of parrhesia; both having different attributes and origins in Greek texts. Although parrhesia may equip one with the ability to limit a tyrant’s power, there also exists a more negative form of parrhesia.

In the first speech, Foucault considers the evolution of the word from three “points of view” – rhetoric, politics, and philosophy. The most fruitful of these distinctions, in light of our continuing discussion of the Sophists and the Platonic-Socratic tradition, is that of rhetoric. Here, Foucault suggests that rhetoric and parrhesia stand in direct opposition to one another. The continuous long speech, as it is associated with the sophistic/rhetorical tradition, stands in direct opposition to the dialogue of parrhesia. This is the dialogue of questions and answers that Socrates insists on in the works of Plato (namely, Protagoras, and Phaedrus). Interestingly, this is not really a matter of Foucault associating truth with the form that Plato advocates. For, as Foucault denotes, “the function of parrhesia is not to demonstrate the truth to someone else, but has the function of criticism: criticism of the interlocutor or of the speaker himself” (17). Here, parrhesia is attributed a self-reflexive feature that is explored in greater length in the third and fourth speeches.

As the discourse continues, Foucault suggests that parrhesia can exist both within the context of a monarchy or a democracy. In a monarchy, parrhesia is somewhat contractual; hence, Foucault’s discussion of the “parrhesiatic contract.” An advisor to a ruler, tyrant, god, etc., invokes the contract in order to provide for a certain security; security through truth. Such, is explicitly the case with The Bacchae, and Ion. In Ion, truth comes in the form of a human’s emotional response to Apollo’s lies and silence. This is also the case with Pisistratus’ interaction with a farmer in the third speech (86-87). In the case of democracy, with Athens as a point of consideration, natural born citizens have the right to parrhesia in the context of the agora. Here, though it is suggested that parrhesia might frustrate democracy.

What becomes of particular interest, throughout Fearless Speech, is Foucault’s continuing discourse on power relations. Specifically, I am referring to Foucault’s discussion of those people capable of using parrhesia. In Foucault’s analysis, it is the subordinate person that uses parrhesia; the mortal and subjugated. For Foucault, it seems impossible that anyone in a position of great power can use parrhesia, because as was previously noted, parrhesia requires an element of danger. If there is no element of danger, as is the case for a tyrant or God, than there can be no parrhesia. The simplistic synopsis would be that a ruler is incapable of speaking the truth. Though, in contradiction to this analysis, it must be noted that in order to be a good ruler one must grant parrhesiastic contracts. A good ruler must listen to one’s advisors, as they use parrhesia: “The man who exercises power is wise only insofar as there exists someone who can use parrhesia to criticize him, thereby putting some limit to his power, to his command” (29). So, it seems that although a ruler might not be able to use parrhesia, a ruler is wise by means of those that use parrhesia in conversation with the ruler. Also, Foucault seems to emphasize the power one has to subvert the absolute power of a monarch, tyrant, etc, by using parrhesia.

Why then, following in line with my previous post, is the distinction between monarchy and democracy so valuable to Foucault? Is this just simply a matter of distinguishing between parrhesia as it exists in one political/social system or another? Is Foucault advocating one system over the other, in that parrhesia exists in different capacities in each? It seems that Foucault’s reference to Athenian democracy has some import in contemporary contexts. Quite simply, his discussion of Greek arguments encourages one to consider who has the power to speak, why it is necessary that they speak, and who should have the power to speak. If parrhesia can be considered detrimental in certain contexts, might it be suggested that the power to speak be limited, in order to preserve democracy. What of advisors, tyrants, and the issue of “truth”? What significance does the presence of truth have in different political/social circumstances?


2 Responses to “Parrhesia, Foucault, and Divergent Social/Political Contexts”

  1. You should check out Sloterdijk’s Critique of Cynical Reason, and the way he deals with the C/Kynic ‘truth-telling’. I would say his affirmation of cheekiness is a useful counterpart to parrhesia.

  2. Who are you people?!?!?

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