Parrhesia and the Crisis of Democratic Institutions: Discourse & Truth, Problematization of Parrhesia - Six lec­tures given by Michel Foucault at the University of California at Berkeley, Oct-Nov. 1983

— Foucault, Michel. Parrhesia and the Crisis of Democratic Institutions in Discourse & Truth: the Problematization of Parrhesia, 1999.

Today I would like to com­plete what I be­gan last time about par­rhe­sia and the cri­sis of de­mo­c­ra­tic in­sti­tu­tions in the Fourth Century BC; and then I would like to move on to the analy­sis of an­other form of par­rhe­sia, viz., par­rhe­sia in the field of per­sonal re­la­tions (to one­self and to oth­ers) , or par­rhe­sia and the care of the self.

The ex­plicit crit­i­cism of speak­ers who uti­lized par­rhe­sia in its neg­a­tive sense be­came a com­mon­place in Greek po­lit­i­cal thought since the Peloponnesian War; and a de­bate emerged con­cern­ing the re­la­tion­ship of par­rhe­sia to de­mo­c­ra­tic in­sti­tu­tions. The prob­lem, very roughly put, was the fol­low­ing. Democracy is founded by a po­liteia, a con­sti­tu­tion, where the demos, the peo­ple, ex­er­cise power, and where every­one is equal in front of the law. Such a con­sti­tu­tion, how­ever, is con­demned to give equal place to all forms of par­rhe­sia, even the worst. Because par­rhe­sia is given even to the worst cit­i­zens, the over­whelm­ing in­flu­ence of bad, im­moral, or ig­no­rant speak­ers may lead the cit­i­zenry into tyranny, or may oth­er­wise en­dan­ger the city. Hence par­rhe­sia may be dan­ger­ous for democ­racy it­self. Thus this prob­lem seems co­her­ent and fa­mil­iar, but for the Greeks the dis­cov­ery of this prob­lem, of a nec­es­sary an­tin­omy be­tween par­rhe­sia — free­dom of speech — and democ­racy, in­au­gu­rated a long im­pas­sioned de­bate con­cern­ing the pre­cise na­ture of the dan­ger­ous re­la­tions which seemed to ex­ist be­tween democ­racy, lo­gos, free­dom, and truth.

We must take into ac­count the fact that we know one side of the dis­cus­sion much bet­ter than the other for the sim­ple rea­son that most of the texts which have been pre­served from this pe­riod come from writ­ers who were ei­ther more or less di­rectly af­fil­i­ated with the aris­to­cratic party, or at least dis­trust­ful of de­mo­c­ra­tic or rad­i­cally de­mo­c­ra­tic in­sti­tu­tions. And I would like to quote a num­ber of these texts as ex­am­ples of the prob­lem we are ex­am­in­ing.

The first one I would like to quote is an ul­tra-con­ser­v­a­tive, ul­tra-aris­to­cratic lam­poon­ing of the de­mo­c­ra­tic Athenian con­sti­tu­tion, prob­a­bly writ­ten dur­ing the sec­ond half of the Fifth Century. And for a long this lam­poon was at­trib­uted to Xenophon. But now schol­ars agree that this at­tri­bu­tion was not cor­rect, and the Anglo-American clas­si­cists even have a nice nick­name for this Pseudo-Xenophon, the un­named au­thor of this lam­poon. They call him, the Old Oligarch”. This text must come from one of those aris­to­cratic cir­cles or po­lit­i­cal clubs which were so ac­tive in Athens at the end of the Fifth Century. Such cir­cles were very in­flu­en­tial in the anti-de­mo­c­ra­tic rev­o­lu­tion of 411 B.C. dur­ing the Peloponnesian War.

The lam­poon takes the form of a para­dox­i­cal praise or eu­logy — a genre very fa­mil­iar to the Greeks. The writer is sup­posed to be an Athenian de­mo­c­rat who fo­cuses on some of the most ob­vi­ous im­per­fec­tions, short­com­ings, blem­ishes, fail­ures, etc., of Athenian de­mo­c­ra­tic in­sti­tu­tions and po­lit­i­cal life; and he praises these im­per­fec­tions as if they were qual­i­ties with the most pos­i­tive con­se­quences. The text is with­out any real lit­er­ary value since the writer is more ag­gres­sive than witty. But the main the­sis which is at the root of most crit­i­cisms of Athenian de­mo­c­ra­tic in­sti­tu­tions can be found in this text, and is, I think, sig­nif­i­cant for this type of rad­i­cally aris­to­cratic at­ti­tude.

This aris­to­cratic the­sis is the fol­low­ing. The demos, the peo­ple, are the most nu­mer­ous. Since they are the most nu­mer­ous, the demos is also com­prised of the most or­di­nary, and in­deed, even the worst, cit­i­zens. Therefore the demos can­not be com­prised of the best cit­i­zens. And so, what is best for the demos can­not be what is best for the po­lis, for the city. With this gen­eral ar­gu­ment as a back­ground, the Old Oligarch” iron­i­cally praises Athenian de­mo­c­ra­tic in­sti­tu­tions; and there are some lengthy pas­sages car­i­ca­tur­ing free­dom of speech:

Now one might say that the right thing would be that [the peo­ple] not al­low all to speak on an equal foot­ing, nor to have a seat in the coun­cil, but only the clever­est men and the best. But on this point, too, they have de­ter­mined on the per­fectly right thing by also al­low­ing the vul­gar peo­ple to speak. For if only the aris­toc­racy were al­lowed to speak and took part in the de­bate, it would be good to them and their peers, but not to the pro­le­tar­i­ans. But now that any vul­gar per­son who wants to do so may step for­ward and speak, he will just ex­press that which is good to him and his equals. One might ask: How should such a per­son be able to un­der­stand what is good to him or to the peo­ple? Well, the masses un­der­stand that this man’s ig­no­rance, vul­gar­ity, and sym­pa­thy are more use­ful to them than all the morals, wis­dom, and an­tipa­thy of the dis­tin­guished man. With such a so­cial or­der, it is true, a state will not be able to de­velop into per­fec­tion it­self, but democ­racy will be best main­tained in this man­ner. For the peo­ple do not want to be in the cir­cum­stances of slaves in a state with an ideal con­sti­tu­tion, but to be free and be in power; whether the con­sti­tu­tion is bad or no, they do not care very much. For what you think is no ideal con­sti­tu­tion, is just the con­di­tion for the peo­ple be­ing in power and be­ing free. For if you seek an ideal con­sti­tu­tion you will see that in the first place the laws are made by the most skill­ful per­sons; fur­ther the aris­toc­racy will con­sult about the af­fairs of the state and put a stop to un­ruly per­sons hav­ing a seat in the coun­cil or speak­ing or tak­ing part in the as­sem­bly of the peo­ple. But the peo­ple, well, they will as a con­se­quence of these good re­forms rather sink into slav­ery.

Now I would like to switch to an­other text which pre­sents a much more mod­er­ate po­si­tion. It is a text writ­ten by Isocrates in the mid­dle of the Fourth Century; and Isocrates refers sev­eral times to the no­tion of par­rhe­sia and to the prob­lem of free speech in a democ­racy. At the be­gin­ning of his great ora­tion, On the Peace”, writ­ten in 355 B.C., Isocrates con­trasts the Athenian peo­ple’s at­ti­tude to­wards re­ceiv­ing ad­vice about their pri­vate busi­ness when they con­sult rea­son­able, well-ed­u­cated in­di­vid­u­als with the way they con­sider ad­vice when deal­ing with pub­lic af­fairs and po­lit­i­cal ac­tiv­i­ties:

…whenever you take coun­sel re­gard­ing your pri­vate busi­ness you seek out as coun­selors men who are your su­pe­ri­ors in in­tel­li­gence, but when­ever you de­lib­er­ate on the busi­ness of the state you dis­trust and dis­like men of that char­ac­ter and cul­ti­vate, in­stead, the most de­praved of the or­a­tors who come be­fore you on this plat­form; and you pre­fer as be­ing bet­ter friends of the peo­ple those who are drunk to those who are sober, those who are wit­less to those who are wise, and those who dole out the pub­lic money to those who per­form pub­lic ser­vices at their own ex­pense. So that we may well mar­vel that any­one can ex­pect a state which em­ploys such coun­selors to ad­vance to bet­ter things.

But not only do Athenians lis­ten to the most de­praved or­a­tors; they are not even will­ing to hear truly good speak­ers, for they deny them the pos­si­bil­ity of be­ing heard:

I ob­serve … that you do not hear with equal favour the speak­ers who ad­dress you, but that, while you give your at­ten­tion to some, in the case of oth­ers you do not even suf­fer their voice to be heard. And it is not sur­pris­ing that you do this; for in the past you have formed the habit of dri­ving all the or­a­tors from the plat­form ex­cept those who sup­port your de­sires.

And that, I think, is im­por­tant. For you see that the dif­fer­ence be­tween the good and the bad or­a­tor does not lie pri­mar­ily in the fact that one gives good while the other gives bad ad­vice. The dif­fer­ence lies in this: the de­praved or­a­tors, who are ac­cepted by the peo­ple, only say what the peo­ple de­sire to hear. Hence, Isocrates calls such speak­ers flatterers”. The hon­est or­a­tor, in con­trast, has the abil­ity, and is coura­geous enough, to op­pose the demos. He has a crit­i­cal and ped­a­gog­i­cal role to play which re­quires that he at­tempt to trans­form the will of the cit­i­zens so that they will serve the best in­ter­ests of the city. This op­po­si­tion be­tween the peo­ple’s will and the city’s best in­ter­ests is fun­da­men­tal to Isocrates’ crit­i­cism of the de­mo­c­ra­tic in­sti­tu­tions of Athens. And he con­cludes that be­cause it is not even pos­si­ble to be heard in Athens if one does not par­rot the demos’ will, there is democ­racy — which is a good thing — but the only par­rhe­si­as­tic or out­spo­ken speak­ers left who have an au­di­ence are reckless or­a­tors” and comic po­ets”:

I know that it is haz­ardous to op­pose your views and that, al­though this is a free gov­ern­ment, there ex­ists no freedom of speech” [parrhesia] ex­cept that which is en­joyed in this Assembly by the most reck­less or­a­tors, who care noth­ing for your wel­fare, and in the the­atre by the comic po­ets.

Hence real par­rhe­sia, par­rhe­sia in its pos­i­tive, crit­i­cal sense, does not ex­ist where democ­racy ex­ists.

In the Areopagiticus” [355 B.C.], Isocrates draws a set of dis­tinc­tions which sim­i­larly ex­presses this gen­eral idea of the in­com­pat­i­bil­ity of true democ­racy and crit­i­cal par­rhe­sia. For he com­pares the old Solonian and Cleisthenean con­sti­tu­tions to pre­sent Athenian po­lit­i­cal life, and praises the older poli­ties on the grounds that they gave to Athens democ­racy, lib­erty, hap­pi­ness, and equal­ity in front of the law . All of these pos­i­tive fea­tures of the old democ­racy, how­ever, he claims have be­come per­verted in the pre­sent Athenian democ­racy. Democracy has be­come lack of self-re­straint lib­erty has be­come law­less­ness; hap­pi­ness has be­come the free­dom to do what­ever one pleases and equal­ity in front of the law has be­come par­rhe­sia. Parrhesia in this text has only a neg­a­tive, pe­jo­ra­tive sense. So, as you can see, in Isocrates there is a con­stant pos­i­tive eval­u­a­tion of democ­racy in gen­eral, but cou­pled with the as­ser­tion that it is im­pos­si­ble to en­joy both democ­racy and par­rhe­sia (understood in its pos­i­tive sense) . Moreover, there is the same dis­trust of the demos’ feel­ings, opin­ions, and de­sires which we en­coun­tered, in more rad­i­cal form, in the Old Oligarchs lam­poon.

A third text I would like to ex­am­ine comes from Plato’s Republic, where Socrates ex­plains how democ­racy arises and de­vel­ops. For he tells Adeimantus that:

When the poor win, the re­sult is democ­racy. They kill some of the op­po­site party, ban­ish oth­ers, and grant the rest an equal share in civil rights and gov­ern­ment, of­fi­cials be­ing usu­ally ap­pointed by lot.

Socrates then asks: What is the char­ac­ter of this new regime ?” And he says of the peo­ple in a democ­racy:

First of all, they are free. Liberty and free speech [parrhesia] are rife every­where; any­one is al­lowed to do what he likes … That be­ing so, every man will arrange his own man­ner of life to suit his plea­sure.

What is in­ter­est­ing about this text is that Plato does not blame par­rhe­sia for en­dow­ing every­one with the pos­si­bil­ity of in­flu­enc­ing the city, in­clud­ing the worst cit­i­zens. For Plato, the pri­mary dan­ger of par­rhe­sia is not that it leads to bad de­ci­sions in gov­ern­ment, or pro­vides the means for some ig­no­rant or cor­rupt leader to gain power, to be­come a tyrant. The pri­mary dan­ger of lib­erty and free speech in a democ­racy is what re­sults when every­one has his own man­ner of life, his own style of life . For then there can be no com­mon lo­gos, no pos­si­ble unity, for the city. Following the Platonic prin­ci­ple that there is an anal­o­gous re­la­tion be­tween the way a hu­man be­ing be­haves and the way a city is ruled, be­tween the hi­er­ar­chi­cal or­ga­ni­za­tion of the fac­ul­ties of a hu­man be­ing and the con­sti­tu­tional make-up of the po­lis, you can see very well that if every­one in the city be­haves just as he or she wishes, with each per­son fol­low­ing his own opin­ion, his own will or de­sire, then there are in the city as many con­sti­tu­tions, as many small au­tonomous cities, as there are cit­i­zens do­ing what­ever they please. And you can see that Plato also con­sid­ers par­rhe­sia not only as the free­dom to say what­ever one wishes, but as linked with the free­dom to do what­ever one wants. It is a kind of an­ar­chy in­volv­ing the free­dom to choose one’s own style of life with­out limit.

Well, there are nu­mer­ous other things to say about the po­lit­i­cal prob­lema­ti­za­tion of par­rhe­sia in Greek cul­ture, but I think that we can ob­serve two main as­pects of this prob­lema­ti­za­tion dur­ing the Fourth Century.

First, as is clear in Plato’s text for ex­am­ple, the prob­lem of the free­dom of speech be­comes in­creas­ingly re­lated to the choice of ex­is­tence, to the choice of one’s way of life. Freedom in the use of lo­gos in­creas­ingly be­comes free­dom in the choice of bios. And as a re­sult, par­rhe­sia is re­garded more and more as a per­sonal at­ti­tude, a per­sonal qual­ity, as a virtue which is use­ful for the city’s po­lit­i­cal life in the case of pos­i­tive or crit­i­cal par­rhe­sia, or as a dan­ger for the city in the case of neg­a­tive, pe­jo­ra­tive par­rhe­sia. In Demosthenes, for ex­am­ple, one can find a num­ber of ref­er­ences to par­rhe­sia but par­rhe­sia is usu­ally spo­ken of as a per­sonal qual­ity, and not as an in­sti­tu­tional right. Demosthenes does not seek, or make an is­sue of in­sti­tu­tional guar­an­tees for par­rhe­sia, but in­sists on the fact that he, as a per­sonal cit­i­zen, will use par­rhe­sia be­cause he must boldly speak the truth about the city’s bad pol­i­tics. And he claims that in so do­ing, he runs a great risk. For it is dan­ger­ous for him to speak freely, given that the Athenians in the Assembly are so re­luc­tant to ac­cept any crit­i­cism.

Secondly, we can ob­serve an­other trans­for­ma­tion in the prob­lema­ti­za­tion of par­rhe­sia: par­rhe­sia is in­creas­ingly linked to an­other kind of po­lit­i­cal in­sti­tu­tion, viz., monar­chy. Freedom of speech must now be used to­wards king. But ob­vi­ously, in such a monar­chic sit­u­a­tion, par­rhe­sia is much more de­pen­dent upon the per­sonal qual­i­ties both of the king (who must choose to ac­cept or re­ject the use of par­rhe­sia), and of the king’s ad­vi­sors. Parrhesia is no longer an in­sti­tu­tional right or priv­i­lege — as in a de­mo­c­ra­tic city — but is much more a per­sonal at­ti­tude, a choice of bios. This trans­for­ma­tion is ev­i­dent, for ex­am­ple, in Aristotle. The word parrhesia” is rarely used by Aristotle, but it oc­curs in four or five places. There is, how­ever, no po­lit­i­cal analy­sis of the con­cept of par­rhe­sia as con­nected with any po­lit­i­cal in­sti­tu­tion. For when the word oc­curs, it is al­ways ei­ther in re­la­tion to monar­chy, or as a per­sonal fea­ture of the eth­i­cal, moral char­ac­ter. In the Constitution of Athens, Aristotle gives an ex­am­ple of pos­i­tive, crit­i­cal par­rhe­sia in the tyran­ni­cal ad­min­is­tra­tion of Pisistratus. As you know, Aristotle con­sid­ered Pisistratus to be a hu­mane and benef­i­cent tyrant whose reign was very fruit­ful for Athens. And Aristotle gives the fol­low­ing ac­count of how Pisistratus met a small, landowner af­ter he had im­posed a ten per­cent tax on all pro­duce:

… [Pisistratus] of­ten made ex­pe­di­tions in per­son into the coun­try to in­spect it and to set­tle dis­putes be­tween in­di­vid­u­als, that they might not come into the city and ne­glect their farms. It was in one of the pro­gresses that, as the story goes, Pisistratus had his ad­ven­ture with the man of Hymettus, who was cul­ti­vat­ing the spot af­ter­wards known as Tax-free Farm”. He saw a man dig­ging and work­ing at a very stony piece of ground, and be­ing sur­prised he sent his at­ten­dant to ask what he got out of this plot of land. Aches and pains”, said the man; and that’s what Pisistratus ought to have his tenth of”. The man spoke with­out know­ing who his ques­tioner was; but Pisistratus was so pleased with his frank speech and his in­dus­try that he granted him ex­emp­tion from all taxes.

So par­rhe­sia oc­curs here in the monar­chic sit­u­a­tion.

The word is also used by Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics [Book IV, 1124b28], not to char­ac­ter­ize a po­lit­i­cal prac­tice or in­sti­tu­tion, but as a trait of the mag­nan­i­mous man, the mega­lopsy­chos. Some of the other char­ac­ter­is­tics of the mag­nan­i­mous man are more or less re­lated to the par­rhe­si­as­tic char­ac­ter and at­ti­tude. For ex­am­ple, the mega­lopsy­chos is coura­geous, but he is not some­one who likes dan­ger so much that he runs out to greet it. His courage is ra­tio­nal [1124 b7-9]. He prefers aletheia to doxa, truth to opin­ion. He does not like flat­ter­ers. And since he looks down on other men, he is outspoken and frank” [1124 b28]. He uses par­rhe­sia to speak the truth be­cause he is able to rec­og­nize the faults of oth­ers: he is con­scious of his own dif­fer­ence from them, of his own su­pe­ri­or­ity. So you see that for Aristotle, par­rhe­sia is ei­ther a moral-eth­i­cal qual­ity, or per­tains to free speech as ad­dressed to a monarch. Increasingly, these per­sonal. and moral fea­tures of par­rhe­sia be­come more pro­nounced.