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.