Techniques of the Parrhesiastic Games: Discourse & Truth, Problematization of Parrhesia - Six lec­tures given by Michel Foucault at the University of California at Berkeley, Oct-Nov. 1983

— Foucault, Michel. Techniques of the Parrhesiastic Games in Discourse & Truth: the Problematization of Parrhesia, 1999.

I would now like to turn to the var­i­ous tech­niques of the par­rhe­si­as­tic games which can be found in the philo­soph­i­cal and moral lit­er­a­ture of the first two cen­turies of our era. Of course, I do not plan to enu­mer­ate or dis­cuss all of the im­por­tant prac­tices that can be found in the writ­ings of this pe­riod. To be­gin with, I would like to make three pre­lim­i­nary re­marks.

First, I think that these tech­niques man­i­fest a very in­ter­est­ing and im­por­tant shift from that truth game which — in the clas­si­cal Greek con­cep­tion of par­rhe­sia — was con­sti­tuted by the fact that some­one was coura­geous enough to tell the truth to other peo­ple. For there is a shift from that kind of par­rhe­si­as­tic game to an­other truth game which now con­sists in be­ing coura­geous enough to dis­close the truth about one­self.

Secondly, this new kind of par­rhe­si­as­tic game — where the prob­lem is to con­front the truth about your­self — re­quires what the Greeks called askesis”. Although our word asceticism” de­rives from the Greek word askesis” (since the mean­ing of the word changes as it be­comes as­so­ci­ated with var­i­ous Christian prac­tices), for the Greeks the word does not mean ascetic”, but has a very broad sense de­not­ing any kind of prac­ti­cal train­ing or ex­er­cise. For ex­am­ple, it was a com­mon­place to say that any kind of art or tech­nique had to be learned by math­e­sis and aske­sis — by the­o­ret­i­cal knowl­edge and prac­ti­cal train­ing. And, for in­stance, when Musonius Rufus says that the art of liv­ing, techne tou biou, is like the other arts, i.e., an art which one could not learn only through the­o­ret­i­cal teach­ings, he is re­peat­ing a tra­di­tional doc­trine. This techne tou biou, this art of liv­ing, de­mands prac­tice and train­ing: aske­sis. But the Greek con­cep­tion of aske­sis dif­fers from Christian as­cetic prac­tices in at least two ways: (1) Christian as­ceti­cism has its ul­ti­mate aim or tar­get the re­nun­ci­a­tion of the self, whereas the moral aske­sis of the Greco-Roman philoso­phies has as its goal the es­tab­lish­ment of a spe­cific re­la­tion­ship to one­self — a re­la­tion­ship of self pos­ses­sion and self-sov­er­eignty; (2) Christian as­ceti­cism takes as its prin­ci­ple theme de­tach­ment from the world, whereas the as­cetic prac­tices of the Greco-Roman philoso­phies are gen­er­ally con­cerned with en­dow­ing the in­di­vid­ual with the prepa­ra­tion and the moral equip­ment that will per­mit him to fully con­front the world in an eth­i­cal and ra­tio­nal man­ner.

Thirdly, these as­cetic prac­tices im­plied nu­mer­ous dif­fer­ent kinds of spe­cific ex­er­cises; but they were never specif­i­cally cat­a­logued, an­a­lyzed, or de­scribed. Some of them were dis­cussed and crit­i­cized, but most of them were well-known. Since most peo­ple rec­og­nized them, they were usu­ally used with­out any pre­cise the­ory about the ex­er­cise. And in­deed, of­ten when some­one now reads these Greek and Latin au­thors as they dis­cuss such ex­er­cises in the con­text of spe­cific the­o­ret­i­cal top­ics (such as time, death, the world, life, ne­ces­sity, etc.), he or she gets a mis­taken con­cep­tion about them. For these top­ics usu­ally func­tion only as a schema or ma­trix for the spir­i­tual ex­er­cise. In fact, most of these texts writ­ten in late an­tiq­uity about ethics are not at all con­cerned with ad­vanc­ing a the­ory about the foun­da­tions of ethics, but are prac­ti­cal books con­tain­ing spe­cific recipes and ex­er­cises one had to read, to reread, to med­i­tate upon, to learn, in or­der to con­struct a last­ing ma­trix for one’s own be­hav­ior.

I now turn to the kinds of ex­er­cises where some­one had to ex­am­ine the truth about him­self, and tell this truth to some­one else.

Most of the time when we re­fer to such ex­er­cises, we speak of prac­tices in­volv­ing the examination of con­science.” But I think that the ex­pres­sion examination of con­science” as a blan­ket term meant to char­ac­ter­ize all these dif­fer­ent ex­er­cises mis­leads and over­sim­pli­fies. For we have to de­fine very pre­cisely the dif­fer­ent truth games which have been put into work and ap­plied in these prac­tices of the Greco-Roman tra­di­tion.

I would like to an­a­lyze five of these truth games com­monly de­scribed as examinations of con­science” in or­der to show you (1) how some of the ex­er­cises dif­fer from one an­other; (2) what as­pects of the mind , feel­ings, be­hav­ior, etc., were con­sid­ered in these dif­fer­ent ex­er­cises; and (3) that these ex­er­cises, de­spite their dif­fer­ences, im­plied a re­la­tion be­tween truth and the self which is very dif­fer­ent from what we find in the Christian tra­di­tion.

Seneca and evening ex­am­i­na­tion

The first text I would like to an­a­lyze comes from Seneca’s De ira [“On Anger”]

All our senses ought to be trained to en­durance. They are nat­u­rally long-suf­fer­ing, if only the mind de­sists from weak­en­ing them. This should be sum­moned to give an ac­count of it­self every day. Sextius had this habit, and when the day was over and he had re­tired to his nightly rest, he would put these ques­tions to his soul: What bad habit have you cured to­day? What fault have you re­sisted? In what re­spects are you bet­ter?” Anger will cease and be­come con­trol­lable if it finds that it must ap­pear be­fore a judge every day. Can any­thing be more ex­cel­lent that this prac­tice of thor­oughly sift­ing the whole day? And how de­light­ful the sleep that fol­lows this self-ex­am­i­na­tion–how tran­quil it is, how deep and un­trou­bled, when the soul has ei­ther praised or ad­mon­ished it­self, and when this se­cret ex­am­iner and critic of self has given re­port of its own char­ac­ter! I avail my­self of this priv­i­lege, and every day I plead my cause be­fore the bar of self. When the light has been re­moved from sight, and my wife, long aware of my habit, has be­come silent, I scan the whole of my day and re­trace all my deeds and words.
I con­ceal noth­ing from my­self, I omit noth­ing. For why should I shrink from any of my mis­takes, when I may com­mune thus with my self? See what you never do that again; I will par­don you this time. In that dis­pute you spoke too of­fen­sively; af­ter this don’t have en­coun­ters with ig­no­rant peo­ple; those who have never learned do not want to learn. You re­proved that man more frankly than you ought, and con­se­quently you have not so much mended him as of­fended him. In the fu­ture, con­sider not only the truth of what you say, but also whether the man to whom you are speak­ing can en­dure the truth. A good man ac­cepts re­proof gladly; the worse a man is the more bit­terly he re­sents it”

We know from sev­eral sources that this kind of ex­er­cise was a daily re­quire­ment, or at least a habit, in the Pythagorean tra­di­tion. Before they went to sleep, the Pythagoreans had to per­form this kind of ex­am­i­na­tion, rec­ol­lect­ing the faults they had com­mit­ted dur­ing the day. Such faults con­sisted in those sorts of be­hav­ior which trans­gressed the very strict rules of the Pythagorean Schools. And the pur­pose of this ex­am­i­na­tion, at least in the Pythagorean tra­di­tion, was to pu­rify the soul.

Such pu­rifi­ca­tion was be­lieved nec­es­sary since the Pythagoreans con­sid­ered sleep to be a state of be­ing whereby the soul could get in con­tact with the di­vin­ity through dream. And, of course, one had to keep one’s soul as pure as pos­si­ble both to have beau­ti­ful dreams, and also to came into con­tact with benev­o­lent deities. In this text of Seneca’s we can clearly see that this Pythagorean tra­di­tion sur­vives in the ex­er­cise he de­scribes (as it also does later on in sim­i­lar prac­tices uti­lized by the Christians) .The idea of em­ploy­ing sleep and dream as a pos­si­ble means of ap­pre­hend­ing the di­vine can also be found in Plato’s Republic [Book IX, 57le-572b] . Seneca tells us that by means of this ex­er­cise we are able to pro­cure good and de­light­ful sleep:

How de­light­ful the sleep that fol­lows this ex­am­i­na­tion — how tran­quil it is, how deep and un­trou­bled.

And we know from Seneca him­self that un­der his teacher, Sotio, his first train­ing was partly Pythagorean. Seneca re­lates this prac­tice, how­ever, not to Pythagorean cus­tom, but to Quintus Sextius — who was one of the ad­vo­cates of Stoicism in Rome at the end of the First Century B. C. And it seems that this ex­er­cise, de­spite its purely Pythagorean ori­gin, was uti­lized and praised by sev­eral philo­soph­i­cal sects and schools: the Epicureans, Stoics, Cynics, and oth­ers. There are ref­er­ences in Epictetus, for ex­am­ple, to this kind of ex­er­cise. And it would be use­less to deny that Seneca’s self-ex­am­i­na­tion is sim­i­lar to the kinds of as­cetic prac­tices used for cen­turies in the Christian tra­di­tion. But if we look at the text more closely, I think we can see some in­ter­est­ing dif­fer­ences.

First, there is the ques­tion of Seneca’s at­ti­tude to­wards him­self. What kind of op­er­a­tion is Seneca ac­tu­ally per­form­ing in this ex­er­cise? What is the prac­ti­cal ma­trix he uses and ap­plies in re­la­tion to him­self? At first glance, it seems to be a ju­di­ciary prac­tice which is close to the Christian con­fes­sional: there are thoughts, these thoughts are con­fessed, there is an ac­cused (namely, Seneca) , there is an ac­cuser or pros­e­cu­tor (who is also Seneca), there is a judge (also Seneca), and it seems that there is a ver­dict. The en­tire scene seems to be ju­di­ciary; and Seneca em­ploys typ­i­cal ju­di­ciary ex­pres­sions (“appear be­fore a judge”, plead my cause be­fore the bar of self”, etc.) . Closer scrutiny shows, how­ever, that it is a ques­tion of some­thing dif­fer­ent from the court, or from ju­di­cial pro­ce­dure. For in­stance, Seneca says that he is an examiner” of him­self [speculator sui] . The word speculator” means that he is an examiner” or in­spec­tor” — typ­i­cally some­one who in­spects the freight on a ship, or the work be­ing done by builders con­struct­ing a house, etc. Seneca also says to­tum diem meum scru­tor”— I ex­am­ine, in­spect, the whole of my day. Here the verb scrutor” be­longs, not to ju­di­cial vo­cab­u­lary, but to the vo­cab­u­lary of ad­min­is­tra­tion. Seneca states fur­ther on: factaque ac dicta mea reme­tior”— and I re­trace, re­count, all my deeds and words”. The verb remetiri” is, again, a tech­ni­cal term used in book­keep­ing, and which has the sense of check­ing whether there is any kind of mis­cal­cu­la­tion or er­ror in the ac­counts. So Seneca is not ex­actly a judge pass­ing sen­tence upon him­self. He is much more of an ad­min­is­tra­tor who, once the work is fin­ished, or when the year’s busi­ness is com­pleted, now draws up the ac­counts, takes stock of things, and sees whether every­thing has been done cor­rectly. It is more of an ad­min­is­tra­tive scene than a ju­di­ciary one.

And if we turn to the faults that Seneca re­traces, and which he gives as ex­am­ples in this ex­am­i­na­tion, we can see that they are not the sort of faults we would call sins”. He does not con­fess, for ex­am­ple, that he drinks too much, or has com­mit­ted fi­nan­cial fraud, or has bad feel­ings for some­one else — faults Seneca was very fa­mil­iar with as one of Nero’s ring. He re­proaches him­self for very dif­fer­ent things. He has crit­i­cized some­one, but in­stead of his crit­i­cism help­ing the man, it has hurt him. Or he crit­i­cizes him­self for be­ing dis­gusted by peo­ple who were, in any case, in­ca­pable of un­der­stand­ing him. Behaving in such fash­ion, he com­mits mistakes” [errores] ; but these mis­takes are only in­ef­fi­cient ac­tions re­quir­ing ad­just­ments be­tween ends and means. He crit­i­cizes him­self for not keep­ing the aim of his ac­tions in mind, for not see­ing that it is use­less to blame some­one if the crit­i­cism given will not im­prove things, and so on. The point of the fault con­cerns a prac­ti­cal er­ror in his be­hav­ior since he was un­able to es­tab­lish an ef­fec­tive ra­tio­nal re­la­tion be­tween the prin­ci­ples of con­duct he knows, and the be­hav­ior he ac­tu­ally en­gaged in. Seneca’s faults are not trans­gres­sions of a code or law. They ex­press, rather, oc­ca­sions where his at­tempt to co­or­di­nate rules of be­hav­ior (rules he al­ready ac­cepts, rec­og­nizes, and knows) with his own ac­tual be­hav­ior in a spe­cific sit­u­a­tion has proven to be un­suc­cess­ful or in­ef­fi­cient.

Seneca also does not re­act to his own er­rors as if they were sins. He does not pun­ish him­self; there is noth­ing like penance. The re­trac­ing of his mis­takes has as its ob­ject the re­ac­ti­va­tion of prac­ti­cal rules of be­hav­ior which, now re­in­forced, may be use­ful for fu­ture oc­ca­sions. He thus tells him­self : See that you never do that again;” Don’t have en­coun­ters with ig­no­rant peo­ple;” In the fu­ture, con­sider not only the truth of what you say, but also whether the man to whom you are speak­ing can en­dure the truth;” and so on. Seneca does not an­a­lyze his re­spon­si­bil­ity or feel­ings of guilt; it is not, for him, a ques­tion of pu­ri­fy­ing him­self of these faults. Rather, he en­gages in a kind of ad­min­is­tra­tive scrutiny which en­ables him to re­ac­ti­vate var­i­ous rules and maxim in or­der to make them more vivid, per­ma­nent, and ef­fec­tive for fu­ture be­hav­ior.

Serenus and gen­eral self-scrutiny

The sec­ond text I would like to dis­cuss comes from Seneca’s De tran­quil­li­tate an­imi [“On the Tranquillity of Mind”]. The De tran­quil­li­tate an­imi is one of a num­ber of texts writ­ten about a theme we have al­ready en­coun­tered, viz., the con­stancy or steadi­ness of mind. To put it very briefly, the latin word tranquillitas” de­notes sta­bil­ity of soul or mind. It is a state where the mind is in­de­pen­dent of any kind of ex­ter­nal event, and is free as well from any in­ter­nal ex­ci­ta­tion or ag­i­ta­tion that could in­duce an in­vol­un­tary move­ment of mind. Thus it de­notes sta­bil­ity, self-sov­er­eignty, and in­de­pen­dence. But tranquillitas” also refers to a cer­tain feel­ing of plea­sur­able calm which has its source, its prin­ci­ple, in this self-sov­er­eignty or self-pos­ses­sion of the self.

At the be­gin­ning of the De tran­quil­li­tate an­imi, Annaeus Serenus asks Seneca for a con­sul­ta­tion. Serenus is a young friend of Seneca’s who be­longed to the same fam­ily, and who started his po­lit­i­cal ca­reer un­der Nero as Nero’s night­watch­man. For both Seneca and Serenus there is no in­com­pat­i­bil­ity be­tween phi­los­o­phy and a po­lit­i­cal ca­reer since a philo­soph­i­cal life is not merely an al­ter­na­tive to a po­lit­i­cal life. Rather, phi­los­o­phy must ac­com­pany a po­lit­i­cal life in or­der to pro­vide a moral frame­work for pub­lic ac­tiv­ity. Serenus, who was ini­tially an Epicurean, later turned to­wards Stoicism. But even af­ter he be­came a Stoic, he felt un­com­fort­able; for he had the im­pres­sion that he was not able to im­prove him­self, that he had reached a dead end, and was un­able to make any progress. I should note that for the Old Stoa, for Zeno of Citium, for ex­am­ple, when a per­son knew the doc­trines of the Stoic phi­los­o­phy he did not re­ally need to progress any­more, for he has thereby suc­ceeded in be­com­ing a Stoic. What is in­ter­est­ing here is the idea of progress oc­cur­ring as a new de­vel­op­ment in the evo­lu­tion of Stoicism. Serenus knows the Stoic doc­trine and its prac­ti­cal rules, but still lacks tran­quil­li­tas. And it is in this state of un­rest that he turns to Seneca and asks him for help. Of course, we can­not be sure that this de­pic­tion of Serenus’ state re­flects his real his­tor­i­cal sit­u­a­tion; we can only be rea­son­ably sure that Seneca wrote this text. But the text is sup­posed to be a let­ter writ­ten to Serenus in­cor­po­rat­ing the lat­ter’s re­quest for moral ad­vice. And it ex­hibits a model or pat­tern for a type of self-ex­am­i­na­tion.

Serenus ex­am­ines what he is or what he has ac­com­plished at the mo­ment when he re­quests this con­sul­ta­tion:

SERENUS: When I made ex­am­i­na­tion of my­self, it be­came ev­i­dent, Seneca, that some of my vices are un­cov­ered and dis­played so openly that I can put my hand upon them, some are more hid­den and lurk in a cor­ner, some are not al­ways pre­sent but re­cur at in­ter­vals; and I should say that the last are by far the most trou­ble­some, be­ing like rov­ing en­e­mies that spring upon one when the op­por­tu­nity of­fers, and al­low one nei­ther to be ready as in war, nor to be off guard as in peace.
Nevertheless the state in which I find my­self most of all — for why should I not ad­mit the truth to you as to a physi­cian? — is that I have nei­ther been hon­estly set free from the things I hated and feared, nor, on the other hand, am I in bondage to them; while the con­di­tion in which I am placed is not the worst, yet I am com­plain­ing and fret­ful — I am nei­ther sick nor well.

As you can see, Serenus’ re­quest takes the form of a medical” con­sul­ta­tion of his own spir­i­tual state. For he says, why should I not ad­mit the truth to you as to a physi­cian?”; I am nei­ther sick nor well;” and so on. These ex­pres­sions are clearly re­lated to the well-known metaphor­i­cal iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of moral dis­com­fort with phys­i­cal ill­ness. And what is also im­por­tant to un­der­line here is that in or­der for Serenus to be cured of his ill­ness, he first needs to admit the truth” [verum fatear] to Seneca. But what are the truths that Serenus must confess”? We shall see that he dis­closes no se­cret faults, no shame­ful de­sires, noth­ing like that. It is some­thing en­tirely dif­fer­ent from a Christian con­fes­sion. And this confession” can be di­vided into two parts. First, there is Serenus’ very gen­eral ex­posé about him­self; and sec­ondly, there is an ex­posé of his at­ti­tude in dif­fer­ent fields of ac­tiv­ity in his life.

The gen­eral ex­posé about his con­di­tion is the fol­low­ing:

There is no need for you to say that all the virtues are weakly at the be­gin­ning, that firm­ness and strength are added by time. I am well aware also that the virtues that strug­gle for out­ward show, I mean for po­si­tion and the fame of elo­quence and all that comes un­der the ver­dict of oth­ers, do grow stronger as time passes —both those that pro­vide real strength and those that trick us out with a sort of dye with a view to pleas­ing, must wait long years un­til grad­u­ally length of time de­vel­ops color— but I greatly fear that habit, which brings sta­bil­ity to most things, may cause this fault of mine to be­come more deeply im­planted. Of things evil as well as good long in­ter­course in­duces love.
The na­ture of this weak­ness of mind that halts be­tween two things and in­clines strongly nei­ther to the right nor to the wrong, I can­not show you so well all at once as a part at a time; I shall tell you what be­falls me -you will find a name for my mal­ady.

Serenus tells us that the truth about him­self that he will now ex­pose is de­scrip­tive of the mal­ady he suf­fers from. And from these gen­eral re­marks and other in­di­ca­tions he gives later on, we can see that this mal­ady is com­pared through­out to the sea­sick­ness caused by be­ing aboard a boat which no longer ad­vances, but rolls and pitches at sea. Serenus is afraid of re­main­ing at sea in this con­di­tion, in full view of the dry land which re­mains in­ac­ces­si­ble to him. The or­ga­ni­za­tion of the themes Serenus de­scribes, with its im­plicit and, as we shall see, its ex­plicit metaphor­i­cal ref­er­ence to be­ing at sea, in­volves the tra­di­tional as­so­ci­a­tion in moral — po­lit­i­cal phi­los­o­phy of med­i­cine and pi­lot­ing a boat or nav­i­ga­tion — which we have al­ready seen. Here we also have the same three el­e­ments: a moral-philo­soph­i­cal prob­lem, ref­er­ence to med­i­cine, and ref­er­ence to pi­lot­ing. Serenus is on the way to­wards ac­quir­ing the truth like a ship at sea in sight of dry land. But be­cause he lacks com­plete self-pos­ses­sion or self-mas­tery, he has the feel­ing that he can­not ad­vance. Perhaps be­cause he is too weak, per­haps his course is not a good one. He does not know ex­actly what is the rea­son for his wa­ver­ings, but he char­ac­ter­izes his malaise as a kind of per­pet­ual vac­il­lat­ing mo­tion which has no other move­ment than rocking”. The boat can­not ad­vance be­cause it is rock­ing. So Serenus’ prob­lem is: how can he re­place this wa­ver­ing mo­tion of rock­ing — which is due to the in­sta­bil­ity, the un­steadi­ness of his mind — with a steady lin­ear move­ment that will take him to the coast and to the firm earth? It is a prob­lem of dy­nam­ics, but very dif­fer­ent from the Freudian dy­nam­ics of an un­con­scious con­flict be­tween two psy­chic forces. Here we have an os­cil­lat­ing mo­tion of rock­ing which pre­vents the move­ment of the mind from ad­vanc­ing to­wards the truth, to­wards steadi­ness, to­wards the ground. And now we have to see how this metaphor­i­cal dy­namic grid or­ga­nizes Serenus’ de­scrip­tion of him­self in the fol­low­ing long quo­ta­tion:

(1) I am pos­sessed by the very great­est love of fru­gal­ity, I must con­fess; I do not like a couch made up for dis­play, nor cloth­ing, brought forth from a chest or pressed by weights and a thou­sand man­gles to make it glossy, but homely and cheap, that is nei­ther pre­served nor to be put on with anx­ious care; the food that I like is nei­ther pre­pared nor watched by a house­hold of slaves, it does not need to be or­dered many days be­fore nor to be served by many hands, but is easy to get and abun­dant; there is noth­ing far-fetched or costly about it, nowhere will there be any lack of it, it is bur­den­some nei­ther to the purse nor to the body, nor will it re­turn by the way it en­tered; the ser­vant that I like is a young home-born slave with­out train­ing or skill; the sil­ver is my coun­try — bred fa­ther’s heavy plate bear­ing no stamp of the mak­er’s name, and the table is not no­table for the va­ri­ety of its mark­ings or known to the town from the many fash­ion­able own­ers through whose hands it has passed, but one that stands for use, and will nei­ther cause the eyes of any guest to linger upon it with plea­sure nor fire them with envy. Then, af­ter all these things have had my full ap­proval, my mind [animus] is daz­zled by the mag­nif­i­cence of some train­ing schools for pages, by the sight of slaves be­decked with gold and more care­fully ar­rayed than the lead­ers of a pub­lic pro­ces­sion, and a whole reg­i­ment of glit­ter­ing at­ten­dants; by the sight of a house where one even treads on pre­cious stones and riches are scat­tered about in every cor­ner, where the very roofs glit­ter, and the whole town pays court and es­corts an in­her­i­tance on the road to ruin. And what shall I say of the wa­ters, trans­par­ent to the bot­tom, that flow around the guests even as they ban­quet, what of the feasts that are wor­thy of their set­ting? Coming from a long aban­don­ment to thrift, lux­ury has poured around me the wealth of its splen­dor, and echoed around me on every side. My sight fal­ters a lit­tle, for I can lift up my heart to­wards it more eas­ily than my eyes. And so I come back, not worse, but sad­der, and I do not walk among my pal­try pos­ses­sions with head erect as be­fore, and there en­ters a se­cret sting and the doubt whether the other life is not bet­ter. None of these things changes me, yet none of them fails to dis­turb me. 
(2) I re­solve to obey the com­mands of my teach­ers and plunge into the midst of pub­lic life; I re­solve to try to gain of­fice and the con­sul­ship, at­tracted of course, not by the pur­ple or by the lic­tor’s rods, but by the de­sire to be more ser­vice­able and use­ful to my friends and rel­a­tives and all my coun­try­men and then to all mankind. Ready and de­ter­mined, I fol­low Zeno, Cleanthes, and Chrysippus, of whom none the less not one failed to urge oth­ers to do so. And then, when­ever some­thing up­sets my mind, which is un­used to meet­ing shocks, when­ever some­thing hap­pens that is ei­ther un­wor­thy of me, and many such oc­cur in the lives of all hu­man be­ings, or that does not pro­ceed very eas­ily, or when things that are not to be ac­counted of great value de­mand much of my time, I turn back to my leisure, and just as wea­ried flocks too do, I quicken my pace to­wards home. I re­solve to con­fine my life within its own walls: Let no one,” I say, who will make me no wor­thy re­turn for such a loss rob me of a sin­gle day; let my mind be fixed upon it­self, let it cul­ti­vate it­self, let it busy it­self with noth­ing out­side, noth­ing that looks to­wards an um­pire; let it love the tran­quil­lity that is re­mote from pub­lic and pri­vate con­cern.” But when my mind [animus] has been aroused by read­ing of great brav­ery, and no­ble ex­am­ples have ap­plied the spur, I want to rush into the fo­rum, to lend my voice to one man; to of­fer such as­sis­tance to an­other as, even if it will not help, will be an ef­fort to help; or to check the pride of some­one in the fo­rum who has been un­for­tu­nately puffed up by his suc­cesses. 
(3) And in my lit­er­ary stud­ies I think that it is surely bet­ter to fix my eyes on the theme it­self, and, keep­ing this up­per­most when I speak, to trust mean­while to the theme to sup­ply the words so that un­stud­ied lan­guage may fol­low it wher­ever it leads. I say: What need is there to com­pose some­thing that will last for cen­turies? Will you not give up striv­ing to keep pos­ter­ity silent about you? You were born for death; a silent fu­neral is less trou­ble­some! And so to pass the time, write some­thing in sim­ple style, for your own use, not for pub­li­ca­tion; they that study for the day have less need to labour.” Then again, when my mind has been up­lifted by the great­ness of its thoughts, it be­comes am­bi­tious of words, and with higher as­pi­ra­tions it de­sires higher ex­pres­sion, and lan­guage is­sues forth to match the dig­nity of the theme; for­get­ful then of my rule and of my more re­strained judge­ment, I am swept to loftier heights by an ut­ter­ance that is no longer my own.
Not to in­dulge longer in de­tails, I am all things at­tended by this weak­ness of good in­ten­tion. In fact I fear that I am grad­u­ally los­ing ground, or, what causes me even more worry, that I am hang­ing like one who is al­ways on the verge of falling, and that per­haps I am in a more se­ri­ous con­di­tion than I my­self per­ceive; for we take a fa­vor­able view of our pri­vate mat­ters, and par­tial­ity al­ways ham­pers our judg­ment. I fancy that many men would have ar­rived at wis­dom if they had not fan­cied that they had al­ready ar­rived, if they had not dis­sem­bled about cer­tain traits in their char­ac­ter and passed by oth­ers with their eyes shut. For there is no rea­son for you to sup­pose that the adu­la­tion of other peo­ple is more ru­inous to us than our own. Who dares to tell him­self the truth? Who, though he is sur­rounded by a horde of ap­plaud­ing syco­phants, is not for all that his own great­est flat­terer? I beg you, there­fore, if you have any rem­edy by which you could stop this fluc­tu­a­tion of mine, to deem me wor­thy of be­ing in­debted to you for tran­quil­lity. I know that these men­tal dis­tur­bances of mine are not dan­ger­ous and give no promise of a storm; to ex­press what I com­plain of in apt metaphor, I am dis­tressed, not by a tem­pest, but by sea-sick­ness. Do you, then, take from me this trou­ble, what­ever it be, and rush to the res­cue of one who is strug­gling in full sight of land.

At first glance, Serenus’ long de­scrip­tion ap­pears to be an ac­cu­mu­la­tion of rel­a­tively unim­por­tant de­tails about his likes and dis­likes, de­scrip­tions of tri­fles such as his fa­ther’s heavy plates, how he likes his food, and so on. And it also seem to be in a great dis­or­der, a mess of de­tails. But be­hind this ap­par­ent dis­or­der you can eas­ily dis­cern the real or­ga­ni­za­tion of the text. There are three ba­sic parts to the dis­course. The first part, the be­gin­ning of the quote, is de­voted to Serenus’ re­la­tion to wealth, pos­ses­sions, his do­mes­tic and pri­vate life. The sec­ond part — which be­gins I re­solve to obey the com­mands of my teach­ers. . .” — this para­graph deals with Serenus’ re­la­tion to pub­lic life and his po­lit­i­cal char­ac­ter. And the third part — which starts at And in my lit­er­ary stud­ies… — Serenus speaks of his lit­er­ary ac­tiv­ity, the type of lan­guage he prefers to em­ploy, and so on. But he can also rec­og­nize here the re­la­tion be­tween death and im­mor­tal­ity, or the ques­tion of an en­dur­ing life in peo­ple’s mem­o­ries af­ter death. So the three themes treated in these para­graphs are (1) pri­vate or do­mes­tic life; (2) pub­lic life; and (3) im­mor­tal­ity or af­ter­life.

In the first part Serenus ex­plains what he is will­ing to do, and what he likes to do. He thereby also shows what he con­sid­ers unim­por­tant and to which he is in­dif­fer­ent. And all these de­scrip­tions show Serenus’ pos­i­tive im­age and char­ac­ter. He does not have great ma­te­r­ial needs in his do­mes­tic life, for he is not at­tached to lux­ury. In the sec­ond para­graph he says he is not en­slaved by am­bi­tion, he does not want a great po­lit­i­cal ca­reer, but to be of ser­vice to oth­ers. And in the third para­graph he states that he is not se­duced by high-flown rhetoric, but prefers in­stead to ad­here to use­ful speech. You can see that in this way Serenus draws up a bal­ance sheet of his choices, of his free­dom, and the re­sult is not bad at all. Indeed, it is quite pos­i­tive. Serenus is at­tached to what is nat­ural, to what is nec­es­sary, to what is use­ful (either for him­self or his friends), and is usu­ally in­dif­fer­ent to the rest. Regarding these three fields (private life, pub­lic life, and af­ter­life), well, all tolled, Serenus is rather a good fel­low. And his ac­count also shows us the pre­cise topic of his ex­am­i­na­tion, which is: what are the things that are im­por­tant to me, and what are the things to which I am in­dif­fer­ent? And he con­sid­ers im­por­tant things which re­ally are im­por­tant.

But each of the three para­graphs is also di­vided into two parts. After Serenus ex­plains the im­por­tance or in­dif­fer­ence he at­trib­utes to things, there is a tran­si­tional mo­ment when he be­gins to make an ob­jec­tion to him­self, when his mind be­gins to wa­ver. These tran­si­tional mo­ments are marked by his use of the word animus”. Regarding the three top­ics al­ready noted, Serenus ex­plains that de­spite the fact that he makes good choices, that he dis­re­gards unim­por­tant things, he nonethe­less feels that his mind, his an­i­mus, is in­vol­un­tar­ily moved. And as a re­sult, al­though he is not ex­actly in­clined to be­have in an op­po­site fash­ion, he is still daz­zled or aroused by the things he pre­vi­ously thought unim­por­tant. These in­vol­un­tary feel­ings are in­di­ca­tions, he be­lieves, that his an­i­mus is not com­pletely tran­quil or sta­ble, and this mo­ti­vates his re­quest for a con­sul­ta­tion. Serenus knows the the­o­ret­i­cal prin­ci­ples and prac­ti­cal rules of Stoicism, is usu­ally able to put them into op­er­a­tion, yet he still feels that these rules are not a per­ma­nent ma­trix for his be­hav­ior, his feel­ings, and his thoughts. Serenus’ in­sta­bil­ity does not de­rive from his sins,” or from the fact that he ex­ists as a tem­po­ral be­ing — as in Augustine, for ex­am­ple. It stems from the fact that he has not yet suc­ceeded in har­mo­niz­ing his ac­tions and thoughts with the eth­i­cal struc­ture he has cho­sen for him­self. It is as if Serenus were a good pi­lot, he knows how to sail, there is no storm on the hori­zon, yet he is stuck at sea and can­not reach the solid earth be­cause he does not pos­sess the tran­quil­li­tas, the fir­mi­tas, which comes from com­plete self-sov­er­eignty. And Seneca’s re­ply to this self-ex­am­i­na­tion and moral re­quest is an ex­plo­ration of the na­ture of this sta­bil­ity of mind.

Epictetus and the Control of Representations

A third text, which also shows some of the dif­fer­ences in the truth games in­volved in these self-ex­am­i­na­tion ex­er­cises, comes from the Discourses of Epictetus -where I think you can find a third type of ex­er­cise quite dif­fer­ent from the pre­vi­ous ones. There are nu­mer­ous types of self-ex­am­i­na­tion tech­niques and prac­tices in Epictetus, some of them re­sem­bling both the evening ex­am­i­na­tions of Sextius and the gen­eral self-scrutiny of Serenus. But there is one form of ex­am­i­na­tion which, I think, is very char­ac­ter­is­tic of Epictetus, and which takes the form of a con­stant putting on trial of all our rep­re­sen­ta­tions.

This tech­nique is also re­lated to the de­mand for sta­bil­ity; for given the con­stant stream of rep­re­sen­ta­tions which flow into the mind, Epictetus’ prob­lem con­sists in know­ing how to dis­tin­guish those rep­re­sen­ta­tions that he can con­trol from those that he can­not con­trol, that in­cite in­vol­un­tary emo­tions, feel­ings, be­hav­ior, etc., and which must there­fore be ex­cluded from his mind. Epictetus’ so­lu­tion is that we must adopt an at­ti­tude of per­ma­nent sur­veil­lance with re­gard to all our rep­re­sen­ta­tions, and he ex­plains this at­ti­tude by em­ploy­ing two metaphors: the metaphor of the night­watch­man or door­keeper who does not ad­mit any­one into his house or palace with­out first check­ing his iden­tity; and the metaphor of the money-changer” who, when a coin is very dif­fi­cult to read, ver­i­fies the au­then­tic­ity of the cur­rency, ex­am­ines it, weighs it, ver­i­fies the metal and ef­figy, and so on.

The third topic has to do with cases of as­sent; it is con­cerned with the things that are plau­si­ble and at­trac­tive. For, just as Socrates used to tell us not to live a life un­sub­jected to ex­am­i­na­tion, so we ought not to ac­cept a sense-im­pres­sion un­sub­jected to ex­am­i­na­tion, but should say, Wait, al­low me to see who you are and whence you come” (just as the night-watch say, Show me your to­kens”). Do you have your to­ken from na­ture, the ones which every sense-im­pres­sion which is to be ac­cepted must have?”

These two metaphors are also found in early Christian texts. Johannes Cassian [A.D.360-435], for ex­am­ple, asked his monks to scru­ti­nize and test their own rep­re­sen­ta­tions like a door­keeper or a money-changer. In the case of Christian self-ex­am­i­na­tion, the mon­i­tor­ing of rep­re­sen­ta­tions has the spe­cific in­ten­tion of de­ter­min­ing whether, un­der an ap­par­ently in­no­cent guise, the devil him­self is not hid­ing. For in or­der not to be trapped by what only seems to be in­no­cent, in or­der to avoid the dev­il’s coun­ter­feit coins, the Christian must de­ter­mine where his thoughts and sense-im­pres­sions come from, and what re­la­tion ac­tu­ally ex­ists be­tween a rep­re­sen­ta­tion’s ap­par­ent and real value. For Epictetus, how­ever, the prob­lem is not to de­ter­mine the source of the im­pres­sion (God or Satan) so as to judge whether it con­ceals some­thing or not; his prob­lem is rather to de­ter­mine whether the im­pres­sion rep­re­sents some­thing which de­pends upon him or not, i.e., whether it is ac­ces­si­ble or not to his will. Its pur­pose is not to dis­pel the dev­il’s il­lu­sions, but to guar­an­tee self-mas­tery.

To fos­ter mis­trust of our rep­re­sen­ta­tions, Epictetus pro­poses two kinds of ex­er­cises. One form is bor­rowed di­rectly from the Sophists. And in this clas­si­cal game of the so­phis­tic schools, one of the stu­dents asked a ques­tion and an­other stu­dent had to an­swer it with­out falling into the so­phis­tic trap. An el­e­men­tary ex­am­ple of this so­phis­tic game is this one: Question: Can a char­iot go through a mouth?” Answer: Yes. You your­self said the word chariot”, and it went through your mouth.” Epictetus crit­i­cized such ex­er­cises as un­help­ful, and pro­posed an­other for the pur­pose of moral train­ing. In this game there are also two part­ners. One of the part­ners states a fact, an event, and the other has to an­swer, as quickly as pos­si­ble, whether this fact or event is good or evil, i.e., is within or be­yond our con­trol. We can see this ex­er­cise, for ex­am­ple, in the fol­low­ing text:

As we ex­er­cise our­selves to meet the so­phis­ti­cal in­ter­ro­ga­tions, so we ought also to ex­er­cise our­selves daily to meet the im­pres­sion of our senses, be­cause these too put in­ter­ro­ga­tions to us. So-and-so’s son is dead. Answer, That lies out­side the sphere of the moral pur­pose, it is not an evil.” His fa­ther has dis­in­her­ited So-and-so; what do you think of it? That lies out­side the sphere of the moral pur­pose, it is not an evil. Caesar has con­demned him. That lies out­side the sphere of the moral pur­pose, it is not an evil.” He was grieved at all this. That lies within the sphere of the moral pur­pose, it is an evil. He has borne up un­der it man­fully. That lies within the sphere of the moral pur­pose, it is a good.” Now if we ac­quire this habit, we shall make progress; for we shall never give our as­sent to any­thing but that of which we get a con­vinc­ing sense-im­pres­sion.

There is an­other ex­er­cise Epictetus de­scribes which has the same ob­ject, but the form is closer to those em­ployed later in the Christian tra­di­tion. It con­sists in walk­ing through the streets of the city and ask­ing your­self whether any rep­re­sen­ta­tion that hap­pens to come to your mind de­pends upon your will or not. If it does not lie within the province of moral pur­pose and will, then it must be re­jected:

Go out of the house at early dawn, and no mat­ter whom you see or whom you hear, ex­am­ine him and then an­swer as you would to a ques­tion. What did you see? A hand­some man or a hand­some woman? Apply your rule. Is it out­side the province of the moral pur­pose, or in­side? Outside. Away with it. What did you see? A man in grief over the death of his child? Apply your rule. Death lies out­side the province of the moral pur­pose. Out of the way with it. Did a Consul meet you? Apply your rule. What sort of thing is a con­sul­ship? Outside the province of the moral pur­pose, or in­side? Outside. Away with it, too, it does not meet the test; throw it away, it does not con­cern you. If we had kept do­ing this and had ex­er­cised our­selves from dawn till dark with this prin­ci­ple in mind —by the gods, some­thing would have been achieved !

As you can see, Epictetus wants us to con­sti­tute a world of rep­re­sen­ta­tions where noth­ing can in­trude which is not sub­ject to the sov­er­eignty of our will. So, again, self-sov­er­eignty is the or­ga­niz­ing prin­ci­ple of this form of self-ex­am­i­na­tion.

I would have liked to have an­a­lyzed two more texts from Marcus Aurelius, but given the hour, I have no time left for this. So I would now like to turn to my con­clu­sions.

Conclusion of Techniques of Parrhesia

In read­ing these texts about self-ex­am­i­na­tion and un­der­lin­ing the dif­fer­ences be­tween them, I wanted to show you, first, that there is a no­tice­able shift in the par­rhe­si­as­tic prac­tices be­tween the master” and the disciple”. Previously, when par­rhe­sia ap­peared in the con­text of spir­i­tual guid­ance, the mas­ter was the one who dis­closed the truth about the dis­ci­ple. In these ex­er­cises, the mas­ter still uses frank­ness of speech with the dis­ci­ple in or­der to help him be­came aware of the faults he can­not see (Seneca uses par­rhe­sia to­wards Serenus, Epictetus uses par­rhe­sia to­wards his dis­ci­ples) ; but now the use of par­rhe­sia is put in­creas­ingly upon the dis­ci­ple as his own duty to­wards him­self. At this point the truth about the dis­ci­ple is not dis­closed solely through the par­rhe­si­as­tic dis­course of the mas­ter, or only in the di­a­logue be­tween the mas­ter and the dis­ci­ple or in­ter­locu­tor. The truth about the dis­ci­ple emerges from a per­sonal re­la­tion which he es­tab­lishes with him­self; and this truth can now be dis­closed ei­ther to him­self (as in the first ex­am­ple from Seneca) or to some­one else (as in the sec­ond ex­am­ple from Seneca) . And the dis­ci­ple must also test him­self, and check to see whether he is able to achieve self-mas­tery (as in the ex­am­ples from Epictetus) .

Secondly, it is not suf­fi­cient to an­a­lyze this per­sonal re­la­tion of self-un­der­stand­ing as merely de­riv­ing from the gen­eral prin­ci­ple gnothi seau­ton”— know thy­self”. Of course, in a cer­tain gen­eral sense it can be de­rived from this prin­ci­ple, but we can­not stop at this point. For the var­i­ous re­la­tion­ships which one has to one­self are em­bed­ded in very pre­cise tech­niques which take the form of spir­i­tual ex­er­cises — some of them deal­ing with deeds, oth­ers with states of equi­lib­rium of the soul, oth­ers with the flow of rep­re­sen­ta­tions, and so on.

Third point. In all these dif­fer­ent ex­er­cises, what is at stake is not the dis­clo­sure of a se­cret which has to ex­ca­vated from out of the depths of the soul. What is at stake is the re­la­tion of the self to truth or to some ra­tio­nal prin­ci­ples. Recall that the ques­tion which mo­ti­vated Seneca’s evening self- ex­am­i­na­tion was: Did I bring into play those prin­ci­ples of be­hav­ior I know very well, but, as it some­times hap­pens, I do not al­ways con­form to or al­ways ap­ply? Another ques­tion was: Am I able to ad­here to the prin­ci­ples I am fa­mil­iar with, I agree with, and which I prac­tice most of the time? For that was Serenus’ ques­tion. Or the ques­tion Epictetus raised in the ex­er­cises I was just dis­cussing: Am I able to re­act to any kind of rep­re­sen­ta­tion which shows it­self to me in con­for­mity with my adopted ra­tio­nal rules? What we have to un­der­line here is this: if the truth of the self in these ex­er­cises is noth­ing other than the re­la­tion of the self to truth, then this truth is not purely the­o­ret­i­cal. The truth of the self in­volves, on the one hand, a set of ra­tio­nal prin­ci­ples which are grounded in gen­eral state­ments about the world, hu­man life, ne­ces­sity, hap­pi­ness, free­dom, and so on, and, on the other hand, prac­ti­cal rules for be­hav­ior. And the ques­tion which is raised in these dif­fer­ent ex­er­cises is ori­ented to­wards the fol­low­ing prob­lem: Are we fa­mil­iar enough with these ra­tio­nal prin­ci­ples? Are they suf­fi­ciently well-es­tab­lished in our minds to be­come prac­ti­cal rules for our every­day be­hav­ior? And the prob­lem of mem­ory is at the heart of these tech­niques, but in the form of an at­tempt to re­mind our­selves of what we have done, thought, or felt so that we may re­ac­ti­vate our ra­tio­nal prin­ci­ples, thus mak­ing them as per­ma­nent and as ef­fec­tive as pos­si­ble in our life.

These ex­er­cises are part of what we could call an aesthetics of the self. For one does not have to take up a po­si­tion or role to­wards one­self as that of a judge pro­nounc­ing a ver­dict. One can com­port one­self to­wards one­self in the role of a tech­ni­cian, of a crafts­man, of an artist, who -from time to time- stops work­ing, ex­am­ines what he is do­ing, re­minds him­self of the rule of his art, and com­pares these rules with what he has achieved thus far. This metaphor of the artist who stops work­ing, steps back, gains a dis­tant per­spec­tive, and ex­am­ines what he is ac­tu­ally do­ing with the prin­ci­ples of his art can be found in Plutarch’s es­say, On the Control of Anger.