Bill Long 12/01/04
Developing Michel Foucault
The last lectures delivered by Michel Foucault before his early (at age 60) death in 1984 were in a seminar at UC Berkeley in the Fall of 1983. Joseph Pearson has now edited those lectures and published them under the title of Fearless Speech (2001). Dealing in those presentations with the issue of "parrhesia" (free speaking), Foucault, as was his wont, ranged nimbly over the contours of Greek thought to show how what began as an idea emphasizing the freedom of speech in a political context ended up focusing on the connection between logos and bios or, alternatively said, between how one speaks and how one lives.
Yet, he ended his lecture on "Socratic Parrhesia" in a tantalizing way: "This theme of changing one's life, of conversion, becomes very important from the Fourth Century B.C. to the beginnings of Christianity." The goal of this and the next essay is to take Foucault's cue and show how the concept of parrhesia is actually taken up in the earliest days of Christianity--in a way quite different than Foucault might have imagined.
Beginning with the Term
Parrhesia is a term not frequently used in ancient Greek literature and can be rendered in two different ways. On the one hand it suggests "outspokenness, frankness, freedom of speech," claimed by Athenians as their unique privilege; on the other hand it can mean "license of tongue," i.e., where the speaking has gone too far. It also has a twofold meaning in rhetoric; (1) free speaking; (2) begging pardon in advance for necessary candor [caught in such words as, "I am sorry to have to tell you this, but...."].
For Foucault, however, parrhesia may be defined as a verbal activity in which a speaker expresses his personal relationship to truth through frankness instead of persuasion, truth instead of flattery and moral duty instead of self-interest and moral apathy. You get the sense on reading through his material on parrhesia that Foucault found himself in the life of the Greeks. The last words we hear from Foucault, interestingly enough, then are his words of frank speech.
I focus here on Foucault's argument in his essay, on the net, entitled "Socratic Parrhesia." This essay/lecture is on the theme of parrhesia in one of Plato's lesser-studied dialogues, the Laches. The Laches is a dialogue about courage, but it never satisfactorily answers the question of what courage is. Nevertheless, by the end of the dialogue all the leading characters agree that Socrates would be the best teacher for their sons. When Socrates agrees to play that role, he introduces the, for Foucault, endearing concept of the "care of the self" (epimeleia heautou). Thus, he sees the Laches as an exploration of the movement from speaking freely to the care of the self, from care for speaking to care for living.
One of Socrates' interlocutors is Nicias, a military general. He observes that what is arresting about Socrates is his ability to bring the conversation round to discussion of the way life ought to be lived. He says,
"You strike me as not being aware that, whoever comes into close contact with Socrates and has any talk with him face to face, is bound to be drawn round and round by him in the course of the argument...and cannot stop until he is led into giving an account of himself, of the manner in which he now spends his days, and of the kind of life he has lived hitherto; and when once he has been led into that, Socrates will never let him go until he has thoroughly and properly put all his ways to the test."
Socrates' Unique Parrhesia
Foucault observes that Nicias here has described the "parrhesiastic game" of Socrates from the perspective of the one who is tested. This "game" is one which requires a personal, face to face relationship. Thus, parrhesia is taken out of the purely political or tragic realm (an earlier essay/lecture was on parrhesia in Euripides), and brought to the ethical sphere: how one lives life. The important point is that being in relationship with Socrates requires you to "give an account" of your life.
Foucault is quick to point out, however, that this giving an account of self is not to be equated or even illumined by the Christian understanding of repentance or confession. Socrates' purpose is not to examine your autobiography, "but rather to demonstrate whether you are able to show that there is a relation between the rational discourse, the logos, you are able to use, and the way that you live." Is there a harmonic relationship in your life between words and deeds?
The notion of harmonic relationship should take the mind to Plato's greatest dialogue, the Republic, where harmony in the city is projected back into the individual so that Socratic/Platonic justice is the harmony of the various elements within the soul. Thus the goal of Socrates' parrhesiastical method is to create a "mousikos aner," a man who is harmonically united.
Foucault wants to emphasize that Socrates' parrhesia differs from political parrhesia primarily because it requires a personal relationship between two human beings and not a relationship between the parrhesiasts and the demos or the king. Now, in addition to the triad of logos, truth and courage which constitute political parrhesia, we have logos, truth and bios in the Socratic parrhesia. As Foucault says, "The aim of this Socratic parrhesiastic activity, then, is to lead the interlocutor to the choice of that kind of life (bios) that will be in Dorian-harmonic accord witth logos, virtue, courage and truth."
To see the rather unexpected way in which parrhesia is picked up by the earliest Christians, go to the next essay.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long