speak truth to power

In rhetoric, parrhesia [puh-reez-ee-uh] refers to speaking candidly or asking forgiveness for so speaking. Its nominal form, is translated from Latin to ‘free speech.’ The term first appears in Greek literature in the tragic plays of ‘Euripides.’ The term is borrowed from the Greek word meaning ‘to speak everything’ and by extension ‘to speak freely,’ ‘to speak boldly,’ or ‘boldness.’ It implies not only freedom of speech, but the obligation to speak the truth for the common good, even at personal risk.

In Ancient Greece, rhetoric and parrhesia were understood to be in opposition of each other through the dialogues written by Plato. There are two major philosophies during this time one being Sophistry and one being Dialectic. Sophistry is most commonly associated with the uses of rhetoric or means of persuasion to teach or persuade an audience. In its opposition is the practice of dialectic, supported by Plato and his mentor Socrates, which practices using dialogue to break apart complex issues in search of absolute truth or knowledge.

Parrhesia was a fundamental component of the democracy of Classical Athens. In assemblies and the courts Athenians were free to say almost anything, and in the theater, playwrights such as Aristophanes made full use of the right to ridicule whomever they chose. Elsewhere there were limits to what might be said; freedom to discuss politics, morals, religion, or to criticize people would depend on context: by whom it was made, and when, and how, and where. If a man was seen as immoral, or his views went contrary to popular opinion, then there were great risks involved in making use of such an unbridled freedom of speech, as Socrates found out when he was sentenced to death for introducing new gods and corrupting the young. Parrhesia was also a central concept for the Cynic philosophers, as epitomized in the shameless speech of Diogenes of Sinope. It was also used by Epicureans in a friendly manner of frank criticism during teaching Epicurean philosophy and offering psychotherapy.

Parrhesia appears in Midrashic literature (Jewish commentary) as a condition for the transmission of Torah. Connoting open and public communication, parrhesia appears in combination with the term (‘dimus,’ short for ‘dimosia’), translated ‘coram publica,’ ‘in the public eye,’ i.e. open to the public. As a mode of communication it is repeatedly described in terms analogous to a Commons. Parrhesia is closely associated with an ownerless wilderness of primary mytho-geographic import, the Midbar Sinai in which the Torah was initially received. The dissemination of Torah thus depends on its teachers cultivating a nature which is as open, ownerless, and sharing as that wilderness. Torah was given over ‘dimus parrhesia in a maqom hefker’ (‘a place belonging to no one’). For had it been given in the Land of Israel, they would have had cause to say to the nations of the world, ‘you have no share in it.’ Rabbinical scholars theorize that this was done to avoid causing dissension among the tribes [of Israel].

A related use of parrhesia is found in the Greek New Testament, where it means ‘bold speech,’ the ability of believers to hold their own in discourse before political and religious authorities (e.g. Acts 4:13: ‘Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John and realized that they were uneducated and ordinary men, they were amazed and recognized them as companions of Jesus’).

Twentieth century French philosopher Michel Foucault developed the concept of parrhesia as a mode of discourse in which one speaks openly and truthfully about one’s opinions and ideas without the use of rhetoric, manipulation, or generalization. Foucault’s use, he tells us, is troubled by our modern day Cartesian model of evidential necessity. For Descartes, truth is the same as the undeniable. Whatever can be doubted must be, and, thus, speech that is not examined or criticized does not necessarily have a valid relation to truth.

There are several conditions upon which the traditional Ancient Greek notion of parrhesia relies. One who uses parrhesia is only recognized as doing so if he or she holds a credible relationship to the truth, if he serves as critic to either himself or popular opinion or culture, if the revelation of this truth places him in a position of danger and he persists in speaking the truth, nevertheless, as he feels it is his moral, social, and/or political obligation. Further, in a public situation, a user of parrhesia must be in a social position less empowered than those to whom he is revealing.

Foucault (1983) sums up the Ancient Greek concept of parrhesia as such: ‘So you see, the parrhesiastes is someone who takes a risk. Of course, this risk is not always a risk of life. When, for example, you see a friend doing something wrong and you risk incurring his anger by telling him he is wrong, you are acting as a parrhesiastes. In such a case, you do not risk your life, but you may hurt him by your remarks, and your friendship may consequently suffer for it. If, in a political debate, an orator risks losing his popularity because his opinions are contrary to the majority’s opinion, or his opinions may usher in a political scandal, he uses parrhesia. Parrhesia, then, is linked to courage in the face of danger: it demands the courage to speak the truth in spite of some danger. And in its extreme form, telling the truth takes place in the ‘game’ of life or death.’

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