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Lecture 2: Parrhesia in democracy and autocracy March 7, 2009

Posted by Andy in Foucault, Le Courage de la Vérité.
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The second lecture continues Foucault’s analysis of parrhesia, and takes into consideration the political context. Parrhesia is argued to be suited to monarchies rather than democracies, and in its relation to the prince, its essential character is to be found. He starts off with some reflections on democracy, and curiously ends up with an almost Trinitarian-shaped account of philosophy.

Firstly, parrhesia simply doesn’t work in democracies in antiquity. It is dangerous – either for the state or for the individual practising it. It is dangerous for the state because complete freedom of speech, an ubiquitous willingness to challenge the assumptions of common language, undermines the basis for conversation. It is dangerous for the practitioner because democracies are unable to respond to the challenge of aude sapere: daring to hear the truth is part of moral development, and democratic assemblies bear no moral development.

This statement about democratic assemblies is based for Foucault on the four principles of Greek politics: that there are always (1) a few (2) moral people (3) who wish the good of the city and (4) whose truth-telling requires a kind of privilege (which is never given them in democracies).

It is part of this argument, I suppose, that democracies nurture rhetoric, and Foucault mentioned in the first lecture that rhetoric is opposed to parrhesia point for point (pp14-15):

  • The parrhesiast risks the relation to the hearer by being obliged to say what he himself believes to be true.
  • The rhetorician constructs a false relation to the hearer by deciding to say what he needs to say in order to be believed about what may or may not be true.

This incompatibility grounds a great deal of ancient scepticism towards democracy, particularly worked out in aristocratic critique, Platonist withdrawal, and Aristotelian hesitation. I’m afraid I’m not going to go into details about these interpretations here.

There are a number of examples given to oppose parrhesia in democracy to parrhesia towards princes (the obvious one is Pisistratus and the tax-free farmer). Fundamentally Foucault draws attention to the fact that Plato was disappointed with his failure with Denys in Sicily, whereas the failure of Athens to accept Socrates was structural.

So we have three poles: in order for truth-telling to take place, a political system has to be in place that allows for ethical discernment. Or in order for ethics to be possible, a truth-teller is needed in a political situation that allows her to speak. And in order for politics to be effectual, truth has to be spoken about ethics.

For Foucault, any one or two of these without the third will be insufficient (as philosophy: obviously science, ethics, and political theory attempt each individually):

The existence of philosophical discourse, since Greece until now, is precisely within the possibility, or rather the necessity, of this game: to never post the question of alêtheia without at the same time re-launching, regarding this same truth, the question of politeia and of êthos. The same thing for politeia. The same thing for êthos. (p64)

It is curious, though, that he analyses the interaction of these three poles in ways that remind us of discussions of the trinity in late antiquity (and yes, I am thinking of Augustine), by overlaying them with the modes of truth-telling outlined in the last lecture.

  • The prophetic attitude to philosophy predicts the ultimate reconciliation between the three poles;
  • The attitude of the sage in philosophy attempts to speak a founding discourse that unites the three poles (presumably preserving their distinction);
  • The attitude of the teacher-technician refuses to link them and keeps them apart (as separate University disciplines, we could say).

And I think the parrhesiastic attitude bears quoting:

It’s the parrhesiastic attitude, the one which attempts to fairly, obstinately, and forever starting anew, to bring back to the question of truth that of the political conditions and of ethical distinction [différenciation] which opens it up; which perpetually and always brings back to the question of power that of its relation to truth and to knowledge on the one hand, and to ethical distinction [différenciation] on the other; and finally the one which ceaselessly brings back to the question of the moral subject  the question of true discourse where this moral subject constitutes itself and of power relations where this subject is formed. (p65)

So the parrhesiastic attitude in philosophy is all about the irreducibility of ethics, power, and truth. And that’s the Foucauldian program.


1. Notes on Lecture 2 Posted « An und für sich - March 8, 2009

[…] March 8, 2009 Andy has posted his notes for the second Foucault lecture. The second lecture continues Foucault’s analysis of parrhesia, and takes into consideration the po… Posted by Anthony Paul Smith Filed in […]

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