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In the classic discipline of rhetoric, parrhesia is a figure of speech described as: to speak candidly or to ask forgiveness for so speaking.[1] The term is borrowed from the Greek παρρησία (πᾶν "all" + ῥῆσις / ῥῆμα "utterance, speech") meaning literally "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.


Usage in Ancient Greece

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 theatre, playwrights such as Aristophanes made full use of the right to ridicule whomever they chose.[2] 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.[3] 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 (supposedly) introducing new gods and corrupting the young.[2] Parrhesia was also a central concept for the Cynic philosophers, as epitomized in the shameless speech of Diogenes of Sinope.[4]

New Testament use

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 [την παρρησίαν] of Peter and John and realized that they were uneducated and ordinary men, they were amazed and recognized them as companions of Jesus."). It is also used to describe the reply Jesus made to the Pharisees [5] [6]. See Heinrich Schlier, "παρρησία, παρρησιάζομαι," Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich, Eds. Ann Arbor: Eerdmans, 1967. Vol. V, pp. 871ff.

Modern scholarship

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 [7]. Foucault's use of parrhesia, 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 (and it is "he" when we consider Greek teachings) 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, a user of parrhesia must be in a social position less empowered than those to whom he is revealing. For instance, a pupil speaking the truth to an instructor would be an accurate example of parrhesia, whereas an instructor revealing the truth to his or her pupils would not.

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.[8]


To summarize the foregoing, parrhesia is a kind of verbal activity where the speaker has a specific relation to truth through frankness, a certain relationship to his own life through danger, a certain type of relation to himself or other people through criticism (self-criticism or criticism of other people), and a specific relation to moral law through freedom and duty. More precisely, parrhesia is a verbal activity in which a speaker expresses his personal relationship to truth, and risks his life because he recognizes truth-telling as a duty to improve or help other people (as well as himself). In parrhesia, the speaker uses his freedom and chooses frankness instead of persuasion, truth instead of falsehood or silence, the risk of death instead of life and security, criticism instead of flattery, and moral duty instead of self-interest and moral apathy.[9]

See also


  1. ^ Burton, Gideon O. "Parrhesia". Sylva Rhetoricae. Brigham Young University. Retrieved 2007-05-24.  
  2. ^ a b Robert W. Wallace, The Power to Speak - and not to listen - in Ancient Athens, in Ineke Sluiter, Ralph Mark Rosen, (2002), Free Speech in Classical Antiquity, pages 222-3. BRILL
  3. ^ John Willoby Roberts, (1984), City of Sokrates, page 148. Routledge
  4. ^ Luis E. Navia, Diogenes the Cynic, page 179. Humanity Books
  5. ^ [1] parrhesia
  6. ^ [2] Bill Long, Parrhesia and Earliest Christianity, 12/01/04
  7. ^ [3] Discourse and Truth: the Problematization of Parrhesia. six lectures given by Michel Foucault at the University of California at Berkeley, Oct-Nov. 1983
  8. ^ Michel Foucault, Fearless Speach, p. 15-16
  9. ^ Michel Foucault, Fearless Speach, p. 19-20

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