Parrēsia: Notes on the Thought of Michel Foucault

by | 11 Sep 2014


Jean-Léon Gérôme - Diogenes - Walters

In the last two lecture series Foucault gave at the Collège de France in 1982-1984, published under the titles The Government of Self and Others and The Courage of Truth, a genealogy of the obscure concept parrēsia – “truth-telling”(dire-vrai) or “free-spokeness”(franc-parler) – is unfolded.

Parrēsia was, according to Foucault, one of the core principles of Athenian democracy together with – but sharply distinguished from – isonomia and isēgoria; principles that are roughly translatable as equality before the law and the equal right to address the assembly for all citizens of Athens. Though all Athenian citizens have an equal right to speak (isēgoria), only a small elite, those who are in the foremost rank (prōton zugon) and of extraordinary personal and moral qualities, are meant to claim their right to address the assembly. Where isēgoria (at least formally) is for everyone, parrēsia is for the few. These few are those who aspire to ascend in the ranks of society through the agonistic game of recognition in order to take charge of the city through their parrēsiatic practice. The game of truth-telling is the institutional framework designed in order to select the genuine elite among the competitors.

Thus, Foucault argues, ancient democracy has an ambivalent relationship to political elitism: on the one hand, the right to speak is equally distributed (isēgoria), on the other hand, not everyone can speak (parrēsia). Democracy and parrēsia therefore relate to each other in a paradoxical way: parrēsia is only possible within the formally equal democratic agonistic game of truth-telling, but at the same time parrēsia introduces elitism into democracy completely different from the egalitarian structure of democracy. Parrēsia is therefore a threat to democracy. However, at the same time, democracy cannot do without parrēsia since it is the core of the democratic form of government.

Though paradoxical, the game of parrēsia, Foucault argues, is necessary for the survival of democracy. Parrēsia is the institutional framework that allows the political elite to ascend in a legitimate manner in order to take charge of the city. Where the institutional framework of modern democracy makes it possible for the political elite to be selected by elections, the institutional framework of ancient democracy had the political elite selected by the agonistic game of parrēsia. This game of truth-telling, which allows for the genuine political elite to take charge of the city through their practice of parrēsia, is what Foucault presents as the core of ancient democracy. Foucault’s ideal typical example of “political” parrēsia is Pericles as he is represented in his famous speech in Thucydides’ The Peloponnesian Wars.

In order only to have the genuine political elite ascend in the democratic game of truth telling, the parrhēsiast speaks at a very high but uncertain risk which might include ostracism or death penalty. The parrhēsiast should therefore find what he wants to say so important that he is willing to risk his life in order to frankly say what he finds to be the truth; an institutional check that one would think discourages most people from addressing the assembly. This is why courage is needed in order to engage in the practice of truth-telling.

The problem is, however, that after the death of Pericles the institutional check of the risk of truth-telling no longer was perceived as successful. The core of the critique of the fourth and fifth century B.C, but also more generally of the ancient democratic institutional framework characterized by parrēsia, is, according to Foucault, that it cannot discriminate between “good” and “bad” parrēsia. That is, the political practice of parrēsia can be misused by the good rhetorician or the demagogue through flattery or “false truth-telling.”

1Foucault, The Government of Self and Others, p. 180ff.

The problem is that the institutional framework of democracy, constituted in order to have the elite ascend, allows all good speakers to ascend; also those who do not have the extraordinary qualities of Pericles. The game of truth-telling can therefore not distinguish between the rhetorician and the parrēsiast. At least, Foucault points out, this seems to have appeared as a problem for the Greeks after the death of Pericles. A more contemporary formulation of the problem is that of populism: those who have the ability to charm the assembly will be able to take charge of the city.

The problem of the inherent danger of “bad” parrēsia in a democracy is according to Foucault of serious nature for the Athenian democracy because parrēsia is the governmentality of the polis: “If democracy can be governed, it is because there is true discourse.”

2Foucault, The Government of Self and Others, p. 184.

The relationship between democracy and parrēsia is thus paradoxical in yet another way: on the one hand, democracy cannot exist without parrēsia, but on the other hand, the equality of democracy gives birth to the “bad” parrēsia that is a constant threat to the survival of parrēsia within democracy. Thus democracy and parrēsia, though mutually constitutive, present inherent threats to one another.

The obvious question which seems to have been of particular importance in relation hereto is whether an ideal city exists in which the truth can appear without the dangerous game of parrēsia. This question is of course extensively dealt with in Plato’s the Republic, which concluded that the best city is that in which the philosophers rule. Interestingly enough, however, Foucault argues that Plato’s understanding of the relationship between truth and politics should neither be found in the Republic nor in the Laws. Theseworks were, according to Foucault, not “serious” philosophical works and they should “be handled as cautiously as a myth.”

3Foucault, The Government of Self and Others, 253.

The seriousness of the Platonic philosophy is, according to Foucault, to be found in Plato’s Letters. The letters are important in order to understand how philosophy was perceived not merely as a reflection upon politics but also an intervention into politics; something “more” than logos. Foucault is especially interested in letter VII, in which Plato narrates his journey and séjour at the court of the Syracusian tyrant Dionysius. Letter VII is, according to Foucault, a part of a general shift of the political scene from the agora and the ēkklēsia towards the court of the sovereign (the prince’s soul). Parrēsia, therefore, cannot be understood as praxis peculiar to the democratic form of government; “the problem of parrēsia arises under any form of government.”

4Foucault, The Government of Self and Others, 212.

This shift away from the “political” parrēsia of democracy is explained by Plato (or whoever is the author) in letter V: bad parrēsia has corrupted the Athenian population to such an extent that they are beyond the scope of reform. According to Foucault’s reading of letter VII, the shift is, however, not merely away from democracy but also from political action as such. In light of Plato’s negative experiences both with oligarchy and democracy (exemplified by the unjust treatment of Socrates both by the thirty tyrants and by the ekklēsia), Plato realized that political action and parrēsia no longer were possible.

Plato, Foucault argues, therefore turns to a new parrhēsiastic praxis; the education of the prince’s soul by the philosopher in the role of the counsellor. The philosophical ergon thus become that of the educator or counsellor in order to make the king into a philosopher: “there will be no cessation of evils for the sons of men,” it is stated in letter VII “till either those who are pursuing a right and true philosophy receive sovereign power in the States, or those in power in the States by some dispensation of providence become true philosophers.”5See Plato, letter VII:

It is here important to clarify that the role of the philosopher as a parrēsiastic advisor does not consist in stating what the content of politics should be; the philosopher is not a “political expert.” The education of the Prince’ soul, the philosophical ergon, is the education, not primarily in mathēsis (content of knowledge, or a philosophical doctrine) but in askēsis (a mode of life, the philosophical life): “the reality of philosophy is its practice.”

6Foucault, The Government of Self and Others, p. 219, 242, 247.

This practice is however not primarily philosophy as discourse (logos) but the work on oneself, or a relationship of self to self: “The reality of philosophy is the work of self on self.“

7Foucault, The Government of Self and Others, p. 242

The role of the philosopher is, so to speak, not to teach the prince what he has to do, but who he has to be.

Philosophical parrēsia is the education of the prince’s soul in the philosophical mode of life, askēsis, which is a government of oneself in order make the prince become a philosopher. In this way, philosophy and politics correlate in the education of the prince’s soul. Philosophy and politics ought not to coincide in a doctrine: “I think that the misfortune and ambiguity of the relations between philosophy and politics,” Foucault writes “stems from and are no doubt due to the fact that philosophical veridiction has sometimes wanted to think of itself in terms of (…) philosophical doctrine […] Philosophy and politics must exist in relation, in a correlation; they must never coincide. This, if you like, is the general theme that we can extract from Plato’s text.”

8Foucault, The Government of Self and Others, p. 289.

The only place where philosophy and politics coincide is in the soul of the well-educated prince. This is, according to Foucault, the genuine Platonic meaning of the “philosopher king” and the true meaning of the “mythical game” of the Republic.

In this way, Foucault argues, the idea of the government and care of the self is pivotal to the parrēsiastic practice; an idea which is even more visible in the life of Socrates. One important aspect of the philosophical selfhood, according to Foucault, is expressed in how the conflict between philosophy and rhetoric is portrayed in Plato’s the Apology. This conflict is important for Foucault because he argues that a fight over the monopoly of parrēsia took place between philosophy and rhetoric. Where rhetoric is a skill (tekhnē) which allows the speaker to persuade his audience independently of the rhetorician’s own beliefs, the philosophical speechtakes its meaning, not from a relationship to the audience, but a relationship to the speaker himself. For this reason, Socrates describes himself as a truth-telling man without tekhnē. This non-technical form of speech is characterized by a harmony of truth (alētheia) and the belief (pistis) of the speaker. Where the rhetorical language is crafted to produce effects in the audience, the philosophical parrēsia is a frank statement of what the speaker believes to be the truth.Philosophical parrēsia is thus characterized by an authentic relationship to the self; a care for the self. It is characterized by a harmony between speaking and living; a life in harmony with virtue.

It is this care for the self that makes Socrates refuse to commit injustice, which he argues, that he has been asked to do both under the rule of the thirty tyrants and in the Athenian democracy. In both cases Socrates resists; a resistance that has become the ideal typical example of individual philosophical resistance hereafter. This refusal to comply is, according to Foucault, a manifestation of Socratic parrēsia. The Socratic parrēsia is negative in the sense that it is a refusal to act and speak in the political field (as Pericles did). Socratic parrēsia nevertheless receives its meaning in relation to politics; in a refusal to commit an injustice. With Socrates, “philosophical” parrēsia shifts towards a manifestation of “ethical” parrēsia; Socratic parrēsia is “philosophico-ethical.”

9In The Government of Self and Others, Foucault mainly describes Socratic parrēsia as “philosophical”, but in The Courage of Truth, where his focus seems to have shifted a bit, he mainly describes Socratic parrēsia as “ethical.” In my reading I hold that Socratic parrēsia are both “philosophical” and “ethical.” For that reason I describe it as “philosophico-ethical”; a term Foucault does not use himself.

Socratic parrēsia is, as Foucault notes, a quite “discrete” form of parrēsia because it exactly is an abstention from action. Socratic parrēsia is an act of what we today know as civic disobedience: when ordered to arrest a man, Socrates does not comply and returns home openly and publicly. What is at stake is thus not discourse (logos) but action (ergos): “After all, parrēsia may appear in the things themselves,” Foucault writes, “it may appear in ways of doing things, it may appear in ways of being.”

10Foucault, The Government of Self and Others, p. 320.

“Philosophico-ethical” parrēsia is, however, for Socrates more than the refusal of becoming a subject of an unjust political action. The philosophical parrēsia which Socrates lives—“the task he had decided to pursue until his last breath, the task to which he had bound his life, and for which he refuses any payment or reward”

11Foucault, The Government of Self and Others, p. 326.

—is to listen to anyone, rich as poor, and help them understand that they should not care about wealth or glory, but about themselves. And, that caring about themselves primarily consists in “knowing whether or not one knows what one knows.”12Ibid. That is, philosophical parrēsia is for Socrates to cure people of the common and false opinion that corrupt their souls and have them think for themselves. A true life is a life free of prejudice. The site of philosophical parrēsia has thus shifted from the prince’ soul to the lives and souls of all the people Socrates met.Socratic parrēsia is thus practicing philosophy itself, caring for oneself and telling others to care for themselves.

The core of Socratic parrēsia, as for the Platonic parrēsia, is not the question of the content of politics but the question of the political subject: “Philosophy’s question is not the question of politics,” Foucault writes “it is the question of the subject in politics.”

13Foucault, The Government of Self and Others, p. 319.

What is at stake in Socratic parrēsia is not the safety of the city (as in the Periclesian parrēsia at the dawn of the Peloponnesian Wars). What is at stake is the integrity of the philosophical life as true life. With Socrates’ refusal to commit an injustice and his commitment to listen to anyone and help them to live a true life, parrēsia is no longer a particular way of speaking the truth; parrēsia is a way of living the truth through practices on the self by the self: “Being an agent of the truth,” Foucault writes, “and as a philosopher claiming for oneself the monopoly of parrēsia, will not just mean claiming that one can state the truth in teaching, in the advice one gives, and in the speeches one makes, but that one really is in fact, in one’s life, an agent of the truth.”

14Foucault, The Government of Self and Others, p. 320.

The understanding of philosophical parrēsia as a true life, or beautiful life, is even more thoroughly manifested in the life of the Cynics with Diogenes (most often referred to as “Diogenes the Cynic” or “Diogenes in the Barrel”) as the prime example. To underline this, Foucault refers to a description by Diogenes Laertius of Diogenes the Cynic: when Diogenes is asked what the most beautiful in men is, he answers: parrēsia. For Diogenes, the true life is the exercise of parrēsia. The Cynics’ parrēsia is the full manifestation of “ethical” parrēsia because they barely have a “doctrine,” that is, the theoretical framework of the cynics is rudimentary and that is exactly something they take pride in. What is at stake in Cynic philosophy is not mathēsis but askēsis; what is at stake is the true and beautiful life.

Though the life ofthe Cynics can be understood as closely related to Socratic parrēsia as living and speaking in accordance with a conception of the true life (Socrates’ refusal to become an unjust man), the Cynics mode of life is more than a harmonic life in accordance with certain virtues such as temperance, courage or wisdom. The cynic life is a highly codified life; a true and beautiful life. The core of this life is that one practice the “scandal” of truth by words and deeds.

The cynic life is a life of renunciation of material wealth: “The Cynic is the man with the staff, the beggar’s pouch, the cloak, the man with the sandals or bare feet, the man with the long beards, the dirty man.”

15Foucault, The Courage of Truth, p. 170.

The Cynic has no family, no household, and most astonishingly, no country. This renunciation of everything that for the Greeks signified a dignified life makes the Cynic independent and free. Since the Cynic does not depend on anyone his is “sovereign” of his own life. No one can take his property because he does not own anything; no one can ostracise him from his fatherland because he has none.

This extreme renunciation of material wealth gives the Cynic the freedom to speak the truth to anyone: the life of the Cynic is the precondition for the exercise of parrēsia. The scene of parrēsia shifts with the Cynic away from the ēkklēsia (Pericles), the soul of the prince (Plato), the people of Athens (Socrates) to “humanity” (Cynics). The Cynic is the “scout” or “spy” for humanity: “if one wishes to be humanity’s spy,” Foucault writes “[and] tell humanity frankly and courageously all the danger it might face and where its true enemies are to be found, then one must have no attachments.”

16Foucault, The Courage of Truth, p. 170.

The cynic life is a manifestation of what life is in its independence. For the Cynics, true life is therefore not merely life in accordance with principles; for the Cynics, bios as such becomes a manifestation of truth. For the Cynics, parrēsia is therefore more truth-living than truth-telling. Truth is manifested in askēsis, discipline, and “the bareness of life.”

17Foucault, The Courage of Truth, p. 173.

Since mathēsis plays next to no role in Cynic parrēsia, the only way to learn Cynic philosophy is by living a cynic life. For the Cynics, teaching philosophy did not consist in passing on knowledge but in moral training. Foucault gives an example hereupon by referring to the way in which Diogenes taught the children of Xeniander: Diogenes taught the children to wait on themselves without calling upon servants or slaves, he taught them to wear simple clothes and walking without shoes, he taught them to walk on the streets and keep their eyes low, he taught them to hunt their own food etc. In this way, the children went through an “apprenticeship in independence.”18Ibid. The Cynics are for this reason, according to Foucault, one of the first manifestations of philosophical “heroism”: the Cynic is one to follow and imitate if one desires to live a true life; a genuinely sovereign life. The cynic life is true life as the government of oneself.


—Foucault, M. (2010): The Government of Self and Others—Lectures at the Collège de France, 1982-1983. New York: Picador.
—Foucault, M. (2011): The Courage of Truth—Lectures at the Collège de France, 1983-1984. New York: Picador.
—Plato, letter VII:

  • 1
    Foucault, The Government of Self and Others, p. 180ff.
  • 2
    Foucault, The Government of Self and Others, p. 184.
  • 3
    Foucault, The Government of Self and Others, 253.
  • 4
    Foucault, The Government of Self and Others, 212.
  • 5
    See Plato, letter VII:
  • 6
    Foucault, The Government of Self and Others, p. 219, 242, 247.
  • 7
    Foucault, The Government of Self and Others, p. 242
  • 8
    Foucault, The Government of Self and Others, p. 289.
  • 9
    In The Government of Self and Others, Foucault mainly describes Socratic parrēsia as “philosophical”, but in The Courage of Truth, where his focus seems to have shifted a bit, he mainly describes Socratic parrēsia as “ethical.” In my reading I hold that Socratic parrēsia are both “philosophical” and “ethical.” For that reason I describe it as “philosophico-ethical”; a term Foucault does not use himself.
  • 10
    Foucault, The Government of Self and Others, p. 320.
  • 11
    Foucault, The Government of Self and Others, p. 326.
  • 12
  • 13
    Foucault, The Government of Self and Others, p. 319.
  • 14
    Foucault, The Government of Self and Others, p. 320.
  • 15
    Foucault, The Courage of Truth, p. 170.
  • 16
    Foucault, The Courage of Truth, p. 170.
  • 17
    Foucault, The Courage of Truth, p. 173.
  • 18


  1. studying ‘die Kyniker’ to use another term, is always fun. Historical some like to forget that the more naturalistic pre-socratics could as easy be called pre-sophists, the city-lawyers being philosophizing before the Socratic Schools

  2. In my opinion the last period of Foucault is to throw his last fields of interest (getting more practical, condensed, getting older..) into the intertext. Parresia(study) is to be combined with the body-techniques into a truth-yoga.. maybe, as there already are many yoga’s out there, inside.. Hadot, a bit of an old Foucault.. is interesting to read on Greek soma-meditation, that thread. bye now


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


Join 4,680 other subscribers

We respect your privacy.


Fair access = access according to ability to pay
on a sliding scale down to zero.



Publish your article with us and get read by the largest community of critical legal scholars, with over 4000 subscribers.