Government of Self and Others: Foucault on Truth and Democracy

One of the central questions from Foucault’s Government of the Self and Others lectures at the College De France is in answering how, by binding oneself to the truth, the self is exercising freedom? This question animates the core of our democratic experiment since its philosophical founding in ancient Greece. How precisely are the micro power mechanisms that function in democratic societies to limit equal decision making linked to truth, and to truth-telling?

What we find emerging at a certain moment in ancient Greek society is a form of speech in public that became dependent on challenging power, and became linked to courage-as-a-form of truth-telling. In the generation of the democratic civic discourse, Parresia arises in a way to replace the performative speech act that had been linked to Oracular truth.

The genealogy of this form of truth-telling (Parresia), becomes the subject of an entire year of lectures from 1982 – 1983, wherein Foucault’s late project on the subjectivization and technologies of the self are of course at their zenith. The term “Parresia” is typically associated with a lesser-known Christian term referring to rhetoric speaking freely, or speaking openly. What Foucault seeks to do is trace this concept to the formation of democratic discourse and in so doing, isolate the role of Parresia. He presents the “schemata” of Parresia’s evolution throughout history, particularly in ancient Greece.

Parresia on a cliff.

It is the truth-telling itself that creates the rupture, so it is unlike a performative act that gives rise to a determined event. Parresia is about the content of the statement, not its effectual outcome. In his tracing of Parresia as a philosophical concept, Foucault seeks to follow what he refers to as the “dramatics of true discourse” – or the discursive formations that the truth-speaking subject is conditioned by. Three figures/archetypes are identified in the “dramatics of true discourse” — the minister, critical discourse, and the revolutionary.

Parresia is the demonstrative fact of telling the truth, but its precise meaning is highly ambiguous. Is it a form of rhetoric, or a form of thought, or put simply, is it the purest thought? Parresia is most certainly a way of telling the truth. But it does not consist in discourse or in the structure of language and rhetoric. You have to look to the speaker, or the risk the truth-teller makes when he/she speaks to find Parresia.

Parresia is what binds the speaker to the fact that what he is saying is the truth, and to the consequences that telling the truth bring. It does not require an institutionalized context (Pg. 61, Lecture 4):

We can say there is Parresia when the statement of this truth constitutes an irruptive event opening up an undefined or poorly defined risk for the subject who speaks (Pg. 63).

Foucault points out that the subject who is deploying Parresia is himself overwhelmed and caught up in a discourse that determines his ontological place in the discourse. Parresia determines subjectivity in a democratic discourse. The subject of Parresia is making a pact that what he says is the truth, and also that he is prepared to live up to the consequences of his truth-telling statements. What is most important is that the parrephesiast is someone who declares his own freedom in the act of speaking, to that extent, unlike a performative act that requires a social status, the parrephesiast act depends on courage.

Thus it is a way of speaking that lays one open to a risk by constituting oneself as a partner to the speech act of Parresia. It brings into question the relationship between freedom and truth for the self.

Parresia can be broken down into three categories in society that people inhabit – i.e. three potential relations to Parresia.

o The first category are those that have no power to make a difference, who lack wealth. These people tend to detest all that is wrong in society and feel powerless.
o The second category are those that can do something, those with birth and power. This is the elite. But their wisdom means that they do not concern themselves with politics.
o The third category are those that are rich and powerful but they refuse to only be concerned with sophi (wisdom) but who are also concerned with logos and polis.

Using the example of Euripidies’ play Ion, we find that when Ion is prevented from attaining Parresia because of being a bastard – i.e. of not having legitimate links to a mother, we see that Parresia is not merely power itself nor is it merely the status of being a citizen. Ion cannot attain Parresia through the status of his father, but it can only come through the line of his mother, but Foucault insists that this does not mean that Parresia represents a matrilineal right necessarily (Pg. 104).

It does lead Foucault to posit that:

Parresia is a discourse spoken from above, which comes form a source higher than a citizen, and which is different than the pure and simple exercise of power (Pg. 104).

Parresia leaves others the ability to speak and allows others the freedom to obey, and leaves them free in so far as they will only obey if they can be persuaded. Parresia consists in making use of this discourse that exists in the polis that manages debate and the forming of opinions.

The beauty of these lectures are in their analysis of the historical transition in ancient Greece between oracular based truth-telling to political truth-telling. This of course is the main theme of the play Ion.

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