Monday, November 28, 2011


Michel Foucault, The Government of Self and Others: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1982-1983. Edited by Frédéric Gros; translated by Graham Burchell. New York: Picador, 2011. Pp. xx, 402. ISBN 9780312572921. $20.00.

Reviewed by Christopher Forlini, Free University Berlin (

Version at BMCR home site

In January through March of 1983, Michel Foucault delivered a series of lectures at the Collège de France dedicated to parrhesia, which he translates as "truth-telling" (dire-vrai), "free-spokenness" (franc- parler), and "free speech" (p. 42f.). He begins by describing parrhesia as a focal point of experience: it joins together forms of a possible knowledge, normative frameworks of behavior for subjects and potential modes of being for these subjects (pp. 1-42). In these lectures Foucault examines how truth-telling and the obligation to do so in practices of government show how and what kind of subject the individual is in relation to himself and to others.

The lectures continue the theme of the care of self (epimeleia heautou) explored in The Hermeneutics of the Subject and The History of Sexuality. Foucault's concern is how one can motivate someone to the care of self since appropriate care of self is impossible without the guidance of another person. The guide helps an individual establish a relationship to himself by telling him the truth about himself. Although political, ethical and spiritual aspects inextricably overlap in parrhesia, Foucault concentrates on the activity of truth-telling in politics and the individual who does so. He analyzes examples of democratic parrhesia, e.g. Pericles speaking before the Athenian Assembly, and autocratic parrhesia, e.g. the counselor or philosopher advising the sovereign.

Parrhesia is not just any form of free speech or the mere act of speaking truth but occurs only under specific conditions. In examining Plutarch's Life of Dion 5.8-10, Foucault distinguishes five characteristics (pp. 47- 69):

The tyrant [Dionysius] also accepted Dion's parrhesia, and he was almost the only one who spoke frankly and without fear, as when he reproached Dionysius for his comment about Gelon. Dionysius was mocking Gelon's government, and when he said that Gelon, true to his name, became the laughing stock (gelōs) of Sicily, the others present pretended to laugh, but Dion was disgusted and said: 'You rule the city because men trusted you on account of Gelon; but no one hereafter will be trusted on your account.' Gelon really seems to have made a city under absolute rule a very good thing, but Dionysius a very shameful one.1

First, parrhesia is not factual truth but a sincerely expressed personal conviction and as such opposed to flattery. Second, although it has characteristics in common with demonstration, pedagogy, eristic and rhetoric, it is fundamentally different. Dion does not demonstrate or teach anything; the way he tells Dionysius the truth runs counter to the methods of pedagogy as it is abrupt and one-sided. Both parrhesia and eristic are agonistic. In eristic, however, a discourse prevails by means of argument; Dion does not debate Dionysius but hurls the truth in his face. In contrast to rhetoric, the art of persuasion, parrhesia is a commitment to truth and attempts to convey this as plainly and directly as possible. Third, parrhesia involves an existential commitment. In the act of enunciation, the parrhesiast binds himself to his personal conviction and thereby exposes himself to an unknown risk. (The risk can range from offending an interlocutor to being killed by an unjust tyrant or angry mob.) Fourth, on account of this risk, parrhesia is a courageous act of speaking truth. The parrhesiast's authority is based on his courage and willingness to undergo existential risk, not on his social or institutional status. Finally, parrhesia represents a "dramatics of discourse," in which the act of enunciation affects the speaker's being and identity. He is the "speaker of truth" as he feels an obligation to do so. He is also the critical instance who reproaches, corrects and guides (p. 68).

Foucault's discussion of political parrhesia centers on two major readings: Euripides' Ion and Plato's 7th Letter. He begins with the Ion, which recounts Ion's legendary establishment of Athenian democracy (pp. 75-171). Here democratic parrhesia is implicitly contrasted with isēgoria, the formal right to speak guaranteed to all citizens by a constitution (politeia). Parrhesia belongs to the actual exercise of political power (dynasteia) and is the free speech which operates agonistically between citizens as equals. Yet it introduces an inequality as it will ultimately show who can best exercise political power over others: whoever possesses the qualities of a good citizen in addition to parrhesia will be able to persuade his fellow citizens and influence public affairs. Instead of undermining democracy, the parrhesiast's defense of what he believes to be the common interest will guarantee democracy's existence and proper functioning.

In the Ion, parrhesia is a right and privilege which Ion, tacitly characterized as the responsible and courageous citizen, can aspire to, provided he has Athenian citizenship. In a series of encounters, Ion's Athenian ancestry is revealed; he can now return to Athens and legitimately engage in the game of parrhesia: by honestly saying what he believes to be best for the city, he can be among the influential citizens and exercise power.

Foucault also finds here the rudiments of two other forms of parrhesia, which he briefly mentions: first, the denunciation of an injustice suffered by someone weaker (Creusa) at the hands of someone stronger (Apollo) and second, Creusa's confession of misdeeds to a confidant, which will later become the examination of conscience with a (spiritual) advisor.

Turning next to Athenian political reality before, during and after the Peloponnesian War, Foucault shows more clearly the (fragile) bond between democracy, parrhesia, and isēgoria (pp. 173ff.). Parrhesia presupposes the constitutional equality of isēgoria and both are firmly rooted in democracy. Good parrhesia, at work in a properly functioning democracy, is represented by Pericles; the moral and personal qualities that make him a good citizen and are seen in what he says and how he lives ensure that his voice is heard in the Athenian Assembly and respected. However, the formal equality of isēgoria can easily disrupt this balance; democracy ceases to function when isēgoria blots out parrhesia. The citizen body falls prey to demagogues and is no longer concerned with truth. In Isocrates and Plato parrhesia becomes the license for anyone, even the worst, to speak and, flattering the crowd, gain political influence.

In the transition from the 5th to 4th century B.C., parrhesia undergoes four transformations (pp. 187-197). First, it is no longer confined to democracy but can also occur in autocratic systems. Second, its value has become ambiguous as parrhesia allows both the best and worst to speak and therefore participate in political power; in Isocrates and Plato bad parrhesia led to dysfunctional government. Third, parrhesia develops a psychagogic dimension: in an autocratic system, the parrhesiast's goal is to direct the conduct of the sovereign, who in turn governs others. Fourth, exercising parrhesia becomes primarily the task of the philosopher and not the orator or citizen.

Foucault analyzes Plato's 7th Letter in light of these transformations (pp. 214ff.). Its underlying theme is the "reality" of philosophy, i.e. what it must do in order to test its parrhesiastic nature. In the letter Plato explains his reasons for going to Sicily: philosophy cannot confine itself solely to stating truth in discourse (logos) but must put itself to the test of action (ergon). Philosophy's reality can be found in Plato's engagement in Syracusan politics and confrontation with political power.

In emphasizing ergon over logos, Foucault also finds philosophy's reality in a constant activity of the soul. Philosophy is not the rote memorization of knowledge-content (mathēmata) written down; a person can attain true knowledge only through a continuous "cohabitation" (synousia) with and application of five elements in the cognitive process: name (onoma), definition (logos), image (eidōlon), right opinion and discursive reason (epistēmē), and the thing itself in its own being (nous) (pp. 247-257). Here Plato famously rejects writing as a means of philosophizing because it does not allow the soul to actively work with and through (tribē) its own cognitive abilities to arrive at knowledge.

Knowledge as a constant activity of the soul and philosophy's reality as ergon and not logos enable Foucault to see through the blandness of Plato's political advice and discover what he was really concerned with: the nature and role of the philosopher-king (pp. 259-297). He rejects the philosopher-king's transcendental foundation, i.e. his right and obligation to govern founded on philosophical knowledge. Instead he sees his essence in a specific relationship he has to himself: the philosopher-king acts parrhesiastically when he practices politics and philosophy. In short, he exhibits truth through the way he lives and acts, i.e. his ēthos, and not through what he writes and knows.

Foucault's major contribution is the rediscovery of a notion important in ancient thought yet largely ignored by modern scholarship. His recasting of traditional questions of politics and philosophy in terms of truth-telling, governing the behavior of others as well as oneself, and the subject leads to new readings of oft-interpreted texts. His examination of Plato's 7th Letter is a productive starting point both for a re-reading of several of his major works and for a general reassessment of Platonic philosophy and the transcendental foundation so often evoked in discussions on the ideal city in the Republic.

There are, however, two glaring weaknesses in Foucault's argument, the first of which is the radical difference he sees between rhetoric and parrhesia, rhetoric being indifferent to truth and the orator lacking the harmony between logos and bios constitutive of parrhesia. At best this holds only for Plato's portrayal of Sophistic rhetoric. In contrast, Cicero and Isocrates are concerned with truth and not subjective opinion, albeit a truth which must satisfy the demands of practical action. The orator's ēthos also plays a role in rhetoric's conception of truth; for Foucault the parrhesiast's ēthos guarantees that what he says is understood as really being the truth and not mere opinion. Yet in Aristotle (Rhet. I 2, 1356a1-13), the orator's ēthos is the most effective means of proof at his disposal and the Roman vir bonus dicendi peritus develops this idea to the fullest. Finally, it is doubtful that as a form of intentional speech, parrhesia can achieve its desired effect without rhetoric's techniques of persuasion.

The second weakness is the (anachronistic) marginalization of the transcendental foundation in Plato. For Foucault the pressing question in ancient philosophy was how to identify the parrhesiast and not how the parrhesiast could be certain that what he says is really true; this is reflected in his definition of parrhesia as primarily non- epistemological truth. However, epistemological truth is crucial for the philosopher-king's political legitimacy: only because he has true insight into the nature of things is he fit to direct public affairs. Socrates, for example, refuses to arrest Leon of Salamis because it is unjust; yet how he could discern that this action is unjust unless he had knowledge of the nature of justice is a question Foucault does not answer.

The overall presentation of the book is excellent. Although the lectures were never intended for publication and not edited by Foucault himself, Frédéric Gros has composed a text transcribed as literally as possible from cassette recordings students made. His editing does not sacrifice their classroom format yet adds certain features for easier reading. Each lecture is preceded by a brief summary indicating the topics discussed and followed by endnotes that clarify obscure references. He also situates the lectures within Foucault's œuvre and elucidates essential background information. Graham Burchell's English translation of the original Gallimard-Seuil edition is accurate and very readable. In addition, he translates both Foucault's own translations of primary sources and the French translations Foucault uses, enabling the reader to see how he understands the original texts.

The Government of Self and Others is a fascinating analysis of a notion which is at the center of the philosophical and political enterprise and is highly recommended for specialist and non-specialist scholars alike.


1.  Translation is mine.

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