Discourse and Truth: The Problematization of Parrhesia.


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Today I would like to begin analyzing the first occurrences of the word "parrhesia" in Greek literature-specifically, as the word appears in the following six tragedies of Euripides: (1) Phoenician women; (2)Hippolytus; (3) The Bacchae; (4) Electra; (5) Ion; (6) Orestes.

In the first four plays, parrhesia does not constitute an important topic or motif; but the word itself generally occurs within a precise context which aids our understanding of its meaning. In the last two plays—Ion and Orestes-- parrhesia does assume a very important role. Indeed, I think that Ion is entirely devoted to the problem of parrhesia since it pursues the question: who has the right, the duty, and the courage to speak the truth? This parrhesiastic problem in Ion is raised in the framework of the relations between the gods and human beings. In Orestes-which was written ten years later, and therefore is one of Euripides’ last plays --the role of parrhesia is not nearly as significant. And yet the play still contains a parrhesiastic scene which warrants attention insofar as it is directly related to political issues that the Athenians were then raising. Here, in this parrhesiastic scene, there is a transition regarding the question of parrhesia as it occurs in the context of human institutions. Specifically, parrhesia is seen as both a political and a philosophical issue.
Today, then, I shall first try to say something about the occurrences of the word "Parrhesia" in the first four plays mentioned in order to throw some more light on the meaning of the word. And then I shall attempt a global analysis of Ion as the decisive parrhesiastic play where we see human beings taking upon themselves the role of truth-tellers—a role which the gods are no longer able to assume.

  1. The Phoenician Women [c.411-409 BC]

Consider, first, The Phoenician Women. The major theme of this play concerns the fight between Oedipus’ two sons: Eteocles and Polyneices. Recall that after Oedipus’ fall, in order to avoid their father’s curse that they should divide his inheritance "’by sharpened steel", Eteocles and Polyneices make a pact to rule over Thebes alternately, year by year, with Eteocles (who was older) reigning first. But after his initial year of reign, Eteocles refuses to hand over the crown and yield power to his brother, Polyneices. Eteocles thus represents tyranny, and Polyneices—who lives in exile—represents the democratic regime. Seeking his share of his father’s crown, Polyneices returns with an army of Argives in order to overthrow Eteocles and lay siege to the city of Thebes. It is in the hope of avoiding this confrontation that Jocasta—the mother of Polyneices and Eteocles, and the wife and mother of Oedipus—persuades her two sons to meet in a truce. When Polyneices arrives for this meeting, Jocasta asks him about his suffering during the time he was exiled from Thebes. ‘Is it really hard to be exiled’ asks Jocasta. And Polyneices answers, "worse than anything" And when Jocasta asks why exile is so hard, Polyneices replies that it is because one cannot enjoy parrhesia:

IOCASTA: This above all I long to know: What is an exile’s life? Is it great misery?

POLYNEICES: The greatest; worse in reality than in report.

JOCASTA: Worse in what way? What chiefly galls an exile’s heart?

POLYNEICES: The worst is this: right of free speech does not exist.

IOCASTA: That’s a slave’s life—to be forbidden to speak one’s mind.

POLYNEICES: One has to endure the idiocy of those who rule.

IOCASTA: To join fools in their foolishness—that makes one sick.

POLYNEICES: One finds it pays to deny nature and be a slave.
As you can see from these few lines, parrhesia is linked, first of all, to Polyneices’ social status. For if you are not a regular citizen in the city, if you are exiled, then you cannot use parrhesia. That is quite obvious. But something else is also implied, viz., that if you do not have the right of free speech, you are unable to exercise -any kind of power- and thus you are in the same situation as a slave. Further: if such citizens cannot use parrhesia, they cannot oppose a ruler’s power. And without the right of criticism, the power exercised by a sovereign is without limitation. Such power without limitation is characterized by Jocasta as "joining fool in their foolishness". For power without limitation is directly related to madness. The man who exercises power is wise only insofar as there exists someone who can use parrhesia to criticize him, thereby putting some limit to his power, to his command.

  1. Hippolytus [428 BC]

The second passage from Euripides I want to quote comes from Hyppolitus. As you know, the play is about Phaedra’s love for Hippolytus. And the passage concerning parrhesia occurs just after Phaedra’s confession: when Phaedra , early on in the play, confesses her love for Hippolytus to her nurse (without, however, actually saying his name). But the word "parrhesia" does not concern this confession, but refers to something quite different. For just after her confession of her love for Hippolytus, Phaedra speaks of those noble and high-born women from royal households who first brought shame upon their own family, upon their husband and children, by committing adultery with other men. And Phaedra says she does not want to do the same since she wants her sons to live in Athens, proud of their mother, and exercising parrhesia. And she claims that if a man is conscious of a stain in his family, he becomes a slave:

PHAEDRA: I will never be known to bring dishonor on my husband or my children. I want my two sons to go back and live in glorious Athens, hold their heads high there, and speak their minds there like free men , honored for their mother’s name. One thing can make the most bold-spirited man a slave: to know the secret of a parent’s shameful act.
In this text we see, once again, a connection between the lack of parrhesia and slavery. For if you cannot speak freely because you are of dishonor in your family, then you are enslaved. Also, citizenship by itself does not appear to be sufficient to obtain and guarantee exercise of free speech. Honor, a good reputation for oneself and one’s family, is also needed before one can freely address the people of the city. Parrhesia thus requires both moral and social qualifications which come from a noble birth and a respectful reputation.

  1. The Bacchae [c.407-406 BC]

In The Bacchae there is a very short passage, a transitional moment, where the word appears. One of Pentheus’ servants --a herdsman and messenger to the king--has come to report about the confusion and disorder the Maenads are generating in the community, and the fantastic deeds they are committing. But, as you know, it is an old tradition that messengers who bring glad tidings are rewarded for the news they convey, whereas those who bring bad news are exposed to punishment. And so the king’s servant is very reluctant to deliver his ill tidings to Pentheus. But he asks the king whether he may use parrhesia and tell him everything he knows, for he fears the king’s wrath. And Pentheus promises that he will not get into trouble so long as he speaks the truth.

HERDSMAN: I have seen the holy Bacchae, who like a flight of spears went streaming bare-limbed, frantic, out of the city gate. I have come with the intention of telling you, my lord, and the city, of their strange and terrible doings--things beyond all wonder. But first I would learn whether I may speak freely of what is going on there, or if I should trim my words. I fear your hastiness, my lord, your anger, your too potent royalty.

PENTHEUS: From me fear nothing. Say all that you have to say; anger should not grow hot against the innocent. The more dreadful your story of these Bacchic rites, the heavier punishment I will inflict upon this man who enticed our women to their evil ways.
These lines are interesting because they show a case where the parrhesiastes, the one "who speaks the truth " is not an entirely free man, but a servant to the king --one who cannot use parrhesia if the king is not wise enough to enter into the parrhesiastic game and grant him permission to speak openly. For if the king lacks self-mastery, if he is carried away by his passions and gets mad at the messenger then he does not hear the truth, and will also be a bad ruler for the city. But Pentheus, as a wise king, offers his servant what we can call a "parrhesiastic contract."

The "parrhesiastic contract"—which became relatively important in the political life of rulers in the Greco-Roman world—consists in the following. The sovereign, the ones who has power but lacks the truth, addresses himself to the one who has the truth but lacks power, and tells him : if you tell me the truth, no matter what this truth turns out to be, you won’t be punished; and those who are responsible for any injustices will be punished, but not those who speak the truth about such injustices. This idea of the "Parrhesiastic contract" became associated with parrhesia as a special privilege granted to the best and most honest citizens of the city. Of course, the parrhesiastic contract between Pentheus and his messenger is only a moral obligation since it lacks all institutional foundation. As the kings servant, the messenger is still quite vulnerable, and still takes a risk in speaking. But, although he is courageous, he is also not reckless, and is cautious about the consequences of what he might say. The "contract" is intended to limit the risk he takes in speaking.

  1. Electra [415 BC]

In Electra the word "parrhesia" occurs in the confrontation between Electra and her mother, Clytemnestra. I do not need to remind you of this famous story, but only to indicate that prior to the moment in the play when the word appears, Orestes has just killed the tyrant Aegisthus--Clytemnestra’s lover and co-murderer (with Clytemnestra) of Agamemnon (Clytenmestra’s husband and father to Orestes and Electra). But right before Clytemnestra appears on the scene, Orestes hides himself and Aegisthus’ body. So when Clytemnestra makes her entry, she is not aware of what has just transpired, i.e., she does not know that Aegisthus has just been killed. And her entry is very beautiful and solemn, for she is riding in a royal chariot surrounded by the most beautiful of the captive maidens of Troy --all of whom are now her slaves. And Electra, who is there when her mother arrives, also behaves like a slave in order to hide the fact that the moment of revenge for her father’s death is at hand. She is also there to insult Clytemnestra, and to remind her of her crime. This dramatic scene gives way to a confrontation between the two. A discussion begins, and we have two parallel speeches, both equally long (forty lines), the first one by Clytemnestra, and the second by Electra.

Clytemnestra’s speech begins with the words "λέξω δέ"—“I will speak”[l.1013]. And she proceeds to tell the truth, confessing that she killed Agamemnon as a punishment for the sacrificial death of her daughter, Iphigeneia. Following this speech, Electra replies, beginning with the symmetrical formulation "λέγοιμ’ άυ" —“then, I will speak”[l. 1060]. In spite of this symmetry, however, there is a clear difference between the two. For at the end of her speech, Clytemnestra addresses Electra directly and says to her, “use your parrhesia to prove that I was wrong to kill your father":
CLYTEMNESTRA: ... I killed him. I took the only way open to me—turned for help to his enemies. Well, what could I do? None of your father’s friends would have helped me murder him. So, if you’re anxious to refute me, do it now; speak freely; prove your father’s death not justified.
And, after the Chorus speaks, Electra replies, ‘Do not forget your latest words, mother. You gave me parrhesia towards you’:

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