Discourse and Truth: The Problematization of Parrhesia.



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Too many tongues have gates which fly apart

Too easily, and care for many things

That don’t concern them. Better to keep bad news

Indoors, and only let the good news out.
In the Second Century AD, in his essay "Concerning Talkativeness", Plutarch also writes that the teeth are a fence or gate such that "if the tongue does not obey or restrain itself, we may check its incontinence by biting it till it bleeds."

This notion of being athuroglossos, or of being athurostomia (one who has a mouth without a door), refers to someone who is an endless babbler, who cannot keep quiet, and is prone to say whatever comes to mind. Plutarch compares the talkativeness of such people with the Black Sea—which has neither doors nor gates to impede the flow of its waters into the Mediterranean:


... those who believe that storerooms without doors and purses without fastenings are of no use to their owners, yet keep their mouths without lock or door, maintaining as perpetual an outflow as the mouth of the Black Sea, appear to regard speech as the least valuable of all things. They do not, therefore, meet with belief, which is the object of all speech.
As you can see, athuroglossos is characterized by the following two traits: (1) When you have "a mouth like a running spring," you cannot distinguish those occasions when you should speak from those when you should remain silent; or that which must be said from that which must remain unsaid; or the circumstances and situations where speech is required from those where one ought to remain silent. Thus Theognis states that garrulous people are unable to differentiate when one should give voice to good or bad news, or how to demarcate their own from other peoples affairs—since they indiscreetly intervene in the cares of others. (2) As Plutarch notes, when you are athuroglossos you have no regard for the value of logos, for rational discourse as a means of gaining access to truth. Athuroglossos is thus almost synonymous with parrhesia taken in its pejorative sense, and exactly the opposite of parrhesia’s positive sense (since it is a sign of wisdom to be able to use parrhesia without falling into the garrulousness of athuroglossos) . One of the problems which the parrhesiastic character must resolve, then, is how to distinguish that which must be said from that which should be kept silent. For not everyone can draw such a distinction, as the following example illustrates.

In his treatise "The Education of Children", Plutarch gives an anecdote of Theocritus, a sophist, as an example of athuroglossos and of the misfortunes incurred by intemperate speech. The king of the Macedonians, Antigonus, sent a messenger to Theocritus asking him to come to his court to engage in discussion. And it so happened that the messenger he sent was his chief cook, Eutropian. King Antigonus had also lost an eye in battle, so he was one-eyed. Now Theocritus was not pleased to hear from Eutropian, the king’s cock, that he had to go and visit Antigonus; so he said to the cook: "I know very well that you want to serve me up raw to your Cyclops" —thus subjecting the king’s disfigurement and Eutropian’s profession to ridicule. To which the cook replied: "Then you shall not keep your head on, but you shall pay the penalty for reckless talk [athurostomia] and madness of yours." And when Eutropian reported Theocritus remark to the king, he sent and had Theocritus put to death.

As we shall see in the case of Diogenes, a really fine and courageous philosopher can use parrhesia towards a king; however, in Theocritus’ case, his frankness is not parrhesia but athurostomia since to joke about a king’s disfigurement or a cook’s profession has no noteworthy philosophical significance. Athuroglossos or athurostomia, then, is the first trait of the third orator in the narration of Orestes’ trial.

His second trait is that he is "ίσχύωυ θράρει"--"a giant in impudence"[l.903]. The word "ίσχύω" denotes someone’s strength, usually the physical strength which enables one to overcome others in competition. So this speaker is strong, but he is strong " θράρει"—which means strong not because of his reason, or his rhetorical ability to speak, or his ability to pronounce the truth, but only because he is arrogant. He is strong only by his bold arrogance.

A third characteristic: "an enrolled citizen, yet no Argive." He is not native to Argos, but comes from elsewhere and has been integrated into the city. The expression "ήυαγиασμέυος" refers to someone who has been imposed upon the members of the city as a citizen by force or by dishonorable means [What gets translated as “a mere cat’s paw”].

His fourth trait is given by the phrase "putting is confidence in bluster". He is confident in "thorubos", which refers to the noise made by a strong voice, by a scream, a clamor, or uproar. When, for instance, in battle, the soldiers scream in order to bring forth their own courage or to frighten the enemy, the Greeks used the word "thorubos". Or the tumultuous noise of a crowded assembly when the people shouted was called "thorubos". So the third orator is not confident in his ability to formulate articulate discourse, but only in his ability to generate an emotional reaction from his audience by his strong and loud voice. This direct relationship between the voice and the emotional effect it produces on the ekklésia is thus opposed to the rational sense of articulate speech.

The final characteristic of the third (negative) speaker is that he also puts his confidence in "ignorant outspokenness” [parrhesia]." The phrase "ignorant outspokenness” repeats the expression "athuroglossos", but with its political implications. For although this speaker has been imposed upon the citizenry, he nonetheless possesses parrhesia as a formal civic right guaranteed by the Athenian constitution. What designates his parrhesia as parrhesia in its pejorative or negative sense, however, is that it lacks mathesis —learning or wisdom. In order for parrhesia to have positive political effects, it must now be linked to a good education, to intellectual and moral formation, to paideia or mathesis. Only then will parrhesia be more than thorubos or sheer vocal noise. For when speakers use parrhesia without mathesis, when they use ignorant outspokenness, the city is led into terrible situations.

You may recall a similar remark of Plato’s, in his Seventh Letter [336b], concerning the lack of mathesis. For there Plato explains that Dion was not able to succeed with his enterprise in Sicily (viz., to realize in Dionysius both a ruler of a great city and a philosopher devoted to reason and justice) for two reasons. The first is that some daimon or evil spirit may have been jealous and wanted vengeance. And secondly, Plato explains that ignorance broke out in Sicily. And of ignorance Plato says that it is "the soil in which all manner of evil to all men takes root and flourishes and later produces a fruit most bitter for those who sowed it.

The characteristics, then, of the third speaker—a certain social type employs parrhesia in its pejorative sense—are these: he is violent, passionate, a foreigner to the city, lacking in mathesis, and therefore dangerous.

And now we come to the fourth, and final speaker at Orestes’ trial. He is analogous to Diomedes: what Diomedes was in the Homeric world, this last orator is in the political world of Argos. An exemplification of the positive parrhesiastes as a "social type", he has the following traits.

The first is that he is "one endowed with little beauty, but a courageous man". Unlike a woman, he is not fair to look at, but a "manly man", i.e., a courageous man. For the Greeks, the courage is a virile quality which women were said not to possess.

Secondly, he is "the sort not often found mixing in street or marketplace. So this representative of the positive use of parrhesia is not the sort of professional politician who spends most of his time in the agora—the place where the people, the assembly, met for political discussion and debate. Nor is he one of those poor persons who, without any other means to live by, would come to the agora in order to receive the sums of money given to those taking part in the ekklesia. He takes part in the assembly only to participate in important decisions at critical moments. He does not live off of politics for politics’ sake.

Thirdly, he is an "autourgos"—"a manual labourer" The word "autourgos’ refers to someone who works his own land. The word denotes specific social category—neither the great land-owner nor the peasant, but the landowner who lives and works with his own hands on his own estate, occasionally with the help of a few servants or slaves. Such landowners—who spent most of their time working the fields and supervising the work of their servants—were highly praised by Xenophon in his Oeconomicus. What is most interesting in Orestes is that Euripides emphasizes the political competence of such landowners by mentioning three aspects of their character

The first is that they are always willing to march to war and fight for the city, which they do better than anyone else. Of course, Euripides does not give any rational explanation of why this should be so; but if we refer to Xenophon’s Oeconomicus where the autourgos is depicted, there are a number of reasons given. A major explanation is that the landowner who works his own land is, naturally, very interested in the defense and protection of the lands of the country—unlike the shopkeepers and the people living in the city who do not own their own land, and hence do not care as much if the enemy pillages the countryside. But those who work as farmers simply cannot tolerate the thought that the enemy might ravage the farms, burn the crops, kill the flocks and herds, and so on; and hence they make good fighters.

Secondly, the autourgos is able "to come to grips in argument" i.e., is able to use language to propose good advice for the city. As Xenophon explains, such landowners are used to giving orders to their servants, and making decisions about what must be done in various circumstances. So not only are they good soldiers, they also make good leaders. Hence when they do speak to the ekklēsia, they do not use thorubos; but what they say is important, reasonable, and constitutes good advice.

In addition, the last orator is a man of moral integrity: "a man of blameless principle and integrity".

A final point about the autourgos is this: whereas the previous speaker wanted Electra and Orestes to be put to death by stoning, not only does this landowner call for Orestes’ acquittal, he believes Orestes should be "honored with crowns" for what he has done. To understand the significance of the autourgos’ statement, we need to realize that what is at issue in Orestes’ trial for the Athenian audience-living in the midst of the Peloponnesian war-is the question of war or peace: will the decision concerning Orestes be an aggressive one that will institute the continuation of hostilities, as in war, or will the decision institute peace? The autourgos’ proposal of an acquittal symbolizes the will for peace. But he also states that Orestes should be crowned for killing Clytemnestra "since no man would leave his home, and arm himself, and march to war, if wives left there in trust could be seduced by stay-at-homes, and brave men cuckolded". We must remember that Agamemnon was murdered by Aegisthus just after he returned home from the Trojan War; for while he was fighting the enemy away from home, Clytemnestra was living in adultery with Aegisthus.

And now we can see the precise historical and political context for this scene. The year of the play’s production is 408 BC, a time when the competition between Athens and Sparta in the Peloponnesian war was still very sharp. The two cities have been fighting now for twenty-three long years, with short intermittent periods of truce. Athens in 408 BC, following several bitter and ruinous defeats in 413, had recovered some of its naval power. But on land the situation was not good, and Athens was vulnerable to Spartan invasion. Nonetheless, Sparta made several offers of Peace to Athens so that the issue of continuing the war or making peace was vehemently discussed.

In Athens the democratic party was in favor of war for economic reasons which are quite clear; for the party was generally supported by merchants, shop-keepers, businessmen, and those who were interested in the imperialistic expansion of Athens. The conservative aristocratic party was in favor of peace since they gained their support from the landowners and others who wanted a peaceful co-existence with Sparta, as well as an Athenian constitution which was closer, in some respects, to the Spartan constitution.

The leader of the democratic party was Cleophon—who was not native to Athens, but a foreigner who registered as a citizen. A skillful and influential speaker, he was infamously portrayed in his life by his own contemporaries (for example, it was said he was not courageous enough to become a soldier, that he apparently played the passive role in his sexual relations with other men, and so on) . So you see that all of the characteristics of the third orator, the negative parrhesiastes, can be attributed to Cleophon .

The leader of the conservative party was Theramenes—who wanted to return to a Sixth-Century Athenian constitution that would institute a moderate oligarchy. Following his proposal, the main civil and political rights would have been reserved for the landowners. The traits of the autourgos, the positive parrhesiastes, thus correspond to Theramenes.

So one of the issues clearly present in Orestes’ trial is the question that was then being debated by the democratic and conservative parties about whether Athens should continue the war with Sparta, or opt for peace.



  1. The ‘Problematization’ of parrhesia in Euripides

In Euripides’ Ion, written ten years earlier than Orestes, around 418 BC, parrhesia was presented as having only a positive sense or value. And, as we saw, it was both the freedom to speak one’s mind, and a privilege conferred on the first citizens of Athens—a privilege which Ion wished to enjoy. The parrhesiastes spoke the truth precisely because he was a good citizen, was well-born, had a respectful relation to the city, to the law, and to truth. And for Ion, the problem was that in order for him to assume the parrhesiastic role which came naturally to him, the truth about his birth had to be disclosed. But because Apollo did not wish to reveal this truth, Creusa had to disclose his birth by using parrhesia against the god in a public accusation. And thus Ion’s parrhesia was established, was grounded in Athenian soil, in the game between the gods and mortals. So there was no ‘problematization’ of the parrhesiastes as such within this first conception.

In Orestes, however, there is a split within parrhesia itself between its positive and negative senses; and the problem of parrhesia occurs solely within the field of human parrhesiastic roles. This crisis of the function of parrhesia has two major aspects.

The first concerns the question: ‘Who is entitled to use parrhesia?’ Is it enough simply to accept parrhesia as a civil right such that any and every citizen can speak in the assembly if and when he or she wishes? or should parrhesia be exclusively granted to some citizens only, according to their social status or personal virtues? There is a discrepancy between an egalitarian system which enables everyone to use parrhesia, and the necessity of choosing among the citizenry those who are able (because of their social or personal qualities) to use parrhesia in such a way that it truly benefits the city. And this discrepancy generates the emergence of parrhesia as a problematic issue. For unlike isonomia (the equality of all citizens in front of the law) and isegoria (the legal right given to everyone to speak his or her own opinion), parrhesia was not clearly defined in institutional terms. There was no law, for example, protecting the parrhesiastes from potential retaliation or punishment for what he or she said. And thus there was also a problem in the relation between nomos and aletheia: how is it possible to give legal form to someone who relates to truth? There are formal laws of valid reasoning, but no social, political, or institutional laws determining who is able to speak the truth.

The second aspect of the crisis concerning the function of parrhesia has to do with the relation of parrhesia to mathesis, to knowledge and education—which means that parrhesia in and of itself is no longer considered adequate to disclose the truth. The parrhesiastes’ relation to truth can no longer simply be established by pure frankness or sheer courage, for the relation now requires education or, more generally, some sort of personal formation. But the precise sort of personal formation or education needed is also an issue (and is contemporaneous with the problem of sophistry). In Orestes, it seems more likely that the mathesis required is not that of the Socratic or Platonic conception, but the kind of experience that an autourgos would get through his own life.

And now I think we can begin to see that the crisis regarding parrhesia is a problem of truth: for the problem is one of recognizing who is capable of speaking the truth within the limits of an institutional system where everyone is equally entitled to give his or her own opinion. Democracy by itself is not able to determine who has the specific qualities which enable him or her to speak the truth (and thus should possess the right to tell the truth). And parrhesia, as a verbal activity, as pure frankness in speaking, is also not sufficient to disclose truth since negative parrhesia, ignorant outspokenness, can also result.

The crisis of parrhesia, which emerges at the crossroads of an interrogation about democracy and an interrogation about truth, gives rise to a problematization of some hitherto unproblematic relations between freedom, power, democracy, education, and truth in Athens at the end of the Fifth Century. From the previous problem of gaining access to parrhesia in spite of the silence of god, we move to a problematization of parrhesia, i.e., parrhesia itself becomes problematic, split within itself.

I do not wish to imply that parrhesia, as an explicit notion, emerges at this moment of crisis—as if the Greeks did not have any coherent idea of the freedom of speech previously, or of the value of free speech. What I mean is that there is a new problematization of the relations between verbal activity, education, freedom, power, and the existing political institutions which marks a crisis in the way freedom of speech is understood in Athens. And this problematization demands a new way of taking care of and asking questions about these relations.

I emphasize this point for at least the following methodological reason. I would like to distinguish between the "history of ideas" and the "history of thought". Most of the time a historian of ideas tries to determine when a specific concept appears, and this moment is often identified by the appearance of a new word. But what I am attempting to do as a historian of thought is something different. I am trying to analyze the way institutions, practices, habits, and behavior become a problem for people who behave in specific sorts of ways, who have certain types of habits, who engage in certain kinds of practices, and who put to work specific kinds of institutions. The history of ideas involves the analysis of a notion from its birth, through its development, and in the setting of other ideas which constitute its context. The history of thought is the analysis of the way an unproblematic field of experience, or a set of practices which were accepted without question, which were familiar and out of discussion, becomes a problem, raises discussion and debate, incites new reactions, and induces a crisis in the previously silent behavior, habits, practices, and institutions. The history of thought, understood in this way, is the history of the way people begin to take care of something, of the way they became anxious about this or that for example, about madness, about crime, about sex, about themselves, or about truth.




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