Discourse and Truth: The Problematization of Parrhesia.

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Socratic Parrhesia

I would now like to analyze a new form of parrhesia which was emerging and developing even before Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. There are, of course, important similarities and analogous relationships between the political parrhesia we have been examining and this new form of parrhesia. But in spite of these similarities, a number of specific features, directly related to the figure of Socrates, characterize and differentiate this new Socratic Parrhesia.

In selecting a testimony about Socrates as a parrhesiastic figure, I have chosen Plato's Laches (or "On Courage") and this, for several reasons. First, although this Platonic dialogue, the Laches, is rather short, the word "parrhesia" appears three times [178a5, &79c1, 189a1]--which is rather a lot when one takes into account how infrequently Plato uses the word.

At the beginning of the dialogue, it is also interesting to note that the different participants are characterized by their parrhesia. Lysimachus and Melesias, two of the participants, say that they will speak their minds freely, using parrhesia to confess that they have done or accomplished nothing very important, glorious, or special in their own lives. And they make this confession to two other older citizens, Laches and Nicias (both of them quite famous generals) in the hope that they, too, will speak openly and frankly--for they are old enough, influential enough, and glorious enough to be frank and not hide what they truly think. But this passage [178a5] is not the main one I would like to quote since it employs parrhesia in an everyday sense, and is not an instance of Socratic parrhesia.

From a strictly theoretical point of view the dialogue is a failure because no one in the dialogue is able to give a rational, true, and satisfactory definition of "courage"--which is the topic of the piece. But in spite of the fact that even Socrates himself is not able to give such a definition, at the end of the dialogue Nicias, Laches, Lysimachus, and Melesias all agree that Socrates would be the best teacher for their sons. And so Lysimachus and Melesias ask him to adopt this role. Socrates accepts, saying that everyone should try to take care of himself and of his sons [201b4]. And here you find a notion which, as some of you know, I like a lot: the concept of "epimeleia heautou", the "care of the self". We have, then, I think, a movement visible throughout this dialogue from the parrhesiastic figure of Socrates to the problem of the care of the self.

Before we read the specific passages in the text that I would like to quote, however, we need to recall the situation at the beginning of the dialogue. But since the Laches is very complex and interwoven, I shall do so only briefly and schematically.

Two elderly men, Lysimachus and Melesias, are concerned about the kind of education they should give to their sons. Both of them belong to eminent Athenian families; Lysimachus is the son of Aristeides "the Just" and Melesias is the son of Thucydides the Elder. But although their own fathers were illustrious in their own day, Lysimachus and Melesias have accomplished nothing very special or glorious in their own lives: no important military campaigns, no significant political roles. They use parrhesia to admit this publicly. And they have also asked themselves the question, "how is it that from such a good genos, from such good stock, from such a noble family, they were both unable to distinguish themselves?" Clearly, as their own experience shows, having a high birth and belonging to a noble Athenian house are not sufficient to endow someone with the aptitude and the ability to assume a prominent position or role in the city. They realize that something more is needed, viz., education.

But what kind of education? When we consider that the dramatic date of the Laches is around the end of the Fifth Century, at a time when a great many individuals--most of them presenting themselves as sophists--claimed that they could provide young people with a good education, we can recognize here a problematic which is common to a number of Platonic dialogues. The educational techniques that were being propounded around this time often dealt with several aspects of education, e.g., rhetoric (learning how to address a jury or a political assembly), various sophistic techniques, and occasionally military education and training. In Athens at this time there was also a major problem being debated regarding the best way to educate and train the infantry soldiers--who were largely inferior to the Spartan hoplites. And all of the political, social, and institutional concerns about education, which for, the general context of this dialogue, are related to the problem of parrhesia. In the political field we saw that there was a need for a parrhesiastes who could speak the truth about political institutions and decisions, and the problem there was knowing how to recognize such a truth-teller. In its basic form, this same problem now reappears in the field of education. For if you yourself are not well-educated, how then can you decide what constitutes a good education? And if people are to be educated, they must receive the truth from a competent teacher. But how can we distinguish the good, truth-telling teachers from the bad or inessential ones?

It is in order to help them come to such a decision that Lysimachus and Melesius ask Nicias and Laches to witness a performance given by Stesilaus--a man who claims to be a teacher of hoplomachia or the art of fighting with heavy arms. This teacher is an athlete, technician, actor, and artist. Which means that although he is very skillful in handling weapons, he does not use his skill to actually fight the enemy, but only to make money by giving public performances and teaching the young men. The man is a kind of sophist for the martial arts. After seeing his skills demonstrated in this public performance, however, neither Lysimachus nor Melesius is able to decide whether this sort of skill in fighting would constitute part of a good education. So they turn to well-known figures of their time, Nicias and Laches, and ask their advice [178a-181d].

Nicias is an experienced military general who won several victories on the battlefield, and was an important political leader. Laches is also a respected general, although he does not play as significant a role in Athenian politics. Both of them give their opinions about Stesilaus' demonstration and it turns out that they are in complete disagreement regarding the value of this military skill. Nicias thinks that this military technician has done well, and that his skill may be able to provide the young with a good military education [181e-182d]. Laches disagrees and argues that the Spartans--who are the best soldiers in Greece--never have recourse to such teachers. Moreover, he thinks that Stesilaus is not a soldier since he has never won any real victories in battle [182d-184c] Through this disagreement we see that not only ordinary citizens without any special qualities are unable to decide what is the best kind of education, and who is able to teach skills worth learning, but even those who have long military and political experience, like Nicias and Laches, cannot come to a unanimous decision.

In the end, however, Nicias and Laches both agree that despite their fame, their important role in Athenian affairs, their age, their experience, and so on, they should refer to Socrates--who has been there all along--to see what he thinks. And after Socrates reminds them that education concerns the care of the soul [185d], Nicias explains why he will allow his soul to be "tested" by Socrates, i.e., why he will play the Socratic parrhesiastic game. And this explanation of Nicias is, I think, a portrayal of Socrates as a parrhesiastes:
NICIAS : You strike me as not being aware that, whoever comes into close contact with Socrates and has any talk with him face to face, is bound to be drawn round and round by him in the course of the argument--though it may have started at first on a quite different theme--and cannot stop until he is led into giving an account of himself, of the manner in which he now spends his days, and of the kind of life he has lived hitherto ;and when once he has been led into that, Socrates will never let him go until he has thoroughly and properly put all his ways to the test. Now I am accustomed to him, and so I know that one is bound to be thus treated by him, and further, that I myself shall certainly get the same treatment also. For I delight, Lysimachus, in conversing with the man, and see no harm in our being reminded of any past and present misdoing: nay, one must needs take more careful though for the rest of one's life, if one does not fly from his words but is willing, as Solon said, and zealous to learn as long as one lives, and does not expect to get good sense by the mere arrival of old age. So to me there is nothing unusual, or unpleasant either, in being tried and tested by Socrates; in fact, I knew pretty well all the time that our argument would not be about the boys if Socrates were present, but about ourselves. Let me therefore repeat that there is no objection on my part to holding a debate with Socrates after the fashion that he likes…
Nicias' speech describes the parrhesiastic game of Socrates from the point of view of the one who is "tested". But unlike the parrhesiastes who addresses the demos in the Assembly, for example, here we have a parrhesiastic game which requires a personal, face to face relationship. Thus the beginning of the quote states: "whoever comes into close contact with Socrates and has any talk with him face to face…"[187e]. Socrates' interlocutor must get in touch with him, establish some proximity to him in order to play the parrhesiastic game. That is the first point.

Secondly, in this relationship to Socrates, the listener is led by Socrates' discourse. The passivity of the Socratic hearer, however, is not the same kind of passivity as that of a listener in the Assembly. The passivity of a listener in the political parrhesiastic game consists in being persuaded by what he listens to. Here, the listener is led by the Socratic logos into "giving an account"--didonai logon--of himself, "of the manner in which he now spends his days, and of the kind of life he has lived hitherto" [187e-188a]. Because we are inclined to read such texts through the glasses of our Christian culture, however, we might interpret this description of the Socratic game as a practice where the one who is being led by Socrates' discourse must give an autobiographical account of his life, or a confession of his faults. But such an interpretation would miss the real meaning of the text. For when we compare this passage with similar descriptions of Socrates' method of examination--as in the Apology, Alcibiades Major, or the Gorgias, Where we also find the idea that to be led by the Socrates logos is to "give an account" of oneself--we see very clearly that what is involved is not a confessional autobiography. In Plato's or Xenophon's portrayals of him, we never see Socrates requiring an examination of conscience or a confession of sins. Here, giving an account of your life, your bios, is also not to give a narrative of the historical events that have taken place in your life, but rather to demonstrate whether you are able to show that there is a relation between the rational discourse, the logos, you are able to use, and the way that you live. Socrates is inquiring into the way that logos gives form to a person's style of life; for he is interested in discovering whether there is a harmonic relation between the two. Later on in this same dialogue [190d-194b] for example, when Socrates asks Laches to give the reason for his courage, he does not want a narrative of Laches' exploits in the Peloponnesian War, but for Laches to attempt to disclose the logos which gives rational, intelligible form to his courage. Socrates' role, then, is to ask for a rational accounting of a person's life.

This role is characterized in the text as that of a "basanos" or "touchstone" which tests the degree of accord between a person's life and its principle of intelligibility or logos: "…Socrates will never let [his listener] go until he has thoroughly and properly put all his ways to the test [188a]. The Greek word "basanos" refers to a "touchstone", i.e., a black stone which is used to test the genuineness of gold by examining the streak left on the stone when "touched" by the gold in question. Similarly, Socrates' "basanic" role enables him to determine the true nature of the relation between the logos and bios of those who come into contact with him.

Then, in the second part of this quotation, Nicias explains that as a result of Socrates' examination one becomes willing to care for the manner in which he lives the rest of his life, wanting now to live in the best possible way; and this willingness takes the form of a zeal to learn and to educate oneself no matter what one's age.

Laches' speech, which immediately follows, describes Socrates' parrhesiastic game from the perspective of one who has inquired into Socrates' role as a touchstone. For the problem arises of knowing how we can be sure that Socrates himself is a good basanos for testing the relation between logos and bios in his listener's life.
LACHES: I have but a single mind, Nicias, in regard to discussions, or if you like, a double rather than a single one. For you might think me a lover, and yet also a hater, of discussions: for when I hear a man discussing virtue or any kind of wisdom, one who is truly a man and worthy of his argument, I am exceedingly delighted; I take the speaker and his speech together, and observe how they sort and harmonize with each other. Such a man is exactly what I understand by "musical", he has tuned himself with the fairest harmony, not that of a lyre or other entertaining instrument, but has made a true concord of his own life between his words and his deeds, not in the Ionian, no , nor in the Phrygian nor in the Lydian, but simply in the Dorian mode, which is the sole Hellenic harmony. Such a man makes me rejoice with his utterance, and anyone would judge me then a lover of discussion, so eagerly do I take in what he says: but a man who shows the opposite character gives me pain, and the better he seems to speak, the more I am pained, with the result, in this case, that I am judged a hater of discussion. Now of Socrates' words I have no experience, but formerly , I fancy, I have made trial of his deeds; and there I found him living up to any fine words however freely spoken. So if he has that gift as well, his wish is mine, and I should be very glad to be cross-examinated by such a man, and should not chafe at learning…
As you can see, this speech in part answers the question of how to determine the visible criteria, the personal qualities, which entitle Socrates to assume the role of the basanos of other people's lives. From information given at the beginning of the Laches we have learned that by the dramatic date of the dialogue, Socrates is not very well-known, that he is not regarded as an eminent citizen, that he is younger than Nicias and Laches, and that he has no special competence in the field of military training--with this exception: he exhibited great courage in the battle at Delium where Laches was the commanding general. Why, then, would two famous and older generals submit to Socrates' cross-examinations ? Laches, who is not as interested in philosophical or political discussions, and who prefers deeds to words throughout the dialogue (in contrast to Nicias), gives the answer. For he says that there is a harmonic relation between what Socrates says an what he does, between his words (logoi) and his deeds (erga). Thus, not only is Socrates himself able to give an account of his own life, such an account is already visible in his behavior since there is not the slightest discrepancy between what he says and what he does. He is a "mousikos aner". In Greek culture, and in most of Plato's other dialogues, the phrase "mousikos aner" denotes a person who is devoted to the Muses--a cultured person of the liberal arts. Here the phrase refers to someone who exhibits a kind of ontological harmony where the logos and bios of such a person is in harmonic accord. And this harmonic relation is also a Dorian harmony.

As you know, there were four kinds of Greek harmony: the Lydian mode which Plato dislikes because it is too solemn; the Phrygian mode which Plato associates with the passions; the Ionian mode which is too soft and effeminate; and the Dorian mode which is courageous.

The harmony between word and deed in Socrates' life is Dorian, and was manifested in the courage he showed at Delium. This harmonic accord is what distinguishes Socrates from a sophist: the Sophist can give very fine and beautiful discourses on courage, but is not courageous himself. This accord is also why Laches can say of Socrates: "I found him living up to any fine words however freely spoken". Socrates is able to use rational, ethically valuable, fine, and beautiful discourse; but unlike the sophist, he can use parrhesia and speak freely because what he says accords exactly with what he thinks, and what he thinks accords exactly with what he does. And so Socrates--who is truly free and courageous--can therefore function as a parrhesiastic figure. Just as was the case in the political field, the parrhesiastic figure of Socrates also discloses the truth in speaking, is courageous in his life an in his speech, and confronts his listener's opinion in a critical manner. But Socratic parrhesia differs from political parrhesia in a number of ways. It appears in a personal relationship between two human beings, and not in the parrhesiastes' relation to the demos, or the king. And in addition to the relationships we noticed between logos, truth, and courage in political parrhesia, with Socrates a new element now emerges, viz., bios. Bios is the focus of Socratic parrhesia. On Socrates' or the philosopher's side, the bios-logos relation is a Dorian harmony which grounds Socrates' parrhesiastic role, and which, at the same time, constitutes the visible criterion for his function as the basanos or touchstone. On the interlocutor's side, the bios-logos relation is disclosed when the interlocutor gives an account of his life, and its harmony tested by contact with Socrates . Since he possesses in his relation to truth all the qualities that need to be disclosed in the interlocutor, Socrates can test the relation to truth of the interlocutor's existence. The aim of this Socratic parrhesiastic activity, then, is to lead the interlocutor to the choice of that kind of life (bios) that will be in Dorian-harmonic accord with logos, virtue, courage, and truth.

In Euripides' Ion we saw the problematization of parrhesia in the form of a game between logos, truth, and genos (birth) in the relations between the gods and mortals; and Ion's parrhesiastic role was grounded in a mythical genealogy descended from Athens. In the realm of political institutions the problematization of parrhesia involved a game between logos, truth, and nomos (law); and the parrhesiastes was needed to disclose those truths which would ensure the salvation of welfare of the city. Parrhesia here was the personal quality of an advisor to the king. And now with Socrates the problematization of parrhesia takes the form of a game between logos, truth, and bios (life) in the realm of a personal teaching relation between two human beings. And the truth that the parrhesiastic discourse discloses is the truth of someone's life, i.e., the kind of relation someone has to truth: how he constitutes himself as someone who has to know the truth through mathesis, and how this relation to truth is ontologically and ethically manifest in his own life. Parrhesia, in turn, becomes an ontological characteristic of the basanos, whose harmonic relation to truth can function as a touchstone. The objective of the cross-examinations Socrates conducts in his role of the touchstone, then, is to test the specific relation to truth of the other's existence.

In Euripides' Ion, parrhesia was opposed to Apollo's silence; in the political sphere parrhesia was opposed to the demos' will, or to those who flatter the desires of the majority or the monarch. In this third, Socratic-philosophical game, parrhesia is opposed to self-ignorance and the false teachings of the sophists.

Socrates' role as a basanos appears very clearly in the Laches; but in other Platonic texts--the Apology, for example--this role is presented as a mission assigned to Socrates by the oracular deity at Delphi, viz., Apollo--the same god who kept silent in Ion. And just as Apollo's oracle was open to all who wished to consult it , so Socrates offered himself up to anyone as a questioner. The Delphic oracle was also so enigmatic and obscure that one could not understand it without knowing what sort of question one was asking, and what kind of meaning the oracular pronouncement could take in one's life. Similarly, Socrates' discourse requires that one overcome self-ignorance about one's own situation. But of course, there are major differences. For example, the oracle foretold what would happen to you, whereas Socratic parrhesia means to disclose who you are--not your relation to future events, but your present relation to truth.

I do not mean to imply that there is any strict chronological progression among the various forms of parrhesia we have noted. Euripides died in 407 BC and Socrates was put to death in 399 BC. In ancient culture the continuation of ideas and themes is also more pronounced. And we are also quite limited in the number of documents available from this period. So there is no precise chronology. The forms of parrhesia we see in Euripides did not generate a very long tradition. And as the Hellenistic monarchies grew and developed, political parrhesia increasingly assumed the form of a personal relation between the monarch and his advisors, thereby coming closer to Socratic form. Increased emphasis was placed on the royal art of statesmanship and the moral education of the king. And the Socratic type of parrhesia had a long tradition through the Cynics and other Socratic Schools. So the divisions are almost contemporary when then appear, but the historical destiny of the three are not the same.

In Plato, and in what we know of Socrates through Plato, a major problem concerns the attempt to determine how to bring he political parrhesia involving logos, truth, and nomos so that it coincides with the ethical parrhesia involving logos, truth, and bios. How can philosophical truth and moral virtue relate to the city through the nomos? You see this issue in the Apology, the Crito, the Republic, and in the Laws. There is a very interesting text in the Laws, for example, where Plato says that even in the city ruled by good laws there is still a need for someone who will use parrhesia to tell the citizens what moral conduct they must observe. Plato distinguishes between the Gardians of the Laws and the parrhesiastes -who does not monitor the application of the laws, but, like Socrates, speaks the truth about the good of the city, and gives advice from an ethical, philosophical standpoint. And, as far as I know, it is the only text in Plato where the one who uses parrhesia is a kind of political figure in the field of the law.

In the Cynic tradition--which also derives from Socrates--the problematic relation between nomos and bios will become a direct opposition. For in this tradition, the Cynic philosopher is regarded as the only one capable of assuming the role of the parrhesiastes. And, as we shall see in the case of Diogenes, he must adopt a permanent negative and critical attitude towards any kind of political institution, and towards any kind of nomos.
You remember last time we met we analyzed some texts from Plato's Laches where we saw the emergence, with Socrates, of a new "philosophical" parrhesia very different from the previous forms we examined. In the Laches we had a game with five main players. Two of them, Lysimachus and Melesius, were well-born Athenian citizens from noble houses who were unable to assume a parrhesiastic role--for they did not know how to educate their own children, Laches and Nicias, who were also unable to play the role of parrhesiastes. Laches and Nicias, in turn, were then obliged to appeal to Socrates for help--who appears as the real parrhesiastic figure. So we can see in these transitional moves a successive displacement of the parrhesiastic role from the well-born Athenian and the political leader--who formerly possessed the role--to the philosopher, Socrates. Taking the Laches as our point of departure, we can now observe in Greco-Roman culture the rise and development of this new kind of parrhesia which, I think, can be characterized as follows.

First, this parrhesia is philosophical, and has been put into practice for centuries by the philosophers. Indeed, a large part of the philosophical activity that transpired in Greco-Roman culture required playing certain parrhesiastic games. Very schematically, I think that this philosophical role involved three types of parrhesiastic activity, all of them related to one another. Insofar as the philosopher had to discover and to teach certain truths about the world, nature, etc., he or she assumed a epistemic role. Taking a stand towards the city, the laws, political institutions, and so on, required, in addition, a political role. And parrhesiastic activity also endeavored to elaborate the nature of the relationships between truth and one's style of life, or truth and an ethics and aesthetics of the self. Parrhesia as it appears in the field of philosophical activity in Greco-Roman culture is not primarily a concept or theme, but a practice which tries to shape the specific relations individuals have to themselves. And I think that our own moral subjectivity is rooted, at least in part, in these practices. More precisely, I think that the decisive criterion which identifies the parrhesiastes is not to be found in his birth, nor in his citizenship, nor in his intellectual competence, but in the harmony which exists between his logos and his bios.

Secondly, the target of this new parrhesia is not to persuade the Assembly, but to convince someone that he must take care of himself and of others; and this means that he must change his life. This theme of changing one's life, of conversion, becomes very important from the Fourth Century BC to the beginnings of Christianity. It is essential to philosophical parrhesiastic practices. Of course conversion is not completely different from the change of mind that an orator, using his parrhesia, wished to bring about when he asked his fellow citizens to wake up, to refuse what they previously accepted, or to accept what they previously refused. But in philosophical practice the notion of changing one's mind takes on a more general and expanded meaning since it is no longer just a matter of altering one's belief or opinion, but of changing one's style of life, one's relation to others, and one's relation to oneself.

Thirdly, these new parrhesiastic practices imply a complex set of connections between the self and truth. For not only are these practices supposed to endow the individual with self-knowledge, this self-knowledge in turn is supposed to grant access to truth for further knowledge. The circle implied in knowing the truth about oneself in order to know the truth is characteristic of parrhesiastic practice since the Fourth Century, and has been one of the problematic enigmas of Western Thought--e.g., as in Descartes or Kant.

And a final point I would like to underscore about this philosophical parrhesia is that it has recourse to numerous techniques quite different from the techniques of persuasive discourse previously utilized; and it is no longer specifically linked to the agora, or to the king's court, but can now be utilized in numerous diverse places.

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