Discourse and Truth: The Problematization of Parrhesia.


Parrhesia and Personal Relationships



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Parrhesia and Personal Relationships

I would now like to analyze the parrhesiastic game in the framework of personal relationships, selecting some examples from Plutarch and Galen which I think illustrate some of the technical problems which can arise.

In Plutarch there is a text which is explicitly devoted to the problem of parrhesia. Addressing certain aspects of the parrhesiastic problem, Plutarch tries to answer the question: 'How is it possible to recognize a true parrhesiastes or truth-teller?' And similarly: 'How is it possible to distinguish a parrhesiastes from a flatterer?' The title of this text, which comes from Plutarch's Moralia, is "How to tell a Flatterer from a Friend".

I think we need to underline several points from this essay. First, why do we need, in our personal lives, to have some friend who plays the role of a parrhesiastes of a truth-teller? The reason Plutarch gives is found in the predominant kind of relationship we often have to ourselves, viz., a relation of "philautia” or "self-love". This relation of self-love is, for us, the ground of a persistent illusion about what we really are :


It is because of this self-love that everybody is himself his own foremost and greatest flatterer, and hence finds no difficulty in admitting the outsider to witness with him and to confirm his own conceits and desires. For the man who is spoken of with opprobrium as a lover of flatterers is in high degree a lover of self, and, because of his kindly feeling toward himself, he desires and conceives himself to be endowed with all manner of good qualities; but although the desire for these is not unnatural, yet the conceit that one possesses them is dangerous and must be carefully avoided. Now If Truth is a thing divine, and, as Plato puts it, the origin "of all good for gods and all good for men" [Laws,730c], then the flatterer is in all likelihood an enemy to the gods and particularly to the Pythian god. For the flatterer always takes a position over against the maxim "Know Thyself," by creating in every man deception towards himself and ignorance both of himself and of the good and evil that concerns himself; the good he renders defective and incomplete, and the evil wholly impossible to amend.
We are our own flatterers, and it is in order to disconnect this spontaneous relation we have to ourselves, to rid ourselves of our philautia, that we need a parrhesiastes.

But it is difficult to recognize and to accept a Parrhesiastes. For not only is it difficult to distinguish a true parrhesiastes from a flatterer; because of our philautia we are also not interested in recognizing a parrhesiastes. So at stake in this text is the problem of determining the indubitable criteria which enables us to distinguish the genuine parrhesiastes we need so badly to rid ourselves of our own philautia from the flatterer who "plays the part of friend with the gravity of tragedian" [50e] . And this implies that we are in possession of a kind of "semiology" of the real parrhesiastes.

To answer the question: 'How can we recognize a true parrhesiastes?', Plutarch proposes two major criteria. First, there is a conformity between what the real truth-teller says with how he behaves--and here you recognize the Socratic harmony of the Laches, where Laches explains that he could trust Socrates as a truth-teller about courage since he saw that Socrates really was courageous at Deliun, and thus, that he exhibited a harmonious accord between what he said and what he did.

There is also a second criterion, which is: the permanence, the continuity, the stability and steadiness of the true parrhesiastes, the true friend, regarding his choices, his opinions, and his thoughts:


... it is necessary to observe the uniformity and permanence of his tastes, whether he always takes delight in the same things, and commends always the same things, and whether he directs and ordains his own life according to one pattern, as becomes a freeborn man and a lover of congenial friendship and intimacy; for such is the conduct of a friend. But the flatterer, since he has no abiding place of character to dwell in, and since he Leads a life not of his own choosing but another's, moulding and adapting himself to suit another, is not simple, not one, but variable and many in one, and, like water that is poured into one receptacle after another, he is constantly on the move from place to place,and changes his shape to fit his receiver.
Of course there are a lot of other very interesting things about this essay. But I would like to underscore two major themes. First, the theme of self-delusion, and its link with philautia--Which is not something completely new. But in Plutarch's text you can see that his notion of self-delusion as a consequence of self-love is clearly different from being in a state of ignorance about one's own lack of self-knowledge--a state which Socrates attempted to overcome. Plutarch's conception emphasizes the fact that not only are we unable to know that we know nothing, but we are also unable to know, exactly, what we are. And I think that this theme of self-delusion becomes increasingly important in Hellenistic culture. In Plutarch's period it is something really significant.

A second theme which I would like to stress is the steadiness of mind. This is also not something new, but for late Stoicism the notion of steadiness takes on great importance. And there is an obvious relation between these two themes--the theme of self-delusion and the theme of constancy or persistency of mind. For destroying self-delusion and acquiring and maintaining continuity of mind are two ethico-moral activities which are linked to one another. The self-delusion which prevents you from knowing who or what you are, and all the shifts in your thoughts, feelings, and opinions which force you to move from one thought to another, one feeling to another, or one opinion to another, demonstrate this linkage. For if you are able to discern exactly what you are, then you will stick to the same point, and you will not be moved by anything. If you are moved by any sort of stimulation, feeling, passion, etc., then you are not able to stay close to yourself, you are dependent upon something else, you are driven to different concerns, and consequently you are not able to maintain complete self-possession.

These two elements--being deluded about yourself and being moved by changes in the world and in your thoughts--both developed and gained significance in the Christian tradition. In early Christian spirituality, Satan is often represented as the agent both of self-delusion (as opposed to the renunciation of self) and of the mobility of mind--the instability or unsteadiness of the soul as opposed to firmitas in the contemplation of God. Fastening one's mind to God was a way, first, of renouncing one's self so as to eliminate any kind of self-delusion. And it was also a way to acquire an ethical and an ontological steadiness. So I think, that we can see in Plutarch's text--in the analysis of the relation between parrhesia and flattery--some elements which also became significant for the Christian tradition.

I would like to refer now, very briefly, to a text by Galen [A.D.130-200]--the famous physician at the end of the Second Century--where you can see the same problem: how is it possible to recognize a real parrhesiastes? Galen raises this question :in his essay "The Diagnosis and Cure of the Soul's Passions", where he explains that in order for a man to free himself from his passions, he needs a parrhesiastes; for just as in Plutarch a century previously, philautia, self-love, is the root of self-delusion:


... we see the faults of others but remain blind to those which concern ourselves. All men admit the truth of this and, furthermore, Plato gives the reason for it [Laws,731e]. He says that the lover is blind in the case of the object of his love. If, therefore, each of us loves himself most of all, he must be blind in his own case...

There are passions of the soul which everybody knows: anger, wrath, fear, grief, envy, and violent lust. In my opinion, excessive vehemence in loving or hating anything is also a passion; I think the saying 'moderation is best' is correct, since no immoderate action is good. How, then, could a man cut out these passions if he did not first know that he had them? But as we said, it is impossible to know them, since we love ourselves to excess. Even if this saying will not permit you to judge yourself, it does allow that you can judge others whom you neither love nor hate. Whenever you hear anyone in town being praised because he flatters no man, associate with that man and judge from your own experience whether he is the sort of man they say he is...

When a man does not greet the powerful and wealthy by name, when he does not visit them, when he does not dine with them, when he lives a disciplined life, expect that man to speak the truth; try, too, to come to a deeper knowledge of what kind of man he is (and this comes about through long association). If you find such a man, summon him and talk with him one day in private; ask him to reveal straightaway whatever of the above mentioned passions he may see in you. Tell him you will be most grateful for this service and that you will look on him as your deliverer more than if he had saved you from an illness of the body. Have him promise to reveal it whenever he sees you affected by any of the passions I have mentioned.
It is interesting to note that in this text, the parrhesiastes--which everyone needs in order to get rid of his own self-delusion--does not need to be a friend, someone you know someone with whom you are acquainted. And this, I think, constitutes a very important difference between Galen and Plutarch. In Plutarch, Seneca, and the tradition which derives from Socrates, the parrhesiastes always needs to be a friend. And this friend relation was always at the root of the parrhesiastic game. As far as I know, for the first time with Galen, the parrhesiastes no longer needs to be a friend. Indeed, it is much better, Galen tells us, that the Parrhesiastes be someone whom you do not know in order for him to be completely neutral. A good truth-teller who gives you honest counsel about yourself does not hate you, but he does not love you either. A good parrhesiastes is someone with whom you have previously had no particular relationship.

But of course you cannot choose him at random. You must check some criteria in order to know whether he really is capable of revealing your faults. And for this you must have heard of him. Does he have a good reputation? Is he old enough? Is he rich enough? It is very important that the one who plays the role of the parrhesiastes be at least as rich, or richer than you are. For if he is poor and you are rich, then the chances will be greater that he will be a flatterer--since it is now in his interest to do so.

The Cynics, of course, would have said that someone who is rich, who has a positive relation to wealth, cannot really be wise; so it is not worthwhile selecting him as a parrhesiastes. Galen's idea of selecting someone who is richer than you to act as your truth-teller would seem ridiculous to a Cynic.

But it is also interesting to note that in this essay, the truth-teller does not need to be a physician or doctor. For in spite of the fact that Galen himself was a physician, was often obliged to 'cure' the excessive passions of others, and often succeeded in doing so, he does not require of a parrhesiastes that he be a doctor, or that he possess the ability to cure you of your passions. All that is required is that he be able to tell you the truth about yourself.

But it is still not enough to know that the truth-teller is old enough, rich enough, and has a good reputation. He must also be tested. And Galen gives a program for testing the potential parrhesiastes. For example, you must ask him questions about himself and see how he responds to determine whether he will be severe enough for the role. You have to be suspicious when the would-be parrhesiastes congratulates you, when he is not severe enough, and so on.

Galen does not elaborate upon the precise role of the parrhesiastes in "The Diagnosis and Cure of the Soul's Passions"; he only gives a few examples of the sort of advice he himself gave while assuming this role for others. But, to summarize the foregoing, in this text the relationship between parrhesia and friendship no longer seems to obtain, and there is a kind of trial or examination required of the potential parrhesiastes by his 'patron' or 'client'.

I apologize for being so brief about these texts from Plutarch and Galen; but they are not very difficult to read, only difficult to find.

Techniques of the parrhesiastic games

I would now like to turn to the various techniques of the parrhesiastic games which can be found in the philosophical and moral literature of the first two centuries of our era. Of course, I do not plan to enumerate or discuss all of the important practices that can be found in the writings of this period. To begin with, I would like to make three preliminary remarks.

First, I think that these techniques manifest a very interesting and important shift from that truth game which--in the classical Greek conception of parrhesia--was constituted by the fact that someone was courageous enough to tell the truth to other people. For there is a shift from that kind of parrhesiastic game to another truth game which now consists in being courageous enough to disclose the truth about oneself.

Secondly, this new kind of parrhesiastic game--where the problem is to confront the truth about yourself --requires what the Greeks called "askesis". Although our word "asceticism" derives from the Greek word "askesis" (since the meaning of the word changes as it becomes associated with various Christian practices), for the Greeks the word does not mean "ascetic", but has a very broad sense denoting any kind of practical training or exercise. For example, it was a commonplace to say that any kind of art or technique had to be learned by mathesis and askesis--by theoretical knowledge and practical training. And, for instance, when Musonius Rufus says that the art of living, techne tou biou, is like the other arts, i.e., an art which one could not learn only through theoretical teachings, he is repeating a traditional doctrine. This techne tou biou, this art of living, demands practice and training: askesis. But the Greek conception of askesis differs from Christian ascetic practices in at least two ways: (1) Christian asceticism has its ultimate aim or target the renunciation of the self, whereas the moral askesis of the Greco-Roman philosophies has as its goal the establishment of a specific relationship to oneself--a relationship of self possession and self-sovereignty; (2) Christian asceticism takes as its principle theme detachment from the world, whereas the ascetic practices of the Greco-Roman philosophies are generally concerned with endowing the individual with the preparation and the moral equipment that will permit him to fully confront the world in an ethical and rational manner.

Thirdly, these ascetic practices implied numerous different kinds of specific exercises; but they were never specifically catalogued, analyzed, or described. Some of them were discussed and criticized, but most of them were well-known. Since most people recognized them, they were usually used without any precise theory about the exercise. And indeed, often when someone now reads these Greek and Latin authors as they discuss such exercises in the context of specific theoretical topics (such as time, death, the world, life, necessity, etc.), he or she gets a mistaken conception about them. For these topics usually function only as a schema or matrix for the spiritual exercise. In fact, most of these texts written in late antiquity about ethics are not at all concerned with advancing a theory about the foundations of ethics, but are practical books containing specific recipes and exercises one had to read, to reread, to meditate upon, to learn, in order to construct a lasting matrix for one's own behavior.

I now turn to the kinds of exercises where someone had to examine the truth about himself, and tell this truth to someone else.

Most of the time when we refer to such exercises, we speak of practices involving the "examination of conscience." But I think that the expression examination of conscience" as a blanket term meant to characterize all these different exercises misleads and oversimplifies. For we have to define very precisely the different truth games which have been put into work and applied in these practices of the Greco-Roman tradition. I would like to analyze five of these truth games commonly described as "examinations of conscience" in order to show you (1) how some of the exercises differ from one another; (2) what aspects of the mind , feelings, behavior, etc., were considered in these different exercises; and (3) that these exercises, despite their differences, implied a relation between truth and the self which is very different from what we find in the Christian tradition.




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