Foucault – The Courage of Truth

Michel Foucault – The Courage of Truth: Lectures at the Collège de France 1983-1984. [EN 2011]



Jacques-Louis David, The Death of Sokrates, 1787


The Courage of Truth was Foucault’s last set of lectures at the College, concluding three months before his death. It is one of the few writings on one of his last concepts: that of parrhesia [parresia], truth-telling, specifically, the condition of a subject’s being as one who speaks truth – and often, guarantees that truth with his/her very being. (If you are new to this discussion, you might begin with Fearless Speech.)

It is again a problem of knowing, of being someone who knows, of being able to say what one knows, of having it count as knowledge. Specifically, Foucault says, he will ask not the question of what truth, but who accrues the status of producing truth. How have we objectified truth-tellers throughout history? In general, how have we objectified subjects such as the mad? (3)


Defining Parrhesia

Etymologically, parrhesia means ‘telling all’ (pan rēma); used both pejoratively (telling anything, chatterbox) and positive (telling all without concealment). (9-10) A personal guarantee of the Said as truth, joining it thereby to the Saying – which necessarily involves risk, including the risk of disabling one’s own speech. (11)

Parrhesia can (must?) concretize into a ‘parrhesiastic game’, a social pact that enables and recognizes parrhesia. An age-old Foucaultian move:  All involved “must accept the game of parrhesia”. (12) Parrhesia is opposed to rhetoric. (13-4) Parrhesia is not a vocation or skill, but “a stance, a way of being which is akin to a virtue” (14) – which provides us with some lateral affinity to Foucault’s contemporaneous works on the care of the self.


Political Parrhesia

4th century B.C. There is an (internal) criticism of Athenian democracy as dangerous to parrhesia. When everyone speaks, the truth is drowned out; when truth is drowned out, it is too risky to pursue it. (35-7) Democracy itself was problematised. How can the best, who are always the few, survive against the clamour of the hoi polloi? Given that the interest of the best corresponds to the best interest of the city, and vice versa, surely the democratic structure is inherently unfavourable to the voice of the best – and thus to its own interests. Thus Plato concludes: “either democracy or truth-telling.” (43-5)

However, Aristotle complicates this schema, asking: is it not the poor, whether few or many, that constitute democracy? Does the ‘best man’ really equate to ‘best citizen’? Perhaps the interest of the governing citizen can be ethically differentiated from his interest of government – though Aristotle seems to suggest this is not practically possible for the masses. Thus he can only suggest that the democracy ‘naturally’ make way for exceptional men. (47-52)

Parrhesia thus moves away from the assembly, and towards the Prince / advisor relationship – despite the widespread recognition of tyranny as conducive to flattery. (58-9) Here, it is the individuality of the exceptional prince thatmakes parrhesia possible. Where the wise man shouts in vain at the hoi polloi, the wiser, and most importantly, singular prince might be more amenable to persuasion. (61) Parrhesia thus becomes not just an individual practice, but an intrasubjective process: no longer a virtue of the speaker only, but a training, an askesis, for the soul of the listener. (64)


Sokratic Parrhesia

Sokrates is a key figure in this extension parrhesia beyond the official spaces of politics. When Sokrates is asked why he does not participate in politics, he seems to say, to speak parrhesia in politics is my death. But then, he cites examples where he did risk himself to tell truth. (77-9) Foucault believes that Sokrates was not dogmatically opposed to politics, but that he was preserving himself strategically for the right kinds of parrhesia that was his unique calling, as dictated to him by the oracle. (79-81)

Sokratic parrhesia involves (1) zētēsis, examination, tests of verification; (2) planē, concrete and empirical observations; (3) epimeleia: a practice of caring for oneself, one’s truth. (82-5) Such parrhesia is both distinct from and supplements political P. (90)

And what of Sokrates’ famous last words? “Crito, we owe a cock to Asklepios. Pay the debt, don’t forget.” The offering of a cock is typically to thank Asklepios for curing someone. Relying on Dumézil’s analysis, Foucault argues that Sokrates is claiming he has been cured – from what? Some, including Nietzsche, have thought life itself. Foucault prefers the disease of discourse, the disease of false opinion, of listening to the crowd. (97-105) But how has Sokrates been cured? It cannot be his impending death. Without further clues, Foucault says, we can only look to Sokrates’ general activity: epimelesthai, the caring for oneself and for others. (110) And finally, ‘don’t forget’, mē amelēsēte, no negligence, becomes significant: one must keep it up throughout one’s life. (113)

The dialogue between Sokrates and others in Laches is a good example of a parrhesiastic pact, including all three stages of Sokratic parrhesia. It is a rare text that directly speaks of truth and courage. Here, Foucault opposes the courage of veridiction, the will to truth, to a metaphysical, distancing, purified approach to Truth. (125-7) Here is a lived truth, or rather, a living that is for truth. First, frankness is explicitly requested, and prepared for by exhibiting the subject (youth training) rather than talking about it. (130-1) Second, Nikias and Laches’ own opinions are tested in verbal sparring, and ultimately superseded by Sokrates’ own discourse. (133-4)

Here, Sokrates explicitly asks for, and is granted, a parrhesiatic pact – all shall now play Sokrates’ game. The pact is that all shall speak frankly, and under Sokrates’ interlocution, give an account of himself. Sokrates is qualified for this task not by professional qualifications, but his own life that makes him a basanos – a ‘touchstone’, a man whose life shows he is capable of finding truth and falsehood in others. (144)

Life must be submitted to a touchstone in order to make an exact division between what is and is not good in what one does, what one is, and how one lives. (145)

Laches accepts this pact because he knows Sokrates to live in harmony with his logos. (148) Thus we find Sokratic parrhesia to be a care of one’s life as lived, both the object of care and the proof for others of one’s truth. (148-9) Here, for Sokrates himself as well as others, the true teacher is logos itself, which then puts Sokrates in the important position of one who trains others to listen to logos themselves. (152)


Cynic Parrhesia

Cynicism embodies this idea of life itself – all of it – as a test to bring truth forth. Cynicism develops as a codified, signature mode of parrhesiastic practice. The Cynic is a witness to truth by virtue of his entire life, in a similar sense as the Sokratic basanos. (173) Foucault thus identifies Cynicism to be an existentialism of/in truth. (180)

It makes the form of existence a way of making truth itself visible in one’s acts, one’s body, the way one dresses, and in the way one conducts oneself and lives. (172)

Cynicism was thus variable. The half-naked Demetrios in contempt of wealth, yet cultured and eloquent, counseling aristocrats, was no less parrhesiastic than Peregrinos Proteus, a populist vagabond of every opposite sort of disposition. (193-5) Cynicism was condemned as vulgar and anarchical on one hand, but its critics consistently mention the good and proper cynicism to be honest and austere. (197-9) “The criticism of Cynicism is always made in the name of an essential Cynicism.” (202)


But how exactly is Cynicism a parrhesiastic life, a true life (alēthēs bios)? The Cynic mission is summarised in the Oracle’s call to Diogenes: ‘change the value of the currency’ – that is, take your body (coin), reinscribe its life and logos (effigy), and let it thus revalue others’ lives (as basanos). This transvaluation is subversive towards law and custom. (227, 239-242) “For life truly to be the life of truth, must it not be an other life, a life which is radically and paradoxically other?” (245)

  1. Where other philosophies might engage an ‘internal gaze’ upon oneself, the Cynic is about nonconcealment: ethical and philosophical struggles are dramatised in a public performance of human nature and animality. (252-5)
  2. Cynics also radicalise poverty, which was not so unambiguously associated with philosophy in Antiquity. (256-9) The extreme poverty, as exemplified by Diogenes, extends to a positive valorization of ugliness, a rarity at the time, and dependency – begging, enslavement, (260)
  3. The Cynic lives ‘straight’ with natural law, setting aside all human customs. (263-4)
  4. The Cynic’s complete renunciation of his life to poverty and endurance opens up not so much obligation, but free ability to care for others – if only through a combative and bitter kind of medicine. (279-280) Diogenes may lecture Alexander precisely because of his condition.

The Cynic thus leads a militant life of struggle for himself and humanity. A Cynic’s life is, like a dog, public, unattached, combative, dedicated/protective. (243) The Cynic, like Herakles, endures. (280-2) Publicly, addressed to all, in derisory form, he/she speaks the truth. The Cynic is the Fool. (284-6) Indeed, Epictetus the Stoic argues that to be a Cynic is not a choice freely available to all, but a mission, a profession. To know one is chosen, one tests onself by attempting the true life of a Cynic. (295-8) The ultimate test is militancy in philosophy, a combative and enduring form of askesis. (299)



Cynicism as an attitude survived throughout Western history, though not as doctrine. Foucault cites various German works on cynicism that distinguish ancient Kynismus (self-assertion based on nature/animality) and modern Zynismus (assertion of individualism without referent). (178-9) We find its attitudes transferred into Christian asceticism, including Franciscans and Dominicans; (181-3) the revolutionary, militancy, secret societies, etc; (183-5) and art. (186-9) Foucault also mentions the historical intersection of Cynicism, Skepticism and 19c nihilism. (189-190)

Foucault ends by speculating on further lines of inquiry. Is Christian asceticism a reorganisation of asceticism around the principle of reduction, where the question is not of the Other humanity but a metaphysical Other of God, who demands obedience as well as reduction? (317-9) Other early Christian era uses of parrhesia also include:

  1. The ‘Judeo-Hellenistic’, e.g. Philo and the Septuagint (parrhesia as openness to God and God’s bringing forth of his unbounded self to the believer) (326-9);
  2. The New Testament, parrhesia as a confident and courageous address of God in obedience and trust, and one’s own integrity to the Gospel one spreads (330);
  3. Early ascetics where parrhesia is both free speaking to men in the old sense and a confidence in God. (331-2) This confidence is increasingly subsumed by fearful obedience, and appears incompatible, a vice; ‘secular’ parrhesia becomes an ‘arrogance’, a non-fear of God. (333-6) For Christianity ultimately comes to stress the mistrust of oneself. (337)

Foucault’s final words on the subject were left on the notes, undelivered:

…there is no establishment of the truth without an essential position of otherness; the truth is never the same; there can be truth only in the form of the other world and the other life (l’autre monde et de la vie autre). (340)