Parrhesia- free and bold expressions in ancient Greece


The Parrhesiate


free and bold expressions in ancient Greece

To speak out in public at the town square or among listerners, right from your heart, in order to reveal important truths, was  called parresia at the age of classical debate and philosophy, 2500 years ago or so in Greece.

The word comes from pan, which means all, and rhema, which is speech. Tell everything. This mode of straight forward speech did not make up schools like the sophists, rhetoricians and philosophers, but influenced the Cynics, Epicureans and even made it into the New Testament,  Acts 4:13 (translated as “boldness”).

Socrates was of course at times the supreme parrhesiast, but he was so much more, e.g. a philosopher. Some philosophers are bold and some bold people are philosophers but there is not natural overlapping. 

This urge of truth-telling could be mode of living for eccentrics. The most famous was Socrates who was punished to death 399 B.C for his irritating discussions in Athens. A person who needs to say everything, a parrhesiastes, has no choice to do so, but must follow his inner soul and nature.


The proof of the truth is the sincerity of the speaker and his courage says Foucault, relying on Aristotle as well:

“The parrhesiast is not a professional. And parrhesia is after all something other than a technique or a skill, although it has technical aspects. Parrhesia is not a skill: it is something which is harder to define. It is a stance, a way of being which is akin to a virtue, a mode of action”

But the free and bold speaker is not a prophet. A parrhesiast speaks only in his own name and does not represent a god on earth. He helps the blind to see something that he has seen and needs to tell everyone. He has no choice but to talk freely and test whether he lives in a free society.


The Russian Jewish dissident and Israeli politician Natan Sharansky gives a picture of what it takes:

“A simple way to determine whether the right to dissent in a particular society is being upheld is to apply the the town square test: Can a person walk into the middle of the town square and express his or her views without fear of arrest, imprisonment or physical harm? If he can, then that person is living in a free society. If not, it’s a fear society”  

But freedom is useless if it is the only telos for a society, its striving, one may conclude. Leo Strauss emphasizes that we moderns have got the Greek notion of freedom,  and with it the idea of democracy, all wrong.


The importance of ancient thought whether Greek and Roman, or later according to  Strauss in medieval Jewish and Muslim interpretations, was that virtue was worthwhile to strive for mankind, not freedom. Freedom may be a prerequisite, but virtue triumphs above all. What use is freedom if one chooses evil.

“The classics rejected democracy because they thought that the aim of human life, and hence of social life, is not freedom but virtue. Freedom as a goal is ambiguous, because it is freedom for evil as well as for good. Virtue emerges normally only through education, that is to say, the formation of character, through habituation and the requires leisure on the part of both parents and children”.


The philosopher Socrates knew this as well as his role as a gadfly, a parrhesiatist, someone who could not hide what he thought was true, even it was against the majority and in the early Athenian democracy, also antidemocratic. To criticize democracy then was not as hard as it is today. Many users of parrhesia have been against the majority and even the rule by majority.

To ask what virtue is, is the task of the philosopher and directed towards the rulers. What makes them able to rule and rule well for all citizens? For Plato the goal of political life was to enable a common life without politics but with philosophy, or human pondering of ultimate things, if they were not educated in strict philosophy.


Man is not put on earth to deal only with politics, a busybody, but to have a regime that takes care of itself and the city or country one lives in so that the majority can strive for virtue according to their abilities.  Strauss again:

“The just city is the necessary and sufficient condition for the highest excellence or virtue of each according to his capacity. The just city is a city in which being a good citizen is simply the same as being a good man. Everyone is to dedicate himself, not to the pursuit which is most pleasant or attractive to him, but to that which makes him as good a man as possible.”

To tell truths in public, as a parrhesist does, is not always safe, but among friends it should be Plato wrote in The Symposion which is actually what happened at the banquet that night. The problem of anyone trying to tell undesirable truths to a crowd is the topic of his The Republic. The men inside the cave in this dialogue act like the deaf democratic assembly who twice sentenced Socrates to death.

This classical book of political thought, The Republic,  shows us ”why Socrates was accused and why there was good reason to accuse him”,  Allan Bloom notes. To establish a political science in classical Athens by starting from analyzing the concept of justice was a challenge to the city’s rulers, but it was only natural Bloom states:

“Hostility to philosophy is the natural condition of man and the city…it is a dangerous and essentially questionable activity”.  


And Bloom write in his book on higher education that, “nonphilosophic men love the truth only as long as it does not conflict with what they cherish – self, family, country, fame, love. When it does conflict, they hate the truth and regard as a monster the man who does not care for these noble things”.

If philosophy was tough to hear for ancient Greek citizens and rulers, parrhesia was even worse. Very few would want to have anything to do with such an individual. Socrates admitted he was problematic: “I am utterly disturbing and I create only perplexity” (Theaetetus)

Demostenes, the famous rethoretician, distinguished between bad and good uses of parrhesia. The former one unleashes everything and in disorder to a poor listeners, while the latter,  a good parrhesist, talks about what is true at the risk of violence towards him.  

Demosthenes: “I am well aware that, by employing this frankness [ parrhesia], I do not know what the consequences will be for me of the things I have just said” (First Philippic).



Allan Bloom, Interpretative essay of Plato’s Republic

     -”-           , The closing of the American mind

Costica Bradatan, Dying for ideas. The dangerous lives of the philsophers

Michel Foucault, The courage of truth

Plato, Theaetetus

Fleming Rose, Hymn til friheden (review in Swedish)

Natan Sharansky, The case for democracy

Leo Strauss, What is political philosophy?

        -”-        , The rebirth of classical political rationalism



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