Exploring the Meaning of Parrhesia

The Parrhesiate
Parrhesia: to say everything boldly or freely

Parrhesia (from Grk. literally, “to say everything boldly or freely”), is a figure of speechOpens in new window which describes frankness and boldness in speaking truth. A kind of verbal expression by which the speaker chooses to tell truth, not merely as a result of persuasive force but at his/her own free will and liberated mindset.

In other words, the speaker uses his freedom and chooses frankness rather than persuasion, to express truth instead of falsehood or indifference, and risks his security. A steadfast decision which might incure him danger from the interlocutor (or to whom the matter concerns).

A situation of Parrhesia may be described as a scenario whereby a servant made truthful remarks concerning things the boss did that goes contrary to the practice of good morale behavior. It could also be a case where the minority stands up against the actions of the majority.

Saying everything one has in mind does not only implies freedom of speech but also the determination of saying the truth for the common good; even when speaking the truth means the person would incur the wrath of the majority that is alluded.


The term parrhēsía is a greek word, which literally means “to say everything boldly or freely”, The word “parrhesia” appears for the first time in Greek literature in Euripides [c.484-407 BC], and occurs throughout the ancient Greek world of letters from the end of the Fifth Century BC. “Parrhesia” as translated into English means “free speech” (in French by “franc-parler”, and in German by “Freimüthigkeit”).

There are three forms of the word: the nominal form “parrhesia”; the verb form “parrhesia-zomai”; and there is also the word “parrhresiastes” — which is not very frequent and cannot be found in the Classical texts. Rather, you find it only in the Greco-Roman period — in Plutarch and Lucian, for example. In a dialogue of Lucian, “The Dead Come to Life, or The Fisherman”, one of the characters also has the name “Parrhesiades”.

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Evolution of Parrhesia in Ancient Greece

In Ancient Greece, rhetoric and parrhesia were understood to be in opposition to each other through the dialogues written by Plato. There are two major philosophies during this period, one being Sophistry and the other being Dialectic.

Sophistry is most commonly associated with the use of rhetoric or means of persuasion to teach or persuade an audience. In its opposition is the practice of dialectic, supported by PlatoOpens in new window and his mentor SocratesOpens in new window, which uses dialogue to break apart complex issues in search of absolute truth or knowledge. In Plato's writings, specifically GorgiasOpens in new window, the term parrhesia is more closely associated with dialectic meaning that it is “free speech” and not rhetoric or manipulation.

Parrhesia was a fundamental component of the democracy of Classical Athens. In assemblies and the courts Athenians were free to say almost anything, and in the theatre, playwrights such as AristophanesOpens in new window made full use of the right to ridicule whomever they chose.

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Elsewhere there were limits to what might be said; freedom to discuss politics, morals, religion, or to criticize people would depend on context: by whom it was made, and when, and how, and where.

If a man was seen as immoral, or his views went contrary to popular opinion, then there were great risks involved in making use of such an unbridled freedom of speech, as Socrates found out when he was sentenced to death for not adoring Athens' gods and for corrupting the young.

Parrhesisa in the Context of Frankness

In parrhesia, the speaker is supposed to give a complete and exact account of what he has in mind so that the audience is able to comprehend exactly what the speaker thinks. The word “parrhesia” then, refers to a type of relationship between the speaker and what he says.

For in parrhesia, the speaker makes it manifestly clear and obvious that what he says is his own opinion. And he does this by avoiding any kind of rhetorical form which would veil what he thinks. Instead, the parrhesiastes uses the most direct words and forms of expression he can find.

Whereas rhetoric provides the speaker with technical devices to help him prevail upon the minds of his audience (regardless of the rhetorician's own opinion concerning what he says), in parrhesia, the parrhesiastes acts on other people's mind by showing them as directly as possible what he actually believes.

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Parrhesia in the Context of Incurring Danger

Someone is said to use parrhesia and merits consideration as a parrhesiastes only if there is a risk or danger for him or her in telling the truth. For instance, from the ancient Greek perspective, a grammar teacher may tell the truth to the children that he teaches, and indeed may have no doubt that what he teaches is true. But in spite of this coincidence between belief and truth, he is not a parrhesiastes.

However, when a philosopher addresses himself to a sovereign, to a tyrant, and tells him that his tyranny is disturbing and unpleasant because tyranny is incompatible with justice, then the philosopher speaks the truth, believes he is speaking the truth, and, more than that, also takes a risk (since the tyrant may become angry, may punish him, may exile him, or worse yet; may kill him).

The risk a parrhesiastes takes is not always a risk of life; when (for example,) you see a friend doing something wrong and you risk incurring his anger by telling him he is wrong, you are acting as a parrhesiastes.

In such a case, you do not risk your life, but you may hurt him by your remarks, and consequently put your friendship in jeorpardy. If, in a political debate, an orator risks losing his popularity because his opinions are contrary to the majority's opinion, or his opinions may usher in a political scandal, he uses parrhesia.

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Parrhesia, then, is linked to courage in the face of danger: it demands the courage to speak the truth irrespective of the imminent danger attached to it. However, due to the fact that a parrhesiastes is generally considered to be in position of inferiority and exposed to risk, we must not assume a king or tyrant to be in position of using parrhesia, simply because he has nothing to risk.

In sum, telling the truth is regarded as a duty. The orator who speaks the truth to those who cannot accept his truth, for instance, and who may be exiled, or punished in some way, is free to keep silent. No one forces him to speak; but he feels that it is his duty to do so.

When, on the other hand, someone is compelled to tell the truth (as, for example, under duress of torture), then his discourse is not a parrhesiastic utterance. A criminal who is forced by his judges to confess his crime does not use parrhesia.

But if he voluntarily confesses his crime to someone else out of a sense of moral obligation, then he performs a parrhesiastic act to criticize a friend who does not recognize his wrongdoing, or insofar as it is a duty towards the city to help the king to better himself as a sovereign. Parrhesia is thus related to freedom and to duty.

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