Truth, frankness, care of self, and courage

I recently picked up a book titled ‘Courage of Truth: The government of self and others’ written by Michel Foucalt (ISBN 9781250009104, Picador). This one got my brain blood vessels a little excited for the first time in a while (this says more about my recent reading habits than anything else). His discussion is mostly describing the elements of what truth is, more so than discussing specific environments in which the truth trade might be plied (i.e. there are short discussions on Socratic courage (I like but found a bit passive aggressive at times), political bravery (and selective recklessness) etc. tend not to consider personal saftey or punitive environments much.

Probably fair enough to considering Foucalt probably wasn’t terribly interested in self preservation societies, having claimed to find certain life watershed moments reading Nietsche, and Beckett. My imagination runs to Foucalt’s experiences in French psychiatric institutions (from both sides of the patient-practitioner power divide: both inmate and intern) informing his concepts of power and knowledge and their role in societal control of individuals in a ‘controlled environment’ as it were.

Foucalt provides some first rate structural tenets. And insightful ‘archaeologically’ placed philosophical ideas. At times it seems to me (with my rather slow up take of dense language) that these ideas are a little overgrown by corpulent academic speech. But let us place this in context: probably a necessary part of the environment from which the book is derived. This book comprises of a number of speeches delivered in his capacity as Chair of the “history of systems of thought” at the College of France via weekly symposiums. These lectures were accessible to the public in fully stocked lecture halls at the College between 1983-84; so basically in the weeks and months before Foucalt’s untimely death. The editor’s do talk a little of Foucalt’s health at the time. Foucalt, according the the editors, asked his doctors about his health affliction only in terms of ‘how much time have I got’. A very pointed philosophical piece of imagery.

The main topic of the early weeks worth of speeches were centred on the Greek term ‘parrhesia’ – frankness and the telling of truth. Much use is made of the writing about the life and times of Socrates, as well as important distinctions noted by Foucalt about Cynic philosophy tenets (as described through a history of pre Christian and early Christian times).

In Foucalt’s inimitable way he would suggest structural tenets of the environments of truth telling should be placed in a tripartite context:

  1. Truth – the forms of knowledge (aletheia – “disclosure” or “truth“.)
  2. Power – relations of power and politeia (the procedures by which our conduct is governed)
  3. Subject – the practices of lived self (ethos)

For a illumination of the forms of truth Foucalt gave 4 initial elements:

  1. Unconcealed – nothing hidden from public view
  2. Unalloyed – not mixed with other elements that are devoid of pure truth
  3. Direct – immediacy without multiplicity, a straight truth without turns and twists
  4. Immutable – incorruptible , that which remains and exists beyond time change

So a ‘True” life conceals nothing of its aims and intentions and harbours no shadowy part. It is straight, and not susceptible to changes over time. To my mind admirable but largely difficult elements to maintain in all situations. Perhaps I speak only for myself there.

In the words of Plato (in Republic): “Simple and direct in deeds and words, …does not change himself, and nor does he deceive others by phantoms, or discourse, or by signs sent in waking or dreams”

And the opposite, a false life, according to Foucalt is a life :

“filled with desire, license , laxity, pride and intemperance of its conduct … dedicating themselves to sterile restlessness.
(Foucalt, CoT, p. 222)

And so

“The variegated man, the man prey to the multiplicity of his desires, appetites and the impulses of his soul is [therefore] not capable of the truth.” (Foucalt, CoT, p. 222)

To these forms of truth Foucalt talks of the environments that are conducive to such truth telling. There is a term for participating in risky truthful discourse, of a duty of courage and of frankness, telling your bold honest truth, at times regardless of personal risk: parrhesia :

Parrhesia also contains some echo of the elements of truth.

  • telling the whole story tied to the truth
  • telling the whole truth, hiding nothing of the truth
  • telling the whole truth, without hiding it behind anything
  • telling the whole truth freely as your personal opinion (without reluctance)

The last point is of course an interesting one as there are many times our truths are reluctantly told and in fact we are uncomfortable presenting such truth baldly, and in these cases we may hide behind some piece of rhetoric or impersonal language that is not fitting to the ideal of parhessia.

Parrehesian discourse requires:

  • a fundamental bond between truth spoken and thought of person who speaks it
  • a challenge to the bond between truth spoken and the addressee
  • the Courage to take the risk of undermining the relationship.
  • Establishing a pact whereby
    • the speaker demonstrates courage by telling the truth
    • the listener demonstrates greatness of soul by accepting being told the truth, in this agreeing to accept the hurtful truth told

This open minded open heart to parrhesia is a great and rare skill. In many ways more difficult to practice than the truth telling itself for its a gentle setting aside of ones’ own truth/s in order to conceive, consider and empathise with anothers’.

‘It is a defeat for all if bad discourse triumphs’ – Socrates. Partaking in parrhesia as a listener is not an accept all position, and a fruitful discourse requires two or more minds coming at a proposition or a series of propositions in good faith, not simply intellectually folding or holding back in order to allow the truth to be told. Indeed facilitating truths to run in all directions despite the fragilities or vulnerabilities exposed is difficult where one has the ability or holds a position that can ‘shut it down’.

Some  effective ways to reduce or discourage truth telling and parrhesian discourse:

  • Refusing to listen to or act on expressed truth (rhetorical acceptance without action)
  • Suppressing/prohibiting ability to express (i.e. physically, hierarchically, social controls)
  • Exclusively rewarding flatters and sycophants
  • Punitive response to truth tellers/ messengers

Not all ideas are created equal. Not all discussions are useful. wherein that line is drawn is often a subjective thing. Here the utilitarian ideals or what’s good for the city is something that Foucalt discusses briefly. Ethical differentiation: where our minds are able to add value to truth and ethical motivation of truth. Does the political environment (often political instruments / field of play) provide room to or correctly weight ethical differentiation?

“When a man of any worth acts he must consider solely whether or not what he is doing is just , whether he is conducting himself as a man of courage or a coward”

By asking what is true in each desire and need, cynic parrhesia produces a scouring of existence, as a result of which our lives appear overburdened with contingencies and futile vanities. Foucalt’s insight into the Cynic philosophies are intensely interesting to me. I’m not sure that I agree with, philosophically or aesthetically, or indeed live in accordance with. There are many facinating ways of looking at the Cynic ‘dog’ labelled, self associating identity.

The cynic are of the belief:

Better to know a small number of precepts which are practical than a large number of precepts not easily applied. – there is no point knowing things that are difficult to know and apply – that have no application in life.

Cynics believe that everything you do should be publicly available whether it be eating, defecating, political or sexual. Above all the themes are spartan (simple) and autonomous (independent) – that which enables you to manage yourself.

Many lines drawn by Foucalt to that self nominated Socratic mission of attempting to look after others for their needs:

  • Reason
  • Truth
  • Soul

Gives rise to the ‘know thyself’. And the duty to bring publicly before society the scouring scrutiny of reason truth and the soul’s ethos, to provide the honest mirror for society’s own benefit (no matter the personal cost, physically reputationally etc.) Indeed the Cynic is both the dog (underclass and despised) and the King (independent and determining of his or her domain). And all this in the most practical rather than theoretical terms. Indeed the more famous of the early Cynics themselves documented very little of their modes of living: Life itself was their instrument of truth telling.

Indeed how familar and derisory does this quote sound to those who recognise themselves on the side of the equation that they wish they were not:

‘the busy tumultuous life without leisure of those who are familiar with all the problems of practical life, and perfectly able to deal with them, but who spend all their time doing so … [contrasted] with the life of those who, because they are contemplating real truth, are clumsy and ridiculous in everyday activities. (Foucalt, CoT, p. 225.)

There is plenty more in this book, including the metamorphosis of ‘parrhesia’ over the course of greek and ancient thinking from ‘civil duty’, to ‘citizen’s right’ to ‘personal vanity’ (this last one Foucalt traces from the Christian influence wherein anti establishment/institution sentiments were to be subliminated for the ordained will of God was known better by the representatives of the institution than the individual. Awareness of the mode and motivations of each of those three descriptions of parrhesia (duty, right, vanity) are relevant to participating in good discourse.

Suffice to say this book gave me plenty of thinking music.  Its has led me to think on other philosophical ‘archaeological’ journeys …the thinkers and writers and thoughts on which shoulders other giants have lingered before passing on their wisdom. Epicureanism is one such area of interest for me.  And I think too further reading of Stoicism is necessary. What this book has taught, amongst the plethora of insights, is that philosophical ideas have been moveable feasts through time. Best this content is read with that in mind, along with our health doses of selective biases. As above.


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