Academic journal article Antichthon

The Two Faces of Parrhêsia*: Free Speech and Self-Expression in Ancient Greece

Academic journal article Antichthon

The Two Faces of Parrhêsia*: Free Speech and Self-Expression in Ancient Greece

Article excerpt


Parrhêsia has been understood as a right under the Athenian democracy, roughly equivalent to the right of free speech in modern democracies, including the privilege of speaking in the assembly. In this paper, I argue that the notion of 'rights' is anachronistic in this connection; more particularly, parrhêsia was less a right than an expectation, the idea that one might freely express even unpopular opinions without fear of repression. But unpopular opinions might run athwart notions of public decency, and free expression might tilt over into license or shamelessness. Examples are given of how Athenian discourse, in tragedy (especially Euripides' Phoenician Women) and oratory, negotiated the delicate balance between forthrightness and insolence.

In a seminal article published almost forty years ago, Arnaldo Momigliano explained: 'In the second part of the fifth century and during the greater part of the fourth century every Athenian citizen had the right to speak [in the assembly] unless he disqualified himself by certain specified crimes.' This freedom was, according to Momigliano, 'an Athenian fifth-century idea', and the term that best expressed it was parrhêsia: 'Parrhêsia represented democracy from the point of view of equality of rights' (Momigliano [1973] 259). Once the democratic polisgave way to Hellenistic kingdoms, however, things changed. Life in the royal court was hierarchical, and the freedom to speak one's mind on matters of policy was strictly limited. The king might consult his council, but the ability to express one's views was a privilege, not a right. Even informal advice to a superior might be risky, if it went against his or her inclination. In this context, frankness required courage and a deep commitment to honesty. To quote Momigliano once more (260), after the Athenian democracy gave way to autocracy at the end of the fourth century, 'parrhêsiaas a private virtue replaced parrhêsiaas a political right.'

(For a similar view, indebted to Momigliano, see Foucault [2001] 86, who affirms that in the fourth century, 'Parrhêsiais no longer an institutional right or privilege -- as in a democratic city -- but is much more a personal attitude'; for criticism of this view, see Mulhern 2003].

Of course, the virtue of parrhêsia, like most virtues, was subject to abuse if taken to extremes. Too little frankness was regarded as cowardice or hypocrisy, but too much as insolence. Plutarch, in his treatise on how to distinguish a friend from a flatterer, remarks on the problem. Just as a person in a superior position must learn to recognise the difference between true friends and hypocrites, those in an inferior position must know how to give advice graciously, as befits a friend. It is not enough just to speak openly and honestly; it is also important not to indulge in blame and abuse as though this were the mark of genuine parrhêsia (66a; cf. 66e). One must be careful and observe the right moment for criticism; otherwise, one 'ruins the utility of frankness' (68c). An aphorism attributed to Democritus (86B 226 D-K) runs: 'parrhêsia is intrinsic to freedom: the difficulty lies in diagnosing the right moment [κ?ιρ?sfgr;].' One must also be careful not to be outspoken with a friend while others are present (70e), and to modify criticism with suitable praise (72b). Everything depends on tact. Plutarch fondly recalls (70e) the way his teacher Ammonius, rather than directly chastising some of his students who were dining too luxuriously, had his slave beaten for doing exactly the same thing, but cast a knowing glance at the guilty students. I have always felt sorry for the poor slave in this situation, but I know that, in doing so, I am in danger of importing a foreign sentiment into my reading of the text.

As this last illustration shows, frank speech was a particularly sensitive matter in the classroom, or more broadly in instructional contexts. Whatever authority the teacher might have, he was often in a delicate position in relation to his pupils, who would normally come from upper-class families and would not be accustomed to rebuke. …

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