Parrhesia in Rhetoric

Civil rights activist Malcolm X (born Malcolm Little, also known as El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz), 1925-1965
(Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

In classical rhetoric, parrhesia is free, frank, and fearless speech. In ancient Greek thought, speaking with parrhesia meant "saying everything" or "speaking one's mind." "An intolerance of parrhesia," notes S. Sara Monoson, "marked tyranny of both the Hellenic and Persian varieties in the Athenian view... The coupling of freedom and parrhesia in the democratic self-image... functioned to assert two things: the critical attitude appropriate to a democratic citizen, and the open life promised by democracy" (Plato's Democratic Entanglements, 2000).

Examples and Observations

Sharon Crowley and Debra Hawhee: The author of [Rhetorica] ad Herennium discussed a figure of thought called parrhesia ('frankness of speech'). This figure occurs 'when, talking before those to whom we owe reverence or fear, we yet exercise our right to speak out, because we seem justified in reprehending them, or persons dear to them, for some fault' (IV xxxvi 48). For example: 'The university administration has tolerated hate speech on this campus, and so to some extent they are responsible for its widespread use.' An opposing figure is litotes (understatement), where a rhetor diminishes some feature of the situation that is obvious to all.

Kyle Grayson: To best reflect the meanings in its own context, parrhesia should be thought of as 'true speech': the parrhesiastes is the one who speaks the truth. Parrhesia required that the speaker use the most direct words and expressions possible in order to make it clear that whatever he might be saying was his own opinion. As a 'speech activity,' parrhesia was largely limited to male citizens.

Michel Foucault: What is basically at stake in parrhesia is what could be called, somewhat impressionistically, the frankness, freedom, and openness, that leads one to say what one has to say, as one wishes to say it, when one wishes to say it, and in the form one thinks is necessary for saying it. The term parrhesia is so bound up with the choice, decision, and attitude of the person speaking that the Latins translated it by, precisely, libertas [speaking freely].

Cornel West: Malcolm X is the great example of parrhesia in the black prophetic tradition. The term goes back to line 24A of Plato's Apology, where Socrates says, the cause of my unpopularity was my parrhesia, my fearless speech, my frank speech, my plain speech, my unintimidated speech. The hip hop generation talks about 'keeping it real.' Malcolm was as real as it gets. James Brown talked about 'make it funky.' Malcolm was always. 'Bring in the funk, bring in the truth, bring in the reality. . . .
"When Malcom looked at black life in America, he saw wasted potential; he saw unrealized aims. This kind of prophetic witness can never be crushed. There was no one like him in terms of having the courage to risk life and limb to speak such painful truths about America.

President Dwight Eisenhower: We annually spend on military security alone more than the net income of all United States corporations. Now this conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence--economic, political, even spiritual--is felt in every city, every Statehouse, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet, we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources, and livelihood are all involved. So is the very structure of our society. In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together... Disarmament, with mutual honor and confidence, is a continuing imperative. Together we must learn how to compose differences, not with arms, but with intellect and decent purpose. Because this need is so sharp and apparent, I confess that I lay down my official responsibilities in this field with a definite sense of disappointment. As one who has witnessed the horror and the lingering sadness of war, as one who knows that another war could utterly destroy this civilization which has been so slowly and painfully built over thousands of years, I wish I could say tonight that a lasting peace is in sight.
"Happily, I can say that war has been avoided. Steady progress toward our ultimate goal has been made. But so much remains to be done.

Elizabeth Markovits: I read S. Sara Monoson's excellent work on parrhesia (frank speech) in ancient Athens. I thought, this is it--we can use this ethic of parrhesia as our own democratic ideal! But then I began to notice that our popular culture in fact already praised something like parrhesia: straight talk. Political theorists also have a similar ethic: sincerity. But the problem was that a lot of straight-talkers seemed deeply undemocratic: straight talk seemed to have become a trope, another tool of crafty politicians and smart advertising executives.

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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Parrhesia in Rhetoric." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 26). Parrhesia in Rhetoric. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Parrhesia in Rhetoric." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 3, 2023).