Foucault on freedom of speech

While ancient texts are undoubtedly accessible to curious readers, it is clear that we need leading thinkers such as Michel Foucault for elaborate interpretations of these texts.

Foucault, in Discourse and Truth (Detail Pub. / Trans. Kerem Eksen, Murat Erşen), illuminates the content of the attitude that we can call “political anger” and which is related to flattery:

“Anger is always the roar of the person who has more power and is in a situation where he uses that extra power beyond the bounds of reason, and therefore morally acceptable. Anger is always the outburst of the strongest… Flattery, the opposite of this attitude, is ‘the behavior of the weakest who tends to attract the favor of the stronger’”. (p. 40)


The reader, who is generally familiar with Foucault’s comments on Antiquity, knows very well that various ethical limitations were imposed on the politician in Antiquity.

In the light of certain principles, the greatest expectation is that the monarch should primarily have the ability to govern himself. This may be possible by avoiding outbursts of anger as a manifestation of power poisoning and allowing others to have a say in accepting criticism.

It is impossible for the ruler to develop his administrative abilities with the sycophants around him. In such a case, he will turn away from wisdom and turn into a tyrant.

Although the monarch has acquired an attitude of self-control with moral principles, the subject who speaks is at risk due to the possibility of negative reaction, and the application for the word “parrhesia” already stipulates this risk.

Again, in order for the word to reach its full meaning, the speaker must have an ethics of self-criticism that puts him at risk.

This moral attitude can be summarized as “risking death for the sake of telling the truth, rather than being assured of a life where the truth remains unspoken”. (p. 79)

Morality assures that what is said in a more general sense is truth. The ancient mentality, which does not seek a proof for the truth like Descartes, considers it sufficient for the speaker to be moral; Since the subject is moral, he will say nothing but the truth.


Foucault does not merely present a historical exposition. He also develops an analytical scheme for “parrhesia” with what he has learned from different texts. The conditions to which the word refers are thus revealed.

First, a certain amount of time and experience is required to understand whether the subject who will speak is a sycophant.

Secondly, in order for the word to have the expected effect on the person targeted with this word, it is necessary to look for the opportunity and take action when the opportunity is seized.

Thirdly, as in undertaking a meticulous research on the speaker, the condition that the subject on whom the word will have an effect is also suitable for accepting the effect must be sought.

Like almost everything else, the content of “parrhesia” also undergoes a historical change. Over time, philosophers have achieved the position of “spiritual guides” with the practice of “parrhesia”. The Cynics have carried this practice to the public sphere by detaching it from the context of private relations.

Readers interested in the details of this change and perhaps the most important freedom of speech / the history of freedom of speech should definitely read Discourse and Truth.

Source: Cumhuriyet Gazetesi – Güncel by

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