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In rhetoric, parrhesia is a figure of speech described as "speak[ing] candidly or ... ask[ing] forgiveness for so speaking".[1] This Ancient Greek word has three different forms, as related by Michel Foucault. Parrhesia is a noun, meaning "free speech". Parrhesiazomai is a verb, meaning "to use parrhesia". Parrhesiastes is a noun, meaning one who uses parrhesia, or "one who speaks the truth."[2]


The term parrhesia is borrowed from the Greek παρρησία parrhēsía (πᾶν "all" and ῥῆσις "utterance, speech") meaning literally "to speak everything" and by extension "to speak freely", "to speak boldly", or "boldness".[3] The term first appears in Greek literature, when used by Euripides, and may be found in ancient Greek texts from the end of the fifth century B.C. until the fifth century A.D.[2] It implies not only freedom of speech, but the obligation to speak the truth for the common good, even at personal risk.

Usage in ancient Greece[edit]

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 Aristophanes made full use of the right to ridicule whomever they chose.[4] 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.[5]

If one was seen as immoral, or held views that went contrary to popular opinion, then there were great risks involved in making use of such an unbridled freedom of speech, such as being charged with Asebeia, as Socrates found out when he was sentenced to death for not adoring deities worshipped by the Athenians and for corrupting the young.[4]

Cynic philosophers[edit]

Parrhesia was a central concept for the Cynic philosophers, as epitomized in the shameless speech of Diogenes of Sinope.[6]


Parrhesia was also used by Epicureans in a friendly manner of frank criticism during teaching Epicurean philosophy and offering psychotherapy.[7]

New Testament use[edit]

A related use of parrhesia is found in the Greek New Testament, where it means "bold speech", the ability of believers to hold their own in discourse before political and religious authorities (e.g. Acts 4:13: "Now when they saw the boldness [την παρρησίαν] of Peter and John and realized that they were uneducated and ordinary men, they were amazed and recognized them as companions of Jesus."). It also is used to describe the reply Jesus made to the Pharisees.[1][8][9]

Usage in rabbinic Jewish writings[edit]

Parrhesia appears in Midrashic literature as a condition for the transmission of Torah. Connoting open and public communication, parrhesia appears in combination with the term δῆμος (dimus, short for dimosia), translated coram publica, in the public eye, i.e. open to the public.[10] As a mode of communication it is repeatedly described in terms analogous to a commons. Parrhesia is closely associated with an ownerless wilderness of primary mytho-geographic import, the Midbar Sinai in which the Torah was initially received. The dissemination of Torah thus depends on its teachers cultivating a nature that is as open, ownerless, and sharing as that wilderness.[11] The term is important to advocates of Open Source Judaism.[12] Here is the text from the Mekhilta where the term dimus parrhesia appears (see bolded text).

"ויחנו במדבר" (שמות פרק יט פסוק ב) נתנה תורה דימוס פרהסייא במקום הפקר, שאלו נתנה בארץ ישראל, היו אומרים לאומות העולם אין להם חלק בה, לפיכך נתנה במדבר דימוס פרהסייא במקום הפקר, וכל הרוצה לקבל יבא ויקבל...[13]
Torah was given over dimus parrhesia in a maqom hefker (a place belonging to no one). For had it been given in the Land of Israel, they would have had cause to say to the nations of the world, “you have no share in it.” Thus was it given dimus parrhesia, in a place belonging to no one: “Let all who wish to receive it, come and receive it!”

Explanation: Why was the Torah not given in the land of Israel? In order that the peoples of the world should not have the excuse for saying: `Because it was given in Israel's land, therefore we have not accepted it.[14]

...דבר אחר: שלא להטיל מחלוקת בין השבטים שלא יהא זה אומר בארצי נתנה תורה וזה אומר בארצי נתנה תורה לפיכך נתנה תורה במדבר דימוס בפרהסיא במקום הפקר, בשלשה דברים נמשלה תורה במדבר באש ובמים לומר לך מה אלו חנם אף דברי תורה חנם לכל באי עולם.[15]
Another reason: To avoid causing dissension among the tribes [of Israel]. Else one might have said: In my land the Torah was given. And the other might have said: In my land the Torah was given. Therefore, the Torah was given in the Midbar (wilderness, desert), dimus parrhesia, in a place belonging to no one. To three things the Torah is likened: to the Midbar, to fire, and to water. This is to tell one that just as these three things are free to all who come into the world, so also are the words of the Torah free to all who come into the world.

The term "parrhesia" is also used in Modern Hebrew (usually spelled פרהסיה‎), meaning [in] public.

Modern scholarship[edit]

Michel Foucault developed the concept of parrhesia as a mode of discourse in which one speaks openly and truthfully about one's opinions and ideas without the use of rhetoric, manipulation, or generalization.[2] Foucault's use of parrhesia, he tells us, is troubled by our modern day Cartesian model of evidential necessity. For Descartes, truth is the same as the undeniable[citation needed]. Whatever cannot be doubted must be, and, thus, speech that is not examined or criticized does not necessarily have a valid relation to truth.

There are several conditions upon which the traditional Ancient Greek notion of parrhesia relies. One who uses parrhesia is only recognized as doing so if holding a credible relationship to the truth, if one serves as critic to either oneself or popular opinion or culture, if the revelation of this truth places one in a position of danger and one persists in speaking the truth, nevertheless, as one feels it is a moral, social, and/or political obligation. Further, in a public situation, a user of parrhesia must be in a social position less empowered than those to whom this truth is revealed.

Foucault (1983) sums up the Ancient Greek concept of parrhesia as such:

So you see, the parrhesiastes is someone who takes a risk. Of course, this risk 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 your friendship may consequently suffer for it. 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. Parrhesia, then, is linked to courage in the face of danger: it demands the courage to speak the truth in spite of some danger. And in its extreme form, telling the truth takes place in the "game" of life or death.[16]


To summarize the foregoing, parrhesia is a kind of verbal activity where the speaker has a specific relation to truth through frankness, a certain relationship to his own life through danger, a certain type of relation to himself or other people through criticism (self-criticism or criticism of other people), and a specific relation to moral law through freedom and duty. More precisely, parrhesia is a verbal activity in which a speaker expresses his personal relationship to truth, and risks his life because he recognizes truth-telling as a duty to improve or help other people (as well as himself). In parrhesia, the speaker uses his freedom and chooses frankness instead of persuasion, truth instead of falsehood or silence, the risk of death instead of life and security, criticism instead of flattery, and moral duty instead of self-interest and moral apathy.[17]

Foucault (1984) sums up that:

The Parrhesiastes is the person who says everything. Thus, as an example, in his discourse "On the Embassy," Demosthenes says: It is necessary to speak with parrhesia, without holding back at anything without concealing anything. Similarly, in the "First Philippic," he takes up exactly the same term and says: I will tell you what I think without concealing anything.[18]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Burton, Gideon O. "Parrhesia". Sylva Rhetoricae. Brigham Young University. Archived from the original on 2007-05-26. Retrieved 2007-05-24.
  2. ^ a b c Foucault, Michel (Oct–Nov 1983), Discourse and Truth: the Problematization of Parrhesia (six lectures), The University of California at Berkeley.
  3. ^ παρρησία. Liddell, Henry George; Scott, Robert; A Greek–English Lexicon at the Perseus Project
  4. ^ a b Wallace, Robert W (2002), "The Power to Speak — and not to listen – in Ancient Athens", in Sluiter, Ineke; Rosen, Ralph Mark (eds.), Free Speech in Classical Antiquity, Brill, pp. 222–3.
  5. ^ Roberts, John Willoby (1984), City of Sokrates, Routledge, p. 148
  6. ^ Navia, Luis E, Diogenes the Cynic, Humanity Books, p. 179.
  7. ^ Konstan D, Clay D and Glad CE: Philodemus: On frank criticism (Peri parrhesias). Society of Biblical Literature, Atlanta, USA, 2007.
  8. ^ Long, William 'Bill' (December 1, 2004), "Parrhesia and Earliest Christianity", Even more words.
  9. ^ Schlier, Heinrich (1967), "παρρησία, παρρησιάζομαι", in Kittel, Gerhard; Friedrich, Gerhard (eds.), Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. V, Ann Arbor: Eerdmans, pp. 871ff.
  10. ^ A meaning found in Sylloge lnscriptionum Graecum, 2nd edition, ed. Diltenberger 1888-1901, no.807, an inscription from after 138 C. E.
  11. ^ Bamidbar Rabbah 1:7
  12. ^ Varady, Aharon. "'Make yourself into a Maqom Hefker': Teachings on Open Source in Judaism" (sourcesheet). The Open Siddur Project. Retrieved 29 June 2014.
  13. ^ "Mekhilta de Rebbi Yishmael".
  14. ^ "5", Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael, vol. Tractate Baḥodesh, JHU, on Shemot 20:2, ISBN 978-0-82761003-3.
  15. ^ "Yalkut Shimoni".
  16. ^ Foucault, Michel, Fearless Speech, pp. 15–16.
  17. ^ Foucault, Michel, Fearless Speech, pp. 19–20.
  18. ^ Foucault, Michel, The Courage of Truth, p. 9.

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