Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Foucault and the courage of truth

The last course that Michel Foucault presented at the Collége de France in 1984, when he was already quite weak (he died in June of that year, and taught until March), was on The Courage of Truth – later published with that title (Palgrave Macmillan 2011; Kindle edition). Although I cannot do justice to it here, I would like to draw potential readers’ attention to its relevance for us today, in a difficult time that, in my view, is bound to get even more difficult at different levels of existence, particularly that of the ethical. Why, one might wonder. Simply because the prevailing ideology is uncompromising – either you support and affirm neoliberal tenets (conspicuous consumption, living on credit, ie in debt etc) or the economic system will “punish” you by making it impossible for you to live comfortably).

I believe that Foucault’s final legacy is to show receptive readers that one could learn from ancient Greek philosophy how to fashion oneself ethically (and aesthetically) into a person with an “ethos”, or moral integrity, through the practice of “truth-telling”, or “parrhesia”. Significantly, Foucault distinguishes here between the epistemological sense of truth and its “alethurgic” sense, that is, between the possibility of “true” knowledge and the ethical transformation of the subject through truth-telling techniques that bear on the relation of the subject with her- or himself and with others. Importantly, “alethurgy” cannot be equated with anything epistemological.

In Foucault’s reading of ancient philosophy, this neglected sense of truth as “parrhesia” was integral to ancient philosophy, although modern readings have obscured it because of their epistemological predisposition. In particular he was interested in the “modes of ethical being” that the practice of truth-telling made possible for the speaking subject. This highly original reading of ancient philosophy enabled Foucault to distinguish “styles of veridiction” (truth-telling) in ancient culture that are very different from what one usually associates with the Aristotelian legacy, insofar as “parrhesia” is predicated on the ethical transformation of the speaker and his or her interlocutors. Understandably then, it entails a risk for the speaker because it is rooted in the present (and will impact on their future).

“Parrhesia” does not only pertain to philosophical practice; it also has an inalienable political aspect, something that is conspicuously foreign to the political arena today: how many politicians ply their trade with “truth-telling” in any ethical sense in mind? (Think of the American presidential race today, and the way that candidates “score points” against one another.) The political sense of ancient truth-telling involved the “courage of truth” in the sense that the public “telling of truth” gave “democratic” practices a dimension of authenticity, and Foucault connected this with what he thought of as “ethical differentiation” in relation to politics, or what he calls “governmentality”. Within this domain the effectiveness of political practice depended on the degree to which political agents had formed themselves as ethical actors.

This is where Foucault shows his originality. One could easily articulate the ethical self-formation of a political (leader) subject by means of their leadership qualities or moral virtues, but Foucault shows that it was here that “ethical differentiation” came into play. The differences in “truth-telling” from one political actor to the next entailed different ways of forming the self ethically through this differential truth-telling practice, specifically through the fact that political actors could be perceived as distinguishing themselves from the conventional beliefs or doxa (public opinion) of the moment. This practice was what decisively shaped the political speaking subject (and their interlocutors) ethically.

Apart from the obvious question, whether political “leaders” today are capable of such ethically transformative “truth-telling” practices, the further problem this raises is the extent to which – particularly in far-flung democracies today – individual political “leaders” are capable of transforming the millions of citizens in ethical terms. (It would be interesting to pursue this question in light of the communicational possibilities opened up by the internet.) In ancient Greece, Foucault claimed (and this shows the gulf that separates postmodernity today from that era), the problem of governing people presupposed a specific public and ethical differentiation of the political (leader) subject. That is, exposed to the perception of and by others in their truth-telling practices, they were visible in a manner that foregrounded the distinctive aspect of their truth-telling or “parrhesia”.

But this is not the only domain where Foucault detected such practices of “parrhesia” in ancient culture. As practised philosophically by Socrates it was fundamentally different from its political practice by individuals like Pericles. Here it assumed the form of interpersonal relationships where the care of the self (“epimeleia”) was combined with “parrhesia” as truth-telling. And the sense of this “courageous” truth-telling practice on the part of Socrates was, according to Foucault, to bring about a transformation in his interlocutors, with a view to enabling the latter to take ethical care of themselves.

Foucault’s elaboration on both the political and particularly the Socratic philosophical practice of “parrhesia” demonstrates in no uncertain terms how big the distance is that separates us postmoderns from antiquity. It is virtually unthinkable that politicians today could, or should be able to, engage in such truth-telling for the sake of differentiating themselves ethically from their rivals, and in the process perchance exercise a transformative effect on citizens into the bargain. And – confirming what I have argued on Thought Leader before regarding Foucault’s friend, Pierre Hadot’s work on Greek antiquity – when it comes to philosophy the chasm is even more apparent: in the modern age philosophy is an eminently “rational” discourse with epistemological and ontological intent, and few, if any, philosophers would think of it as a way of life. And yet, in Foucault’s very persuasive reading, for the ancients it was primarily an ethical practice bent on changing people.

Foucault does not leave it at that; he augments this reading with one of Socrates that depicts him as someone who displays the courage to live publicly according to the requirements of truth-telling; that is, in accordance with a life of truth-telling in the guise of sustained criticism of the convenient world of doxa or conventional beliefs, regardless of the political consequences for himself (and as we know, for Socrates they turned out to be lethal).

Overall – although this is unavoidably a severely truncated account of The Courage of Truth – Foucault manages to show how far the modern (particularly Kantian) conception of philosophy in formal epistemological and political terms is removed from the ancient (specifically Plato’s) idea of it in mainly ethical terms, where even knowledge serves the effectiveness of the latter. This seems to me to appear more or less clearly in what Foucault says (remember, this text is based on recordings of the lectures he gave in 1984) about Socrates’s truth-telling practice and its relation to one’s concrete life (2011, location 3320):

“So we have here … the emergence of life, of the mode of life as the object of Socratic parrhesia and discourse, of life in relation to which it is necessary to carry out an operation which will be a test, a testing, sifting. Life must be submitted to a touchstone in order to make an exact division between what is and is not good in what one does, what one is, and how one lives … it is not just a question of testing or forming this mode of life once and for all in one’s youth, but … this principle of the test of life should be followed throughout life.”

Needless to emphasise once again, such a rigorous living of one’s life according to ethical parameters of truth-telling that are, first of all, continuously self-transformative, and secondly also transformative regarding one’s interlocutors – in philosophy as well as the political practice of “governmentality” – is a far cry from (post-)modern living according to the latest fads and fashions as determined by celebrities (mostly of dubious ethical standing) and the global media, all in the service of neoliberalism. It is as if Foucault’s last course at the Collége de France was a subtle indictment of the ethical shortcomings of (post-)modern philosophy as well as contemporary ways of life.

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    • Bert Olivier

      Richard – Thank you for your interesting comment, which, I believe, applies amply to the modern political arena, but I’m afraid that is not what Foucault detects as ‘truth-telling practices’ among the ancient Greeks and Romans. I don’t think anything like it exists today; it was indeed ‘aesthetic’ in the sense of giving a certain aesthetic ‘unity’ to the (political) speaker – disregarding the philosophical ‘truth-telling’ practised by Socrates – but the power that individuals like Solon and Pericles sought, was less attainable on the basis of successfully promoting a ’cause’ than on convincing the ‘people’ that they spoke ‘truth’ about themselves, especially so when they showed their disagreement with conventional opinions about relevant issues.

    • Bert Olivier

      I think your modern example of Mandela (and perhaps one could add Gandhi) is an excellent one, Richard, and in light of the argument you put forward about not wanting to revert to the ancient model, assuming it would be possible, it is understandable that no one seems to want to (or to be able to) follow his example today – not even in South Africa.