On Michel Foucault: The Courage of Truth



The Courage of Truth” was a series of public lectures given by Michel Foucault between 1983-1984 at the prestigious Collège de France. This series was one of Foucault’s most famous lectures where he addressed what it means to speak the truth and care for others as one should care for oneself. I highly recommend this book to people who seeks for an introduction to philosophy. It is very easy to read and also quite significant in the sense that these were Foucault’s last lectures before he died shortly after. In this commentary, I will go through some of his basic ideas from these lectures which would cover various topics from philosophy, homelessness, death, animality, way of life all the way to democracy.


Parrhesia means “truth-telling”. It is a word used in ancient Greece. A parrahesiast is not a professional. They speak the truth regardless of their own institutions, politics, and laws. A parrhesiast may speak the truth even if they do not like their own answer because it does not serve their self interest. For Foucault, a parrhesiast practices the logos (reason, logic, knowledge).

Further, parrhiasist speaks in a straight forward manner with nothing held back. They challenge one to question about their life. This questioning is the foundation of cynicism (a way of life) and philosophy—a form of caring for others (will get to these). A parrhesiast is not part of any institutions. If you look back to some of the most influential people, the ones who did not belong anywhere in society (ie. Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Freud, Derrida, Deleuze, Sartre, de Beauvoir) or the ones where everyone initially thought were crazy (Darwin, Einstein, Galileo, Copernicus), are the ones who became the most influential.

In order for one to practice parrhesia, there must always be a risk. One must attach their name towards the truth that they are speaking. Would you tell the truth even when you know your friend will end up hating you? You can always ask for permission to speak freely in order to not offend, but doing so would eliminate parrhesia altogether because it seeks to neutralize the risk and speak in a manner that would oppose to not holding anything back. Thus, in order for one to speak the truth, the speaker must have the courage of truth. Unfortunately, for Foucault, parrhesia has long been lost in contemporary society.

Parrhesia is different to what Foucault calls the “sage”, “prophet”, “rhetorician”, and “technician”. The sage is the wise one who doesn’t speak unless there is a need to speak, whereas a parrhesiast will speak the truth anytime they are given the opportunity. The rhetorician is the one who speaks in unclear and obscure ways. The prophet is similar to the rhetorician who speaks with myths or in non-clarity, but a truth nonetheless—whereas a parrhesiast will always speak clearly. The technician is similar to the professor or teacher who speaks without any risks. The technician utilizes techne (a skill), and Foucault thinks that anyone who is a skillful speaker will cause one to forget themselves.

The Crisis of Democratic Parrhesia

Democracy was invented in Ancient Greece. In Foucault’s lectures, he uses many ancient dialogues from Aristotle and Plato to address the issues and paradoxes with democracy. I will not be able to cover any of them because they are long and a bit more complex.

There are two general reasons why democratic parrhesia is problematic:

1. Democratic parrhesia is problematic because everyone is free to speak and express their views where much of these views may contain self interests and are not of greater objective good. Parrhesia in democracy is not used as a duty, but as a freedom for anyone to say what they like. Since everyone is free to speak, we do not know who is the parrhesiast and who isn’t. In other words, we don’t know what is the good and bad discourse. We cannot tell the difference between who is drunk and do not know what they are talking about (and if they speak, they are speaking with underlying personal intentions and interests which may lead to tyranny), versus the one who knows what they are speaking about (that of reason, someone who cares for the greater good of others and for the “city”). There is no ethical differentiation in democracy.

2. In democracy, when one freely speaks to another, one will attempt to seduce others so that they would believe their truth. They would try to flatter, praise and please people with their words (a form of skillful speaking / manipulation) and therefore avoid parrhesia altogether. Whereas someone who actually practices parrhesia are often seen as crazy because they are speaking a truth that would almost always anger others. The parrhesiast would provoke a negative reaction and sometimes extreme punishment such as death.

Here, we see that democracy is no place for parrhesia. When democracy makes room for parrhesia, it becomes a freedom where one would no longer know who is speaking the truth. Or, parrhesia is used courageously in which the institution of democracy has no place for (38). The real parrhesist would be seen as a crazy person who gets exiled from the city because they are often seen as misfits.

The Emergence of Philosophy and the Execution of Socrates

“Socrates’ friend, Chaerephon went to ask the god of Delphi: What Greek is wiser than Socrates? And you know that the god’s answer to this question, put not by Socrates but by one of his friends, was: No one is wiser than Socrates.” (81).

Although the idea of philosophy existed before Socrates (known as the “pre-socratics”), Socrates is recognized as the first philosopher who founded Western Philosophy. For Foucault, Socrates was the first parrhesiast who died from parrhesia. Socrates was executed by democracy because he spoke the truth. He was the one “who knows nothing”. And in saying that he knows nothing, makes Socrates the ultimate parrhesiast. What Socrates sought for was not to interpret or claim truth, but to question whether or not people were speaking the truth. He constantly examined people by spending much of his life wandering around the market place arguing with ordinary people. Furthermore, Socrates lived a very specific way of life (“bios”; Foucault is trying to draw attention to the fact that philosophy is not just about knowledge, but is related to aesthetics in the way one lives), a cynical life of challenging other people’s opinions, which reflected his “I know nothing” attitude. It is a life which tries to show others that they actually know nothing—they must learn to care for themselves by always trying to seek for truth.

“Where the teacher will say: I know listen to me, Socrates will say: I know nothing, and I care for you, this is not so as to pass on to you the knowledge you lack, it is so that through understanding that you know nothing you will learn to take care of yourselves.” (89)

Socrates refused to speak to politicians because he knew that if he did, he would have to face death. But Socrates was not afraid of death, as he thinks that no one should ever be afraid of such matter. Rather, Socrates knew that if he died, he would not be able to maintain his duty of parrhesia to care for the city and its citizens. Eventually, Socrates confronts his own death by speaking the truth, leading to one of the world’s most famous quote: “an unexamined life is not worth living”.

For Foucault, what Socrates saw was how parrhesia was impossible in democracy—especially in politics. Thus, Socrates tried to create a new form of “exchange”, a game to proliferate the practice of authentic parrhesia so to care for others on living an authentic life. This new exchange is called philosophy.

The Cynical Life

Cynicism is a way of life that consists of parrhesia. It is the scandal of truth. The cynic is someone who refuses politics. They will try and strip people’s opinions to reveal the truth by testing it (171). The paradox of cynicism is that to critique cynicism is in itself a form of cynicism. Like parrhesia, cynicism is not a skill, it does not need to be taught. Everyone is born a philosopher who is capable of leading a cynical life. Yet, cynicism came to a halt when it became a teaching (a skill).

For Foucault, cynicism can be seen in different forms. Art and literature has been a form of cynicism because art can expose itself naked by “laying bare to the world” (187). Whereas the extreme form of cynicism is terrorismA “frenzied courage of truth” (185). A terrorist takes risks in speaking the truth to the point of death.

The cynic carries a form of animality and nakedness. A cynic is like a “dog’s life”. They are people who are shameless, has nothing to hide, and are not attached to anything. Therefore, the cynic would do things that only animals would do and humans would hide. The cynic is like an animal who lives in a reversal of a straight life—-or the “Other” life. It is a life that is radically other than the life that is lead by most people.

Nothing is “bad” in cynicism because what is “bad” is the habits of human (ie. their opinions and structures) and not of animals. Foucault uses a scandalous example of Diogenes who masturbated in public, and Crates who had sex in public (they are similar to animals who has no shame in such acts because it is considered natural). Further, a cynic has no “needs” because what is “needed” is already offered and satisfied by nature.

Humans had always distinguished themselves from animals (265) (due to our ability for rational thought and speech). The cynics are the ones who are not integrated into society and institutions (170). This animal / cynical life characterized by parrhesia is therefore a duty that is given by nature. They are like “kings without institutions” (296), who endures sufferings and tests oneself by examining everything. A good example was when Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir refused teaching at Collège de France. Sartre also infamously refused the Nobel prize of Literature and the Legion of Honour because he did not want to be institutionalized (you can read it here).

Ultimately, the cynic is like a homeless beggar. It is not by accident that many of our greatest religions and philosophies were founded through poverty and not wealth (i.e. Buddhist philosophy). It is because the cynic has nothing that it would allow them for the practice of parrhesia. The cynic adapts their stance against wealth: that one must always live in the minimum so that one would not suffer if they were to lose everything (258). This visible, aesthetics side of poverty becomes a courage, resistance and endurance (this is most likely influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche’s ideas on voluntary poverty).

The Courage of Truth

To summarize, there are three forms of courage of truth that is conducted through parrhesia:

1. Political Boldness: to speak the truth and to say other than what the other would want to hear or expect. It involves the speaker putting themselves at risk and attaching their name to what they say.

2. Socratic Irony: to get people to realize that they know nothing and don’t really know what they are saying or think they know. Often risks anger and irritation; yet it is a way of caring for others (233).

3. Cynicism (not to be confused with skepticism): to get people to question or reject the manifestation of the what they accept and value in their life. After all, to be cynical is to put human motivation and desires into questioning. One would therefore not only risk angering others, but the way one lives (such as the homeless beggar), making them the ultimate practitioner of the “scandal of truth”.

What one think or believe is true is most likely true only in the sense that there are other truths. And what appears as truth also takes places in our aesthetics such as our way of life. Foucault’s thoughts can be concluded with this passage:

“What I would like to stress in conclusion is this: there is no establishment of the truth without an essential position of otherness; the truth is never the same; there can be truth only in the form of the other world and the other life” (356)