Truth to Power
I got caught in a dilemma in November when the Scottish Government produced the blueprint for Scottish Independence. At the same time as the big white “Bible” was being launched a Roman Catholic friend dropped me an email saying to check out the epistle, or “apostolic exhortation”, called Evangelii Gaudium(“The Joy of the Gospel”) that pope Francis had simultaneously released from the Vatican.
Which to read first? The pope or politics? I confess that Francis won. After decades of liberation theology being suppressed by the Vatican it was thrilling to see what liberationists call the “preferential option for the poor” being placed centre stage in a document that scintillates with radical passages; ones like:
Money must serve, not rule! The pope loves everyone, rich and poor alike, but he is obliged in the name of Christ to remind all that the rich must help, respect and promote the poor.
Being from a Protestant background and a Quaker by choice I’m not greatly given to popes, but you gotta love the sheer humanity of this one! Consider this passage:
I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.
And then bear with me for a more theological point – something that’s about getting beyond the “me” in the selfish sense, beyond even the “we” in any narrow sense, and into the underlying Spirit of life itself. Francis wrote:
The Holy Spirit also grants the courage to proclaim the newness of the Gospel with boldness (parrhesía) in every time and place, even when it meets with opposition.
I thought – “that’s interesting: why is he spelling out the Greek?” I had to look parrhesía up in the theological dictionaries and, my goodness: in the light of Scotland’s Referendum debate you could hardly hit upon a more pertinent notion.
“Boldness” – as it is often given in the New Testament – is too limp a translation. The scholarly authority on the matter appears to have been the French philosopher, Michel Foucault. His series of six lectures on parrhesía at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1983, were published as “Fearless Speech” – which is out of print, but readily available in PDF on the internet.
The ancient Greek term means “all-utterance”, “to speak everything”; you could say, “to speak the whole truth.” It is a pivotal concept to speaking with real authority – with authorship based in truth, and therefore,the capacity to “speak truth to power” – and costly truth if need be. As Foucault explained:
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 …
In parrhesia, telling the truth is regarded as a duty. The orator who speaks the truth to those who cannot accept his truth, for instance, and who may be exiled, or punished in some way, is free to keep silent. No one forces him to speak, but he feels that it is his duty to do so… Parrhesia is thus related to freedom and to duty.
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.” (Fearless Speech, pp. 16-19).
In the Scots bardic tradition, as with the bards of other indigenous peoples (for example, in Africa), speaking truth to power is a poetic imperative. Often the bards held even more power than the political chiefs or kings. It was the bard that crowned Alexander III of Scotland (pictured) and a bardic politics is one that speaks truth to, and from within, the very soul of the people: that in Renan’s sense in which “a nation is a soul….”
It is said that a bard who lied, who abused his or her authority, would have their face come out in blotches or even, literally or metaphorically, lose their life. A bardic politics can therefore be sustained only by those who seek, discern and adhere to Truth, costly though it might be. Anything less would merely be the politics of the blotched face and that, leading to a botched nation.
A lot of people are currently sitting on the fence over Scottish Independence. Perhaps understandably they don’t want to be caught on the “losing” side. I can only speak for myself. To me, whether a person of integrity votes Aye or Nae in September’s referendum there’ll be only one kind of “winner”. That’ll be the person of parrhesía.
More than that: only a nation of parrhesíastes can be a nation worthy of the name.