It’s used when a writer shares their opinion freely and engages in their rights to free speech. The term dates back to Athens’ democracy but has been used for centuries. Today, it is defined as honest language devoid of the desire to manipulate (although the latter often comes into play as well).
Definition of Parrhesia
Parrhesia comes from the Greek meaning to “speak boldly.” It is also related to speaking “freely” and “bluntly.” It refers to a type of writing in which the writer speaks openly about their ideas, opinions, and what they consider to be the truth. Generalization is not used, nor is any kind of manipulation. This definition was popularized and delivered by Michel Foucault and differed slightly from the use of the term in Ancient Greek writings.
History of Parrhesia
In Greece, it was an important part of democracy. Writers and politicians could say anything they wanted about anyone, expressing their opinions freely. Aristophanes famously made use of this type of writing in his plays. Just because people could say what they wanted didn’t mean that there wasn’t a chance of blowback or consequences one had to be aware of. Socrates is a famous example. He was labeled as an immoral influence on Athens’ young as he praised Sparta and questioned the notion of “might makes right.” He was convicted of corrupting the youth of the city and “impiety” or not believing in the gods of the state and was sentenced to death. There are also examples of parrhesia in the New Testament and in Jewish writings (such as in Midrashic literature).
Examples of Parrhesia in Literature
A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift
Jonathan Swift’s most famous literary creation, A Modest Proposal, suggests a satirical solution to the problem of famine and overpopulation in Ireland. The writer, who was frustrated by the lack of action on the part of the English upper classes in regard to the crisis, put forward the idea that they should eat the Irish youth and therefore end the problem once and for all. Several quite moving passages in this work depict the plight of Irish families during this period. For example, these lines from the beginning of A Modest Proposal which set the scene for what’s to come:
It is a melancholy object to those, who walk through this great town, or travel in the country, when they see the streets, the roads, and cabbin-doors crowded with beggars of the female sex, followed by three, four, or six children, all in rags, and importuning every passenger for an alms. These mothers, instead of being able to work for their honest livelihood, are forced to employ all their time in stroling to beg sustenance for their helpless infants who, as they grow up, either turn thieves for want of work […]
In these lines, Swift helps readers imagine what it’s like to live in Ireland during this time period. He goes on to say that it’s necessary that someone do something about this crisis. His solution is at the heart of this piece’s modern fame.
Read Johnathan Swift’s poetry.
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
In one of the most famous passages from this novel, Cathy expresses her feelings for Edgar and Heathcliff in a moment of honesty. Her character is defined by her inability to choose between her head and her heart. She struggles to love Edgar in the way she loves Heathcliff, as well as express her opinion about her choice. She’s not always a likable character, prone to moments of arrogance and anger. But, while speaking to Nelly, she shares her emotions about Heathcliff openly and honestly:
He shall never know I love him: and that, not because he’s handsome, but because he’s more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made out of, his and mine are the same.
Eventually, her desire to move up the social ladder convicts her to choose Edgar over Heathcliff. Her choice leads to a series of terrible events and misery for her, Edgar, and Heathcliff.
In a similar passage, Heathcliff, who is mostly reserved and cold throughout the novel, expresses his love for Cathy in this commonly quoted passage:
Catherine Earnshaw, may you not rest as long as I am living. You said I killed you–haunt me then. The murdered do haunt their murderers. I believe–I know that ghosts have wandered the earth. Be with me always–take any form–drive me mad. Only do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you! Oh, God! It is unutterable! I cannot live without my life! I cannot live without my soul!
These two passages are wonderful examples of Parrhesia that get to the heart of the love the two share. They are even more effective when considered alongside the choices both Cathy and Heathcliff make throughout the novel.
Explore poems by Emily Brontë.
Why Do Writers Use Parrhesia?
Writers use parrhesia when they want to engage in their right to freedom of speech. This kind of writing is upfront, honest, and usually does not back away from controversial topics. It is usually used to spread a message of some kind. One that the writer feels readers need to hear and benefit from. It’s used by politicians, religious leaders, and everyday people who feel they have something to share.
But, just because it’s an expression of free speech and that individual’s truth doesn’t mean that all examples are equal or that all are, in fact, the truth. This style of speaking and writing can be used to convince and corrupt those who the writer wants to bring over to their side. Someone’s passionate speech on a topic might be filled with errors and inaccuracies, but because it is delivered so convincingly, the audience is swayed.
Related Literary Terms
- Aporia: a figure of speech where a speaker or writer poses a question. This question expresses doubt or confusion.
- Antithesis: occurs when two contrasting ideas are put together to achieve a desired outcome.
- Catharsis: occurs when pent-up emotions are released through an art form, whether that be visual arts or literary arts.
- Character Motivation: the reason behind their actions. This could refer to specific or general actions.
- Dialogue: a literary technique that is concerned with conversations held between two or more characters.
- Dilemma: a problem or conflict that has more than one possible solution. There are always important consequences one has to contend with.
- Watch: What Are Moral Dilemmas?
- Watch: Socrates – The Man and His Life
- Listen: What Did Democracy Really Mean in Athens?