13/13 | The Courage of Truth

Foucault’s 1984 lectures on The Courage of Truth represent a direct prolongation of his study of parrhesia from the 1983 lectures The Government of Self and Others—in fact, the 1984 lectures are subtitled The Government of Self and Others II. After having studied parrhesiastic truth-telling the previous year primarily in the works of Euripides (in his play Ion) and Thucydides’ discourse on Pericles, Foucault turns in these lectures to Socrates (mostly the ApologyLaches, and Nicias in lectures 3 through 9, from 8 to 29 February 1984) and the Cynics (lectures 9 through 17, the first hour of 28 March 1984), before ending, during the second hour of 28 March 1984, with an analysis of franc speech in the first pre-Christian texts.

Although in direct continuation with the 1983 lectures, these 1984 lectures operate two important displacements:

  1. From risk to courage: Though a central element of parrhesiastic truth-telling remains the risk incurred by the speaker, even the risk of death, the emphasis in 1984 subtly shifts from the risk itself to the courage of the speaker and the listener. As Foucault states on 1 February 1984, “Hence this new feature of parrhesia: it involves some form of courage, the minimal form of which consists in the parrhesiast taking the risk of breaking and ending the relationship to the other person which was precisely that made his discourse possible.” (CT, p. 11; see also p. 158) And this notion of courage underscored in these lectures applies both to the speaker and to the one spoken to. “So, in two words,” Foucault summarizes, “parrhesia is the courage of truth in the person who speaks and who, regardless of everything, takes the risk of telling the whole truth that he thinks, but it is also the interlocutor’s courage in agreeing to accept the hurtful truth that he hears.” (CT, p. 13)
  1. From political to ethical parrhesia: A second distinct shift involves the locus of the parrhesiatic speech, from the political domain to the ethical. In 1983, Foucault’s analysis was closely linked to the political dimensions of parrhesia, to truth-telling as part of democratic citizenship in ancient Athens, to franc speech in relation to governing others. It was deeply connected to questions of relations of power—in his words, it was “originally rooted in political practice and the problematization of democracy.” (CT, p. 8) In these 1984 lectures, though, Foucault turns to what he calls ethical parrhesia or even moral parrhesia–to ethical veridiction in contrast to political parrhesia. (CT, p. 157). Here, franc speech is more closely associated with the notion of ethos and, ultimately, with the Cynics and their concerns: not the questions of taxes, public income, peace or war, nor the more traditional topics of politics and democracy, but instead questions of “happiness and unhappiness, good and ill fortune, slavery and freedom” of all humankind (CT, p. 302-303). Though still political in some sense, it is far more ethico-political and concerns all of humankind, not just life in the Athenian demos.  And it opens the way to an entire ethical modality of life as a work of art, of “existence as an oeuvre,” of what Foucault calls “the aesthetics of existence.” (CT, p. 161-163)

These two shifts give a unique quality to the 1984 lectures: courageous parrhesiastic speech, addressed not just to fellow citizens or to the Prince, but addressed to the whole of mankind, especially as represented in the practices of the Cynics, becomes a highly valued form of ethical and political behavior. Over the course of the lectures, the Cynics and their “philosophical militancy” (CT, p. 284) come to represent a model for Foucault of a way of conducting oneself. In his words, “A history of philosophy, morality, and thought which took forms of life, arts of existence, ways of conducting oneself and behaving, and ways of being as its guiding theme would obviously be led to accord considerable importance to Cynicism and the Cynic movement.” (CT, p. 285).

One cannot help but read into certain passages of the later lectures a respect and fascination for the Cynics. They are the ones who effectively close out this lecture series, with a tone of admiration for their unique militancy and unique stance “as anti-king king, as the true king who, by the very truth of his monarchy, denounces and reveals the illusion of political kingship.” (CT, p. 275) (For a more recent and equally sympathetic view of the Cynics, in fact in yesterday’s New York Times no less, you may be interested in reading Nickolas Pappas of the CUNY Graduate Center here).

Now, these 1984 lectures are not marked by the same prolonged and direct engagement with modern philosophy and with the role of the contemporary philosopher as were the lectures from the previous year—which, as you will recall, directly engaged, at length, Kant’s text on What Is Enlightenment? Nevertheless, in an early effort at typology, Foucault does draw some suggestions about the character of modern critique. This arrives at the culmination of a fascinating discussion contrasting three other types of truth-telling with parrhesiastic franc speech: first, the truth-telling of the prophet, marked by the fact that the prophet speaks on someone else’s behalf, transmitting the word of a god, and often speaks through riddles (and here, one might recall Foucault’s numerous developments of the prophetic speech of Tiresias the prophet in his analyses of Oedipus Rex in, for instance, “Truth and Juridical Forms” and Wrong-Doing-Truth-Telling); second, the truth-telling of the sage, of the one with wisdom, marked by the fact that the sage does not need to speak, responds sparingly and often also in riddles, but when s/he does, tells the truth of what is, not what will be; and the truth-telling of the professor, the technician, the teacher (“the doctor, the musician, the shoemaker, the carpenter, the teacher of armed combat, the gymnastics teacher,” CT, p. 24), marked by the lack of risk-taking. Regarding the professor, Foucault notes in passing: “Everyone knows, and I know first of all, that you do not need courage to teach.” (CT, p. 24).

Foucault associates each one of these models with different domains: fate or destiny for the prophet; being or ontology for the sage; the arts and tekhne for the teacher; and ethos for the parrhesiast. Foucault suggests that these models of parrhesia are not mutually exclusive, but can coexist and comingle—and it is here that his models give historical insight. Ancient philosophy is marked, Foucault suggests, by a tendency toward an intermingling of the truth-telling of the sage and parrhesiast. Medieval society, especially in relation to its central institutions of preaching and education—the university—tended to bring together the modes of wisdom and teaching, whereas medieval Christianity tended toward a coming together of the prophetic and the parrhesiastic modes.

This leads then to the modern period, where Foucault can only speculate. He sees a role for the prophetic speech, especially in relation to revolutionary discourse. “In modern society,” he states, “revolutionary discourse, like all prophetic discourse, speaks in the name of someone else, speaks in order to tell of a future which, up to a point, already has the form of fate.” (CT, p. 30). Although Foucault sees reflections of the other two forms of truth-telling (philosophical discourse reflecting the wisdom of the sage; scientific discourse that of the teacher), Foucault does not see anymore—perhaps in contrast to the year before—a pure form of parrhesiastic discourse: “the parrhesiastic modality has, I believe, precisely disappeared as such, and we no longer find it except where it is grafted on or underpinned by one of these three modalities.” (CT, p. 30). In conjunction with the other forms, though, Foucault identifies reflections of parrhesia:

Revolutionary discourse plays the role of parrhesiastic discourse when it takes the form of a critique of existing society. Philosophical discourse as analysis, as reflection on human finitude and criticism of everything which may exceed the limits of human finitude, whether in the realm of knowledge or the realm of morality, plays the role of parrhesia to some extent. And when scientific discourse is deployed as criticism of prejudices, of existing forms of knowledge, of dominant institutions, of current ways of doing things—and it cannot avoid doing this, in its very development—it plays this parrhesiastic role. (CT, p. 30)

It may be possible to discern here different forms of critique, each of which is associated with an element of parrhesia. Read in conjunction with his later lectures on the Cynics, especially on 21 March 1984, it may be possible to identify a critical philosophical militancy, one that is addressed to all mankind, that is radical in its effort to “shake them up and convert them, abruptly,” and that “aspires to change the world”: “It is therefore a militancy which aspires to change the world, much more than a militancy which would seek merely to provide its followers with the means for achieving a happy life.” (CT, p. 285) This represents the final vision of militancy in the Collège de France lecture series.

“But, well, it is too late. So, thank you.”

Foucault ends his final hour of his last lecture on 28 March 1984—in effect, his last public words at the Collège de France—with these words: “it is too late.” (CT, p. 338). Many have read into these last words a recognition of his imminent death. Foucault would pass away three months later at the Salpêtrière hospital on June 25, 1984.

Those final words tend to give these 1984 lectures a prophetic character, and many commentators have read into them Foucault’s parting reflections on life and death. But the record is not entirely clear on how much Foucault knew or wanted to know about his illness at the time that he delivered these final lectures. To be sure, Foucault was forced to cancel his January lectures because he was, as he told his audience, “ill, really ill.” (CT, 1, n.*). And again, on 21 March 1984, Foucault explained to his audience that “I have a bit of the flu, and even the whole thing.” (CT, p. 269, n.*). But still, in January 1984, Foucault would write to his close friend, Maurice Pinguet, that “I brought back with me a virus from the United States that has the elegance of not being the one associated with AIDS.” (Daniel Defert, Chronologie, Pléiade edition, vol. 2, p. xxxvii). And, Daniel Defert reports that, in March 1984, when he was being treated at the hospital Tarnier, Foucault did not seek out any diagnosis, though he did ask, “his only question,” how long he had to live. Ibid.

Rather than read too much into these 1984 lectures, I shall end here with a different passage from that same last lecture on 28 March 1984, a passage in which, like so many before, Foucault would indicate what he wanted to study the following year in his lectures at the Collège de France—all the while recognizing that Foucault would not always stick to his plans:

Maybe I will try to explore these themes a little next year—but I cannot guarantee it, I confess that I still don’t know and have not yet decided. Maybe I will try to pursue this history of the arts of living, of philosophy as form of life, of asceticism in its relation to the truth, precisely, after ancient philosophy, in Christianity. (CT, p. 316).

In addition, earlier in the year, Foucault had indicated that he hoped “to return, after this several years long Greco-Roman “trip,” to some contemporary problems” (CT, p. 2). He was referring there to “the analysis of certain practices and institutions in modern society” Ibid.

This gesture toward more contemporary problems highlights, for me, one of the central contributions of the 1984 lectures, namely the clarity with which Foucault would articulate the necessary connection between the three dimensions of his critical approach. It is here, in 1984—and in the first section of Volume 2 of History of Sexuality, titled “Modifications”—that Foucault makes plain that the work on subjectivity and the desiring subject must be folded back onto the earlier work on knowledge-power. As Foucault stated on 1 February 1984:

to the extent that this [research project] involves the analysis of relations between modes of veridiction, techniques of governmentality, and forms of practice of self, you can see that to depict this kind of research as an attempt to reduce savoir to power, to make it the mask of power in structures, where there is no place for a subject, is purely and simply a caricature. What is involved, rather, is the analysis of complex relations between three distinct elements none of which can be reduced to or absorbed by the others, but whose relations are constitutive of each other. (CT, p. 8-9)

Due to his premature death on 25 June 1984, Foucault would never return to this critical task. But there is no doubt what that critical task looks like: to “study the relations between truth, power, and subject without ever reducing each of them to the others.” (CT, p. 9)


During these early months of 1984, Foucault was also putting the final touches and correcting the page proofs of the two final published volumes of The History of Sexuality, Volume 2 The Use of Pleasures published on 12 April 1984, and Volume 3, The Care of the Self, published on 30 May 1984. As noted earlier, Volume 3 drew on the research Foucault had conducted in his 1981 and 1982 lectures on Subjectivity and Truth and The Hermeneutics of the Subject. The two volumes had originally been conceived as one, and it was only in August 1983 that Foucault decided to redistribute the contents into two volumes (see Daniel Defert, Chronologie, Pléiade edition, vol. 2, p. xxxvii); Volume 2 drew primarily on the research Foucault had conducted on aphrodisia in his 1981 lectures on Subjectivity and Truth.

During the final months, Foucault was also working on Volume 4, Aveux de la chair (“Avowals of the Flesh”), the manuscript of which has been deposited at the Bibliothèque nationale de France in the Fonds Foucault, and, in all likelihood, will be published in due course.


Foucault’s death of AIDS would instigate a social movement in France, spearheaded in part by his companion, Daniel Defert, who helped found the organization AIDES and a campaign against the HIV virus and the ravages of AIDS. (Seegenerally, Daniel Defert, Une Vie politique, Le Seuil, 2014).

[Read post here. © Bernard E. Harcourt]