The Courage to Speak Truth in Untruthful Times
Reading Former FBI Director Comey as Parrhesiastes
On June 8th, James Comey, former director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), gave honest and sincere testimony in front of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. His testimony concerned President Trump’s handling of the FBI investigation into General Flynn’s relationship to Russian interference in the United States presidential election. Comey, who was fired by Trump, offered not only the Committee but tens of thousands of viewers the honest truth about his interactions with Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, alongside deeper truths like the very importance of a FBI independent from political corruption, all of which make Comey appear to be the only truth speaker in an age of un-truths and un-facts. In giving his testimony, I argue, Comey enacts parrhesia — the ancient Greek practice of courageous truth telling. Identifying Comey as a parrhesiastes is important because it gives those in power a model by which to speak truth in this time of untruths.
But what is this ancient practice? In his final lecture series titled, The Courage of Truth The Government of Self and Others II Lectures at Collège de France (1983-1984), philosopher Michel Foucault interrogates the concept and practice of parrhesia. Foucault describes his project of charting parrhesia:
I would like to continue the study of free spokeness, of parrhesia as a mode of truth telling… It seemed to me equally interesting to analyze the conditions and forms of the type of act by which the subject manifests himself when speaking the truth, by which I mean, thinks of himself and is …This principal (epimele sauto: take care of yourself) gave rise, I think, to the development of what could be called a ‘culture of the self’ in which a whole set of practices of self are formulated, developed, worked out and transmitted.(Foucault, 1983-84, pp. 2-5)
Foucault addresses and understands parrhesia as truth telling or frank speech. However, the act of telling the truth is also a practice of subject production, wherein the individual creates him or herself as a frank and virtuous parrhesiastes. Like all Foucaultian identifications, this mode of becoming parrhesiastes is produced by many external power relations (governmental, social, historical), as much as it relates to the individual. Parrhesia, according to both Socrates and Foucault, requires a realm of self-knowledge, self-cultivation described as “the care of the self,” which incorporates a world of physical and mental exercises into ancient philosophical life. The self that tells the real truth they believe must truly know him or herself — a parrhesia comes first from the “care of the self.”
Foucault describes the two most central themes of his inquiry: truth and courage. Foucault understands that, “[p]arrhesia is the courage of truth in the person who speaks and who, regardless of everything, takes the risk of telling the whole truth” (Foucault 1983-84, p. 13). In this sense, parrhesia, as a practice, is the courage of speaking the truth to a friend, a tyrant, or the whole polity of a democratic polis, at the risk of shame, exile, imprisonment or death. This discourse or act was produced where truth and courage bonded.
Throughout The Courage of Truth, Foucault excavates the moral and political institutions of parrhesia. Its genesis was as a democratic practice providing the structure to speak freely the truth of some great weight and importance. One example of political truth telling that Foucault uncovers is the dangerous relationship between parrhesia and the democratic city. He says: “In democracy, parrhesia is dangerous for the city. It is dangerous for the city because it is the freedom of everyone and anyone to give their views” (Foucault 1983-84, p. 36). Parrhesia is dangerous, first of all, because by exposing an important or grave truth, it implies a political and existential threat to which the city must respond. Second, this freedom to express one’s views as an act of parrhesia can be employed both for good and for bad, can be helpful and unhelpful, and can even be polyvocal enough to be confused or misunderstood. Continuing with the dangers of parrhesia, Foucault argues:
In democracy, parrhesia is not only dangerous for the city itself, but also for the individual who attempts to exercise it… In a precise passage in the Apology, Socrates refers to this danger for the individual speaking the truth in the democratic space… Consequently, a man who speaks for all these noble reasons opposes the will of al, Socrates says, risks death (Foucault 1983-84, pp. 36-37).
The dangers of telling the truth thus unfold upon the truth-teller him or herself. Because parrhesia always necessitates (a) recipient(s) – a friend, a tyrant, or the whole polity of a city – there is always high risk of disapproval, discomfort, and death. Socrates spoke the truth he needed to speak to the people, and, as the very people who he spoke against were those with the decision making power, the polity sentenced Socrates to death. This all forces Foucault to ask the question: how can we distinguish between the various qualities and intentions of parrhesia? While there are questions of good or bad, and even true and untrue acts of free speech, I would argue that one can look to the context for and outcomes of parrhesia. Socrates’s dissensual attack on religion and politics in his final Apology sets the bar for a courageous act of truth telling, against which other attempts at parrhesia can be compared.
The question of political and other forms of parrhesia arise also within the realm of tyranny, between a tyrant and a subject or advisor. This expression of parrhesia is difficult because of the tendency to need to flatter a tyrant and soften the truth in order to remain in his or her favor. On this note, Foucault understands that “[t]he idea that parrhesia is always risky with the Prince, may always fail, may always encounter unfavorable circumstances, but is not always in itself impossible” (Foucault 1983-84, p. 62). This can be seen in the case of Alexander and Diogenes. Alexander, as the King of Macedonia, was unsure why Diogenes did not flatter him and was instead antagonistic. As Classical Greek historian Dio Chrysosthom describes in his Dialogues, the moment after Diogenes demanded to remain in the sun, “Now, Alexander was at once delighted with the man’s boldness and composure in not being awestruck in his presence. For it was somehow natural for the courageous to love the courageous” (Dio Chrysosthom 1932, p. 175). Bizarrely, instead of returning insults or having Diogenes killed, Alexander gained a tremendous amount of respect for him for his frankness—Diogenes’s quality of parrhesia. To understand why Alexander listened to Diogenes, we must turn again to Foucault, who says, “What makes truth-telling with the Prince possible, desirable, and even necessary is that the way he governs the city depends on his ethos” (Foucault 1983-84, p. 63). The sovereign’s ethical and moral attitude has to be open and generous to invite dissent. Therefore, Alexander’s open ethos, coupled with the respect he gained for Diogenes through the agonistic struggle, allowed him to recognize and respect the urge towards parrhesia.
There are echoes that connect parrhesia to contemporary practices of courageous truth telling. In order to locate them, we must excavate the proceedings from James Comey’s testimony. Comey wanted to set the record straight and clarify any public mistrust of him, which occurred due to his firing by Trump. Comey, in a memorandum on his relationship with Trump, states:
I felt compelled to document my first conversation with the President-Elect in a memo. To ensure accuracy, I began to type it on a laptop in an FBI vehicle outside Trump Tower the moment I walked out of the meeting. Creating written records immediately after one-on-one conversations with Mr. Trump was my practice from that point forward. This had not been my practice in the past. I spoke alone with President Obama twice in person (and never on the phone) once in 2015 to discuss law enforcement policy issues and a second time, briefly, for him to say goodbye in late 2016. In neither of those circumstances did I memorialize the discussions. I can recall nine one-on-one conversations with President Trump in four months – three in person and six on the phone (Comey 2017).
Comey’s instincts drove him to record the details of every meeting and conversation he had with President Trump. Comey’s instincts tell a story of mistrust of Trump and his intentions. Comey needed to protect himself from Trump, and any potential fallout and misgivings between the executive branch and the independent branch of the FBI. Quite importantly, Comey, who had worked under Presidents Bush and Obama, never felt compelled to keep notes after meetings with those presidents. For Comey, Trump’s untrustworthiness and potentially obstructionist nature were completely new in a President.
Comey next recounts one of the private meetings between him and Trump. Trump invited Comey to dinner on January 27th, and asked the then-FBI Director if he wanted to keep his job, much to the confusion of Comey, who was still in the middle of a ten-year position installed by President Obama:
My instincts told me that the one-on-one setting, and the pretense that this was our first discussion about my position, meant the dinner was, at least in part, an effort to have me ask for my job and create some sort of patronage relationship. That concerned me greatly, given the FBI’s traditionally independent status in the executive branch. I replied that I loved my work and intended to stay and serve out my ten year term as Director… the set-up made me uneasy, I added that I was not “reliable” in the way politicians use that word, but he could always count on me to tell him the truth. I added that I was not on anybody’s side politically and could not be counted on in the traditional political sense… A few moments later, the President said, “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty.” I didn’t move, speak, or change my facial expression in any way during the awkward silence… it was so important that the FBI and the Department of Justice be independent of the White House. I said it was a paradox: Throughout history, some Presidents have decided that because “problems” come from Justice, they should try to hold the Department close. But blurring those boundaries ultimately makes the problems worse by undermining public trust in the institutions and their work. He then said, “I need loyalty.” I replied, “You will always get honesty from me” (Comey 2017).
Comey here describes his concern for and fear of being forced to have a patronage-like relationship with Trump by being asked for loyalty. There are many ethical, moral, legal and political rationales for having the arms of justice completely independent from executive interference. Independence is key to clear judgment and to hold accountable administration members, regardless of friendships. Here Comey speaks the honest truth and tells Trump that the FBI must be independent, and that instead of loyalty to a political party or an administration, it will remain courageously honest and truthful.
Former FBI Director Comey’s memorandum finally turns to the contestation that he had with President Trump on the issue of the investigation of former NSA General Michael Flynn. Comey was in the White House for a briefing on February 14th. After the briefing, Trump invited Comey to talk, having removed everyone else from the room. There the two had an unprecedented private talk about the FBI dropping the high profile ongoing investigation:
The President then returned to the topic of Mike Flynn, saying, “He is a good guy and has been through a lot.” He repeated that Flynn hadn’t done anything wrong on his calls with the Russians, but had misled the Vice President. He then said, “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.” I replied only that “he is a good guy”…I did not say I would “let this go.”… I had understood the President to be requesting that we drop any investigation of Flynn in connection with false statements about his conversations with the Russian ambassador in December…The FBI leadership team agreed with me that it was important not to infect the investigative team with the President’s request, which we did not intend to abide. We also concluded that, given that it was a one-on-one conversation, there was nothing available to corroborate my account (Comey 2017).
In this one-on-one meeting, President Trump lays his cards on the table. He wants Comey to stop his investigation into Michael Flynn. Trump is worried that he will not be able to accomplish much as president as these investigations into Russia continue, and he attempts to persuade the lead figure in the investigation-process to halt this work. And, Comey, desiring the real truth of Trump’s administration to come out, denies the President. Comey believes that he was fired for continuing to search for the truth.
Now it is time to unpack Comey’s role as a parrhesiastes. Comey, ethically speaking, needed to publicly expose the questionable behavior, conversations and manipulations of which Trump — in holding the former FBI Director’s career over his head and demanding loyalty over honesty, and in suggesting that the FBI close its active case on General Flynn — is guiltily. Comey is capable of steering towards the role of a truth teller in the Classical Greek sense, as he spoke uncommonly frankly in his testimony on President Trump. Comey is, specifically, the first and strongest speaker on the case of presidential obstruction of justice, and is also the most courageous. Foucault’s genealogy of parrhesia reveals the need for real courage to openly speak ethical truths to sources of political power, at risk of shame, injury or death. Again Comey lost his job in offering honest advice to Trump, and also risked being defamed by offering his testimony against the President. This is the act of a truth speaker against a tyrannical president who demands loyalty over honesty, and attempted to centralize power instead of allowing the judicial branch and the FBI to remain independent. Lastly, the stakes of truth telling in a democracy were as contentious in ancient Athens as they are today. What we see here are a multitude of conflicting attempts at making truths. How do we know which truths to trust and which to doubt and scrutinize and dismiss? This is a challenge that may undermine Comey’s testimony. However, lying under oath from a heroic parrhesiastes and longstanding FBI employee seems unlikely. It is the polyvocal other non-truths, by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, President Trump and his lawyers, that seem to me more fallible.
What is so unusual and critical about Comey’s testimony is that the ethical act of parrhesia has been absent from US politics for some time. From Trump’s hundreds of mistruths and lies as president, to the scores of fabrications and conspiracies that Brightbart, Infowars and other extremist media sources have produced, truth is very hard to find. Thus, in offering his testimony in the form of a public dialogue, we are able to see the former FBI Director’s desire to speak the real truth under oath. This is something that has been rare among Trump appointees. What Comey’s ethical and just act of parrhesia brings is the courageous will to speak frankly about Trump. Furthermore, Comey’s parrhesia is also meant, to my mind, to inspire others to speak truthfully in the time of untruths. More and more people will likely come out who have been burned or fired by Trump for being too close to those truths he wants to hide and obstruct. The more parrhesiastes we have will not only build a stronger case for impeachment, but will strengthen and encourage truth seekers and truth tellers to battle the mistruths of the world that Trumpism and Breitbart News has produced. This is a crucial and critical battle that requires newfound courage and foresight to navigate our democracy ethically, justly and truthfully.
Comey, James. “Statement for the Record Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.” June 8 2017.
Dio Chrysosthom. “The Fourth Discourse on Kingship.” Discourses 1-1I. Ed. Jeffery Henderson. Trans. J. W. Cohoon, Cambridge: Loeb Classical Library, 1932.
Dio Chrysosthom. “ The Sixth Discourse: Diogenes, or On Tyranny.”
Foucault, Michel, Fearless Speech, ed. Joseph Pearson, Semiotext(e), 2001
Foucault, Michel. The Government of Self and Others: Lectures at the College de France. 1982-1983 (Lectures at the Collège de France). Ed. Frédéric Gros. Trans. Graham Burhcel. New York: Palgrave, Macmillan, 2011.
Foucault, Michel. The Truth of Courage: The Government of Self and Others II. Lectures at Collège de France 1983-1984. Ed. Frédéric Gros. Trans. Graham Burhcel. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.
Sluiter, Ineke and Ralph Rosen Eds. Free Speech in Classical Antiquity. Boston: Brill, 2004.