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Aesthetics of Existence and the Self: Parrhesia

But couldn't everyone's life become a work of art? Why should the lamp or the house be an art object, but not our life? (Foucault, 1997, p. 261)

In the last years of his life, Michel Foucault focused on the “arts of the self” as the aesthetics of existence. In these works, he revealed a range of creative and experimental techniques in which individuals transform themselves into a work of art. However, it can be said that one of the main focal points of Foucault’s works is the history of the formation of the subject and the possibility of getting rid of this history. The individual's existence as an art of the self builds on this basis. The fact that individuals realize themselves as a work of art is related to the fact that they become a subject (subjectivation) with truthfulness and self-consciousness. In this article, in the context of Foucault, the concept of parrhesia will be explained as a type of technique in reference to the practice of the self and the aesthetics of existence.

Figure 1: The word "parrhesia" appears for the first time in Greek literature in Euripides.

As Foucault reflects the concept of parrhesia used in some texts belonging to Ancient Greek and Roman cultures (starting from the tragedies of Euripides), it has been translated into other languages as frankness in speaking the truth, free or frank speech (Foucault, 2001). Etymologically, the word parrhesia means an activity of "saying everything" and parrhesiastes is the one who "says everything" (Foucault, 2001; Franěk, 2006). However, according to Foucault, what is at issue is not "saying everything". “What is basically at stake in parrhesia is what could be called, somewhat impressionistically, the frankness, freedom, and openness that leads one to say what one has to say, as one wishes to say it when one wishes to say it, and in the form one thinks is necessary for saying it” (Foucault, 2005, p.372). What people say and put into practice is related to their own truths.

As Jakub Franěk notes, parrhesia, which Foucault associates with subject and existence, refers to political practice. The concept is an ideal concept, which is Foucault's own fiction, that he interpreted in order to deal with the relationship between becoming a subject and politics. Parrhesia means saying the whole truth, without dissimulation or reserve, without hiding anything behind rhetorical ornaments. Nevertheless, not all saying of the whole truth qualifies as parrhesia. The truth which the parrhesiastes announce must be one's personal opinion (Franěk, 2006). That is, it can be said that parrhesia is beyond presenting the truth, it goes beyond what is perceived as truth by society. In this context, it can be concluded that the truth or absoluteness of truths is debatable. As this article will argue, truth is socially and historically constructed. According to Foucault (2001), a "truth teller" tries to establish a different kind of "relationship with the self" rather than uttering everything that comes to mind as it is or trying to persuade people with their words.

Figure 2: Socrates (right) teaches Alcibiades

The Problematization of Truth

Foucault's (1982) problematization of truth stems from the fact that truth is ultimately produced and maintained within power relations. The establishment of a new truth instead of a problematized truth is possible only from the perspective of the individual. This situation expresses Foucault's dual commitment to the concepts of "truth" and "perspectivism" (Prado, 2005). Foucault's view of truth differs markedly from traditional objectivist conceptions of truth. For Foucault, the concept of truth is not unique and unchanging. On the contrary, Foucault thinks that the nature of truth is pluralistic and there are different truths or different ways of telling the truth (Prado, 2005).

Figure 3: Michel Foucault at a demonstration in Paris in 1969.

Substituting different points of view on truth instead of a single one emphasizes the problematization. There is a problem with the truth, as Foucault puts, it because the truth is always defined or constructed with correspondence (Deleuze, 2019). The correspondence is about the fact that reality becomes neutral and observation that ignores history. There is disharmony, non-relationship, and separation. Therefore, if the truth is or has been constructed, there cannot be a neutral epistemological point referencing the truth itself.

Foucault is not concerned with the epistemological basis of truth. The reason is that the epistemological truth tendency ignores the practical and political dimensions as intertwined with power relations (Foucault, 2008). His main focus is on the ethical and political entities created by historical bodies and the 'truth' produced by these entities. In this respect, parrhesia, the main object of truth, is fundamental to the displacement of existing power relations and the creation of new ones, as Foucault has shown. Such an act provides power in the sense of problematizing many forms of relations (power-knowledge, power-individual, individual-individual, etc.) that are seen as given in contemporary society. According to Foucault, this power stems from the fact that parrhesia creates opportunities for resistance as much as it corrupts the components of power. Parrhesia has a disruptive quality in the act of producing truth about the production and continuity of power (Foucault, 2005). So, it can offer possibilities for changing existing power relations or building a new self.

Figure 4: "The Last Supper" by Jacopo Tintoretto

The Practice of Self in Parrhesia

The purpose of the use of parrhesia is to express what is right for the individual and the society in which one lives, and to speak for it (Foucault, 2005). In this case, the first thing the individual should focus on is himself. This means that a person engages in the pursuit of oneself before society. This tendency of the individual towards oneself is expressed as practices of the self. Every act of self arises from a form of existence, or rather an art or technique of living. Therefore, the process of self-care and self-knowledge, which is the first stage of parrhesia, gains meaning as a prerequisite for the truth to be revealed (Foucault, COT). In these practices of the self, one's designing oneself as a worker striving for the best possible life (producing oneself as a work of art), and striving for it opens the door to aesthetics of existence before an ethic of existence. Because practices of the self take the form of a self-art that is relatively independent of moral laws (Foucault, 2005).

Figure 5: "The School of Athens" by Rafael Sanzio

Ancient Greek philosophy was avantguard in deducing an ethic of existence from this dimension, as it was the first to discover the relationship with oneself as an independent dimension. The relations between "subject" and "truth" form the basis of such an existential aesthetic. This foundation is the notion of “care for the self” (epimeleia heautou). Another formulation in which this notion builds on the subject's self-knowledge and concern for oneself is "know thyself" (gnothi seauton). Here, the principle of “know yourself” for parrhesia is intertwined with “care for the self”. In fact, what is at issue here is not the similarity of the two concepts or the fact that their contents touch on a common theme. The principle of “know thyself” is more formulated on the plane of concern for oneself. This formulation was generally in the form of the necessity of taking care of oneself, not forgetting oneself, and taking care of oneself (Foucault, 2015, p.7).

Figure 6: "What is truth? Christ and Pilate" by Nikolai Nikolaevich Ge

According to Foucault, "take care of yourself" (epimele seauto), which is associated with "know thyself" in Socratic texts in Greek culture, has evolved so much that it has revealed a culture of self. “Man should tell the truth about himself” (Foucault, 2018, pp.6/7). The first stop for a person to set out, to tell the truth, is itself. These acts of self are first embodied in the Greek practices of self-government. Self-government emerged as a more independent status from both power and knowledge of virtue (Leibowitz, 2010). To be able to manage others, a person must first establish himself in a virtuous way. By that one can manage and shape itself accordingly, to live a virtuous life in society. The individual's relationship with oneself by turning itself from power and the moral principle has led to a different subjectivation. It is the emergence of individuals who takes care of themselves and problematizes them for their good.

Figure 7: "St. Paul Preaching at Athens" by Rafael Sanzio

Parrhesia as the Aesthetics of Existence

In the Ancient understanding of parrhesia, Socrates leads his interlocutors to make a statement about their life (bios) beyond admitting their shortcomings or mistakes in their thinking (McGushin, 2007). However, this expectation is more than a breakdown of the events that took place in their lives, it is Socrates' way of proving a relationship between a rational discourse, that is, logos and bios (the reason and the life) (Foucault, 2001, p.76). The aim is to make people's own way of being concerned for themselves instead of explaining how a correct and conscious life should be based on the notion of care for the self. This act of telling the truth, which is based on the practices of people to take care of themselves, is an existential positioning about testing their lifestyles, that is, what they will or will not adopt in their lives (Foucault, 2018, p.149). By speaking the truth, those with the human virtues necessary for the "training of the soul" invite people to take care of themselves in wisdom, truth, and beauty of the soul (Dyrberg, 2014). For instance, Socrates, in his defense to Athenian citizens, speaks the truth because it is loaded with irony, responsibility, frankness, and courage: “I shall never alter my ways, not even if I have to die many times” (Leibowitz, 2010). In this context, Socrates is someone -as parrhesiastes- whose speech and way of life are in harmony with each other, and the place of proof regarding this is life itself.

Figure 8: "The Death of Socrates" by Jacques-Louis David

Parrhesiastes is the one who says everything (Foucault, 2001). To say everything is to state the truth without hiding it or turning it around. However, according to Foucault, doing this is not enough to understand the concept of parrhesia. “Truth should not be merely the personal opinion of the speaker, but should be said as what he thinks (as being), not reluctantly, and this is what makes it parrhesiastes” (Foucault, 2011, p.11). In this sense, the concept of parrhesia and the practice associated with this concept should be considered together. In his defense, Socrates, who spoke the truth, expressed what he thought was the truth without hesitation and accepted that his discourse would shape it. In other words, it expresses the view of the parrhesiastes; says what he thinks; he puts his signature under the truth and finally becomes the truth he expresses. So, here it is faced with an unfolding of truth that requires the entire existence of the individual, and this situation gains meaning not as a verbal act, but rather as an existential act (Foucault, 2011).

In parrhesia, there is a strong relationship between the speaker and the spoken. This relationship is not in the form of two elements existing separately as a whole, they are intertwined. Speech is the embodiment of this unity. If parrhesia has occurred, the speaker and the said are in existential unity. Parrhesiastes makes that speech a requirement of his existence (Foucault, 2018, pp.14/15). In this case, subjectivity is not given and inevitable, on the contrary, it appears as a quality shaped by historical conditions and choices. If the subject is not a given position, this provides an opportunity to reconstruct it. In this reconstruction, parrhesia has a different value. According to Foucault, while it provides an opportunity to reveal the power practices that subject the human being, it also offers the possibility of establishing one's (alternative) subjectivation against these power practices. Therefore, parrhesia constitutes the most basic dynamic of deconstruction of historical subjectivation and a new construction process. According to Foucault, subjectivation consists of social phenomena such as power, knowledge, ethics, and culture (Huijer, 2017). Foucault derives the historical moment to struggle against the social establishment from parrhesia as a moment of existence. In this sense, what happens is a questioning of the practices of the self on the one hand and the creation of a new ontology on the other.

Figure 9: "Truth has died" by Francisco Goya


It can be said that parrhesia is related to embodied truths. Although the main issue of the concept is seen as a transference at first glance, how the subject is established before this transfer, that is, the act of telling the truth, is at least as important as the transference. This refers not only to its critique of social and political relations with others, but also to one's orientation to one's being, self-construction, and more generally, an "aesthetics of existence." The function of parrhesia, which Foucault discusses in the context of the "aesthetics of existence", is not only a possibility for new subjectivization but also a practical way to resist political oppression. In other words, it is a remarkable way of activating truth within the discourse and connecting such truth to its ethics and existence.

Figure 10: Socrates teaching his doctrines to young Athenians while awaiting his execution.

“If parrhesia is an act of truth-telling, then parrhesia could be seen as a means by which fictioning ties it to both interpersonal relationships and aesthetics of existence. Collectively, this would allow for parrhesia to become part of “an alternative manner of subject-formation,” as Nancy Luxon contends. This is because it allows for the imaginative production of truths, which can then be entered into experience” (Simpson, 2012, p. 12). Thus, a new "I" would be possible. Only one practical conclusion can be drawn from the notion that the "I" is not given. This new "I" establishment is the creation of oneself as a work of art by associating the type of one's relationship with oneself creatively , as a result of rejecting the given or learned subjectivation by knowledge and power systems.

Bibliographical References

Dyrberg, T.B. (2014). Foucault on the Politics of Parrhesia. Palgrave Macmillan. Retrieved from

Foucault, M. (1997). Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth. The New Press. Retrieved from Foucault, M. (2001). Fearless Speech. Semiotext(e). Retrieved from Foucault, M. (2005). The Hermeneutics of the Subject: Lectures at the Collège de France 1981-1982. Picador. Retrieved from Foucault, M. (2011). The Courage of the Truth: The Government of Self and Others II: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1983-1984. Palgrave Macmillan. Retrieved from

Franěk, J. (2006). Philosophical Parrhesia as Aesthetics of Existence. Continental Philosophy Review, 39(2), 113–134. Leibowitz, D.M. (2010). The Ironic Defense of Socrates: Plato's Apology. Cambridge University Press. Retrieved from

Huijer, M. (2017). A Critical Use of Foucault’s Art of Living. Foundations of Science, 22(2), 323–327. McGushin, E.F. (2007). Foucault's Askesis: An Introduction to the Philosophical Life (Topics in Historical Philosophy). Northwestern University Press. Retrieved from Prado, C. G. (2005). Searle and Foucault on Truth. Cambridge University Press. Retrieved from Simpson, Z. (2012). The Truths We Tell Ourselves: Foucault on Parrhesia. Foucault Studies, (13), 99-115.

Visual Sources

Cover: David, J.L. (1787). The Death of Socrates. [Painting]. Met Museum.

Figure 1: Getty Images. (n.d.). The word parrhesia appears for the first time in Greek literature in Euripides. [Drawing]. ThoughtCo.

Figure 2: Bettmann / Getty Images. (n.d.). Socrates (right) teaches Alcibiades. [Drawing]. The Atlantic.

Figure 3: Aime, G. (1969). Michel Foucault at a demonstration in Paris in 1969. [Photograph]. Void Network.

Figure 4: Sanzio, R. (1511). The School of Athens. [Painting]. Historia Arte.

Figure 5: Tintoretto, J. (1594). The Last Supper. [Painting]. Museum and Archaeological Complex of the Cathedral of Lucca.

Figure 6: Ge, N.N. (1890). What is truth? Christ and Pilate. [Painting]. Arthive.

Figure 7: Sanzio, R. (n.d.). St Paul Preaching at Athens. [Painting]. Gallerix.

Figure 8: David, J.L. (1787). The Death of Socrates. [Painting]. Met Museum.

Figure 9: Goya, F. (1814). Truth has died. [Painting]. Museo Del Prado.

Figure 10: Getty Images. (n.d.). Socrates teaching his doctrines to young Athenians while awaiting his execution. [Drawing]. Studenti.


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Gülnida Yıldırım

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