Sunday, December 11, 2016

Gentle Cynicism as True Life - Part III: Truth Telling, the Authentic Link to Contemporary Practice

“It is the tyranny of hidden prejudices that makes us deaf to what speaks to us in tradition . . . the hermeneutical problem.”   - Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method

A fresh and critical look at ancient cynicism by way of Michel Foucault, The Courage of the Truth (The Government of Self and Others II) [1] is instructive in reshaping the the notion of a persistent, human foundation of truth telling with one’s life (parrhesia)[2] captured in his title phrase “courage of the truth.” My attention is what and how this notion informs a contemporary praxis of Gentle Cynicism.

To begin, cynicism schematically (Foucault’s outline) in its historical and ongoing form of philosophical practice can be condensed as follows:  First, it is a form of what could be called political boldness. While this occurs in our society, it is often misinformed. A second form is called Socratic irony.[3] This is an apropos response to the previous form and the das Man. A third form shows up distinct from the former two, called cynic scandal. It entails “getting people to condemn, reject, despise, and insult the very manifestation of what they accept, or claim to accept at the level of principles.” Perhaps this shows up in how one might face one’s angst or discontent when presented with the image or reality of what they accept and value in thought, while at the same time reject and despise it in their current life and society. A case in point is the formation of a counter narrative, which can have a scandalous quality to it. It is this form that comes close to the idea of Gentle Cynicism where the truth is told by the very way in which one interprets and lives; its cultivated countering practices may well derive from traditions that have gotten lost along the way (via Enlightenment, Modernity). Traditions are rich living (master) traditions whether wisdom, philosophical, religious, that, when vital, embody continuities of conflict. One who lives authentically and counter culturally displays its goods and risks it among the inauthentic modalities of das Man.[4]

It is the spirit of GC that taps into the rich traditions and human need to investigate and transcend conventional scripting that holds so many blind and dumb, and to challenge orthodox leanings that stifle human flourishing.

At the heart of the cynic life is parrhesia, the act of truth telling. Parrhesia in its nominal form is translated (Latin) "free speech"; in ancient Greek it conveyed the meaning “to speak freely", "to speak boldly", or with "boldness". By implication among the genuine cynic it came to describe a range of speech practice, not only freedom of speech, but the obligation to speak the truth for the common good, even at personal risk.[5]

Thomas Merton in The New Man wrote, “Parrhesia is the fully mature condition of one who has been questioned by God and has thereby become, in the fullest and most spiritual sense, a man.”[6] Foucault describes this mature condition thus: first, there is a manifestation of a fundamental bond between the truth spoken and the thought of the person who speaks; second, there becomes a challenge to the bond between two in dialog (the person who speaks the truth and the person to whom this truth is addressed). Hence, this distinct feature of parrhesia involves courage, e.g., consisting possibly in the parrhesiast taking the risk of severing the relationship to the other person which was precisely what made his discourse possible. In a way, the parrhesiast always risks undermining the relationship which is the condition of possibility of his discourse. This can be witnessed in parrhesia as spiritual guidance, which can only exist if there is friendship, and where the employment of truth in this spiritual guidance is precisely in danger of bringing into question and breaking the relationship of friendship which made this discourse of truth possible (classic examples Jung with Freud, Jesus with the establishment of Judaism; Martin Luther with the Corrupt Roman Church; individuals during the Civil Rights era).

In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle also laid stress on the connection between parrhesia and courage when he linked what he called megalopsukhia (greatness of soul) to the practice of parrhesia. Parrhesia is not a skill; it is a stance, a way of being which is akin to a virtue, a mode of action. Parrhesia involves ways of acting, means brought together with a view to an end, and in this respect it has something to do with technique, but it is also a role which is useful, valuable, and indispensable for the city (organization, culture) and for individuals. Parrhesia should be regarded as a modality of truth-telling, rather than [as a] technique [like] rhetoric.[7]

Foucault provides a helpful contrasting with four basic modalities of truth-telling from Antiquity, which helps to put parrhesia in an applicable, ethical space.

Prophecy - The prophet’s truth-telling, his veridiction, is that the prophet’s posture, one of mediation. The prophet, by definition, does not speak in his own name; it is fate that has a modality of veridiction found in prophecy. He speaks for another voice; his mouth serves as intermediary for a voice which speaks from elsewhere. Chris Hedges is a post-modern example, one of the most important reporters who for some time has been responding (truth-telling) to what he characterizes as our collapsing corporate empire.[8]

Wisdom – Wisdom was very important in Antiquity, doubtless even more important for ancient philosophy than prophetic truth-telling.  The sage manifests his mode of being wise in what he or she says and, to that extent, although having a certain intermediary function between timeless, traditional wisdom and the audience addressed, unlike the prophet, he or she is not just a mouthpiece. Here one may consider the influential sages and philosophers who have helped carve new paths for thinking and being, Eastern and Western.  My own life has been deeply enriched from reading the wisdom of such sages as Stanley Hauerwas, Paul Ricoeur, Thomas Merton, Parker Palmer, Marilynne Robinson.  See modern examples in Krista Tippett’s journal article on Einstein.[9]   

Tekhne - A third modality of truth-telling which is that of the professor, the technician, [the teacher]. The prophet, the sage, the person who teaches [tekhne]—these characters (the doctor of X, the musician, the shoemaker, the carpenter, the teacher of armed combat, the gymnastics teacher), frequently mentioned by Plato in his Socratic and other dialogues, possess a knowledge characterized as tekhne, know-how, that is to say, entailing particular items of knowledge, but taking shape in a practice and involving, for their apprenticeship, not only a theoretical knowledge, but a whole exercise (a whole askesis or melete).

In modern times, the expert has become all too familiar and relied upon and supplanted by technology and the utterly insatiable need for data and research based evidence.  While important in the stream of human development and culture, we do well to view tekhne in its proper place. Heidegger in “The Question Concerning Technology” warned,

Everywhere [in Europe] we remain unfree and chained to technology, whether we passionately affirm or deny it. But we are delivered over to it in the worst possible way when we regard it as something neutral; for this conception of it, to which today we particularly like to do homage, makes us utterly blind to the essence of technology.[10]

Today, it would seem that we cannot exist without the aid of technology and experts’ research verifying this and that in every realm of concern (anxiety).[11]

 Then there is Parrhesia. Ethos has its veridiction in the speech of the parrhesiast and the “game of parrhesia.” In parrhesia “one speaks one's mind in a situation where the stakes are high.” The game is the interaction or dialogue (dialectic) between the speaker and the listener(s) which is intended to lessen the risk; the inherent risk being when the dialogue stretches the limits of the participants.  Edward McGushin explains,

A subject appears for herself when she is called to act and insofar as she can posit herself by taking a position within, and with respect to, the theater of action. The call issues from a dramatic scene—a possibility for meaningful action . . . parrhesia is essentially a “modality of veridiction.” [Foucault] Parrhesia has to do with who one is. [12]
Foucault associates each of the four modalities with distinct 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. He further suggests that these models of parrhesia are not mutually exclusive, but can coexist and comingle—it is here that his models give historical insight. The GC seeks to hold these modalities in their natural tension while truth-telling from one’s own being in the world.





[1] Michel Foucault, The Courage of the Truth (The Government of Self and Others II) LECTURES AT THE COLLÈGE DE FRANCE. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.
[2] Parrhesia is the act of truth telling is at the heart of the life of cynic. Parrhesia in its nominal form is translated (from Latin) "free speech". In ancient Greek its meanings conveys the meaning “to speak freely", "to speak boldly", or "boldness." (Liddell and Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon) By implication among the true cynic it came to describe a range of speech practice, not only freedom of speech, but the obligation to speak the truth for the common good, even at personal risk.
[3] This consists in telling people, and getting others gradually to recognize, that they do not really know what they say and think they know.
[4] Ultimately or purely, this may well speak to the individualization process playing out robustly, for as Jung explains, “The more he is the pure I, the more he divides himself from the collective man, who he is, and even comes into opposition to this.” [C.G. Jung, Letters II / 7.1.1955 to Upton Sinclair / p. 437] However, more broadly (world disclosive) is the tradition socially embodied and always in hermeneutical flux.
[5] Liddell and Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon.
[6] Thomas Merton, The New Man
[7] Foucault, 14
[8] See https://www.pinterest.com/seidj/prophetic-voices/ for other examples (some of which may well be sages).
[10] Martin Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays; Trasl. William Lovitt (New York: Harper, 1977) , 4. Heidegger recognized that ‘Aristotelian phenomenology’ suggests three fundamental movements of life including póiesis, práxis, theoría and that these have three corresponding dispositions: téchne, phrónesis and sophía. Heidegger considers these as modalities of Being inherent in the structure of ‘Dasein’ as being-in-the-world that is situated within the context of concern and care.
[11] Pablo Freire in Pedagogy of the Oppressed clearly saw science and technology as an evolving tool that in the spirit of capitalism undermine democracy by development and use of powerful instruments for oppressive purposes: “the maintenance of the oppressive order through manipulation and repression.” The oppressed, as objects, as "things," have no purposes except those their oppressors prescribe for them.
[12] Edward F. McGushin, Foucault’s Askesis: an Introduction to the Philosophical Life (Northwestern University Press, 2007), 7.

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