Meritocracy and its Discontents   /   Summer 2016   /    Notes And Comments

On Frank Speech

Matthew B. Crawford

The Parthenon at sunset, Athens, Greece.

Frankness has definite limits in a society that flatters itself on its frankness.

In Athens of the fifth and fourth centuries BC, a central term of pride in the democratic self-understanding was parrhesia, which meant “frank speech.” It is sometimes translated as “free speech,” but this rendering isn’t quite apt in our contemporary American setting because it triggers for us the notion of a right, as in the First Amendment, whereas frank speech is a virtue. The role of frank speech in democratic culture is something worth considering, especially in light of the renewed ferment over political correctness.

The Greeks, justly famous for their ethnocentrism, took frank speech to be a distinctly Hellenic virtue, in contrast to the flattery of those (in the East) who were content to live under despotism. The Athenians drew the circle of their ethnocentrism even smaller, and claimed frank speech as that which distinguished their own radically democratic city from others in the Hellenic world that never rose up to throw off their local tyrants, or that had to abide rule by a council of old men, as in Sparta. These distinctions were often parsed in gendered terms: Flattery was effeminate or effeminizing, while speaking frankly was the distinctly democratic form of manliness.

Of course, these self-understandings came in for critique and ridicule from contemporary philosophers and comedians. What the democratic soul experiences as his own frankness might appear to others as a self-aggrandizing form of moral aggression based on resentment. A common trope was that the demagogue (literally, “leader of the people”), central to democratic politics, is a flatterer of the demos. Frankness has definite limits in a society that flatters itself on its frankness. With his usual crudeness, the playwright Aristophanes suggests that the authority of a democratic politician’s voice—the sheer volume of hot air he can expel—must be understood by analogy with a fart, and is simply a function of how stretched-out the hole that emits it is. (One has to take a lot of abuse, i.e., engage in a lot of flattery, to succeed in democratic politics.)

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