vrijdag 8 juni 2012


If parrhesia is a virtue than the Jewish people may be called virtuous indeed. Because parrhesia can be translated as ‘frankness’, or ‘outspokenness’ or as ‘saying what you think’. Well, that uses to come easy to a lot of Jews.

Yet the word does not stem from the Jewish tradition but from the Greek. The word parrhesia first appears in Euripides and continues to appear from the end of the fifth century before the common era in the writings of classical Greek antiquity.

In our time the word was revitalized by the French philosopher Michel Foucault who in 1983/84 gave lectures on parrhesia as the phenomenon whereby a speaker frees himself and speaks out boldly. In modernity, when man is increasingly thrown back upon himself, Foucault considers it important to be faithful to oneself and to one’s own thoughts.

The most recent plea for parrhesia I read comes from the British Professor Frank Furedi. He advocates parrhesia under the admonition “Man, dare to judge”. Therewith he counters the tendency to lukewarm tolerance in our society, as a feeble instrument of non-judgment, of keeping a safe distance. Hannah Arendt sees the unwillingness to judge as a sign that one is inclined to withdraw from public life. While by actually judging a dialogue with other people may arise.

It is true, Furedi says, that expressing a value judgment can be a form of psychological violence - but a complex society just can not do without judgment and comparison. Therefore courage is needed, because freedom of expression and the pursuit of knowledge will usually want to take their own unpredictable course.

In ancient Athens, the cradle of democracy, they possessed that courage: there, according to Furedi, that risky attitude got its first appreciation. “Daring and freedom for the Greeks were values that reinforced each other. Something similar is seen in Renaissance Italy, where ideas of freedom were accompanied by courage and zeal for discovery”.

What annoys me in a presentation of things like Furedi’s is the adoration of Greekness and Renaissance combined with the total absence of attention to the Jewish contribution to fearless speech in the course of history. That is an imbalance in the presentation of our cultural heritage that bothers me already from my high school. Also then the adoration of Antiquity raged large and I felt that something was missing.

Indeed, as far as frankness is concerned, the Jews had already earned their spurs when the Athenians had yet to establish their democracy. Abraham had been bargaining with God about Sodom and Gomorrah, and Jacob had fought with the angel.

And the Jews did not stop behaving that way when in Athens the democracy got defunct and Socrates and Plato pleaded for censorship of poetic and other expressions of the soul that could undermine the pure morale. The author of the book of Job lets his feelings speak freely and goes far in questioning God’s justice.

In the Mishnah and the Talmud the rabbis continued rewarding intellectual courage by taking halachic decisions by majority vote and by nevertheless including the rejected ideas and their authors in the texts and preserving them for centuries. Very different from their surroundings where the dissidents of Catholic councils were excluded from the annals of the church.

It may be true that at the time of the Renaissance, the balance shifted. Then in the surrounding world came the frank and critical humanists, while the rabbinic tradition was in danger of becoming bogged down in a formalistic straitjacket.

But the degree of parrhesia, not to say the brutality, which Eli Wiesel describes in his story about the rabbis in a concentration camp who sue God for the misery he lets pass, has old testimonials. From before Greek democracy.

Also see Greek and Jew and Authority