Parrhesia: Freedom of Speech in Early Christianity

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Enrico Cattaneo, SJ

 Enrico Cattaneo, SJ / Issue 1709 / 14 October 2017

The philosopher Michel Foucault defines parrhesia as “the frankness, the openness of heart, the opening of word, the openness of language, the freedom of speech.”[1] However, this does not mean saying what one wants in the way one wants, for by its very nature parrhesia reflects an ethical attitude in that what one has to say is said “because it is both necessary and useful, as well as being true.”[2] Therefore, parrhesia is connected to the truth and to the good, and so excludes calumny, defamation and disinformation, while satire is admissible.[3]

“Parrhesia” in the GrecoRoman world

The Romans had translated the term primarily as libertas but also as licentia (in the etymological sense of “faculty”) and in Christian Latin as constantia, fiducia, losing in this way something of the original meaning, the essential connection to the word.[4] The attitude of “frankness” in speaking is distinct from both adulation, typical of opportunists, and from that empty rhetoric that goes hand in hand with adulation.[5]

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