Speaking truth to power” is a modern phrase — it rarely appeared in books before the 1960s, but its usage has skyrocketed in the past 20 years, according to Google’s analytics of digitized books.
But the phrase’s concept of courageously speaking up against powerful opponents traces its roots to a philosophical framework dating back thousands of years, according to Allen Miller, a Carolina Distinguished Professor of comparative literature. His newest book explains the connection with the help of the 20th century French philosopher Michel Foucault.
Foucault’s Seminars on Antiquity: Learning to Speak the Truth is the first book to explore a series of lectures that Foucault delivered in the early 1980s focused on ancient philosophical traditions — such as Socratics, Stoics and Cynics — and what they teach us about truth and power.
“In each case, there is an attempt to determine what a true life is, developing a life that has no mixture of hypocrisy,” Miller says. “In that life, you are happiest and calmest. That life requires you to know your own truth, to tell the truth to yourself and to not live lies in public.”
Truth is not something that comes from the muses or the gods, or from the fact that you occupy a certain position. But it comes from the fact that you have an experience that you can then reveal to others.
— Allen Miller
Miller, who has studied and written about Foucault for decades, says the 1980s lectures marked a shift in the philosopher’s career. Foucault, author of the multi-volume History of Sexuality, traced modern notions of sexuality to earlier paradigm shifts that made each person a source of truth.
For example, Miller points to Foucault’s discussion of the Greek tragic play Oedipus Rex. Foucault organized the play around three pairs of “truth tellers”: Apollo the god and Tiresias the prophet represent divine truth. Oedipus and Jocasta, king and queen of Thebes, represent political power’s ability to define truth as they seek to escape their fate. But the third set of truth tellers, a pair of shepherds, reveals the truth that shatters the king’s reality.
“The only qualification that these characters have as speakers of truth is not power or divinity, but simply their own experience,” Miller says. “Foucault argues that this is something new.”
In the new paradigm, “Truth is not something that comes from the muses or the gods, or from the fact that you occupy a certain position. But it comes from the fact that you have an experience that you can then reveal to others,” Miller says.
Once identifying the truth, people must “form themselves” as speakers of truth with courage to speak up, Miller says. Socrates, the famous philosopher who was executed for his open critiques of Athenian culture and politics, was one of Foucault’s primary subjects in these lectures.
“In order to be someone who practices this frankness, you have to have the courage to stand up before others, even though you realize that you may be in peril,” Miller says "You are speaking truth to power. That requires that you actually believe it, and you need a self-formation, a certain willingness to risk yourself.”
His book examines Foucault’s exploration of how truth-speakers develop that willingness.
“They form themselves through a series of what [Foucault] would call spiritual practices,” Miller says. “These might be sitting in dialogue with a teacher or an instructor, or keeping a journal or daybook of important philosophical quotations that you study on a regular basis. He looks at a lot of techniques that people use to clarify themselves and discipline themselves in order to make them able to speak the truth.”
Miller’s book hit some bookshelves November 4, although global supply chain issues will delay its availability in the U.S. Still, his book already has caught attention. In September, he gave a talk at Johns Hopkins University. He has multiple talks related to the book lined up, including a November 12 colloquium at the University of California at Berkeley, where scholars will respond to the book .
Miller says one of the most gratifying things about the book and the speaking engagements is that much of the discussion involves people whose fields are outside philosophy or classical literature.
“My work is reaching beyond my normal group of specialists. This book seems to have the ability to cross over and speak to people well beyond classics.”