Reasonings about Philodemus’ On Frank Criticism

The Role of Frankness in a Philosophy of Freedom and Friendship

Among the most important works written by Philodemus is Peri Parrhesias, usually translated as On Frank Criticism.  I sought a single-word definition for parrhesia in English, but failed to find one.  I considered candor, or frankness, but here is’s definition of candor:

1. the state or quality of being frank, open, and sincere in speech or expression
2. freedom from bias; fairness; impartiality

I find the definition does not go far enough.  Epicurean discussions on this matter invariably get into territory that is filled with tension.  We believe that a friend MUST tell the truth to a friend, and sometimes this is done with suavity, but not always.  Truth can be bad medicine, but it is ALWAYS medicine to us.  The criticism portion of the translation is crucial in order to understand what we mean and how we use parrhesia in therapeutic ways to help heal the moral ills of the soul and to mutually encourage constant self-betterment among true well-wishing friends.

Some points on the dictionary definition, as well as the history, of the word frank:

1. honest and straightforward in speech or attitude
2. outspoken or blunt
3. open and avowed; undisguised

Frankness must certainly be a quality of parrhesia.  Notice also the history of the term:francus was Latin for free, and when Gaul was governed by the Frankish tribes only the Franks were free.  This meant that they could express their minds without fear of tyrants or elites.

Similarly, in the ancient Greek world, as democracy flourished, parrhesia was tied to the egalitarian and democratic ideals of the polis, sort of similar to how we understand the concept of free speech, which to us Westerners is sacred and enshrined in our Constitutions and books of laws.  Free speech is quintessential to citizenship in a free country.  Only the free can be frank.

But by the time Philodemus was teaching philosophy in Italy, values had shifted.  He found himself in a Roman society that honored social class divisions, in fact he was instructing wealthy Romans, and parrhesia no longer carried the political weight that it did in the polis.  Among his chief preoccupations we find tensions having to do with people of lower class giving frank criticism to the wealthy and with how to distinguish between friend and flatterer, a matter of great concern among wealthy Romans.

The Garden: a Habitat for Wisdom

All the revered ancestral wisdom traditions of humanity evolved organically in settings where people came to those who were deemed wise in order to seek practical guidance when they were confused or in need of counsel from a trusted friend. Invariably, these traditions celebrate friendship and warn people about distinguishing between true and false friends, because not being able to distinguish clearly between true and false friends has always been one of the most prevalent sources of disillussion and suffering among mortals.  This is why we notice that every wisdom tradition, from the oral Yoruba tradition in Africa, to the Ramayana epic in India, to the Scandinavian Havamal, and certainly within our own Epicurean tradition, this issue has always had to be addressed.

There are many examples of friendship-related advise in the wisdom traditions.  They begin by stressing the importance of association, and then elaborate the finer details on how to nurture wholesome friendships.

The Havamal, which emerged among the Nordic skalds (poets), compares the lonesome man with the stump of a dead tree.  The Biblical wisdom tradition, which according to legend was nurtured in the court of Kings Salomon and David, also contains the following prudent and beautifully expressed advise:

 Two are better than one; because they have a good reward for their labour. For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow: but woe to him that is alone when he falleth; for he hath not another to help him up.  Again, if two lie together, then they have heat: but how can one be warm alone?  And if one prevail against him, two shall withstand him; and a threefold cord is not quickly broken. – Ecclesiastes 4:9-12

Krishna exemplifies the ideal friend when he gives the saddened and confused Arjuna frequent encouragement in the Bhagavad Gita: “Carry on, champion!  Conqueror of your enemies”, and the many dramatizations of how an ideal friend should behave in the Hindu epic of the Ramayana, where Rama and Hanuman frequently verbalize how they love each other like brothers.  The didactic value of these dramatizations is undeniable, as they help children to understand what a supremely important human value friendship is.

The evolution of a wisdom tradition requires what I like to think of as a habitat for wisdom: a socially acceptable outlet for this dynamic where people seek out trusted and wise friends, a space where prudence can be nourished within the culture.  I choose the word habitat, firstly to stick to naturalist verbiage and metaphors, and secondly to accentuate the importance of spacial and relational factors as well as time and stability, all of which are always required for organic things to emerge wholesomely as they should.  Such is the case with philosophical friendship.

Within this context, frank criticism becomes a process of pruning the plants within the Garden.  It has evolved from its original political context into a new contextual framework: to us, it serves philosophical friendship.  It is here that we find the Epicurean sense and use of the word parrhesia.

A true friend must never lie to us and must always be a good influence, never a bad one.

Philodemus taught that the words of a true friend must be profitable morally.  They must help us to live a good life and become happier, more productive and wholesome people with good character.

Good friends must be like a philosophical Gardener pruning us with their speech, which constitutes constructive criticism.  They must be a good influence and must from time to time be willing to give us bad medicine for our own good in the form of frank criticism.

Only those who love us will give us this frank criticism in a spirit of friendship and love, with sincere desire to help us get better and not out of envy or animosity.  They will choose their words carefully.  Their intention wil not be to hurt us, but to help us.

The Flatterers and Other False Friends

Flattery is specifically treated as a form of evil speech which opposes frank speech.  In the Nordic Havamal, in the writings of Philodemus, and in other wisdom traditions the flatterer is invariably a type of false friend.  He is the one who tells us what he thinks we wish to hear without caring whether or not it’s profitable to our character and happiness.  In the Havamal, the friend is not the guy that laughs at our jokes, but the one with whom we can fully blend our mind.

The man and woman of wisdom is always unmoved by the apparent grace and innocence of a superficial “Daaarling, you look fabulous!” and will look for whether an acquaintance demonstrates a genuine interest in the wellbeing and happiness of the other before considering that acquaintance a friend of the other.

This does not mean that praise is a sign of a non-friend: it simply means that frank speech is always a sign of a true one.  A true friend will feel at liberty to both praise and criticize whenever it’s prudent.

If I bruise a friend’s ego but, in doing so, save him from addiction to drugs or gambling, from ending up in jail or from an abusive relationship, then I deserve that friend’s love, loyalty and trust.  If I watch a person self-destruct and make no attempts to assist, then I do not deserve that person’s trust and loyalty.

In addition to the flatterer, there is also the kind of false friend who tells the truth harshly and inspired by ill-will.  Truth-telling is not in itself a sign of a true friend: one always needs care and prudence to identify a true friend.  In Philodemus’ instruction book about frank criticism, he refers to this false friend under the heading that helps to discern between “one who is frank from a polite disposition and one who is so from a vulgar one”.  He goes on to list the virtuous qualities of a polite truth-sayer:

… everyone who bears goodwill and practices philosophy intelligently and continually and is great in character and indifferent to fame and least of all a politician and clean of envy and says only what is relevant and is not carried away so as to insult or strut or show contempt or do harm, and does not make use of insolence and flattering arts ... – Philodemus, On Frank Criticism, Column Ib

Similarly, it is oftentimes difficult to know the true intentions of a person who is friends with an enemy, or whether or not that person is a well-wisher.  The Havamal counsels plainly that a friend of our enemy is no friend of ours.  It is always advisable to be mindful of alliances.

The Imprudent and the Incurable

The dynamics and the mellows of the pleasure of friendship are many and complex.  It is natural in all friendships that difficulties and differences of character will surface.  This does not mean that there isn’t genuine love between friends.

It is understood that oftentimes people who are well-meaning lack the wisdom to provide frank speech to friends.  A man’s inability to be a loving, guiding presence for another does not translate into his being a vicious or evil person.  There are superficial friends, and then there are deep, intimate, caring friends.  There are prudent friends and those who are less prudent.  In this case, we should encourage the friend with the most prudence, if he is or wishes to be a true friend, to provide from time to time pruning to the one with less prudence, always noting that we all learn with our own heads and that some don’t take frank speech well and will display animosity or anger, or suspect ill intentions when they encounter it.  These are called incurable by Philodemus.

The Master as a Moral Model

One parallel between the Eastern Secular Humanism of Confucius and the Western one of Epicurus deals with the moralizing role of shame in both traditions.

… I hope you too are well and your mamma, and that you are always obedient to Papa and Matro, as you used to be. Let me tell you that the reason that I and all the rest of us love you is that you are always obedient to them. – Epicurus, in his Letter to a Boy or Girl

Confucius said that when leaders are virtuous, the people naturally feel shame when they are wrong whereas when leaders are not virtuous, they rule by fear instead and people follow the law for fear of punishment.  This is an interesting observation, particularly when we look at societies ruled by religious or political fear versus lenient, liberal societies.  What does this tell us about the leaders of these societies and their consistent ability to earn the trust of the people by their virtue or corruption?

Fear, not mercy, restrains the wicked. – Proverbs 69:17, AC Grayling’s The Good Book: A Humanist Bible 

We must also, to be fair, distill one further insight from Confucius’ observation.  Liberal societies are not a good thing in themselves: healthy association and wholesome leadership are required to make them virtuous and happy societies.  In other words, it’s not enough for people to not be ruled by fear, and one of the ways in which Epicureanism is meant to work for our constant moral self-betterment, is by us avoiding the shame of disappointing the love and loyalty of our caring friends, particularly the wisest and most virtuous among them.

When I brought up this Confucian observation among the Epicureans, Cassius Amicus tied it to Epicurus’ statement about reverencing the sage being of great benefit to those who do the reverencing, and also to the official adage of the Society of Friends: “Do all things as if Epicurus were watching“.

I share this because, within the writings of Philodemus, we see the profiles of some of the original Epicurean Masters as they were affectionately remembered by their pupils for generations: virtuous, truthful, powerful in speech.

The Examples of Metrodorus and Polyaenus

Some of the little that we know of Metrodorus came to us indirectly through people like Philodemus, which indicates that there was, among early Epicureans, a(n oral?) tradition of passing down anecdotes about the activities and the moral example of the previous Masters, or at least perhaps stories related to the original four (known collectively as the Men), a sort of early Epicurean extra-canonical hadith tradition which is mostly lost to us.

Philodemus frequently cites Metrodorus as an authority when he makes assertions about very important matters.  In one passage, he casually characterizes him as an attentive teacher given to frequent pruning of students:

… in the process of teaching … they will in no way differ from Cleanthes or Metrodorus  (for it is obvious that an attentive teacher will employ a more abundant frankness) … – Philodemus, On Frank Criticism, Column Vb

This paints a picture of an original Garden where, under the tutelage of the first four teachers, the first Epicureans developed a culture of frank speech and philosophical friendship.  We also find mention in On Frank Criticism of the following commentary:

… Even if one is rather sententious, as Metrodorus says Polyaenus was, “often insinuating himself into conversation and quite sociable” … – Philodemus, On Frank Criticism, Column VIa

The word sententious translates as:

1. abounding in pithy aphorisms or maxims
2. given to excessive moralizing; self-righteous
3. given to or using pithy sayings or maxims
4. of the nature of a maxim

… with pithy being a word that indicates vigor and forcefulness.  This paints the picture of a Master who carries in him an encyclopaedia of wisdom and acts as an efficient and wise instructor, constantly dispensing philosophy in a manner that is both powerful and easy to memorize and learn.

We know that aphorisms and maxims are short and can be easily memorized through repetition, and much of what survives of Epicurus’ 300 scrolls and the writings of the other Four Men is in the form of sayings and short doctrines, which might be an indicator of the frequency and universality with which these maxims were shared and utilized.

The pharmacology, the spiritual cures of Epicureanism, originally took the forms of these small but vigorous pills of wisdom.  Perhaps the frequency of short but forceful Epicurean memes on social media (twitter, facebook, etc.) might be a modern variety of them.

Against the Charlatans

Men who are charlatans, too, divert many, seizing them after some stress and enchanting them with their subtle kindness. – Philodemus, On Frank Criticism, Fragment 60

Things haven’t changed much since Philodemus.  Our world is still teeming with charlatans, and many of them have gained quite a following.  Mormonism –which originated as a polygamy ranch cult– is one of the most recent cults to become mainstream enough to be called a religion.  Its founder, Joseph Smith, had over 30 wives.  Some were also married to his own followers, others were only 14 when he appropriated them.

While pretending to be the latest member of the long list of God’s revered ventriloquists, he wrote a holy book that taught that the Native Americans were descended from a lost Jewish tribe –a claim which has been proven fraudulent by modern genetics research and for which there is no archeological base– and even promised his followers an afterlife as gods in their own planets with multiple wives.

Perhaps if triangles had gods, their gods would have three angles.

But let’s not digress: Philodemus claimed that charlatans enchant people with subtle kindness.  Christian churches have elevated the ability to charm with subtle kindness to an art.  They believe that there is a God-given mysterious ability known as charisma, which comes from the Holy Ghost.

1. a divinely conferred gift or power.
2. a spiritual power or personal quality that gives an individual influence or authority over large numbers of people.
3. the special virtue of an office, function, position, etc., that confers or is thought to confer on the person holding it an unusual ability for leadership, worthiness of veneration, or the like.

This belief has opened the door for a tsunami of false prophets –too many to mention– that have throughout history claimed Christian revelation.  There are many prominent examples, both funny and tragic, of false prophets.  Marjoe, who made a name for himself as a child preacher, later in his life filmed a documentary exposing the entire evangelical industry.

Benny Hinn, a notorious and very wealthy televangelist, prior to being exposed oncedeclared the false prophecy that in the mid-90’s “God would destroy the homosexual community of America”.  The prophecy was obviously false and never materialized, but when  he uttered it, he elicited the applause of his followers.

Yet, crafty fellow that I am, I caught you by trickery!” – Paul in 2 Corinthians 12:15-17

Sadly, crafty fellows have sometimes lacked creativity and have also appropriated aspects of Epicurean tradition to oblivion.  One of the revelations that emerges from reading Norman Dewitt’s St. Paul and Epicurus has to do with the way in which the New Testament took over our epistolary tradition.  The first literary evidence of didactic epistles being written in order to be read publicly by an entire community happens among ancient Epicureans.  It’s one of the ways in which our teachings propagated.  Today, most people know of the New Testament’s epistles, but almost no one knows of the original Epicurean ones, which were mostly destroyed by the enemies of Epicureanism.

 … Seizing Them After Some Stress

We can cite mountains of examples of how everyday charlatans prey upon the vulnerable: prison ministries, for instance, have had the repercussion of producing a nearly cancerous growth of Islam in Western prisons.

I’ve visited a prison as part of journalistic efforts to help uncover injustices against men, whom I believed were innocent and wrongfully convicted.  It was a very heart-wrenching experience, and I realize that it may seem unfair to criticize the noble efforts of people who visit prisons.  But we must recognize that people sometimes do noble things for the wrong reason.  This is a moral problem that should be pondered.

Christopher Hitchens eloquently pointed out once that Hamas is the largest charitable organization in the Gaza Strip.  I was reminded of this when, after Katrina, the Mormons were very active in the charity efforts in Mississipi and Louisiana, where many poor African Americans suffered greatly.  In these cases, Hamas also encourages people in these ailing communities to become suicide bombers and the Book of Mormon teaches that being black is a curse.

Wherefore, as they were white, and exceedingly fair and delightsome, that they might not be enticing unto my people the Lord God did cause a skin of blackness to come upon them. – 2 Nephi 5:21, Book of Mormon

And so, these forms of charity (as I see it, altruism for the wrong reasons) have a certain price, and it’s extremely important to stand firm in the knowledge that the fact of their existence has nothing to do with neither the truth value nor the wholesomeness of the beliefs of people who engage in these charitable efforts, be it for ostentatious purposes or with sincerity.

It would be a fanatical mistake to consider altruism or charity to be evil merely on account on being carried out for the wrong reasons.  We also must recognize that there are many well-meaning persons who engage in altruism out of genuine compassion and kindness and for no personal gain, and that their beliefs are merely accidental facts.  Perhaps we should encourage people to consider not just the underlying reasons for their charitable efforts but also the effects of not discerning between charity for the right reasons versus for the wrong reasons, as well as encourage people to consider choosing intelligent channels for our altruistic tendencies.

I summon you to continuous pleasures and not to vain and empty virtues which have but a desperate hope for rewards. – Epicurus

Even if charity work is done for the wrong reasons, it might be deemed by some to be praiseworthy.  However, when the money raised by religious organizations funds lawyers and institutions who hide sexual predators from justice, when it funds the efforts of people who are trying to convince the world that gays should not have a family, or when it funds the activities of terrorist organizations, the problem of charity for the wrong reasons becomes obvious.

False-faith-mongers also have their lavish lifestyles subsidized by funds raised in the tax-excempt schemes of their churches.  Their flying around in private jets did not stop after the earthquake in Haiti or any of the other major fund-raising excuses that history furnished.  There are many worthy causes where money can be better spent than financing the Benny Hinn’s, the Marjoe’s and the Cardinal Bernard Law’s of the world.

Love Dances Around the World …

There are other stresses after which people are seized into religion.  One of the most prevalent ones is particularly poignant, and here we are inclined to agree with many of the great personalities of religion.

There is not enough love in this world. – Ammachi, the hugging saint of Hinduism

There is no doubt that Ammachi’s hugs have comforted thousands of lonely people.  In our own tradition, Norman DeWitt can be quoted as saying that Epicureanism runs on philos, which is more than friendship: it is love.

Friendship is an expression of love: it is more than solidarity, which is not entirely impersonal but also not entirely personal.  We can be in solidarity with an idea, but we can only befriend a person.  Friendship is definitely a personal and intimate relationship with another with whom we feel safe and can be ourselves.  It provides safety.  Ours is a philosophy of community and of friendship.

The City Without Walls

One final stress leaves people vulnerable to being seized by charlatans.  It is the universal problem of our mortality and that of our loved ones.

 It is possible to provide security against other ills, but as far as death is concerned, we men live in a city without walls. – Epicurus

Death leaves us extremely vulnerable.  We develop strong bonds with our kin and some people never fully recover from losing loved ones.  It produces great anxiety, and being a universal source of suffering, it is of course the main vulnerability by which charlatans entice the souls of mortals.

Religion also sublimates the idea of death by using euphemisms tied to paradise.  Perhaps the opium of religious belief here acts more or less, to use a metaphor from nature, as thecompassionate venom of spiders or serpents who sedate their victims so that they will not suffer as they die.  But like other forms of opium, this sedative can become seductive and addictive, and many mystics embrace their desire to escape this world so fully that they might as well live on another planet.

In this city without walls, we Epicureans must challenge political atheists to become involved in the healing of the human condition.  The Epicurean teaching mission is of great importance because, while some of us may think it’s noble to join John Lennon in imagining no religion, it is pointless to engage in atheist politics without dealing with the human condition which produces the neuroses and vulnerabilities on which religion preys.  We can’t adress the many dangers of religion if we don’t adress, by living an analysed life, our anxieties and the causes of wanting an exit from this world.  The Hellenistic philosophers taught us that we must teach each other to take care of our existential health.

The Two Forms of Frank Speech

I realize that some of the issues I’ve addressed in this piece are difficult for some people.  Philodemus’ indictment against the charlatans occurs in a fragment of his book On Frank Speech, and if we place the fragment within its context we begin to realize why this reasoning is needed.

The translation of the book that I am reading includes commentary and mentions that the role of the philosopher is to give two forms of frank speech: one is to the individual and another one is to society in general.  Let’s call them private and public forms of frank speech.  Both are crucial and necessary for different reasons.  We have seen, in the first part of this trilogy of articles, the reasons why private frank criticism is necessary.

The philosopher must speak frankly and openly to outside society in order to help emancipate others from ignorance or from tradition, and from the forms of suffering that ignorance and tradition generate.

Confucius, for instance, confronted the ancient Chinese custom of burial of live slaves with their master with great moral stamina before a local ruler, and with his eloquence and intelligence singlehandedly ended the practice.  Siddhartha Buddha confronted the caste system and the Vedic practices of animal sacrifice.  Ancient Greek atomists confronted false healers with the theory that germs produce illness and assuaged people’s fears about the gods, prophecy, heavenly bodies, and earthquakes by teaching that natural laws govern the way things are.

The confrontation of charlatans by Epicurus, Lucian, Philodemus and other Epicureans is no less morally urgent and important.  It is this form of public frank speech that incites progress and evolution in human society.

 Through love of true philosophy, every troublesome and disturbing desire is ended.- Epicurus

Author: hiramcrespo

Hiram Crespo is the author of 'Tending the Epicurean Garden' (Humanist Press, 2014), 'How to Live a Good Life' (Penguin Random House, 2020), and Epicurus of Samos – His Philosophy and Life: All the principal Classical texts Compiled and Introduced by Hiram Crespo (Ukemi Audiobooks, 2020). He's the founder of, and has written for The Humanist, Eidolon, Occupy, The New Humanism, The Secular Web, Europa Laica, AteístasPR, and many other outlets.