Speaking truth to power becomes quite impossible if the speaker has failed first to speak truth unto himself. The attempt might help to teach him that speaking truth is painful, in this vale of tears, and the more excruciating after one’s cheering section has dropped away. You will know that you have successfully spoken truth to power only later in the evening, when the Gestapo arrives; good luck speaking truth to them.

It is supposed to be an old Quaker saying, which would give it some original dignity, for the Religious Society of Friends did knowingly court persecution, while eschewing defences, in the seventeenth century. They were certainly high on Parrhesia, the biblical term that is constantly on a certain pontiff’s lips. (See Father Hunwicke, the classical scholar.) I, who totally reject the Quakers’ Arian, pacifist, teetotal, and radically egalitarian tenets (for starters), nevertheless still take their founder George Fox (1624–91) for one of my heroes. I was deeply impressed by his Journal, once upon a time, sensing in it the burning sincerity of a good if somewhat humourless man. (Look: the Everyman edition is still on my shelves, after forty years!) His instinct to simplicity in private life and works is commendable, and though sometimes heretical, his readings of Scripture contain flashes of prophetic insight.

As ever, the sect which followed him dispersed in many schismatic channels, so that we now have multiple branches of Friends who aren’t much friends of each other, as all drift farther from their Christian roots. I have met a couple of impressively conscientious Quakers, though, from congregations that must have been doing something right.

Fox was not author to the phrase, “speaking truth to power,” nor any of his high-sounding contemporaries, so far as I know. Instead, it seems to have come out of the civil rights movement in the USA, exploding after the American Friends Service Committee used it for the title of one of their pinkish tracts against the Cold War, in 1955. Smugness is implicit in the phrase, and by no accident it has since been popularized chiefly by persons with more actual power — in terms of available, aggressive supporters — than the adversaries they taunt with it. Fox would never have done this: he was in my view too decent a man. Yet it is one of the oversights in Fox, that in volubly proposing a public holiness, he was increasing the scope for public hypocrisy; the humourless being slow to catch a paradox in motion.

Stand your ground on moral issues, bravely; and speak the truth to anyone who will listen; but not too boldly. Christ was not a moral exhibitionist, and neither have the true Saints called moralizing attention to themselves. They fear God but are also vividly aware of the Devil and his snares. They realize that in the very moment they appear to triumph, Hell may be gaping before them. God may temper the wind to the shorn lamb, but conversely, He may let it howl on the woolly. Grandstanding would not be advised.

The Prophets, Old Testament and New, did not speak truth to power. They spoke truth rather to all Israel, and upon a divine command. Their boldness was not their own. The truth spoken by the prophet was moreover transparently not his own. Often it was mysterious in worldly terms: it contained things that could not be understood within the conventions of the day, or for long after. It had the ring of transcendent truth, as opposed to the whine of situational plausibility. The prophet spoke for God to the people, not for the people to their king. This could not court popularity; and as Christ reminds, the prophets were despised.

It is from such reflections I have come to believe that those who say they speak truth to power, or even think it, are lying to themselves. The demagogic pose negates the message.

But how can we escape posture, and begin at least to speak truth to ourselves?

As Lent progresses, one is reminded, by the progress of one’s own little failures, one’s own nasty little private infamies, that the process begins and ends in speaking truth to God’s little priest in the Confessional.