Manual Foucault and Classical Antiquity: Power, Ethics and Knowledge

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Foucault maintains in The Care of the Self that aphrodisia remains the ethical substance for Roman sexual ethics. But unlike the Greek ethicists before them, Roman ethicists conceived the aphrodisia as essentially and intrinsically dangerous rather than dangerous merely because of the fact that their intensity induces immoderate conduct. According to Foucault, Roman ethicists stipulated that although sexual acts are good by nature, since nature is perfect in its designs, those acts are nevertheless fraught with a dangerous and essential passivity that causes involuntary movements of the body and soul and expenditure of the life forces.

Nature has, as it were, designed sex as good and beneficial but only on the condition that it conforms to its designs. Foucault therefore asserts that the perception of the dangerous physical and spiritual effects of unrestrained sexual activity led to a moral and medical discourse about sex different in kind than that of ancient Greek ethical discourse.

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It focused more on moderated use as a means of achieving physical and spiritual health rather than excellence. The mode of subjection is the way in which the individual establishes its relation to the moral code, recognizes itself as bound to act according to it, and is entitled to view its acts as worthy of moral valorization.

For example, consider the obligation to help someone in need. The use of pleasures refers to how a man managed or integrated pleasures into his life such that their use did not compromise but benefitted his health and social standing.

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Appropriate management submitted the use of pleasures to three strategies. The strategy of need demanded that desires for pleasures should arise from nature alone and be fulfilled neither extravagantly nor as a result of artifice. The strategy of status demanded that a man use his pleasures consistent with his inherited status, purposes, and responsibilities.

But submitting oneself to this mode of subjection meant imposing ethical requirements on oneself that were not included in the moral code. In fact, submitting oneself to this rigorous sexual ethics was seen as a noble and fine choice precisely because it was not morally required. The mode of subjection for ancient Roman sexual ethics is also an aesthetics of existence, but Foucault is also clear that it is more austere than the Greek ethics that preceded it. What this means is that Roman ethical obligations became stricter despite a loose moral code regarding sex.

The increased austerity of this ethics is due in part to the perception of an intrinsic passivity of sexual acts, and also because the means of responding to this passivity required greater attention to the rationality of nature which is not be understood according to the distinction between what is normal and abnormal.

Roman ethicists conceived that the pleasures of sex were derived by involuntary and dangerous movements of the body and soul, and that seeking pleasure as the end of an act only furthered the possibility of corrupting both body and soul. Consequently, the criterion by which Roman ethicists evaluated sexual conduct was whether it was born of desire conformed to the wisdom of nature. These practices are not to be conflated with an asceticism that strives for the goal of freeing oneself from all desires for physical pleasures. To be sure, all ascetic practices are, Foucault thinks, organized around principles of self-restraint, self-discipline, and self-denial.

Foucault maintains that the ethical work to be performed in ancient sexual ethics is that of self-mastery. For the ancient Greeks, mastering oneself is an agonistic battle with oneself, where victory is achieved through careful use of the pleasures according to need, timeliness, and social status. Greek ethicists understood that this battle required regular training in addition to the knowledge of the things to which one ought to be attracted.

The sort of training a man undertook was aimed at self-mastery through practices of self-denial and abstention, which taught him to satisfy natural needs at the right time consistent with his social status. The moral end of such practices was not to cultivate the attitude that abstention is a moral ideal, but rather to train him to become temperate and self-controlled.

As such, successful self-mastery was exhibited by the man who did not suppress his desires, but authoritatively controlled them in a way that contributed to his excellence and the beauty of his life. Foucault suggests that this ideal is exemplified in the literature about the love of boys, which heroized the man who could express and maintain friendly love for a boy while at the same restraining his co-present erotic love. Foucault is clear in The Care of the Self that the ethical work in ancient Roman ethics is also self-mastery, and that the ethicists reconceived the nature of this kind of ethical work.

Instead of an agonistic relationship in which a man struggles to subdue and enslave his desires for pleasures rather than be subdued and enslaved by them through their proper use, the work of self-mastery for Roman ethics was forcing the desires for pleasures into proper alignment with the designs of nature. What becomes essential for this ethics is grasping that all pleasures that are not internal to oneself originate in desires that might not be capable of satisfaction, and whenever one chooses to engage such desires one subjects oneself to physical and spiritual risk.

The intensification of the austerity of sexual ethics this change in self-mastery produced is emphasized in marital ethics. Their joint spiritual well-being was considered integral to the harmony of the human community. The telos of an ethics is the ideal mode or state of being toward which one strives or aspires in their ethical work.

The man who controlled his use of pleasures made himself personally prosperous — physically excellent and socially estimable — in the same way that a household or nation prospers as the result of the careful and skilled governance of a manager or ruler, and a man was not expected to be successful in managing his household or exercising political authority and influence without first achieving victory over his pleasures. The man who failed to master his pleasures and yet found himself in a position of authority over others was a candidate for tyranny, while the man who mastered his pleasures was considered the best candidate to govern.

Roman ethicists conceived the activity of self-mastery as aiming at a conversion of the self to itself, which they conceived as freedom in fullest form. Through the ethical work of self-mastery an individual conformed their desires to the rationality of nature, which resulted in a detachment from anything not given by nature as an appropriate object of desire. Roman ethicists did not understand the telos of self-mastery as the authority over pleasures that manifested itself in their strategic use, but rather it manifested itself as a disinterestedness and detachment from the pleasures such that one finds a non-physical, spiritual pleasure in belonging to the true self nature intends.

Nature does not recommend the mere pursuit of pleasures; it recommends the pursuit of pleasures insofar as those acts are consistent with other ends that it wants met.


Foucault certainly claims in both those volumes that the care of self is foundational to ancient ethics UP 73, , ; CS , but curiously, and despite his titling of the third volume The Care of the Self , he does not provide significant discussion of the care of self in its generality. This history emphasizes the integral relation between the care of self and the concern for truth, notably on display in the practice of parrhesia frank-speech , as its central mode of expression. For the ancients, Foucault claims, the care of the self was the foundational principle of all moral rationality.

Today, however, caring for oneself is without moral content. By explaining the ancient conception of the care of the self and its connection to the Delphic prescription to know oneself, famously observed by Socrates, Foucault wishes to diagnose the exclusion of the care of the self by modern thought and consider whether, given his diagnosis, the care of the self might remain viable in modern ethics.

These two injunctions were originally expressed by Socrates — the exemplar par excellence, Foucault thinks, of the person who cares for himself — with the care of the self serving as the justification for the prescription to know oneself. The prescription to know oneself was the means through which one cared for oneself, and Socrates cared for his own soul and the souls of others by using the practice of dialectic to force the examination of the truth of his own thought and conduct and that of his interlocutors.

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The salient point for Foucault is that Socrates did not practice philosophy merely as a means of arriving at true propositions. Instead, his program was to use philosophy as a tool for examining and testing the consistency of the rational discourse he and his interlocutors employed to justify their lives and conduct.

Foucault sees this as a philosophical activity that is fundamentally oriented to the care of the self, for truth is pursued in philosophy for its own good and the sake of ethical development.

Foucault therefore distinguishes between philosophy simpliciter and philosophy as a spiritual activity. But philosophy as a spiritual activity — or philosophy undertaken according to the injunction to care for oneself — is philosophy conceived as ethical work that must be performed in order for an individual to gain access to the truth. This is not to say, of course, that philosophy as a spiritual activity does not seek to acquire knowledge of things as they are. Rather, it is to say that such knowledge requires right conduct in addition to the justification of a true belief.

Now, knowing oneself becomes merely a necessary epistemic, and not moral, condition for gaining access to the truth. Consequently, attending to oneself becomes judging the truth of a proposition, and self-knowledge is not a directive for spiritual and ethical development. In modernity philosophy is, for the most part compare HS 28, where Foucault adds some qualification , not the activity of ethical transformation that aims at the existence transformed by truth.

The modern shift in the construal of self-knowledge as self-evidence required changes in moral rationality. But this is predicated upon a fundamental misconception of the care of the self. The care of the self is the ethical transformation of the self in light of the truth, which is to say the transformation of the self into a truthful existence. In the final two years of his life, Foucault began to focus his attention on a particular ancient practice of caring for the self, namely, parrhesia alternatively, parresia or frank-speech.

Parrhesia is the courageous act of telling the truth without either embellishment or concealment for the purpose of criticizing oneself or another. Foucault stipulates that there are five features of the parrhesiastic act.

First, the speaker must express his own opinion directly; that is, he must express his opinion without or by minimizing rhetorical flourish and make it plain that it is his opinion. Second, parrhesia requires that the speaker knows that he speaks the truth and that he speaks the truth because he knows what he says is in fact true. Fourth, the function of parrhesia is not merely to state the truth, but to state it as an act of criticizing oneself for example, an admission or another. Finally, the parrhesiastes speaks the truth as a duty to himself and others, which means he is free to keep silent but respects the truth by imposing upon himself the requirement to speak it as an act of freedom FS ; see also GSO It is in Socrates, Foucault says, that the care of the self first manifests itself as parrhesia.

But not only Socrates; Foucault considers parrhesiastic practices throughout the ancient Greek and Roman epochs. Socrates himself lived in a way that was in perfect conformity with his statements about how one ought to live, and those statements themselves were supported by a rigorous rational discourse defending their truth.

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Because Socrates bound himself in his conduct to his own philosophically explored standards, his interlocutors understood him to be truly free. Socratic parrhesia therefore manifests the care of the self because its intent is ethical, for it urges the interlocutor to pursue knowledge of what is true and conform their conduct to the truth as ethical work. Whether or not that was accidental is an interesting area of scholarship. Thus, around Kant, Foucault combines critical philosophy and ethics, and that connection provides greater insight into just how Foucault conceives of ethics and the history of ethics in relation to his own project.

But his self-alignment with the tradition of critical philosophy has become the most contentious issue in the scholarship. The criticisms are diverse, but all offer some version of the thesis that Foucault either rejects or lacks the normative criteria required for critique.

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Late in his life Foucault often claimed to be a descendant of the tradition of critical philosophy established by Kant. Instead, he controversially claims to promote autonomy by engaging in a critical-historical ontology of the present, the purpose of which is to disclose the singular and arbitrary constraints that we impose upon ourselves so that we might, should we possess the courage, constitute ourselves differently.

Allen disputes this view, maintaining that Foucault never rejects the notion of self-constitution, but rather rejects the uniquely modern conception of self-constitution as it appears in Kantian and post-Kantian philosophy. A possible alternative is presented by Norris , who claims that Foucault simply does not have a consistent position on the Kantian philosophy, but that need not necessarily diminish our appreciation of his later work.

It is relevant to this discussion that Foucault himself says he is not above changing his mind.