Foucault and the Subject of Stoic Existence
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- Seitz, B. Hum Stud (2012) 35: 539. doi:10.1007/s10746-012-9223-3
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Foucault is typically seen as having rebelled against the previous generation of French philosophy, which was dominated by existential phenomenology, and by Sartre in particular. However, the relationship between these two generations and between these two philosophers is more complex than one of simple opposition. Through a refracted focus on Foucault’s late work on Greco-Roman philosophy and on the themes of the practice of the care of the self and the freedom associated with that practice, I argue that Foucault—whose philosophy is centered around the problematization of site-specific processes of subjectification— is closer to existentialism than he seems.
Socrates is the man who takes care that his fellow citizens take care of themselves.
Michel Foucault (1997: 93)
What then can help us on our way? One thing alone; philosophy…
Marcus Aurelius (1994: 40f.)
… Let us remain hard, we last Stoics!
Friedrich Nietzsche (1989: 155)
Subjects of Freedom
The most debilitating excess of Sartrean existentialism derives from the unconscious side of its ontological commitments and the compulsion to repeat that is exhibited there. The repetition at issue is the specifically modernist placement of a universalized determination of the self before anything else (even before truth!). In short, the excess in question represents a predilection and craving for a particular form of substance and order, which must begin with the essential human subject. Ironically, then, for example, Sartre’s early ontology—which camouflages its devotion to the is by universalizing it as not—might be described as an extended exercise in bad faith, not exactly false, but, as he observes about pour soi, an elaborate and futile subterfuge. These ontological indulgences are of course symptomatic of a particular site of philosophy in history, a particular epistéme.
But there are also other, more joyful, unbound excesses associated with existentialism, those expressed in its sensitivity to the absurdity which resists meaning, in its recognition of the power of chance, and in its passion for freedom marked by resistance and for intensity of desire, all of which, perhaps, have to do with the contingency of the value of being alive, of the burden of value in the face of finitude.
On superficial survey, these other, exothermic existentialist indulgences would seem to cut a sharp contrast to the cool austerity of ancient Stoic philosophy, the philosophy which occupied a significant portion of Michel Foucault’s attention toward the end of his life. But this contrast is also just a surrogate for another, more immediately compelling one, the difference between the generation that occupied the French philosophical scene in the wake of WWII and then the generation that followed, possibly a question of clashing discursive regimes. More specifically, my ultimate interest here is an issue that is both historical and philosophical, a reconsideration of the relationship of Foucault’s philosophy to the generation that preceded him, a generation dominated by the celebrity of Sartre, the figure who promoted existentialism as if it were a system or a school of thought, the figure who Foucault overtly desired to displace.
The relationship between these two generations is typically understood as a clash between existential phenomenology and the range of philosophies that came to be known as post-structuralism. But the philosophy of that earlier generation largely defined the milieu in which the ensuing generation was trained or acquired its initial bearings and discipline. So dividing these philosophical formations as if they were mutually exclusive or opposed discursive domains is a bit simplistic—too tidy and disjunctive—and I intend here to use Foucault’s later interests as an oblique way of refreshing our understanding of his relationship to existentialism. In short, I would like consider his later interest in ancient philosophy as a minor contribution toward enriching our understanding of the existentialism in Foucault.
Excess and Austerity
Existentialism’s excesses tend to involve not the clarification of limits or conditions but the acknowledgement and even celebration of their dissolution and transgression; perhaps emblematic of this gesture is the young Nietzsche’s embarrassing predicament, vulnerable as he is to the seductive and intoxicating temptation of Dionysus.
In contrast, sober Stoicism finds true north in Epictetus’ simple thought that, “Some things are under our control, while others are not under our control” (1995: 482f.) and in the consequent clear line that distinguishes these twinned realms of a philosopher’s existence. Together, these realms determine freedom as neither transcendence nor sickness (Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard), but, and with more modesty, as the devoted and relentless monitoring of the conditions of life and the response to those conditions following the philosopher’s perception of nature. This is not a question of exceeding limitations or even of transforming one’s situation but of constructing a circular or refractive form of being, a lucid, respectful, and caring relation to one’s self and, by extension, to others.
In short, existentialism would seem to be about the recognition of the absence of defining conditions in life, and about the responsibility that accompanies this recognition. Stoicism, on the other hand, would seem to be about the recognition of the presence of strict conditions in life—including in philosophy—and about the responsibility that accompanies this recognition. In other words, at first glance, and under the contrasting auspices of the hot and the cold (and absence and presence), existentialism and Stoicism might seem to clash on the most basic of philosophical grounds.
Yet, beginning with the fact that they both pivot on a perpetual process of choice backlit by a healthy awareness of mortality and an understanding of life as a project, and with a common emphasis on the theme of responsibility, there is a clear and positive philosophical connection between existentialism and Stoicism, and I note this connection and have in fact already begun cultivating it in order to help situate Foucault’s neo-existentialist attraction to the Greco-Roman world, and thus to help situate our relationship to the late Foucault, particularly since, according to existentialism, situating is a fundamental condition of understanding. Foucault’s paternal nemesis, Sartre, once wrote, “Man is always the same. The situation confronting him varies” (1994: 44). Now Sartre’s provocative suggestion is obviously not entirely what it appears to be—we must read it in part as a philosophical joke, at least insofar as it seems to invoke a peculiar and universalized division between self and situation1—but it is a good orientation point to apply to Foucault in order to establish the place of Foucault’s relation to Stoicism, to establish, that is, Foucault’s situation, which is a situation of freedom, the consequence not of an ontological lack but of a certain kind of untimely labor of care or philosophical labor, coming after Nietzsche,2 a situation not of Foucault’s choosing (a situation into which he was “thrown,” perhaps by Roman gods). Both excessive and austere, and not an idea but a refined practice—the practice of philosophy—Foucault’s freedom encounters its familial conditions, its situation, in both existentialism and Stoicism, since in the arc of his philosophical life, it is in part his disappointment in the former that ultimately leads him to the latter.
On the one hand, there is the immediate past of Foucault’s personal development as a philosopher. Foucault did not invent himself from nothing; or, if he did, his nothingness was partially inherited from the intellectual generation that preceded and thus helped construct the history of philosophy for his generation, a “philosopher’s history” which, as far as Foucault was concerned, had little to do with actual history. Put differently, if Foucault starts from nothing, this must be the very same prospect of nothingness that he documents with such precision and passion in the last two chapters of The Order of Things, not a void but a wide open question, a provocative challenge. Then, on the other hand, there is the distant past toward which Foucault eventually turned his gaze. He does not simply peruse this past like a professor. The intersection of philosophy and history is always a tool for Foucault, a therapeutic tool of the Nietzschean variety. So in this past he recognizes something foreign but useful, a meticulously formulated aesthetics of living, a stylistics of existence, i.e., a certain understanding of the relationship between ethics and freedom, and of what it means to “make progress,” to practice philosophy, to become someone.3
The Effect of Sex on Foucault
Foucault’s relation to sex is no more innocent or disinterested than his relation to, for instance, the asylum, the clinic, or the prison. For one thing, it is of course not exactly “sex” that Foucault is talking about when he is talking about sexuality.4 More generally, however, the specific objects of his analyses seem invariably to have been selected for their strategic value, a value calculated, that is, in terms of the effects on our understanding of the conditions for the constitution of the subject, i.e., our understanding of the relations between the subject, truth, power, and, always at least implicitly, freedom, in the wake of the deterioration of the conceptual resources provided by modernism. Following his previous projects, this is the kind of thing we would expect of Foucault, and thus of his multi-volume series, The History of Sexuality, including Volume 2, The Use of Pleasure, and Volume 3, The Care of the Self—the theme of which essentially introduces the motif of the governing of the self—as well as, then, the related, ensuing work on governmentality of others. But then we should know better than to reduce our relation to Foucault to a general set of expectations, particularly since Foucault’s job was never to tell his audience some given truth, but always, after the classical manner of Socrates, to try to provoke us into thinking differently from the way we did before our encounter with him, to have something different in mind from what we did back then, to be different.
It is, of course, impossible for us, his general academic public, to know exactly what Foucault originally had in mind for his ambitious, six-volume series, The History of Sexuality, the series that never materialized. And yet this question is not irrelevant, metaphysical, or merely biographical (although we must not forget Nietzsche’s insight that philosophy is always autobiography). It is true that, much to his credit as a philosopher—particularly one erroneously known as the “philosopher of discontinuity”—Foucault seemed to “change his mind” a lot in the course of his professional life (even if, as it can be argued, each of his projects has a distinct linkage with those that precede and succeed).5 In any event, and following an extended trip to California in 1975—which included a psychedelic epiphany in Death Valley (Miller 1993: 245ff.)—Foucault dramatically recast his conception of the series following publication of Volume 1, which helps account for the 9 year gap between the first two volumes. The general shift entails moving from viewing the constitution of subjectivities from the standpoint of domination and turning toward technologies of the self, i.e., historically-specific sets of resources available to individuals for the creation of themselves.
Chapter 1 of The Use of Pleasure—“Modifications”—explicitly attempts to explain this departure from the original plan, which, he writes, had been “… a history of the experience of sexuality, where experience is understood as the correlation between fields of knowledge, types of normativity, and forms of subjectivity in a particular culture” (1984: 4). As Foucault observes, his previous work, from Madness and Civilization to Discipline and Punish, provided the tools required to address the first two aspects of sexual experience mentioned in this quotation, which made the writing of Volume 1 relatively straightforward. However, after that, it became clear to him that the problematic nature of the status of the third aspect in modern culture—forms of subjectivity—demanded a new genealogy. “Thus, in order to understand how the modern individual could experience himself as a subject of a ‘sexuality,’ it was essential first to determine how, for centuries, Western man had been brought to recognize himself as a subject of desire… What were the games of truth by which human beings came to see themselves as desiring individuals?” (1985: 5f., 7). It is this last question that led Foucault from the modernist focus of Volume 1 to the Greek and Greco-Roman foci of Volumes 2 and 3. That, at least, is one justification for the change of course, a justification determined by the object of investigation, which in this case happens to be a certain subject, the shape or shaping of the one who desires.
But on a different philosophical level, we must still ask what it is that motivates Foucault’s ongoing exploration of sexuality. This is the real question here. As he explains in “Modifications,” “… it is quite simple; I would hope that in the eyes of some people it might be sufficient in itself. It was curiosity—the only kind of curiosity, in any case, that is worth acting upon with any degree of obstinacy: not the curiosity that seeks to assimilate what it is proper for one to know, but that which enables one to get free of oneself” (1985: 8). This last clause reveals a great deal, indicating not a departure from his earlier work, but a mutation nevertheless. The effects are still calculated to inform the conditions of our understanding, but the domain of Foucault’s inquiry—and therefore the domain of conditions to be informed—has nevertheless shifted dramatically. To speak in shorthand, the parameters for the constitution of the subject remain as social as ever. But Foucault has moved from an observation of determinative, dominating discursive mechanisms that function on a more diffused, institutional, and often coercive level to, now, an observation of the discursive resources directly available to individuals, from networks of truth/power in which individuals find themselves enmeshed as subjects to possibilities cultivated and absorbed by individuals in pursuit of the prospect of constructing a subjectivity.6 In other words, and with processes of subjectification at the center, we are exploring a different grid of the relation between truth and power, looking at things from the other side, as it were, a side Foucault had largely avoided confronting directly up until this point in his career, previously content to advance a philosophy—a philosophy of freedom—by implication, perhaps leery of repeating some of the excesses of the previous philosophical generation, who had been only too enthusiastic about descriptions of “the subject,” descriptions that had been governed by the ontological excess mentioned at the beginning of this paper, and handicapped by a myopically ideological and ahistorical grasp of history and the subject’s relation to and in it (this was existentialism inadequately attentive to Nietzsche).
While Foucault’s concern had never been with the history of “sex as such” (his work of course insured that it would be impossible to imagine sex in itself), the turn to an archaeology and genealogy of the desiring subject meant that his focus had recrystallized and his attention was now drawn quite specifically to a stylistics of existence and then the care of the soul, which is what occupied his last two published books, where “It was a matter of analyzing, not behaviors or ideas, nor societies and their ‘ideologies,’ but the problematizations through which being offers itself to be, necessarily, thought—and the practices on the basis of which these problematizations are formed” (1985: 11). In the service of this analysis, The Use of Pleasure focused on fourth century B.C. Athenian aesthetics of the self, including but not restricted to regimens pertaining to sexuality. The Care of the Self focused on the later Hellenistic and Roman technics of the self or cultivation of the soul associated in particular with (1) the demise of the conditions for the self provided by the earlier culture of the city-state (the demise that followed the ascendence of empire), and (2) the correlative emergence of the conditions for a more autonomous creation of the self. It is in The Care of the Self that the critical motif becomes the image of the development of a certain kind of relation to one’s self.
“Signs of One Who is Making Progress…” (Epictetus 1995: 530f.)
As Foucault’s last published work, The Care of the Self challenges us on several major counts, not the least of which is the fact that it is not primarily about sexuality, since its observations about Greco-Roman sexual aesthetics and ethics are just one aspect of its broader concern with the theme of the care of the soul (which may be why Foucault considered not including it as a volume in The History of Sexuality series7). In retrospect, this point is apparent from the outset, but inconspicuously so, since the manifest contents of the opening sequence are, apparently, sexual, which may distract us from the latent meaning of the three chapters comprising Part One.
The opening sections of virtually all of Foucault’s books typically tend to serve a tactical function, which is to establish a sharp contrast to what is described in the rest of the book. That is, the openings present a succinct image of a discursive formation that belongs to a world effectively different from the one elaborated in detail in the subsequent chapters, and function as gestures of intensification. It is thus by means of these openings that Foucault initially demarcates the historical “discontinuities” sometimes (and sometimes unfortunately) associated with his name. These openings are often highly dramatic, as is the case with the dazzling passage on Velasquez’, “Las Meninas,” in The Order of Things, and, later, with the detailed description of the torture and execution of Damiens in Discipline and Punish.
Under the guise of marking a difference between the formation of the classical subject as represented in Artemidorus’ text and the formation of the imperial subject as represented in a range of texts, particularly those of the later Stoa, Foucault has made a more general, powerful point, which holds true for both discursive contexts. In Artemidorus’ “event” dream, which provides indications of the dreamer’s future, sex is not sex but images of sex, and images which represent not sex as an isolated motif but the subject’s identity as a whole, the subject’s position in the city (i.e., that is what the subject is). In the event dream, sexual images become a way of predicting who I will become. In effect, Foucault is announcing that Volume III of The History of Sexuality is not really about sex.
The address of Artemidorus’, The Interpretation of Dreams, establishes a link to the modern world via Freud, a link that is neither explicit nor precise, one that is not about two authors but about two historical periods, then and, more or less, now. At the same time, the hermeneutic framework of Artemidorus’ dream theory appears strange to the modern eye, since it presents a structure of more or less determinate or fixed meanings, an instantiation of the very dreambook that Freud warns us against (even while he is busily constructing his own). As we are continually reminded—and as the existentialists understood so well10—the modern world is not a world of fixed meanings, but one of flux and fluidity, conflict and contradiction. Thus another distinct link between the opening of The Care of the Self and the openings of his other books is that Foucault, posing as an alien anthropologist, immediately introduces us here to a world that is strange in relation to our own. But, unlike the Stoic conception, where the self gets constituted in relation to an existing world—what is given is not the self but the situation—Artemidorus’ understanding revolves around a specific conception of an already constituted self. That is, the particular strangeness of Artemidorus, which will serve as a “measure,” is not the strangeness on which Foucault wants to dwell.
Historians of the period in question tend to note the growth of a new individualism associated with the emergence of an increasingly anonymous, diffused, and eclectic culture that accompanied the rise of the Roman Empire. While not arguing that this understanding is wrong—here, it is impossible to avoid questions of truth value—Foucault softly mutates its emphasis, and he does this by suggesting that the impetus behind a growing sexual austerity during this period is not exactly the growth of individualism (an anachronistic concept in this context, particularly given the Stoic conception of “social reason”), but “… the development of what might be called a ‘cultivation of the self,’ wherein the relations of oneself to oneself were intensified and valorized” (1988: 43). We see, then, that Foucault is exercising a familiar interest, one with plenty of precedents in his previous projects, an interest in the appearance of new forms of subjectivity, and in the possibilities of freedom and power coextensive with them. However, because of the shift in focus already mentioned—the philosophical shift between Volume 1 and Volumes 2 and 3 of The History of Sexuality—the truth value at stake in The Care of the Self may be somewhat different from what we observe in his other works.
Foucault’s truth is typically established by the relation between the overt objects of his investigation and the implications of his rendering of those objects. Simply put, the truth of Foucault tends to be an effect of the dynamic relation between what he says and what he does not say (he does not say, for instance, what madness or freedom are in the face of the technologies that work to normalize and contain them). However, it is important to emphasize that this relation is not governed by the familiar presence-absence philosophy game, the game of the transcendental signified that dominates the history of western philosophy. This is because of the nature of the dual domain of truth in which Foucault is consistently interested: He is interested (1) in the site-specific historical conditions by means of which the truth gets constituted (again, this is an archaeological and genealogical philosophy), and (2) in establishing effective truths by means of his own work (this is a strategic philosophy). With these considerations in mind, what is the truth value here?
The truth value of the bulk of Foucault’s work through the first volume of The History of Sexuality is a function of his critical philosophy (which, beyond Kant and into Nietzsche and even, perhaps, Heidegger, is also a philosophy of demolition or clearing). It is thus associated not with a fostering of new possibilities so much as with an elucidation of the specific conditions of what has been, with a focus not on the present in relation to the future but on the present in relation to the past. On the most general level, Foucault’s previous philosophical activity had been characterized predominantly by questions such as, “What are the historical conditions from which we emerge?” and “How did we get to be what we are?” Now, though, in the extension of The History of Sexuality, he is no longer as engaged in demolition, and the driving question has become something more like, “What might we become?” a futural question that refers us, ironically, to forms of subjectivity from the far past, because while futural, it is a question that is steadfastly not speculative but anticipatory, experimental, practical.
What is different about the truth value of The Care of the Self is that Foucault is using the Greco-Roman subject as a model, not one to be advanced as a fundamental ground, nor one to be mimicked; it is an exemplary model but not an ideal. As a model, Stoicism embodies an alternative to the contemporary state of the subject, an alternative relayed as part of an attempt to open up new conceptual and existential possibilities. By exploring the distant past, and by thus sketching out the contours of a subject that we are not, Foucault is cultivating resources for the present in relation to the future. Above all, it is clear that Foucault is not investigating the imperial subject of the first two centuries A.D. in order to find some “real truth,” something nostalgically superior to the anemic yet terrifying truths of the modern world.
For one thing, Foucault maintains a rigorous and yet fascinated distance from the object of his archaeological gaze; the process of putting the potsherds back together demands this kind of discipline. On the other hand, the vessel of truth that Foucault offers us is a collaborative product, the product of a venture undertaken jointly by the deceased Foucault and these other philosophers, who, to echo the equally deceased Marcus, have been nothing more than “mummies and ashes” for nearly 2000 years, although Foucault is not looking at mummies.
But then there is the effective or strategic truth that Foucault delivers. In some superficial ways, this truth conflicts with the archaeological truth, since, even while curious, the latter at least simulates a posture of disinterest, while, to touch back on the topic of sex, the former is no more disinterested than was Pygmalion.
As a philosopher, Foucault has an investment in Stoicism, the dominant interest having to do with a truth that is not, in some straightforward sense, simply there, 2000 years back, but is here, or maybe, more accurately, is in the future. In this regard, what is most important to note—an extension of the archaeological truth—is that Foucault is not looking at Stoicism for its straightforward truth value. For example, Stoicism’s existential stylisics are governed by an understanding of nature or of a universal order that cuts in many directions, some of which may be either of interest or useful to Foucault, others of which are not. Marcus, for instance, continually makes observations to himself about his relation to nature, such as the following: “Reflect often on the intimate union and interdependence of everything in the universe,” and “Observe what your nature asks of you, as one governed by nature alone, then do this… ” (262f.). Now Foucault is not really concerned with the philosophy of nature invoked in these sentences, which on one level means that he is interested in Stoic cosmology only as part of a discursive regime which provides conditions for the appearance of specific formations of subjectivity. However, on a different level, he is very interested in the perpetual reflection not on nature as such but on one’s relation to nature, since this reflection asserts a dynamic play between what is given—“my nature” (this is an accepted or naturalized code)—and what is endlessly modified—me, my hegemonikon, my ruling principle, my directing mind—in relation to what is given. In addition, as Foucault notes, one outstanding aspect of the Stoic insistence on understanding the self in relation to everything else is the fact that, “… it constituted, not an exercise in solitude, but a true social practice… The care of the self, or the attention that one devotes to the care that others should take of themselves, appears then as an intensification of social relations” (1988: 51, 53). In other words, while not interested in the cosmology as such, Foucault is very interested in the way that Stoic cosmology plays itself out in Stoic ethics, which is of course inseparable from broader social and political configurations.
So what kind of truth do we find here? Certainly not simply a forgotten or neglected truth that Foucault is resurrecting from the past; that would be not archaeology but looting, the hawking of illicit antiquities. Nor is it a stable truth.
In an essay entitled, “Technologies of the Self,” Foucault explicitly notes that, “There has been an inversion in the hierarchy of the two principles of antiquity, ‘Take care of yourself’ and ‘Know yourself’. In Greco-Roman culture, knowledge of oneself appeared as the consequence of the care of the self. In the modern world, knowledge of oneself constitutes the fundamental principle” (1997: 228). This distinction relates directly back to all of the developments Foucault explores in, for example, The Order of Things, and thus to the modernist fixation that continues to condition existentialism and thus prevents it from being as radical as it would like to be. In other words, Foucault is not merely making a scientific observation about a historical reversal of the priority of ancient ethical axioms. Although from his preferred posture of distance, he appears to be taking sides, viewing the Greco-Roman understanding of the relation of these principles as a more interesting or useful way of conceptualizing life—a more interesting truth game—than the Christian and then modernist understanding of and privilege granted to the self-identical, already constituted subject implicated in the injunction to “know yourself,” the preface to renunciation, condemnation, salvation, normalization, institutional control. Foucault is interested in the kind of imperial subject we observe in late Stoicism because self-knowledge there is a function of self-care, and this is the case because, ultimately, the Stoic self is not something given, but something established relationally, given shape through the practice of philosophy. For the Stoics, the self is an effect of the project of living (which is always living with others), which means that, as a relation—again, a circular or even spiraling, intrinsically dydactic being—the self I construct or quite literally make in or sculpt out of life is the product of my attention to Stoic philosophy. And this care is not just some general commitment, but is expressed in the techniques the Stoic uses to shape and modify his self, techniques that include, “… letters to friends and disclosure of self; examination of self and conscience, including a review of what was done, of what should have been done, and comparison of the two” (1997: 238), as well as the continual reminder not to delay, since whatever time I have left in life is very little, every moment all the value remaining in the world. Being Stoic is a matter of becoming Stoic, which is a practice that translates into memorizing—incorporating—Stoic philosophy: “… the sage has to memorize acts in order to reactivate the fundamental rules”. By way of illustration, Foucault observes of Seneca that his faults are not really faults but mistakes, mistakes either because he forgot the philosophical aims he should be holding inside for guidance, or because he had misapplied “the rules of conduct to be deduced from them… What the subject forgets is not himself, nor his nature, nor his origin, nor a supernatural affinity… What the subject forgets is what he ought to have done, that is, a collection of rules of conduct he had learned” (2011: 207). I should be reading, I should be examining my conscience, I should be considering my specific place in the fabric of the whole; I should be making progress. Expressed in these Stoic techniques and in the coordinates provided by them in the context of Stoic cosmology (the logos of the universe) and psychology (the corresponding logos of the soul), the care I take of myself is synonymous with the kind of self I make myself be, with the self that I am becoming, defined and fortified by the incorporation of, by the second century A.D.—the century of the slave, Epictetus, and the emperor, Marcus Aurelius—the accumulated benefits of a 500 year tradition of discipline, my “self” as both a practice dependent on that tradition and the product of that practice: As Foucault writes, “The object, rather, is to arm the subject with a truth it did not know, one that did not reside in it; what is wanted is to make this learned, memorized truth, progressively put into practice, a quasi subject that reigns supreme in us” (1997: 102).
A quasi subject comes to reign supreme in us. It reigns supreme in us, and yet it also at least nascently simply reigns supreme, in the sense that these Stoic coordinates were heading historically toward Christianity and thus toward not just different, emergent social configurations but as part of the extended genealogy of the modern soul, which is to say that by putting Stoicism into a broader historical arc we are engaging the issue of governmentality and thus one of the primary focal points of Foucault’s final philosophical phase (final not as a destination but only because he died before he could continue).11 It is vital to remind ourselves at this point that Foucault is engaged in not just archaeology but also a genealogy of this subject, which of course means that no model is static or isolated.
At the end of The Care of the Self, Foucault is already indicating the sense in which the Stoic model is, then, fleeting and destined for mutation, confirming the sense in which philosophy must be concerned with the relationship between techniques of the self and techniques of domination. As he specifies the issue elsewhere, “The contact point, where the individuals are driven by others is tied to the way they conduct themselves, is what we can call, I think, government” (1993: 203). And so it is toward an indication of the mutation and intensification of forms of governmentality that he does not say but, rather, asks, “Must one suppose that certain thinkers, in the Greco-Roman world, already had a presentiment of this model of sexual austerity which, in Christian societies, will be given a legal framework and an institutional support?” (1988: 235). He continues, “… it was in terms of loftiness and purity that Christian ethics could best be compared with the ethics that, in certain philosophers of antiquity, prepared the way for it… The sexual austerity that one encounters in the philosophers of the first centuries of our era has its roots in this ancient tradition” (1988: 237). In history, the freedom made possible by the discipline of the Stoic care of the self (the application to oneself) is one that eventually gets enmeshed in the apparatuses of social configurations of governmentality. As Foucault points out elsewhere and as a counterpoint to the form of truth-telling or self-monitoring12 that is most characteristic of the Stoic way of living, “… well before Christianity, telling the truth about oneself was an activity involving several people, an activity with other people, and even more precisely an activity with one other person,” presaging practices of confession, “a practice for two” (2011: 5), thereby anticipating the governmental regimes represented by the priest and by pastoral power, then much later, the psychiatrist, etc., including related phenomena that Foucault never had the pleasure to experience, including reality television and “social networks”.
In the case of Foucault, if he is relatively partial to the Stoic subject, his partiality is strategic and just as provisional as—and in this sense, indeed a reflection of the provisionality of—any historically specific configuration of techniques of subjectification.13 As he tells us, “… Through the evolution of the term parrhesia [truth-telling] in Greco-Roman Antiquity, we arrive with Christianity as a sort of breaking up of the meanings of the word parrhesia in Christian literature” (2011: 191). Foucault is lingering here with a fragile and fleeting possibility, with a potsherd that is no longer part of life but that still continues to exist in the careful hands of the archaeologist. Nietzsche, too, found something exemplary in Dionysus and in the dynamic relation between Dionysus and Apollo, but that does not mean that he worshipped at their altars.
Thus the truth that Foucault is indicating is not the truth of the imperial subject as such. It is, however, the suggestion that Greco-Roman culture found ways of constituting the self that might provide clues or resources to help fill the space left by the demise of modernist subjectivity. It is, in other words, an effective truth, with which Foucault is aligning himself in order to mark and make a difference. After all, while Athens provides us with plenty of philosophy, it is Rome that provides us with the advantage of the only real philosopher-king, Marcus Aurelius, who describes “The properties of the rational soul: it sees itself, it articulates itself, it makes itself be whatever it wills, it reaps its own fruit… ” (1994: 292f.).
Subject to disparaging remarks by philosophers from Hume to Nietzsche, Stoicism suffers from a tragic misunderstanding, the result of a cursory glance, which mocks and dismisses it as, for instance, a philosophy of self-renunciation, affectless disengagement, resignation, and passivity. While it would be ignorant to deny that it contains elements that an impatient, modern mind might snag on, characteristically isolate, and then reduce to those features, it is certainly a mistake to believe that those are its central traits. The Stoic self: (1) is not renounced so much as it is modified and shaped, a process without end; (2) far from being affectless, it embodies a powerful and passionate form of care, the aim of which is to be as engaged as possible in life; (3) what might be misread as resignation is the product of the disciplined effort to be always attuned to the distinction between what is open to change and what is not, and the key to the Stoic perspective is that the only thing one can change, in accordance with the logos, is one’s self; (4) the Stoic mode of being is hardly passive, since this style of living demands constant vigilance, and constant attendance to one’s self and to others, e.g., as Emperor, Marcus Aurelius was neither a passive nor a disengaged man (even the quintessential man-of-action, Machiavelli, acknowledges Marcus’ virtù (2003: 63); (5) finally, a Stoic would attempt to be indifferent to and perhaps struggle to overcome laughter provoked by any of the above, modern, misunderstandings. And what this all is for is the same, simple complexity that motivated Socrates, the desire for a good life, which is largely a desire for freedom, which for the ancients was not associated either with the absence of structure or with nothingness but, rather, with the self-control—the governance of the self—necessitated by the cultivation of the soul. Foucault sees all of these tendencies in Stoic philosophy, which is why it is far more than just a historical curiosity for him, why it is worth lingering with.
Foucault lived with and in some senses started from the aftermath of the excesses of existentialism, an aftermath that eventually led him to the theme of the cultivation of the soul. As he noted the year before his death, “I think that from the theoretical point of view, Sartre avoids the idea of the self as something that is given to us, but through the moral notion of authenticity, he turns back to the idea that we have to be ourselves—to be truly our true self. I think that the only acceptable practical consequence of what Sartre has said is to link his theoretical insight to the practice of creativity—and not that of authenticity” (1997: 262). Connecting this remark to the issue at hand, Stoic wisdom assumes not that the subject is capable, finally, of liberating some undeveloped, alienated, or concealed essence, or defusing bad faith, but that the subject is capable of “making progress” and becoming free through the care of the self, which revolves around the hegemonikon, and thus begins with an endless reflection, endless, that is, until death, which for a Stoic is already here. Ultimately, then, and in addition to what else he learns from Stoicism, Foucault is inspired by an ancient wisdom, which equates freedom with the practice of philosophy. As he notes, “Thought is freedom in relation to what one does, the motion by which one detaches oneself from it, establishes itself as an object, and reflects on it as a problem” (1997: 117).
Epictetus, who was a slave, could have set Sartre straight on a number of significant and utterly concrete philosophical points. He could have pointed out, for instance, that while, yes, life is or can be made into a project, we are not “condemned to be free”—how could a slave possibly accept such a dramatically reductive assertion?—but must, rather, invest enormous labor into making ourselves be free; freedom is a labor. And Dasein might have had a more “authentic” perspective on death if it had been by Seneca’s side when he committed suicide, an act of paradigmatic Stoic rationality (and an existential gesture categorically different from being-towards-death).
And yet in the wake of the deterioration of modernist coordinates, and despite its arcane discourse, existentialism may be groping for something that echoes the insights developed by the eclectic tradition of ancient Stoicism. Sartre perceives the central problem in Husserl—the transcendental ego—and, in response, clears vital ground by evacuating the subject and by problematizing freedom as an object of reflection, thereby establishing a network of thematic connections with the Stoic subject. At the same time, he is fatally handicapped by an allegiance to both Descartes and to Hegelian “dialectics,” and thus Sartre plays the alchemist, who makes something out of nothing, while the Stoics had never burdened their understandings of the cultivation and care of the self with such abstractions.
So while Sartre goes overboard in emphasizing the necessity of nothingness, Stoicism stresses the concrete contingency of what is here; Epictetus offers a thoroughly existential view of things when he observes that, “Although life is a matter of indifference, the use which you make of it is not a matter of indifference” (1995: 246f.), since “…The contest is now…” (1995: 534f.).
Perhaps our relation to existentialism14 can benefit from establishing an oblique connection between it and Foucault via ancient philosophy. And perhaps Foucault was not as distant from either existentialism or even from Sartre as it seems. It is revealing that in a late interview, he asks the interviewer, “Did you know that Sartre’s first text—written when he was a young student—was Nietzschean? ‘The History of Truth,’ a little paper first published in a Lycée review around 1925” (1998: 446). Who else besides Foucault would have remembered such a gem?
Still reading Epictetus, and contemplating the significance of creativity, Foucault cannot help but step back and add that, “The work of philosophical and historical reflection is put back into the field of the work of thought only on condition that one clearly grasps problematizations not as an arrangement of representations but as a work of thought” (1997: 119). And, with reference to Camus, it is in the work of thought, through the creative struggle of philosophy, that we begin to cultivate strategies of resistance and to make ourselves become free.
One might suggest that the line “Man is always the same” gives Sartre’s game away.
Nietzsche's uneasy membership in the “existentialist” tribe is fortunate for existentialism, since he questions many of its propositions and prejudices.
Following a Nietzschean maneuver derived above all from a certain reading of classical philosophy, there is an intimate connection between ethics and aesthetics for Foucault. Clearly sympathetic to a Stoic truth buried by the Christian problem of purity, ethics really is coextensive with the “aesthetics of existence” for Foucault (cf. 1997: 274). To specify the connection as succinctly as possible, this means that questions about a good life are inseparable from questions about a beautiful life (by extension, questions about justice are inseparable from questions about grace (my use of this last term is asserted under the auspices of beauty rather than a Christian semiotics).
Foucault is interested in sexuality (and diet, etc.) as an armature or indicator of the subject’s identity in the West. This is why he says, “I must confess that I am much more interested in problems about the techniques of the self and things like that than sex… sex is boring” (1997: 253).
In a famous response to non-philosophical critics asking if he is going to change his positions yet again, a character in a book written by Michel Foucault writes, “‘Do not ask who I am and do not ask me to remain the same: leave it to our bureaucrats and our police to see that our papers are in order. At least spare us their morality when we write’” (2002: 19).
“Perhaps I’ve insisted too much on the technology of domination and power. I am more and more interested in the interaction between oneself and others, and in the technologies of individual domination, in the mode of action that an individual exercises upon himself by means of the technologies of the self” (1997: 225).
In “On the Genealogy of Ethics,” Foucault describes The Care of the Self as “separate from the sex series” (1997: 255).
One of Foucault's gambles—a sacrifice of history for tactics—was that he tended to present discursive formations as having neater, cleaner borders than were ever actually there. Perhaps in this late work he finally no longer found it efficacious to do so.
Several points here: First, philosophically, the Stoic tradition is an eclectic one. Second, as a backdrop to ethics, Stoic cosmology is such that part of the process of establishing a relation with one’s self is establishing a relation with everything else that exists (i.e., these processes are coextensive with each other). Third, the most important concept in Stoic psychology is that of the hegemonikon, the “ruling principle” or “directing mind”. This is the philosophical part of the Stoic soul, which shapes the self, and in so doing is also continually cultivating and refining itself.
This is perhaps what unconsciously prompted existentialism to nail things down in the somber, self-serious concepts that Foucault found so objectionable. For Foucault, Sartre in particular represented a synthetic microcosm of the entirety of modern philosophy, from Descartes through Hegel, with, really, neither enough Nietzsche nor enough history stirred in as an antidote.
For a note regarding the meeting point between the ancient and the Christian, cf. Foucault (2005: 247).
It is useful to keep in mind that Stoics were disdainful of the practice of dialectics, since the basic coordinates of living were, for them, a reflection of a lucid understanding of nature and were thus not open to full-on interrogation. What was open to interrogation was one’s relation and response to those coordinates, not the coordinates themselves.
Eidetic variation was a philosophical technique introduced by phenomenology. Foucault may have dispensed with phenomenology, but he spent his career engaged in something like eidetic variation on the interlocking themes of subjectivity, freedom, truth, and power, which—the variation—is one way of indicating why literal-minded critics accused him of inconsistency. Cf. footnote 5.
For the moment, and leaving aside footnote 13, let us leave the complicated issue of Foucault’s relation to phenomenology out of the picture.