Michel Foucault, Care of the Self, and the Classicists

I was present at a talk recently from a classicist visiting Istanbul. I don’t want to give details of the talk or the name of the speaker. I have a critical point to make, but I don’t want to appear to be targetting someone who gave a good talk, was very friendly, and as far as I can tell is a classicist of a very high level. The talk tell with Roman Stoicism and very briefly referred to Foucault. I brought up Foucault (amongst other things) in my questions in the discussion after the talk, and the discussion continued.


The point that prompted one of my question was the claim that Foucault’s notion of the ‘care of the self’ is something he associates with two things

Narrow self-interest

The rise of Neo-Stoicism in the early Empire, that is the period of Roman history from 27 BCE when the honorific name Augustus, used by all the subsequent Emperors, was given to Gaius Julius Caesar, more generally known as Octavius (he was born Gaius Octavius Thurinus).



Foucault certainly does not think ‘care of the self’ is just a matter of self interest, though it is true that he thinks of ‘care of the self’ reducing to mere concern with privacy in the time of Octavius Augustus. As I have pointed out before Foucault does not define ‘care of the self’ as mere selfishness but as a threefold which include privacy. Privacy on its own is maybe close to just being self-interested in a very narrow way, but Foucault does not go so far as that in his explicit discussion.


As I’ve already pointed out, care of the self has the following three aspects









On the second point from the Classicist speaker


Foucault clearly situated the emergence of the ‘care of the self’ in Plato’s Socratic dialogues. Plato was alive 429-347 BCE, so he died 320 years, more than three centuries before the beginning of the Augustan era. So there is clearly something wrong with saying that Foucault thought ‘care of the self’ emerged in the early Empire, and that would still be the case if we went back to the Stoic leanings of Cicero who died as the Republic was dying, in 43 BCE.



In the discussion I had with the Classicist, he said that the Classicists had been big fans of Foucault, and then turned against him for being too schematic and inaccurate in his approach to history. It’s peculiar that they turned against him on those grounds, as they were the best situated people to notice those problems in the first place. In general, Foucault is open to those criticisms in relation to everything he wrote. That sort of criticism could miss the point. It’s a good thing to discuss the accuracy of Foucault’s historical details, but overall we have to judge him as someone who develops a series of general theses about different ways in which knowledge and power appear over history in which historical scholarship provides the starting point for necessarily reductive, but powerful and creative generalisations which are subtle and complex in their own terms.


Judging from what the Classicist said about Foucault, and which I have criticised above, the Classicists themselves are inclined to schematic claims about Foucault, lacking accuracy in the detail. What the Classicist said about the Classicist culture gave a reason for this, a tendency to legitimise themselves by adopting thinkers popular with literary theorists but only after the literary people have moved onto a new theorist. I hope the Classicists no longer feel the need to justify themselves in this way, particularly since as far as I can see the literary theory field has not had any major new developments for some years.


Foucault on the Self and Individualism

A few thoughts inspired by my current reading of The Use of Pleasure and The Care of the Self, volumes II and III of Michel Foucault’s History of SexualityHistory of Sexuality is concerned with movements in the knowledge and ethics of the self, with a focus on the erotic.


Foucault defines three aspects of individualism: the value of individuality, private life, the relation of the self with itself.  The movement of the argument is to suggest that privacy has been given too much emphasis, and the other two aspects not enough.  This overemphasis on privacy is linked with the 19th Century bourgeoisie and with the Rome of Augustus.  That is Ancient Rome under its first Emperor Augustus.  Foucault puts the well known edicts of Augustus to control sexuality as being about pushing ‘deviant’ sexuality into the private sphere, and links this with the movement in Antique ethics towards the rationalism and asceticism of Stoicism.


What Foucault sees in pre-Augustus antiquity, and even in the careful reading of the Roman and Hellenstic Neo-Stoics (Seneca, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius), is a richness of understanding of the self and care for the self.  It is care for the self, which establishes someone as a citizen with political rights,  That provides a breach of private/public barrier in a link between self-government and the right to political self-government and the government of others.  Evidently Foucault finds the self-government the most interesting aspect.


Within that affirmation of the self as political self, Foucault introduces an important distinction.  That is the distinction between following external laws and style of activity.  ‘Style of activity’ arises where the individual goes beyond natural order and positive law.  It arises in the interpretation of dreams, where the actor in the dream goes beyond the ‘natural’ in sexual activity.


Style of activity is one way in which individuality and the relation of self with itself can be enhanced.  The activity of self-creation and presentation is the most liberatory experience.  The Antique culture struggles with this, even it most open moments.  Ancient Athens tolerated open homosexuality, but gives it a low value because it is seen as an older man as penetrating a younger man of lower status.  Homosexuality is low because it means connections with lowness, and the same is true for relations with woman.  Virility, sexual capacity, is given value in Ancient culture where it is linked with citizenship.  The citizen should govern, and impregnate, a woman who gives him a child.  Since the woman has low status with no political rights, sexual relations with her must be disgraceful, undermining the social-moral status given to a man with a woman he governs.


Style of activity seems to be Foucault’s alternative to a degradation of the self in asceticism.  The invention of the self as outside the ‘truth’ of nature or the prescription of laws, proves a way of valuing individuality and the relation of the self with itself.  This in itself contains further distinctions.  Truth is valued where it comes from the self and is not an external imposition.  There is a truth of being someone different, of new inventions of selfhood, which expresses some resistance to metaphysical and legal ‘truths’.  In this way, Foucault suggest forms of individualism, beyond mere privacy, for the contemporary world.

Virtue, Economy and the Self: 5 Links

My thoughts for this post came about in the most immediate sense from Will Wilkinson: a post at his blog Will Wilkinson, entitled Now Let us Praise Results-Facilitating Virtue, dated 20th November 2009. Wilkinson is an economics and public policy commentator, with a background in philosophy.  He is responding to an blog post where the George Mason economist Tyler Cowen praises one of his colleagues, Robin Hanson, who responds in his own blog by arguing for the importance of praising consequences of individual actions, rather than the individual concerned.  Links to all of that in Wilkinson’s post.  What Wilkinson gives in reaction to all that is a beautiful little essay on character, virtue, and advantages to the economy.  As he explains, ‘virtue’ as an idea in ethical though refers to the character traits which the good individual forms and which benefit society.  What Wilkinson emphasises is the collective economic benefits of individuals in the society with virtue.


Since for non-philosophers ‘virtue’ amy seem like something to do with abstract moralising, it is worth explaining that ‘virtue ethics’ refer mores to a cultivation of individual excellence which serves the ‘virtuous’ individuals and society as a whole.  Virtue on this account is really more to do with strength and constancy of character, rather than giving priority to the demands of external moral obligations.  The Antique tradition of virtue was taken up in Medieval Christian philosophy, most notably in the thought of Thomas Aquinas; and at that point it maybe acquires a sense of moral imposition, though that is something of a brutal generalisation.   That antique sense of virtue has been increasingly discussed in philosophy since the 1950s, along with an increasing recognition that it was still very present in  18th and 19th Century philosophy.


For a very handy summary of Aristotle’s ethics by a leading commentator, Roger Crisp, go this podcast posted at the Faculty of Philosophy, Oxford University.  For an equally admirable summary of some later developments in Antique ethics, around Seneca and Stoicism, click here for a link to a recent podcast of am interview of Rick Benitez conducted by Alan Saunders for his PhilosophyZone radio show.


The virtue ethics tradition, as mediated by the Antique Stoics, was a major influence on Adam Smith in An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, as well as in his ethical treatise, The Theory of the Moral Sentiments.  For a great discussion of this click here for a pdf of Deirdre McCloskey’s paper ‘Adam Smith, the Last of the Former Virtue Ethicists’.  McCloskey is a professor of economics, history, English and communications at the University of Illinois, Chicago, which gives an idea of the way that she integrates different areas of the humanities and social sciences.  McCloskey points out that Smith’s philosophy and economic thought are shaped by Stoicism and theories of the virtues, and not just the virtue of prudence.  She also has a very good sketch of how economists, and the culture in general, lost sight of this kind of integration until philosophers revived Antique virtue theory.


One possible fault with McCloskey’s analysis is in the title, in its suggestion that Smith was the last of the virtue theorists.  This has some justification if we think of how Smith’s thought is distinguished from what was then the emergent moral school of Utilitarianism which very definitely looks at ethics from the point of view of the consequences of actions, and not quality of character.  However, there is at least one major candidate amongst late 19th Century philosophers for the label of virtue ethicist, Friedrich Nietzsche.  We can see his philosophy as a return from theories of external moral excellence to a theories of individual excellence.  That’s a rather large question I can’t deal with here, but an excellent brief summary of why Nietzsche might be considered a virtue theorist can be found in Lester Hunt’s paper ‘The Eternal Recurrence and Nietzsche’s Theory of Virtue’, click for the pdf.

I expect to return to these issues very soon in relation to Benedict de Spinoza and Michel Foucault.

Me on Joseph Schumpeter at LiberalVision

Joseph Schumpeter’s Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy. LiberalVision November 19th 2009
I look at the following points in Schumpter’s book.
The possibility and maybe inevitability of socialism
Socialism depends on a mixture if economic stasis and concessions to market mechanisms to work.
Capitalism as better than its predecessors, or any possible socialist society, for delivering improving living standards for everyone including the poorest.
Capitalisms rests on the individual initiative of entrepreneurs, which is important in economic theory. It is also important for liberty, in a culture of individual rights and respect for law.
The tendency of capitalism to create its own opponents in a disaffected intelligentsia and to protect their rights, and even to elevate them to high cultural status.
The tendency of capitalism to create big businesses and share holders who are detached from day to day economic profits and losses, and tend to lose the entrepreneurial spirit.
Socialism cannot work as intended by its most idealistic supports, partly because of he inevitability of at least some inequality and some price mechanism; and partly because of the impossibility of forming a pure will of the people.
The problems of forming a pure will exist in democracy in general, as there are always different interests and factions within the People, and different ways of constructing that will. In general democracy becomes a way in which electors seek economic advantage and political groups try to get majority support through offering such advantages.
Schumpeter offers a paradoxical classic of liberalism, in showing the strength of anti-liberal tendencies in liberal capitalist society. It’s a classic of liberal thought in showing the decline of freedom and economic dynamism involved, so showing what needs to be resisted.

Joseph Schumpeter and Paul Feyerabend on Galileo

In Against Method (Verso, London, 1975, 1988, 1993), Paul Feyerabend argues that Galileo’s theories of astronomy an physics were not intellectually or empirically superior to the theories they were contesting. In this influential work on the philosophy of science, Feyerabend argues that Galileo’s theories won out because of social and political forces inclined to strengthening the secular sphere against the church; they supported Galileo regardless of scientific criteria in a struggle against the church. Feyerabend extends this into a general theory of the irrational bases to developments in science.
In 1942, the economist Jospeph Schumpeter (like Feyerabend an Austrian who made his life and career in the English speaking world) published Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy. This suggested the inevitability of socialism, though probably of a limited kind, and explained why this would not be an advance for human civilisation. In discussing bourgeois civilisation, Schumpeter refers to the support of the early bourgeoisie (page 124), arguing that they found Galileo to be an individualist like themselves. While Schumpeter is arguing that bourgeois civilisation is the best civilisation, he does not claim that the bourgeoisie supported Galileo for reasons of scientific truth; they simply thought his personal style resembled their own superior ethical values of individual effort and rational risk taking.
I’ve quickly checked the scholarly literature through GoogleScholar. I found some articles linking Schumpeter to Thomas Kuhn, as well as Feyerabend, but not with reference to that sociological explanation of the success of Galileo’s theories. What I found compares Schumpeter’s notion of creative destruction in a capitalist economy, with Kuhn’s idea of paradogm shifts and scientific revolution, along with Feyerabend’s epistemological anarchy. So what has been considered is a parallel between change in science and change in the economy.
As far as I can see this clear connection around the sociology of early modern science has been overlooked. Is the connection just coincidence, or did Feyerabend read Schumpeter?

Peter Heather on the End of the Roman Empire

I’m no expert on Ancient history, and I never read much about the end of the Roman Empire in the west. Nevertheless, Peter Heather’s book The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History (PanMacmillan, Basingstoke, 2005) does look like a reasonable summary of where the historical understanding of that period is. It’s very readable and has plenty if supporting sources and interesting arguments. I recommend it, though clearly not as an expert.

Anyway, he’s clearly an academic expert in the field who got the chance to write a relatively commercial book. with a slightly populist cover. So even if this is not the best perspective, it certainly represents a highly scholarly perspective. There seem to be a few relatively popular recent books by academic experts around, so I hope to read a bit more and post on those perspectives in time. There is the interesting question of why these books are appearing. Does it reflect some general sense that the ‘West’ is declining in relation to the rising countries of Asia? Or is there another reason? I can’t really think this through right now, but maybe I’ll come back to this.

What is Heather’s perspective?
The Roman Empire was not in long term decline after the last of the ‘Golden Emperors’, Marcus Aurelius (d. 180). It remained in very robust shape, as reformed by Diocletian (reigned 283-305), with regard to borders, political cohesion and military strength until the very last years of the Fourth Century.
The Empire did change, particularly under Diocletian who introduced a tetrarchy to control the Empire more effectively (the tetrarchy was two senior emperors and two junior emperors, one of each in the west and the east). This responded to a very real need to diffuse power from Rome, but in a limited way. There were often conflicts between western and eastern emperors, but these did not threaten the administrative structure of the economic substance of the empire.
Power was diffused, to some degree to secondary centres: Milan, Ravenna and Trier in the west; Salonika in the east. This slowed down some forms of communication between the emperor and administrators, but not so as to cause serious problems.
The Empire continued to ‘Romanise’ until very late. That is, more and more members of local elites emerged who were educated in Latin language and literature to the same level as the most educated Romans. ‘Barbarians’ entering the Empire were Romanised, partly through military service.
Parts of Germany which were not in the Empire were very Romanised and were effectively satellite states. There was no proto-German nation, but shifting tribes with shifting coalitions and geographical locations. The Germanic areas were mostly very poor until late in the Empire.
The Germans who extended into what is now Romania became more economically sophisticated in the late Fourth century, which allowed them to pose more of a military threat.
The movement of Huns into Roman territory and other parts of Europe, created new movements of people and new incursions into Roman territory with very destabilising effects on the Empire.
Defeat by Parthians in Persia put some strain on the Empire at a very bad moment, because the unprecedented movement of tribes began soon afterwards.
There was some decline of tax revenue, and of spending from the centre in the late Fourth Century. This made local elites more autonomous but did not have a major effect on the Empire, Local elites stayed loyal until barbarian incursions tested loyalty to the Empire too much.
The weakening to the Empire set in during the last decade of the Fourth century, producing an accelerating disintegration with some variations until the overthrow of the last Emperor in the west in 476. So there was less than 100 years of the kind of decline often attributed to the Empire after 180, which create 300 years of decline.
Diocletian’s changes killed of the Republican residues still lingering earlier in the Empire, and the later emperors were God-Kings never challenged in the Senate, or any other political arena. This did not harm the cohesion of the Empire. Local elites and the bureaucracy had good reasons to be loyal to the Emperor who financed them, gave them jobs and enforced the strong property rights of Roman law.
The Roman Empire continued in the Byzantine Empire of the east, but only until the Seventh century Muslim conquests deprived Constantinople of large amounts of land, and most of its revenues, The Byzantines continued to identify themselves as Romans, but after this point, their state had become a Hellenic fragment of the Empire, rather than a continuation.

Foucault on Truth and Ethics; Nussbaum’s Error

Recently I read Michel Foucault’s Fearless Speech (edited by Jospheph Pearson, Semiotext(e), Los Angeles CA, 2001), based on lectures he gave in California about parrhesia in Ancient Greek philosophy, literature and politics.  Parrhesia is translated in my abridged Liddell and Scott Greek-English Lexicon (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1891) as ‘free speaking’.  It does not appear in Georg Autenrieth’s Homeric Dictionary (translated by Robert Keep, Duckworth, London, 1984), which is only to be expected, because as Foucault points out it’s a word that comes into use in Golden Age Athens.  It does appear in Alexander Souter’s Pocket Lexicon to the Greek New Testament (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1916) as ‘boldness, freedom, liberty, shown especially in speech’.  All of this, and more is incorporated into Foucault’s discussion of the negative and positive uses of the term in Euripides’ tragedies, commentary on Athenian democracy, Cynic philosophy, and so on.  In a rather indirect way Foucault himself develops a position on ethics, communication and liberty.  More of that on another occasion I hope.


Recently I was also listening to a podcast of Martha Nussbaum being interviewed  on Australian radio about Stoics, Epicureans and Sceptics, on the reissue of her recent classic The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics (original edition: Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ, 1994) with a new introduction.  Click here to go directly to the podcast. Click here to go to the relevant link at the podcast aggregator site earideas.


A great summary of her work in that area, and it is a great body of work.  Nussbaum has some grudging respect for Foucault, in contrast to her attacks on anyone else who might be regarded as influenced by, or adjacent to, Foucault’s approach.  Her somewhat prejudiced mindset gets the better of her in the podcast, when she shows some regard for Foucault’s work on antique ethics.  Nussbaum claims that Foucault ignores  truth in his discussion of self-formation through ethics in the ancient world.


The lectures in Fearless Speech focus in the importance of truth, the right fort he lower classes to speak truth in a vulgar manner in Athenian democracy, the value and danger Euripides sees in unrestrained truth telling.  There are ways in which Foucault would say that these truths are subjective not absolute, but that is not the same as devaluing truth.


In an approach reminiscent of Mill in On Liberty, Foucault emphasises the value of struggle for truth, the great agon.  No one condemns Mill as a dangerous sceptic, subjectivist etc, for emphasising the value of a permanent conflict over truth in which no one ever has a complete victory, so maybe there’s no need to condemn Foucault on the basis of such accusations.