Agonism and Virtue in Foucault’s Ethics

I’m looking at Foucault’s work on antique ethics in History of Sexuality, as an agonistic virtue ethics. It is virtue ethics, because it is an ethics of flourishing, in which human excellence is taken as the source of value. It is agonistic, because Foucault himself uses that word to refer to the role of struggle within the self, to command oneself. That struggle is also a struggle with others to have the right to command in a state, but that kind of agonism is only considered in passing, as a political struggle. There is an ethics of egalitarianism in Foucault, which emerges from his consideration of erotic pleasure and the ways that antique thought places erotic pleasure within a care of the self. That care of the self emerges in Plato and is deeply ambivalent. In one part it leads to Christian asceticism, in another part it leads to a sense that pleasure is good but must be regulated from the point of view of reason and health. The kind of virtue ethics in Foucault is also agonistic because it is pluralistic. It is more pluralistic than Swanton’ pluralistic view of virtue ethics. Foucault does does not root virtue in a single human nature, he regards care for self as best expressed in an aesthetics of life, a style of existence which is invented by the individual and is more than what universal categories suggest.

Foucault’s turn to overtly ethical writing in his last years offers a distinct form of virtue ethics. This does not emerge abruptly in his later writings, it is rooted in the earlier fascination with the plurality of forms of knowledge and power. Christine Swanton wrote on a pluralistic view of virtue ethics (Virtue Ethics: A Pluralistic View, 2005), and brought in Nietzsche. However, that approach cannot properly capture what is in Nietzsche or Foucault. It is just Foucault who is considered her, the discussion of Nietzsche will take place elsewhere, but it is appropriate to acknowledge here that Nietzsche is both part of the background to Foucault and a different case to Foucault. What Foucault offers is something very distinct for virtue ethics, and the discussion of this contribution has hardly begun yet.

The idea of agon, of struggle, is fundamental to Foucault’s ethics and to his politics. His two most obvious predecessors on this issue are Nietzsche and Machiavelli. Unfortunately he is inclined to take Machiavelli as ‘Machiavellian’ in the familiar sense. He does not seem to notice Machiavelli the Republican idealist behind the cynical rhetoric of The Prince; and Machiavelli the admirer of conflict within a political community, as a strengthening of republican self-government. Foucault does not say a great deal directly about Nietzsche, and does not need to since the connection is well known. His account of ethics and politics in his texts on the Ancient world (History of Sexuality Volumes II & III, Hermeneutics of the Subject, The Government of Self and Others, Fearless Speech), can be taken as formed partly through an implicit transformation of Nietzsche’s view of the master-slave relation in antiquity, as established in the Genealogy of Morality.

The political aspects of Foucault’s writings on antiquity, including his ways of understanding of republican thought is a matter for another place. What is developed here is an approach to the explicit discussion of ethics in Foucault’s thought about antiquity, and the ethical implications of his discussion. In Foucault’s account we can see traces of Nietzsche’s evaluation of master morality as more affirmative than slave morality, but what Foucault is looking at is not Homeric heroes versus Christian saints. It is the ambiguous development of ethical, political, medical and erotic thought from the Athens of Socrates and Aeschylus to the Rome of Augustine. The ambiguity can be found within Plato, which is something that Nietzsche had already implied. Foucault does not use the language of mastery and slave, but amongst other things he refers to self-government and the government of other. The external relation of master and slave is thought of as entwined with an internal relation of self-mastery, again something that can already be found in Nietzsche. The self-mastery is entwined both with government of others and a refusal of government. The Nietzschean elements are certainly not to be taken as a revelation of what Nietzsche really meant, or as a revelation of what he should have said, though Foucault’s implicit use of Nietzsche can certainly be taken as relevant to those questions about Nietzsche.

Here the focus is on ethics in the narrowest possible sense. Foucault does not approach ethics in an isolated way, that is not the way he writes. He is always concerned with a historical phenomenology, or history of discourses, in which political and ethical ideas, along with methodological and epistemological positions emerge rather than appear in fully articulated form; though there are times when he is relatively explicit. Even in the latter cases, the approach is to show rather than say, where discourse has a phenomenological aspect.

That’s a summary of some of what is distinctive in Foucault’s approach. In a less Foucauldian style, there is the question of where Foucault belongs in broad categories of ethical theorising. It’s not the kind of question Foucault asked, but it is the kind of question that needs to be asked about Foucault. As has been noted by Neil Levy
(Levy 2004), but by remarkably few commentators as a whole, Foucault belongs in virtue theory. That is he is concerned with the cultivation of the kind of self which is ethically desirable, rather than with consequences of actions and rules, or the following of rules, or the grasp of moral intuitions. Virtue theory is something largely defined with regard to the antique authors Foucault is discussing: Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics. His approach has some distance, but accepts essential aspects of virtue theory. In a general definition, Foucault belongs to virtue ethics in the same way that Nietzsche does, as noted by Christine Swanton for example. There are ways in which Nietzsche deviates from antique virtue ethics, and so does Foucault. Nietzsche’s deviation can be explored elsewhere, though it does provide a precedent for the agonism in Foucault’s virtue theory.

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