Blogging on a very recently published volume of Michel Foucault’s lecture courses at the Collège de France, Du gouvernement des vivants: Cours au Collège de France. 1979-1980 (Paris: Seuil, 2012).
In the lecture of 12th March Foucault makes it clear why the lecture series bears the title ‘government of the living’. The confessional practice of Christianity means accepting the role of a priest, or spiritual direction, in governing one’s soul. This is both in contrast and in interactive parallel with government practised by the state. This is the contrast between voluntary government, in which someone submits by choice to spiritual direction, and the use of state force governing people within a politically defined territory. The confessional is something strictly voluntary in its origins in the Christianity of last two centuries of the Roman Empire in the west. It becomes less voluntary over time, particularly during the period of Protestant Reformation and Catholic Counter Reformation in the 16th and 17th centuries. Foucault’s account is rather biased towards Catholic experience here since for Protestants confession becomes a general church ritual, or a direct communication with god, not an individual act. Foucault points out that the seminaries of Counter Reformation Europe demand that students go through confession regularly and have a spiritual director to supervise this. There is a final stage of institutionalisation of confession, which Foucault hints connects with stat organisation of the time.
Foucault refers to a limit in which the voluntary submission of the subject to government of the soul becomes a political utopia. The examples he gives are one pre-Christian, Plato’s Republic and one Counter-Reformation, Thomas More’s Utopia. More was a Lord Chancellor (roughly the Prime Minister) under Henry VIII in the early stages of the English Reformation, who became a martyr when he refused to reject the authority of the Pope. His book Utopia is the first example of the use of that word to refer to an political community. Foucault is suggesting that such thought is a denial of individual autonomy and not therefore to be desired, but is also hinting that such ‘totalitarian’ utopias are rooted in a tradition of voluntary obedience to a spiritual director, and therefore have a non-sinister basis of seeking an improved relation of the self with itself.
Foucault emphasises that the government of souls (the living) in confession is not pure product of Christianity. It has antique Greek and Roman roots he takes back to the Pythagoreans and to Sophocles’ tragedy Oedipus the King. Oedipus engages in a drama of self-revelation which is also a search for cleansing of the self. The Pythagoreans represent the earliest philosophical-spiritual school of the Greeks which includes the mission to assist members in self care. Foucault does not wish to merge the Pagan and Christian traditions, he established what he thinks distinguishes them. That gives us two distinctions between two types of government. The distinction between voluntary government and involuntary government, and then the distinction within voluntary government between Pagan and Christian types. The Pagan type is concerned with rational self-control, the Christian type with spiritual transformation.
He explains the Pagan version with regard to Seneca, a favourite references in his various discussions of the care of the self. In Seneca, Foucault sees an interest in control which prevents disturbance including disturbance to sleep. The Senecan type of government is one in which we seek help in maintaining the self as a continuous self, which is rational, which is not disturbed, and is trying to preserve itself rather than become spiritually perfected. The Christian type of government tries to disrupt the self which is inclined towards sin, and break with that through a penance that is the death of our lesser self. The goal is not reason but spiritual perfection. Seneca tries to teach us how to remain rational and avoid disturbance. The Christian goal is to push at the limits of rationality and disturb our own complacency. The Pagan approach is oriented towards the day hat has passed, towards reviewing it in a non-disturning way. In aiming to preserve reason and calm, the Pagan approach is aiming finally to preserve autonomy which means the control of the self by reason. The Christian approach aims for faith and for the death of the old self, so that the act of penance, the verbalisation of sin is a way in which we distance ourselves from sin, and present ourselves as pure. The verbalisation of sin, of inner states in Christianity, is in contrast with the Pagan tendency to observe the self, including its dreams, in an objectified way which preserves the unity and continuity of the self. The two approaches represent different accounts of subjectivity, its self relation, and its relation with truth. The Pagan approach is concerned with a unity of knowledge and memory, in which the concern is with knowledge rather than with states of the soul. The Christian approach is concerned with intentions of the individual, with future states of the soul.