Foucault on crime, truth, confession and justice: Post Five

On to my fifth post on Mal faire, dire vrai [Doing bad, telling truth], published a few weeks ago by Presses Universitaires de Louvain, based on lectures Foucault gave in Louvain in 1981.  English edition out in December of next year.

For the lecture of 6th May 1981, Foucault concentrates on truth and obedience in the monastic Christianity of the Middle Ages with regard to its roots in the Christian thinkers of the Roman Empire like Clement of Alexandria and Origen.  He also considers pagan antique thought particularly with regard to Seneca, but also demarcates Christianity from antique pagan thought.  The earlier antique concern with the self carries on in Christianity but acquires very different attitudes with regard to the intensity of self-examination and the emphasis on extremes of obedience.

Foucault refers to the role of self-examination, particularly in an evening review of the day, in Seneca, standing in for pagan antiquity.  However, the Christian self-examination including journal keeping and the end of day self-review is a much more intense affair.  The review in Seneca is till with regard to maintaining the balance of the self, and is not concerned with gaining the deepest possible knowledge of the self, and its sinful motives.  Christianity takes this as an opportunity fro self uprooting and radical challenges to the self as it normally experiences itself.

Seneca writes as part of an antique tradition concerned with self-mastery.  Foucault thinks that by Seneca’s time self-mastery has lost its republican political aspect, of the right to govern which comes from the capacity for self-government.  That reflects the movement of the Roman Republic to one man rule by the Emperor, and absorption of republicanism which is replicated in the hollowing out of institutions of self-government in the Greek cities under the Empire, though the cities were supposedly still self-governing when first taken into the Roman domains.  Presumably Foucault regards the development of early and Medieval Christianity as tied up with the movement from republicanism to autocracy, but does not say so here.

There may be indirect commentary on the decline of antique republicanism, when Foucault describes the greater role of obedience in the relation between self and master or teacher in Christianity.  This is not just a shift in the pedagogical or spiritual guidance sphere, as Foucault addresses attitudes to law in this context.  Antique writing on authority refers to law, in which obedience to law can be seen as to some degree voluntary since law is something we all make, at least where there is what the Greeks call a polity and the Romans call a republic.    Foucault describes obedience to the teacher, or spiritual adviser, as absolute in Christianity.  Obedience to the teacher is not thought of as what helps the pupil gain knowledge of a ind that enables self-mastery.  Obedience is just as much the goals as what is learned.  The obedience is absolute and unquestioning, unconstrained by the considerations of restraint on power that are the basis of law.  Foucault is presumably thinking of how the power of the Roman Emperor, increasingly seen as god like in his own lifetime (not just in the respectful act of the Senate in declaring a recently deceased Emperor to be a god, an accolade which could be withheld in the earlier period of the Empire) who increasingly expects complete obedience from the Senate has been at the heart of power in republican times.  With Christianity, the Emperor is not seen as a god, but is seen as resembling Christi, and as God’s representative on earth.  Anyway, Foucault does not deal with those possible political references.

The language of self-examination changes in Christianity as old terms for thought are replaced by those with more Christian resonance.  That is all part of the verbalisation which is characteristic of Christian self-knoweldge.  The Christian, particularly in the context of monastic life, is expected to constantly verbalise the state of the inner subject for the benefit of the spiritual guide.  That comes into the forms of written self-examnation including the keeping of a journal.  Writing as knowledge of the self, confession, penance and obedience is illustrated by Foucault through the role of the manuscript copyist. Monks were the copiers of manuscripts in the Middle Ages, an activity which itself emphasises a form of obedience and self-denial, as the copyist repeats without invention or addition (with the possible exception of the calligraphy and the use of marginal illustrations.  The most distinguished copyists are given the most important manuscripts (presumably with the Bible at the apex), so reinforcing the whole doctrine of submission to divine authority.

Foucault agues that the kind of subjectivity promoted by Christian hermeneutics, with its emphasis on self-knowledge, confession, penance and obedience, is in contradiction  with law.  The maturing institutionalisation of these religious practices in the high Middle Ages coincides with ‘juridification’, with the increased study of Roman law in universities, and the growth of law in religion and the state.  The Christian subjects’ forms of relation with itself and with spiritual authority are outside the law, the construct an individuality beyond the reach of the law.  I presume that subsequent lectures show how law tries to incorporate confession, but we shall see in the next post.


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