Law, Fault and Sin. Foucault’s Lectures on the Government of the Living: 8

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 27th February Foucault deals with difficulties in early Christianity regarding sin after baptism.  Christianity starts by emphasising that baptism is a unique chance to repent for sins, and that no chance comes after baptism.  This leaves Christianity of that time in difficulties in how to explain the reality that Christian sin after baptism, and given that reality leaves the  awkward possibility that there is no way back for a Christian who sins after baptism, that such a person loses the chance for a eternal life, and nothing can be done about it.  This difficulty explains why many early Christian, including the first Christian Emperor Constantine, left baptism as late as possible, trying to delay it until the death bed so as not waste the once only offer of salvation.

It was awkward beyond the difficulty that those who were baptised might waste their chance of heavenly bliss.  Baptism included the assumption of a relation between subject and truth which was established by the ceremony which lets in divine truth.  If that relation is established the subject cannot choose to give up truth, or we can certainly not make sense of such a choice.  Foucault is here playing on continuity between Greek and Roman philosophical assumptions that we cannot will to harm ourselves deliberately turn away from brings us good.  So early Christianity we could say (my comment on Foucault) remains within previous assumptions about agency and moral psychology which do not allow for such a turning away of the self from what it knows to be good and true.

One source  of pressure on the  Christian point of view comes from the Gnostics, (who had a considerable following amongst the Roman upper class, or the related position of Manicheanism did, a position which Augustine of Hippo held to for a while).  Gnosticism regards the world as evil and as created by an evil deity.  The material world is not a place of struggle between good and evil, as it is for Christians, but is just evil.  The gnostic then is pure and outside that evil with no turning back.  The suggestion in Foucault is that this helps push Christianity towards antinomianism, that is the assumption that believers are above moral law, because  by definition they cannot do anything against moral law.  Those actions which appear to be against moral law cannot in fact be against moral law.  Christianity does not put forward Antinomianism in a pure form, but it does make a transition from earlier ideas of fault in law, which are present in Greek tragedy, to to idea of sin.  Fault in breaking law, including what is divine law for pagans, does not touch the subject who is a Christian (or Gnostic).  That subject may sin, which is a fall from the position achieved by baptism.  Baptism contains penance for all sins, creating someone who contains divine truths.  Someone who acts against Christianity sins in rejecting that state, or at least impairing it.

The idea of sin is an outrage for pre-Christian Greeks and Romans who focus on the idea of fault in breaking a law, whether intentionally or accidentally.  Foucault looks at St Paul’s remark that we know sin through law, which suggests that law itself leads to sin.  This is ambiguous between saying that we know sin because law creates sin, and that law is what enables us to know of sin.  In any case, Paul’s remark is part of the basis for distinguishing between the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) as a text of law from the New Testament as a text of truth beyond law.  What the idea of truth beyond law allows for is not just a  possible threat to the laws of the Roman Empire, but a distinction between individual truth and moral law.  The sin of Christianity may be a different matter from breaking the moral and legal codes of the Hebrew Bible.  Sin is what belongs to those who are already baptised and allows for the confusion created by the devil to still afflict those who have been ritually introduced into the Christian community.

There is a double teaching in early Christianity.  Those who have not yet been baptised are told this is the one chance to become pure, and show penance.  Those who have been baptised are taught that there are ways of seeking forgiveness for sins committed after community membership has been established.  Foucault mentions the idea of a jubilee (which originally came from the Hebree Bible where it refers to a year in which property is returned and debts are cancelled).  Foucault does not expand on the idea of jubilee here, but may do so in future lectures.

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