Penitence, Confession, Juridical Form. Foucault’s Lectures on the Government of the Living: 9

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 5th March Foucault continues with the theme of how the early Christian church, about the time it becomes institutionalised as the religion of the Roman Empire, and until the fall of the Empire in the west, deals with the problem of penitence after baptism.  The problem is that baptism is supposed to be the beginning of  anew life, in which subjectivity of the individual and truth from God belong together.  Given that, it is hard to explain how there can be sin after baptism, and how there can be any kind of acceptable penance.  One response is just to expel the sinner from the church, but this is not a very practical policy, and in practice what the church did was to develop ways of having acceptable penance for sins committed after baptism.  The notion of sin itself is dependent on being a member of the Christian community, on breaking God’s laws as previousşy accepted by that individual.

The appropriate form of penance becomes institutionalised and ritualised as the Catholic sacrament of confession.  Confession has a juridical form, a law like form of rules and expected behaviour.  Christianity has an antinomian (anti-law) element in its understanding of its truth as beyond law, but also needs some law-lie aspect to deal with the inevitable lapses by members of the community.  Foucault’s overall interest includes the way that the law lie aspects of confession feed in state law and judicial practice.  Confession is one way of reconciling the lapses of the baptised Christian with the claims that baptism is what enables divine truth to enter the subject.  Confession is a repetition of the penance in baptism.  It is a repetition which extends the asceticism of monks and hermits into the universal experience of Christians.  Foucault here refers to the early Christian tendency to produce hermits who disappear into the wilderness to purify themselves and communicated with God from a position of isolation in relation to the human community.  The isolated asceticism itself becomes the source of community, with the formation of monastic communities in which asceticism is practised in groups according to rules of that order.

The ascetic practices of self-examination, search for inner truth, and communication with God, become the model for confession as a practice of all Christians.  In these times it is practised in a more public way than later when confession takes place in a very private way, addressing a priest hidden behind a grille.  The early confessions take place by the church door and can be overheard in the church.  They are associated with acts of asceticism and supplication for forgiveness.  Foucault links the supplication with pre-Christian antique practices of supplication towards Pagan gods and human overlords.    )n this case we are talking about begging for forgiveness, which can include dramatic elements, like wearing sack cloth and ashes.  This is a drama of truth, of the truth of what is inside the subjectivity of the sinner, and the truth of God which the sinner has overlooked.

These dramas of penance produce a paradox.  Penance includes the avowal by the sinner of humility, of the status of mere sinner.  However, the act of penance including the statement of confession is a distancing from penitent status, a claim not to be a sinner any more.  This is the enunciation of a statement acting on the content of the enunciation.  Acts of penance and identifying myself as a mere sinner is a way of claiming to be without sin.  Foucault sees in this already the famous religious hypocrite of Molière 17th century play Tartuffe.  There is a division of the self in penance-confession between the sinner and the purified individual, which can express itself in cynicism of the non-philosophical type, a claim to be good through exaggerated claims to be a sinner.

There is a double death in penance-confession: the claim that sin is death, and the death of that death through penance.  Again subjectivity is developed in ways which are rooted in pre-Christian ideas of care of the self.  The double death complicates and intensifies that self-relation.  I experience death within myself and then a death of that death.  Baptism itself is death of the of life, so there is a repetition of the death of baptism in penance-confession. The absoluteness of baptism is questioned, as is the substantive nature of any of these experience since they are all based on repetition and can be repeated.  The baptism is transformed into the basis of a way of life that is conditioned by constant death and the attempts of the self to navigate these interruptions to the continuity of the self.

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