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 looks at the relation between Christian notions of spiritual elevation in relate to Pagan ideas care of the self. This includes a strong suggestion that the Pagan ideas refer to self-govenrment and the Christian ideas refer to authority of the spiritual director over the believer. The Christian understanding is rooted in notions of political authority as like that of a shepherd caring for his flock. Foucault elsewhere looks at that as an idea with antique origins preceding Christianity. It is largely an idea that Foucault associates with the non-Greek eastern Mediterranean, though it does also play a role in Plato. The Greek conception of self-government is connected with care of the self on one side and government of others on the other side. Christian notions of care of the self come late in its history compared with the general influence of Greek philosophy on Christianity from the beginning (presumably referring to Platonist ideas of the One, the Good, and so on)
The late influence of care of the self on Christian thought means that Platonist ideas about this appear in Christianity after Stoicism has already intervened. Clement of Alexandria (late 2nd and early 3rd centıry) represents this stage. The development of care of the self within Christianity is tied up with the monastic movement in the Near East. This starts off as a very individualised movement of hermits in the desert, but then becomes an organised movement in which there are communities sharing a building, under structured authority. Despite the individualised even anarchic nature of the early Christian asceticism, monasticism ,is completely structured from the beginning round the authority of spiritual directors. The monk looking inwards for truth, struggling with the devil, needs guidance in that search.
The initial Platonist influenced monasticism does not refer to the qualities of Seneca’s version of care of the self. Seneca’s version is backward looking, reviewing the struggle for calm, and is not concerned with the current struggle of the soul. Seneca thinks of tranquillity as the aim of the mind, and as the point of view from which we can examine our inner past. The suggestion is that over time monastic self care moves in that direction as the believer is given more structured experience by a spiritual authority.
The end state of this evolution of monasticism is a spiritual life of three aspects: obedience, patience, humility. It is the loss of self-government in this tree fold which separates monastic experience from Stoicism. The three aspects of Christian monastic experience are all forms of self-denial. There is a lack of the flourishing of the self envisaged in earlier thought. In the beginning of this aspect of Christianity, Clement of Alexandria is restricted to Platonist thoughts about knowledge of the self, rather than care of the self as a whole. Clement is concerned with spiritual exercises, so external practices and rules. In the late 3rd century John Chrysostom moves in towards what had been suggested by Seneca in the 1st century, that is on the inner self, not just its external exercises. Platonist and Stoic themes appear in the earliest expressions of Christianity, it is only later that philosophical techniques are taken from them.
The submission, patience and humility of fully developed monastic life come from a practice influenced by Stoic philosophers, but inverts Stoic ideas of freedom and autonomy. The capacity to judge, will and live freely are overturned in Christianity. Stoicism refers to the capacity to use reason, live under reason and will in a rational way. There is hint here of Foucault’s view of Enlightenment in his paper on Kant’s essay, ‘What is Enlightenment?’. Foucault emphasises the emergence from self-incurred immaturity, in which an agreement with the King of Prussia allows open discussion of this matter. Kant is often compared with the Stoics in his ethical thought, and while this may be a bit loose, Kant’s thought does connect, and another dimension of that is cosmopolitanism. The Stoics had an idea of citizenship of the world (presumably the Roman Empire in practice), universal virtues and universal reason. Kant appeals to that with the rationalist universalism of his ethical and cognitive thought, and in the political idea of world government. Kant does briefly discuss cosmopolitan political institutions in his political essays, which refer to a federation or con-federation of republics, in which the central universal authority can enforce peace. Though this also seems to be the idea that properly structured republics will not go to war with each other. This is all seems far from the late antique monks, but they lived under a cosmopolitan power, the Pope and the Catholic (which means universal) church. Foucault does not bring out that aspect of his thought directly, but the connection is there.