From Seneca to Descartes via John of Chrysostom. Foucault’s Lectures on the Government of the Living: 12

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 26th March, the last one in the series, Foucault looks at the relation of knowledge of the self in the monastery to care of the self in antique philosophy, and Descartes philosophical meditations.  Foucault concentrates on the matter of the devil who might deceive us with regard to Descartes’ philosophy, but there are other ways we could think about the relation between the interior explorations of Descartes’ Discourse and Meditations to Medieval devotional literature and practices.  In Foucault’s discussion of the devil in the monastic approach to confession, and knowledge of the self, it is suggested that the devil is characterised by not being distinguishable from our own mind.  The devil does not enter into our passions and desires, but through our thoughts, because he shares the incorporeal nature of the mind.  The devil is essentially not in our mind in our physical temptations, but as a deceiver of our thoughts.

This possibility of deception is part of why monastic Christianity calls for a spiritual director, who will stand outside, is the believer’s other, in order to direct thoughts away from deceived thoughts.  This is in contrast to the previous asceticism of hermits which is unregulated, necessarily since a hermit lives an isolated existence.  The direction which takes place in a monastery ensures moderation, which as Foucault points out is a major theme of antique Pagan ethics.  He gives an example of immoderate behaviour, a monk who is going to see a friend who needs spiritual support, but is so adverse to the temptation of women that he fails to complete his visit because of passing a woman on the way.   This is the failure to carry out a charitable act, and so cannot be permitted.  The monk gets a lesson of some kind when he becomes ill soon afterwards and is care for by nuns.  The spiritual director makes sure the monk avoids the kind of fanaticism shown in the story , which is bound to fail in any case.

Much of the  monastic practices of self-discipline and self-knowledge are similar to what Seneca recommends with regard to reviewing the actions of the day in a calm frame of mind.  However, the monastic self-review is much more extreme and disturbing, as it digs into conscience looking for faults in a way that Seneca does not.  Seneca is oriented towards care of the self, Christian thinkers are oriented towards knowledge of the self.  The antique sage is able to govern himself, but not a powerful man, such as a king.  Christianity reverses that opposition.  The ascetic cannot govern himself, as the danger of deception  is always there.  He can, however, govern another man, as the relations between bishops and rulers in late antiquity and early middle ages sometimes suggest.  The struggle with self in Christianity is  linked to political power, the mastery of the self is linked with withdrawal from political power for the pagans.  Foucault presumably thinks of the failures of Socrates and Plato to influence politics, the lack of influence of Aristotle on his student Alexander the Great, the apolitical attitude of Cynics and Epicureans, and the withdrawal from politics of the later Stoics.  Foucault discusses the relation between government of others and self-government in another lecture series, so there might seem to be a tension.  The point presumably being that the most intensely ascetic forms of care of the self are not a suitable basis for  political command.

Foucault’s view of Christianity is as a long historical training in obedience.  Christianity demands a spiritual director for inner self-exploration, so that the most intimate self-relation is tied up with obedience to another party.  God is everywhere, as is the devil.  The possibility of the Devil being in our innermost thoughts is part of how mastery of others in Christianity requires forgetting of the self.  We can only have knowledge, and a basis of authority, where we have forgotten about ourselves.  The self  which might contain the thoughts of the devil, has to be left behind  We are unknowable in our deepest self, and that is something that Christianity makes us aware of in the process of self-examination.  Self-examination gives us a capacity to master others but not ourselves.  That model of the Christian who can command others, but not himself, is itself present in the confessional and in the role of the spiritual director.  We put our confessions in the hands of a priest who tells us the proper way to repent.  The confessor can become a spiritual director offering advice beyond the moment of confession.  The Christian structure of belief is much more oriented towards community, and relations between believers than pagan philosophy, which is much more concerned with the isolated individual.


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