Summarising Foucault on Confession: Two Recently Published Lecture Series

Recent posts have concentrated on two books of Foucault’s lectures which have been published in the last few weeks: Mal faire, dire vrai [doing bad, speaking truth], lectures given at the University of Louvain; Du gouvernment des vivants [the government of the living], lectures given at the Collège de France as part of the complete publication of the lecture series Foucault gave there, when it was his academic home.

These are closely related books, though as far as they know their publication within weeks of each other by different publishing houses (Presses universitaires de Louvain and Seuil of Paris] is completely coincidental.  They both deal with the role of confession in Christianity, its relation to other aspects of Christianity, its backward connections with antique Pagan thought and forward connections with ideas about law since the High Middle Ages and the punishment of criminals since the Enlightenment.

The confession is the Christian ritual of admitting to sins and seeking a means of penance from the priest who hears the confession.  This appears to have been absent from early Christianity, that is before it was taken up by the Roman Empire in the 4th century.  The idea of examining sins, discussing them with leaders of the religious  community and seeking penance for them was not absent from early Christianity, but the institutionalisation of Christianity as it became the religion of the Roman state shaped it in a more defined and regularised way.  Confession is now an embedded part of Catholic, Orthodox and Eastern Christianity, though it is the Catholic form with which Foucault is most concerned.  The Orthodox and Eastern versions seem closer to the late antique version of confession before the Catholic Church refined the practice.  The earlier form, as Foucault notes is that of confession in a public part of the church.  The modern Catholic practice is of confession in a private part of the church, through a grille which maintains at least the appearance of anonymity for both parties.  Individual confession is not part of Protestantism, though an individual Protestant might choose to go through something similar on a purely voluntary and personalised basis.

Foucault sees the Confession as emerging from requirements of monastic life, which are then applied to l<y believers.  The monastic practice is itself a product of the gathering of Christian ascetics into a closed religious community.  Early Christianity in the Near East included hermits leading lives of extreme asceticism in the desert.  Increasing numbers of such people, and the wish of the Church to exercise some authority over them leads to the formation of monasteries, where the individual examination of one’s own inner conscience, confession to a spiritual guide and performance of penance imposed by that guide, is way of organising the lives of monks.  That is part of the way that monasteries become  a model of order for society, which Foucault sees as influential upto the early modern period.

The confession has antique Pagan origins that Foucault traces back to the emergence of the care of the self in the time of Plato, and which Plato’s dialogues help explain.  Care of the self refers to practices in which the self seeks to improve itself, let its nature flourish, through healthy diet, exercise, sexuality, education, educated conversation, and so on.  This is a relation of self to self, the emergence of the importance of the self relation for the self, which takes in the aesthetics of existence of existence, styles and techniques of living.  Care of the self keeps developing through Greek and Roman antiquity, and acquires a more privatised aspect during the Roman Empire when public life becomes less meaningful.  Before that, the linked enterprises of the government of self and the government of others, could be seen as fundamental to care of the self.  Foucault takes Seneca as the model for that more privatised care of the self.  Christianity is a prıduct of that privatised care of the self, but also transforms it.  The activity of self-examination of conscience, of the most obscure thoughts in consciousness, which is preparatory to confession, moves Christian life away from care of the self to self knowledge.

The confessional acquires significance beyond the ritual life of individual Christians, and enters into violent means by which the church imposes discipline of the whole of society and not just within its own closed communities.  The 13th century crusade against Cathar ‘heretics’ in southern France is a major instance, in which the forced confessions of prisoners of the Inquisition broaden the understanding of confession.  That crusade and inquisitorial activity coincides with the growth of Roman law as an object of study and a source of state legal codes in Catholic Europe.  The inquisitorial confession (itself obtained as part of a a legal process) along with the intensification of the force and unity of state law, lies behind late Medieval and  early modern legal practices of obtaining confessions to a crime through fear and torture.  Foucault also sees the beginnings of disciplinarity in the practice of confession, a mode of power he sees as dominant since the Enlightenment.  The practice of confession to a spiritual director, following self-examination is the beginning of the form of power which works through complete observation by a central power, awareness of being observed on the part of those under this power, and the adoption of very regular forms of bahaviour serving that power.  The model of this for Foucault is the modern prison in which all cells can be observed from a central viewing point, which Foucault suggests is the model for all modern institutions.  Disciplinarity means a voluntary self-disciplining of mind and movement which Foucault suggests begins in the monastery.

Foucault also sees the philosophy of Descartes, a major aspect of the emergence of modern philosophy, as a product in some part of confession.  We can see this in the way that Descartes explains his philosophy through an account of self-examination, leading upto the thought that I think therefore I exist.  This is a spiritual exercise like that of self-examination before confession.  As with the religious model, Descartes is concerned with escaping the influence of the devil.  The monastic practices behind the confessional include awareness of the devil as something that might invade our thoughts since the devil has the same incorporeal form as our minds and God.  The devil might always deceive us through this mean, rather than through desire.  So Cartesian philosophy includes a struggle with the influence of the devil, explained in rationalistic terms of the possible epistemic unreliability of our sensations that might result from a hypothetic demon.

So modern philosophy and modes of power both start with the practice of Confession.

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