Foucault on Liberty Before Modern Law; or Foucault and Aristotle on Liberty and Virtue

(from work in progress on Foucault and Liberty)

The technique of piloting provides an idea of rule governed behaviour before ‘juridification’, and even prior to the kind of public laws known to the Romans, and in a more rudimentary way to the Ancient Greeks. Piloting a ship appears as a metaphor for governing the state in Plato’s Republic (Book VI) and in Aristotle’s Politics (III.IV.V). Foucault refers to this metaphor in relation to Oedipus Tyrannos in Lecture 5 (8 February 1978) of Security, Territory, Population (Foucault 2009b, 122-123). It is rule governed behaviour based on rules learned, and refined, by the individual through action. Action of a kind that informs Aristotle’s understanding of ethical judgement. Foucault suggests a complete picture of the self as moral and ascetic on that basis.  Moral action refers to the unity of moral conduct.  Unity of moral conduct refers to the constitution of the self as a moral self. There was no need for a text of law. There was a technē, or practice, of a know-how (savoir-faire), which refers to principles guiding an action in the moment according to context and the function of its ends. There is no universalisation of the rule in moral form. The individual constitutes itself as an ethical subject. There is an interest in individualising action, modulating it, which can give itself singular energy through the rational structure and reflection it has (1998b, 62). Temperance does not take the form of obedience to a system of laws or a code of conduct. It is not a principle of the denial of pleasure. It is an art, a practice of pleasures which is used for self limitation (1998b, 56-7).

The constitution of the moral self refers to modes of ‘subjectivation’, along with the ascetics and practices of the self (1998b, 28). Foucault’s idea of a pre-legalistic technique of life, and government, needs to be situated with reference to the way he understands ‘subjectivation’ as an inevitable accompaniment to codes of behaviour in morality.  ‘Subjectivation’ takes a quasi-juridical form, in which the moral subject refers to a law or set of laws; and that leads the way to the ‘juridification’ of the Middle Ages.  (1998b, 29-30). So the contrast Foucault makes between technique, and juridification, is not just a contrast between periods, the contrast always exists in each period.  In antiquity the juridical aspect is dominated by the aspect of technique, and that juridical aspect becomes dominant in the Middle Ages.

Foucault explores ideas of how life should be lived in the ancient world, in order to be free, and that necessarily becomes a discussion of political freedom.


The time would come when the art of the self would assume its own shape, distinct from the ethical conduct that was its objective. But in classical Greek thought, the “ascetics” that enabled one to make oneself into an ethical subject was an integral part—down to its very form—of the practice of a virtuous life, which was also the life of a “free” man in the full, positive and political sense of the word.  (1998b, 77)


Foucault articulates his position on the ascetic, virtue and freedom, fully in relation to politics with reference to Aristotle in The Use of Pleasure as in The Courage of Truth (1998b, 79).  The origin, and preservation of liberty refers to citizens gathered in Ancient Greek city assemblies; and its also refers the relations of individuals with themselves. The individual liberty and liberty in the assembly are mutually reinforcing, and encompass the laws, the constitution, eduction, and the behaviour of leaders, since these are all part of the city, which has the assembly  and liberty at its centre.

Foucault reinforces his point with the quotation from Aristotle (Politics, VII, 14, 1332a) below:

[W]e pray that the organisation of the state may be successful in securing those goods which are in the control of fortune (for that fortune does control external goods we take as axiomatic); but when we come to the state’s being virtuous, to secure this is not the function of fortune, but of science and policy.  But then the virtue of the state is of course caused by the citizens who share in its government being virtuous; and in our state all the citizens share in the government.  The point we have to consider therefore is, how does a man become virtuous?  For even if it be possible for the citizens to be virtuous collectively without being so individually, the latter is preferable, since for each individual to be virtuous entails as a consequence the collective virtue of all.


Within the affirmation of the self as political self, Foucault introduces an important distinction.  That is the distinction between following external laws and style of activity.  ‘Style of activity’ arises where the individual goes outside the areas regulated by customs and laws at that time.  It arises in the interpretation of dreams, where the actor in the dream goes beyond the ‘natural’ in sexual activity (1997a, 35).  Foucault identifies an element of the non-natural, within the general antique belief in following nature.  That is the basis for a way that the republican liberty of ancient patricians evolved.  An evolution that referred to a kind of sexual self-invention, which also involves expressions of social superiority (1998b, 23).

Stylisation is critical to the exercise of sexualised power over social inferiors, but also indicates a model of individualistic liberty which is not based on complete unity of the self.  The self is an object of its creativity, so that there is no continuous natural self.  That view of the self is appropriate to the kind of liberty that Foucault values: the liberty of shifting identities, and that is an important aspect of what Foucault wanted to emulate, and thought he had discerned, in antique thought.


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