I will be summarising and commenting on the most recently published of Michel Foucault’s lecture series at the Collège de France, on subjectivity and truth (Subjectivité et Vérité. Cours au Collège de France, 1980-1981. Eds. François Ewald, Allesandro Fontana and Frédéric Gros. Paris: Seuil/Gallimard, 2014). As with the series I’ve just finished on the punitive society, I will proceed lecture by lecture, with two posts for lectures I find stimulate the most elucidation and commentary. That is the case for the first lecture.
Lecture of 7th January 1981
Foucault begins with a discussion of texts with passages on elephants, which refer to their supposed sexual restraint and marital devotion. At this point he does seem like a thinker invented by Borges, the French philosopher who introduces discussion of truth, subjectivity and is it turns out sexuality and desire, with elephant fables. This may not be an accident, Foucault brings Borges into the opening of The Order of Things and may be engaged in a deliberate self-parody and parody of Borges here. In any case it is entertaining to think about this.
He first refers to an early seventeenth century devotional text by François de Sales, bishop and saint. Sales seeks lessons for humans from nature, including the example given by the elephant in marriage. Te make elephant purifies himself in a river after sex, before returning to the herd. Foucault describes this as making the elephant an emblem of good conjugal conduct. The word he uses ‘blazon’ (blason in French, which is the original English spelling) has heraldic overtones.
In the New Science of Giambattista Vico, which Foucault occasionally refers to elsewhere, but not in these lectures, the word is used on three accessions in the form of ‘blazonry’ (paragraph 28), ‘blazoning’ (paragraph 542) and ‘blazonings’ (paragraph 930). It refers to heraldic, or linked marks of aristocracy, which Vico associates with the first aristocratic-heroic age he believes is represented in Homer, and as an institution lasts into the city state eras in Greece and Rome, when they were characterised by aristocratic domination. Vico believes that age was repeated in the period of aristocratic-knightly domination in the Middle Ages, where there is a return of aristocratic blazons. This may be stretching the interpretative significance of the lecture, but Foucault might be in some part inspired by Vico in thinking of the importance of visual image communication in some stages of thought and social order.
The discussion of elephants in this lecture appears in the ‘Introduction’ to History of Sexuality II, The Use of Pleasure, but much compressed and with reference to blazoning. Anyway, Foucault goes on to find some similar comments on the chastity of the elephant in the writings of a naturalist, Ulisse Aldrovandi, contemporary with Sales. In the eighteenth century, the naturalist Georges Bouffon has a favourable moralising way of writing about elephants s having social virtues that are a model for human society. He emphasises the intensity of the pleasure of the sexual act for the elephant linked with the secrecy in which it performs this act, which is different from Sales and Aldrovandi, but still connotes the elephant with modesty and restraint.
This interest in the modesty of the elephant does not come from the ethical rigour of the Reformation or Counter-Reformation, or the formation of modern conjugality. It has ancient sources. There are various versions in the Middle Ages, including comments by the theologian Albert the Great and a bestiary known as Physiologus, which goes back to the fourth century, so late antiquity. The latter text emerges from allegorical Christian versions of the attributes given to animals in pagan science, as in Pliny (presumably Pliny the Elder).
The discussion of the elephant goes back to Aristotle’s History of Animals, which gives human attributes of intelligence to the elephant and a sexual reserve, so that supposedly the male elephant does not have sexual relations with his ‘wife’ while she is pregnant. References to elephants are rare before Aristotle, partly because they became better known to Greeks after the conquests of Alexander the Great. The deeper reason though is that before Aristotle, Greek culture might draw a moral lesson from animal behaviour (presumably as continued in Aesop), there was no idea of a systematic reading of nature for moral lessons.
This is also implicitly at least a bit Viconian, the increasing abstraction of ancient Greek throughout moving from imaginative universals in poetry to abstract universals in philosophy. The idea of a permanent lessons for human conduct in nature rests on two conditions. Nature must be considered as ruled by a global and coherent rationality. There must be a general government in nature that is everywhere and is permanent, in which nature is traversed by rationality. In this way of thinking human reason and virtue rests on obeying the laws of nature as well as the laws of the city. Foucault suggests this is at the core of Stoicism.