Foucault’s Lectures on Subjectivity and Truth, V

Lecture of 4th February, 1981

Foucault claims that the civilisation that can be designated Christian (the key term here surely), western, or European is unique in its attempt to codify sexuality rather than than use the kind of continuum of evaluations, which exist in Artemidorus and predominated before Christianity. The codification reaches its greatest intensity some time after Artemidorus, from the VIIth to XIIth centuries, and is tied to auricular confession (as in the spoken confession of sins to a priest in Catholic Christianity). The codification is all encompassing including religious commandments, civil law, acts, relations, thoughts, temptations, marriage, and which develops into medical norms.

Foucault criticises the idea of a gradual pagan move towards the kind of morality advocated by Christianity, and argues that Stoicism, and other philosophies, and all the ways of approaching ethics (conduct of living, relation of self with itself in Foucault) builds up another view within, or alongside, existing paganism, particularly strong in some social circles, as an evolution rather than a substitution, and that is a starting point for Christianity. That evolution transforms the role of marriage which had not previously been important, so that it is the only place for sexual activity, making it discontinuous with other areas of social life. It has a central social role, which empties the sexual aspect (in any legitimate sense) of other social relations, as the focus of sexual activity as well as all the social activity focused on marriage.

The pre-Christian attitude emphasis the pleasure of the active partner in sexual acts, and the unimportance of the pleasures of the ‘passive’ partner, which even threatens the active nature of the ‘active’ partner, so that a counter-nature may attach to the active partner in the pleasure of the passive partner. Within Christianity, there is no distinction between the pleasure of the active and passive partners, and pleasure in general is associated with passivity, so is dangerous. The idea of sexual acts without pleasure becomes valued.

The idea of pleasure as passive has earlier roots, which is presumably Foucault referring to the philosophical discussion of pleasure in Plato and Aristotle, and then in Hellenistic philosophy. That would be the ways for Plato and Aristotle that pleasure is inferior to virtue, reason (theoria), judgement (phronesis) and a well lived life. Within that perspective, pursuit of pleasure without limit is dangerous, marking lack of measure, moderation and self-control. Friendship based on pleasure is inferior to friendship based on mutual appreciation of virtue. Pleasure comes from desire, which needs to be controlled by reason-thought operating through will-spirit. Pleasure is passive because it is just the enjoyment of the body, which comes from outside stimulation, from dependency on food, drink, and contact with others.

Foucault considers the choice between marriage and celibacy as it appears in the Hellenistic philosophers, and in the Athenians apart from Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, so the Epicurean, Stoic, and Cynic schools, late Platonists like Plutarch and Xenephon, the contemporary of Socrates. Epictetus appears as the main representative of Stoic thinking, and the Hellenistic philosopher who receives the most attention, which may be partly due to the strong influence he had inn early modern European eduction and thinking.

The arguments around marriage centre round the tension between eternal truths and the truth that belongs to marriage as a harmonisation of word and act. Presumably the observation of the agreement to marriage, and then maintaining the marriage, is truthful in the sense that actions are in conformity with promises that are made truthful. The way that marriage is truthful applies to all the ways that we might bear truth in some way on our bodies and in our actions, in the harmonisation of words and acts. In that sense marriage is more normal for the standard requirements of human social life as the Stoics and early Christians recognised. Both those groups thought of marriage as normal, and celibacy as requiring a justification. A justification that was very available given the condition of the world which makes it necessary to have people concerned with eternal truths to a degree that makes marriage unsuitable.

The celibate philosopher can keep eternal truths at the centre of consciousness, undistracted by domestic life. The philosopher may gain time for philosophy from marriage, because of the responsibility the wife takes for looking after the home, and gain benefits from the peace and care provided at home. This enables the man to put use the male role of activity in public life. This has to be balanced against the financial demands, along with demands on time and energy that are associated with a wife, and with children. In addition, the care provided in the marital home makes the man lose autonomy as his own relation with his self is contaminated by dependency on others. Children bring benefits of continuation of the man’s name (an important consideration in ancient culture), but then also create the possibility of shaming him by bad acts (also an important consideration in ancient culture, Aristotle was concerned what a life could not be happy if after death the descendants of that person shamed the family name). Celibacy always brings the advantage of freedom to concentrate on eternal truths and an autonomy that intensifies the ethical consideration of one’s own relation with oneself.

The discussion continues in early Christianity as can be seen in Origen. The argument  for celibacy, for some, has some continuity with Stoicism, as what  is given the most value for observing eternal truths, but also with the idea that the priest is expected to be free of any particular ties with any member of the flock for which he cares. In the pagan and early Christian thinking, it is difficult to see a philosopher or priest as having community with a wife.

The above refers to Subjectivité et Vérité. Cours au Collège de France, 1980-1981. Eds. François Ewald, Allesandro Fontana and Frédéric Gros. Paris: Seuil/Gallimard, 2014


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