Foucault’s Lectures on Subjectivity and Truth, VI

Lecture of 11th February, 1981

Foucault continues the theme from the previous lecture of community in marriage. He largely refers to Stoics, particularly Musonius Rufus (best known as the teacher of Epictetus. Foucault takes the discussion from Aristotle and Xenophon. That is Xenophon’s dialogue on economy and goes up to John of Chrysostom, the 4th century Archbishop of Constantinople. Chrysostom features briefly, and represents a new Christian stage, though that stage does build on Stoicism.

Xenophon represents the end of a way of thinking, so its Xenophon and Chrysostom who define the temporal and conceptual boundaries of what Foucault is considering here. There is more attention paid to Xenophon though and Foucault refers to the dialogue on economy with regard to passages in which a husband addresses a wife on the purposes or marriage. The purpose of marriage, apparently, is not  just to share a bed, but create some broader community in which there are children, children look after the parents in old age, and there is a home. A statement that still has some force in Stoic and Christian thinking since they all regard marriage as a more than sexual relation. For Foucault this represents the end of a tradition, which is also to be found in Aristotle, in the History of Animals and the Nicomachean Ethics. That is the tradition in which marriage is part of nature and part of social life, and does not stand out from either. It is continuous with both, with the nature of animal life and with the communal life of the city-state.

In the Stoic conception, the unity and continuity of marriage with nature and social life is transformed so that marriage is based on nature and is discontinuous with the rest of social life. Foucault also brings in Plutarch, who is not clearly distinguished from the Stoics though he was a Platonist. Foucault refers to Plutarch with regard to a criticism of Epicureanism, which presumably was shared by the Stoics. This refers to the Epicurean attitude to nature. Plutarch criticises the Epicurean view  of atoms moving by chance in the void. This is a form of very weak co-existence quite different from the ways that the Stoics think of nature as including coexistence and combination. The model for Stoics is the coexistence of wine and water, so we can see that their idea of the community of marriage is of a radical level of combination. Radical to the extent that it is very different from the other forms of social connection within the broad community.

Marriage appears in Stoic writing as the union of two bodies in one. What Foucault does not mention here, not at all directly anyway is that this is in part an inversion of Aristotle’s definition of the ideal friendship as one soul in two bodies.  The single body of the Stoic marriage ideal is lacking in Aristotle’s idea of ideal friendship, which excludes both marriage and same sex relations. The move seems to be both a continuation of the Aristotelian ideal of community between two individuals and its transformation in an intense form of union based on a natural human desire to live in couples, that are joined physically in sexual activity as well as in other ways by children and other areas of joint concern and activity. As Foucault does mention in this  lectures, marriage in Aristotle  is the sovereignty of husband over wife, though what he does not mention is that this is  on the model of monarchy (so power moderated by law and virtue). Same sex relations are against nature, for Aristotle, as Foucault does mention elsewhere. This does not allow for the kind of marriage union envisaged by the Stoics, even if Aristotle does think of relations between husband and wife, as those between good rulers and citizens, as a form of friendship.

The Stoic ideal of marriage isolates marriage, as a uniquely close bond, from the other relations in society, as the uniquely natural relation. The bond between two human individuals is not just in friendship, but is primarily in the limit of love (though not to be understood in the sense of the most intense forms of romantic love). In this way, flourishing human life is defined in a less communal and political way in the Stoics than in earlier Greek philosophy, and is even anti-communal since the life in couples is natural in a way that law governed, or political, communities are not. The end of human nature is in the joint life of a couple not a polis. For Musonius Rufus, this union cannot be an interruption to philosophy (an issue discussed in the previous lecture) since it is the most intensely natural of relations, and philosophy itself is based on nature. In this kind of Stoic thinking, attraction  between men and woman has a natural force like the relation between physical elements, which is part of why marriage, or generally living in couples, is based on nature.

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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