Foucault’s Lectures on Subjectivity and Truth, VII.1

Lecture of 25th February, 1981.

Foucault suggests that ‘director of conscience’ is better term than philosopher or moralists for the writers on ‘aphrodisia’ he is discussing in the two centuries before Christianity (presumably before Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire). This itself seems to incorporate a bit of rather Catholic sounding terminology (director of conscience is a standard way of referring to the role of the priesthood, particularly with regard to confession, though perhaps is more readily applicable to those of the status and wealth to employ a personal priest/confessor) into the pagan world, and is one way of suggesting indirectly that there are pagan moral-philosophical elements in Christianity, or there are some shared elements. It is mostly, but not entirely, the work of Stoics.

Foucault announces that he is introducing the topic of the economy of ‘aphrodisia (the trade offs of pleasures and dangers, the limits necessary to continuing the ‘aphordisia’). There are two aspects: the restriction and localisation of sexual acts within marriage; the codification of those acts themselves not just the institutional and legal aspect. There is a new mistrust towards sexual pleasure. All societies have some kind of restrictive economy, limitations supposed necessary to health and well being, with regard to ‘aphrodisia’. There are three parts of this economy to be discussed: religious, philosophical practice and life, medicine.


Restrictions on sexual activity in Ancient Greek paganism include the virginity of various priestesses, which continued in the vestal virgins of Rome. Religious restrictions could include long periods of abstinence, keeping to the company of those too young or old to be normally regarded as sexual partners, purity while entering a temple, abstinence on the day of making a sacrifice. These religious restriction were lined to a separation between sexual act and dead bodies, presumably sexuality activity too close to making sacrifices (or dealing with the bodies of dead humans waiting for burial) was crossing a dangerous boundary. Truth was linked with purification, so all truth speaking required purification, as in prophetic speech. Communication with the gods required physical purity. Sexual activity had an analogy, or similarity, with death which made it unsuitable for communication with the gods. Presumably sexual purification is particularly important when dealing with death, because of the need to limit the amount of pollution.

In Greek antiquity, philosophy belonged to ‘bios theoretikos’, theoretical life. Sexual activity appeared in contradiction with, or at least incompatible with with theoretical life. It was disturbing to a life of contemplation of truth. The philosophical restrictions on sexual activity go back to the Orphists an Pythagoreans, for sexual activity and the body were in contradiction with the contemplation of truth, since the body şs a material thing which might die, while the soul is devoted to immortality. This attitude towards the dangers of sexual activity was present in all Greek philosophy, but with differences in which there might be complete abstinence or a very practical attitude to sexual desires as why should be dealt with quickly, maybe through acts of self-gratification, or through  a loveless attitude towards satisfying sexual urges.

Sexual pleasure was taken to be in contradiction with philosophy, and the practical life, because of its physical intensity, because of the lack of energy after a brief period of pleasure, and because of the blindness to truth while engaged in the act. Sexual activity was an activity in antique thinking in the same way as politics and philosophy were life activities. Sexual activity was seen as rival to those other activities in the use of energy and concentration of activity. Theoretical life was seen as superior to political and sexual life, because it was more concerned with the self-relation, with self-mastery, and happiness of the  highest kind.

Hippocratic medicine suggested that sexual activity created a heating of all the humours and fluids of the whole body, leading to great tiredness after the act. The body lost what was most active and strong, leading to the risk of death. Other medical schools compared sexual activity with epilepsy. These beliefs lead to the claim that sexual activity should be limited. The link between epilepsy and sex was sometimes metaphorical, sometimes a belief that sexual activity caused epilepsy, and sometimes a belief that sexual activity was the cure for epilepsy. In all cases, epilepsy and sexuality were linked around closeness to death and the blocking of consciousness, so as the opposite of the life contemplation of eternal truths.

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


4 thoughts on “Foucault’s Lectures on Subjectivity and Truth, VII.1

  1. Pingback: Barry Stocker on Foucault’s Subjectivity and Truth lecture seven | Progressive Geographies

  2. Minor point on terminology. MF says here ‘director of conscience’ is better description than ‘philosopher’ for the figures he is discussing. The notion of ‘conscience’ here may seem a little anachronistic when applied to these authors, however, and in a later lecture on parrhesia Foucault remarks, in an aside, that he does not think that the term ‘director of conscience’ is really applicable to these figures, but without offering an alternative. A difficulty then for him and his translators. I have opted for the term ‘spiritual director’ (and so, ‘spiritual direction’ for the practice), although I think these terms only come into use in Counter Reformation Catholicism. Irenee Hausherr’s study of the practice of spiritual fathers or elders in early Eastern Christian uses the spiritual direction (Direction spirituelle en orient autrefois; Spiritual Direction in the Early Christian East). Any comments on this welcome.

    • Very useful points Graham, my brief checks didn’t show me that spiritual director only dates back to the Counter-Reformation, though I am not surpassed that some parts of Catholic practice go back to that period. Spiritual director sounds OK to me as something that will make sense to an English reader more readily, and make at least some readers think of Catholic practice, rather than director of conscience. I’ll keep thinking about this as I go along. Ideally I’d check various other Foucault lectures relevant to this. There may be an issue here of consistency with translation choices you made elsewhere I suppose. Anyway, I can’t see any real objection to the choice you’ve identified

  3. Thanks Barry. I’m not sure about the term ‘spiritual direction’ itself (as opposed to ‘d of c’) and I haven’t done a proper check on its use/uses.

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