The quotation above is preceded, by a reference to Michel de Montaigne on the ‘aesthetics and ethics of the self’; and Montaigne is not someone so easily dismissed as an advocate of narcissism, rather than a full exploration or our inner self and our relations with others. That quotation is followed up with a discussion of governmentality, government of the self and others, and political power. As the above suggests, politics is never completely absent from Foucault’s thoughts about ethics and the self. Aesthetics is never completely absent either, but this is not the same as the advocacy of dandyism as an end in itself, or the most self-absorbed melancholic aspects of Baudelaire. The presence of Montaigne, and of political power, in Foucault’s discussion of the self, in close proximity to his mention of ‘dandyism’, should direct our understanding of Foucault’s use of that term. The mention of dandyism is not there as a definition of Foucault’s position,in the strongest sense of dandyism. It has two purposes: in a strong sense to refer to the one of the possible forms of stylisation; in a weak sense to refer to the possibility of choice of style. The idea of dandyism highlights the way in which living contains choices about the style of living; it does not leave dandyism, itself, as the only, or best, choice.
The place of dandyism can be further defined with reference to Foucault’s summary of the ‘art of living’ in the ancient world, ‘the principle of “taking care of oneself” was formulated within this general question of the tekhnē tou biou’. Foucault refers to the whole of the classical period, thereby bringing in late Stoic and early Christian thought about the self, which is more ascetic than dandyish in character. Though he presents that latter stage as a departure from earlier ethics in some respects, it is also presented as a outcome of the restraints implicit in care of the self.
The art of living is an art which requires reason, rules and the making explicit of reasoning about rules. The art of living is continuous with care of the self, so we are not just talking about a play of appearances, but rather the totality of purposes that enter into living, and its rules. Existence, being alive, itself, is bound up with the art and technique, and implicitly the style, of life. That is style emerges from ontology. Before arriving at a choice for dandyism, asceticism, or any other style, the individual is faced with the inevitability of following a technique of some kind. Since there is always more than one technique, the individual always has to be a ‘dandy’ in a minimal sense to the extent of making some choice of style, even though that may often happen with a minimum of reflection, largely following prevailing customs.
Following on from the general character of care for the self, and art of living, the sexual stylisation Foucault refers to is not a jump into the boundless infinite of self-invention, but is rather the elaboration of rules in which we find ways of establishing ourselves in relation to nature, and in which our actions match an inner rationality and deliberation. So there is a questioning of absolutes of ethics and knowledge, but also an assumption of the value of ontology, of truthful speech and rational conduct, which all deal with the inevitable particularity of individual truths and ethics. This is not a retreat into solipsism, as can be see in the importance that Foucault attaches to confirming the formation of ethics in terms of a relational self, relational with itself, with power, and with nature.
The ‘moral’ itself appears in Foucault, as something preceding law, and external obligation. It refers to the formation of the self by itself, and the way in which the self establishes itself as having a moral aspect. The idea of a unified self suggests a rapport of the self, with itself, and that is tied up with actions which have external effects. For an action to be called moral does not mean it has to be reduced to an act, or a series of acts conforming to a rule, a law, or a value. All moral acts have an effect on reality, according to a moral code, but such acts also imply a rapport with the self. This is not just consciousness of the self, but constitution of the self as moral subject. The individual makes up the part of the self, which constitute the object of moral practice. This is a mode of being, an action of the self on itself, in which it is self-knowing, self-controlling, self-testing, self-perfecting and self-transforming. Moral action refers to the unity of moral conduct. Unity of moral conduct refers to the constitution of the self as a moral self, and that is a statement about the ontological character of the self. The constitution of the moral self is one way in which the ontology of the self is revealed.