Stylisation and Enlightenment in Foucault’s Ethics VI

The assertion of the ontological, structural, instrumental and truth telling aspects of care for the self in Plato is ‘modelled after domestic or political authority [pouvoir].  Finally, the mode of being to which this self-mastery gave access was characterised as an active freedom, a freedom that was indissociable from a structural, instrumental, and ontological relation [rapport] to truth’ .  Care for the self unifies the ethical, and the truth telling, around the activity of the self; a self which appears in a self mastering liberty.  Since sexuality is not strongly codified in the classical Greek period, sexual temperance is an exercise of liberty, taking the form of self-mastery.  Moral value is also an aesthetic and truth value.  Satisfying needs, and being in truth, come together in conduct that respects the hierarchy of the human, and which ensures those antique values which emphasize becoming established in renown and memory.  Ontology is a question of what it is to exist, for being to reveal itself in the stylisation of life.  Stylisation allows various possibilities of existence to reveal themselves, and is therefore an ontological activity.  Hierarchy and struggle between force in the hierarchy go together in Foucault, and they go together with liberty as self-mastery, and with truth.  Truth appears in an affirmative way in these texts, and this is part of the opposition to ‘epistemology’, and the way in which Foucault puts ontology above epistemology, noted above.

The point for Foucault is that knowledge, including the knowledge he is proposing of antique sexuality and ethics, only exists in the context of an individual experience of truth, and efforts to uncover truths, and struggles to defend them.  In Plato, this takes the form of epistrophē, a turning towards knowledge, away from appearances, which is still based on the ontology and activity of the individual.  The more universalising claims of epistemology are emergent from particularistic claims to truth, and enunciations of truths, and tend to obliterate those particularistic truths.  Foucault’s accounts of antique sexuality and ethics are intertwined, and as accounts entwined with knowledge, distinct from epistemological abstractions, are entwined with life and action, existence and behaviour,‘[r]egimen [régime] was a whole art of living.’  The knowledge of diet is part of an art of living.  The knowledge refers to the rules necessary to preserve the ‘natural’ in health, as part of living as an aesthetic.  The diet was not seen as obeying knowledge which comes from outside.  It was an individual’s reflective practice on the self, and the body.  Here we see one indication of why Foucault’s account of style of living, and art of existence, is not advocacy of limitless self-invention, a subjectivity floating free from any external constraints, or freedom as indeterminacy.  The ethics to which Foucault refers is an ethics of conformity to, and following of rules, in self-restraint, but not a sense of deep inner obligation to an external set of laws.  There is no deep self to be revealed here according to Foucault, just acts which enable the self to be in accordance with nature.  In that sense, as we have seen, he follows the example of Plato.

Foucault’s ontology is one of a natural self, rather than a deep self standing apart from nature.  The self does not have a deep inner self to reveal, rather it needs to constrain itself in order to keep its nature well ordered.  That ordering and self-discipline comes out of a hierarchy of tensions, which is the self, ‘we could say that classical antiquity’s moral reflection concerning the pleasures was not directed toward a codification of acts, nor towards a hermeneutics of the subject, but towards a stylisation of attitudes and an aesthetics of existence’.  The perspective Foucault creates on the ethics of antique sexuality is ambiguous since the ideas of stylisation, of the aesthetics of existence, is contrasted with a care for the self which emerges in Plato, as we have seen, along with other dialogues.  Foucault particularly emphasises the Alcibiades, though, or maybe because, it is a dialogue of disputed authenticity.  Active liberty is advocated as a value, and this only exists in the work of the self on itself, in a relation of domination.  The restraining structure is inseparable from the self in its relation with itself.  The ethical aspect, in its narrowest sense of individual life, is the hierarchy in itself.  The work of ascesis emphasises the changeable nature of that hierarchy, so the positive point may be the hierarchy that can be challenged.  Maybe it is the hierarchy and the struggle with it that makes the stylisation more than ‘just’ aesthetic style.  The physical regime must be ordered on a general aesthetic principle of  of existence, in which corporeal equilibrium is one of the conditions of the correct hierarchy of the soul.  That hierarchy is an ontological question, a question of what structure a human being must have in order to remain a human being, and to avoid dangers to that status.

(to be continued)

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