Stylisation and Enlightenment in Foucault’s Ethics VIII (concluding part)

The idea of reciprocity in sexuality also refers to political relations, to a relation between governor and governed.  The pact is to obey the person who is master of himself.  The person who masters himself can moderate the power he exercises over others, making the relation beneficial for the governed.  For classical Greek moralists, both partners in marriage should exercise temperance, but in different ways.  The woman should be submissive; the man should be austere in a self-limiting domination.  While this is not full reciprocity, it does allow for both sides of a marriage to be concerned with self-limitation; the power of the husband is restrained by his own capacity for self-limitation.

That increasing concern with self-limitation leads the way to the placing of a high value on chastity, which has its origin in the idea of access to truth through self-limitation.  The Stoic and then Christian emphasis on the value of chastity is foreshadowed in Classical Greece, through the value placed on self-mastery, in heroes of chastity who become superior beings with access to the truth.  Christian chastity makes chastity the ideal, because Christianity rests on an absolutely otherworldly sphere lacking in Plato, or in the Stoics.  Foucault is concerned with the way that the original antique attitude is linked to ideas of self-government.  Self-government in that conception gives the right to govern inferiors: women and slaves.  Foucault follows up the positive implications of this, with regard to the development of the self, and the impossibility of finding a way to consistently exclude the governed from governing.  On the first point, Foucault is impressed with antique notions of regulating the passions in order to create a thriving self.  Here ethics appears without theology, or state power, to enforce it.  Then ethics becomes a political principle of self-government.

Stoic and antique Roman thought, in general, still leaves the man as commander, but becomes more concerned with the idea of a relationship which is between equals.  Stoicism emphasises universality, even if it does not directly challenge the kind of divisions made in the antique world between different categories of human.  Foucault sees the attitude to pleasure, as a way in which a man cares for his self in a self-creating game that prepares the man for politics.  The Roman world already differs from the Greek world in its greater sense of individuality, or distance between the private person and the public face, though it is also the case the Foucault argues against seeing the emergence of a complete individualism, so confirming that we should not be looking for extreme individualism at any point in Foucault’s account of antique ethics.  This individualism is itself an outcome of Greek concern with the kind of pleasure, which best suits the man who governs.  But now a care for the self, which finds sexuality unhealthy displaces the pursuit of pleasure.

Foucault’s emphases on style of life, and notions of self-creation not only have a political aspect, taking him beyond the aesthetic narcissism sometimes imputed to him, he also notes that the antique ethicists were following models of nature and health.  The political aspect is an example of social ontology in stylisation, and follows from the ontology of nature.  What Foucault does is focus on the articulation of those arguments about following nature, and the health of the body; and how they need to fill in gaps, and uncertainties, in the relation between the natural, and those elements of human activity which cannot be seen as obviously natural.  That is where style and self-creation emerge.

The issue of nature as a  model, and the way that style of life, and aesthetics of existence, enter into that, is partly explained by Foucault with reference to Plato’s Laws.  What he refers to is in Laws I, where Plato opposes conformity to nature to what is against nature.  The more fundamental distinction is between continence and incontinence.  What is against nature and procreation is not explained as abnormal nature, or as a particular form of desire.  It is what follows from lack of measure, intemperance in pleasure.  Nature is acting against itself, when its urges promote self-damaging excess.  The references to nature orientate these moments in History of Sexuality and The Hermeneutics of the Subject towards the ontological aspect of sexuality.  Ethical understanding of sexuality is embedded in an understanding of what is natural, or what kind of being we must have to be part of natural being.  The ontology of the natural guides self-limitation.  The idea of moderation, self-restraint, or temperance, inevitably includes some notion of deliberation and choice.

What Foucault suggests is that this deliberation and choice falls below the threshold of laws, codes or prohibitions.  Temperance does not take the form of obedience to a system of laws or a code of conduct.  It is not a principle of the denial of pleasure.  It is an art, a practice of pleasures which is used for self-limitation.  The ethical individual emerges from  self-limitation, in a social and natural context, for reasons of self-preservation, and not from external universal moral obligation.  That kind of moral obligation can only be conceived, where there is already self-limitation.

Self-stylisation in Foucault is just as much self-limitation, though not the self-limitation of discrete and self-contained individuality, as expression of individual freedom.  It is difficult to distinguish between self-limitation and liberty in Antique thought, and that is how we must locate style in Foucault’s ethics.  The way that the self is an ethical self, as it limits itself with regard to nature, truth, politics, and rules of living.  The style is a choice of a relational self with regard to how it limits itself, not a leap into the unlimited self, or an expression of some deep self that Foucault does not recognise as an explicit idea before late Antiquity.

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