Michel Foucault, Care of the Self, and the Classicists

I was present at a talk recently from a classicist visiting Istanbul. I don’t want to give details of the talk or the name of the speaker. I have a critical point to make, but I don’t want to appear to be targetting someone who gave a good talk, was very friendly, and as far as I can tell is a classicist of a very high level. The talk tell with Roman Stoicism and very briefly referred to Foucault. I brought up Foucault (amongst other things) in my questions in the discussion after the talk, and the discussion continued.

 

The point that prompted one of my question was the claim that Foucault’s notion of the ‘care of the self’ is something he associates with two things

Narrow self-interest

The rise of Neo-Stoicism in the early Empire, that is the period of Roman history from 27 BCE when the honorific name Augustus, used by all the subsequent Emperors, was given to Gaius Julius Caesar, more generally known as Octavius (he was born Gaius Octavius Thurinus).

 

NARROW SELF-INTEREST DEFINITION

Foucault certainly does not think ‘care of the self’ is just a matter of self interest, though it is true that he thinks of ‘care of the self’ reducing to mere concern with privacy in the time of Octavius Augustus. As I have pointed out before Foucault does not define ‘care of the self’ as mere selfishness but as a threefold which include privacy. Privacy on its own is maybe close to just being self-interested in a very narrow way, but Foucault does not go so far as that in his explicit discussion.

 

As I’ve already pointed out, care of the self has the following three aspects

CARE OF THE SELF

RIGHT TO GOVERN (IN A REPUBLICAN CONTEXT)

SELF-RELATIONSHIP, RELATIONSHIP OF THE SELF WITH ITSELF

PRIVACY

 

BOTH 2 AND 3 INVOLVE SOME SENSE OF GOING BEYOND THE ISOLATED SELF.

 

STOICISM OF THE EARLY EMPIRE

On the second point from the Classicist speaker

 

Foucault clearly situated the emergence of the ‘care of the self’ in Plato’s Socratic dialogues. Plato was alive 429-347 BCE, so he died 320 years, more than three centuries before the beginning of the Augustan era. So there is clearly something wrong with saying that Foucault thought ‘care of the self’ emerged in the early Empire, and that would still be the case if we went back to the Stoic leanings of Cicero who died as the Republic was dying, in 43 BCE.

 

CLASSICISTS AND FOUCAULT

In the discussion I had with the Classicist, he said that the Classicists had been big fans of Foucault, and then turned against him for being too schematic and inaccurate in his approach to history. It’s peculiar that they turned against him on those grounds, as they were the best situated people to notice those problems in the first place. In general, Foucault is open to those criticisms in relation to everything he wrote. That sort of criticism could miss the point. It’s a good thing to discuss the accuracy of Foucault’s historical details, but overall we have to judge him as someone who develops a series of general theses about different ways in which knowledge and power appear over history in which historical scholarship provides the starting point for necessarily reductive, but powerful and creative generalisations which are subtle and complex in their own terms.

 

Judging from what the Classicist said about Foucault, and which I have criticised above, the Classicists themselves are inclined to schematic claims about Foucault, lacking accuracy in the detail. What the Classicist said about the Classicist culture gave a reason for this, a tendency to legitimise themselves by adopting thinkers popular with literary theorists but only after the literary people have moved onto a new theorist. I hope the Classicists no longer feel the need to justify themselves in this way, particularly since as far as I can see the literary theory field has not had any major new developments for some years.