Foucault on the Self and Individualism

A few thoughts inspired by my current reading of The Use of Pleasure and The Care of the Self, volumes II and III of Michel Foucault’s History of SexualityHistory of Sexuality is concerned with movements in the knowledge and ethics of the self, with a focus on the erotic.


Foucault defines three aspects of individualism: the value of individuality, private life, the relation of the self with itself.  The movement of the argument is to suggest that privacy has been given too much emphasis, and the other two aspects not enough.  This overemphasis on privacy is linked with the 19th Century bourgeoisie and with the Rome of Augustus.  That is Ancient Rome under its first Emperor Augustus.  Foucault puts the well known edicts of Augustus to control sexuality as being about pushing ‘deviant’ sexuality into the private sphere, and links this with the movement in Antique ethics towards the rationalism and asceticism of Stoicism.


What Foucault sees in pre-Augustus antiquity, and even in the careful reading of the Roman and Hellenstic Neo-Stoics (Seneca, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius), is a richness of understanding of the self and care for the self.  It is care for the self, which establishes someone as a citizen with political rights,  That provides a breach of private/public barrier in a link between self-government and the right to political self-government and the government of others.  Evidently Foucault finds the self-government the most interesting aspect.


Within that affirmation of the self as political self, Foucault introduces an important distinction.  That is the distinction between following external laws and style of activity.  ‘Style of activity’ arises where the individual goes beyond natural order and positive law.  It arises in the interpretation of dreams, where the actor in the dream goes beyond the ‘natural’ in sexual activity.


Style of activity is one way in which individuality and the relation of self with itself can be enhanced.  The activity of self-creation and presentation is the most liberatory experience.  The Antique culture struggles with this, even it most open moments.  Ancient Athens tolerated open homosexuality, but gives it a low value because it is seen as an older man as penetrating a younger man of lower status.  Homosexuality is low because it means connections with lowness, and the same is true for relations with woman.  Virility, sexual capacity, is given value in Ancient culture where it is linked with citizenship.  The citizen should govern, and impregnate, a woman who gives him a child.  Since the woman has low status with no political rights, sexual relations with her must be disgraceful, undermining the social-moral status given to a man with a woman he governs.


Style of activity seems to be Foucault’s alternative to a degradation of the self in asceticism.  The invention of the self as outside the ‘truth’ of nature or the prescription of laws, proves a way of valuing individuality and the relation of the self with itself.  This in itself contains further distinctions.  Truth is valued where it comes from the self and is not an external imposition.  There is a truth of being someone different, of new inventions of selfhood, which expresses some resistance to metaphysical and legal ‘truths’.  In this way, Foucault suggest forms of individualism, beyond mere privacy, for the contemporary world.