John McDowell suggests that Aristotle’s ethics are a forerunner of second nature in German Idealism, the nature that comes from social existence( Mind and World, Lecture IV, which should be compared with Part I of Mind, Value, and Reality). There is some parallel with what Foucault argues in relation to a style which is not defined by nature, which is not in conformity with every other aspect of the subject’s life. Foucault goes a step further than McDowell in suggesting that the second nature fragments between different styles, and a step further again in arguing the individual second nature self fragments between different parts of existence. There is no unified style for humans and not even a unified style for the individual. There are differences in virtues between individuals and differences between different aspects of the life of an individual. If we think about the famous discussions about the unity of the virtues in Plato, Meno, Euthrypo and so on, we should not take Foucault as a simply reversing Plato’s elevation of the one over the many. In Plato’s account, that would still mean a distinct virtue for every type of individual. There is no such stable list of virtues for individuals or even situations in Foucault; there is always self-invention and choice.
Foucault’s arguments should not be taken as just the affirmation of indeterminacy of choice. There is a point of reference for choice, and that is the truth of the inner agon. The truth is not a pre-given virtue, or character, it is a more living changeable thing. That does not deny any naturalistic, or psychological, discussion of the origins of character, we could put all of this in the strongest neo-Humean naturalistic-psychological deterministic terms. If we do that, we still need to describe what is happening in the style of the self, we would still need to respect the difference between internal causation and external physical compulsion, as Hobbes and Hume did. Not that an argument is being offered here for such strong determinism (the author is inclined towards indeterminist argument for free will), but the question of whether we prefer strong determinism over all the positions allowing some role for freedom of will is not what is at stake here. In naturalistic terms, the styles of the self are the outcome of different natures in different selves, including natures which are changeable. The real issue here is that even if second nature is the deterministic outcome of first nature, that nature still divides between different possibilities in different agents and different possibilities within those agents. There is something exemplary about the agent who contains possibilities and moves between them. That would be the highest virtue, the nearest thing to a cardinal or unifying virtue. That highest virtue would also contain self-mastery in the existence of a sovereign self which creates its own styles of existence. A self which speaks freely from its inner agonistic truth. There are some traces of the right to make promises and the creation of a sovereign agent that Nietzsche deals with in Genealogy of Morality II; as with Nietzsche there is the ambivalence about whether we are offered an ethical ideal or the over socialised product of historical-cultural violence. In Foucault’s case, we should not forget that care of the self ends with Augustinian asceticism.
What Foucault offers is an ethic of inner struggle and social contestation, which tends to come up in the political context explaining why it has not been dealt with here. An ethic of the plurality of life styles, between and within individuals. An ethic of natural humanity opening up every possible way of life in the nature of the social. Foucault’s analysis of the ‘classical age’ (the early modern era) suggests that every possibility has to be realised, as can be seen in Leibniz’ concern with compossibility or de Sade’s wish to enact every desire (The Order of Things). Some of that spirit can be found in Foucault’s ethics, though not in sense of the absolute mastery possessed by God or nature, in the time of the Classical Age.
One thing that Foucault may have omitted from his account of ancient care of the self is the sceptical tradition in the New Academy and the Pyrrhonists through Aenesidemus to Sextus Empiricus. This has its own concern with the care of the self, in seeking a balance between conflicting beliefs. The conflicting sides should both be treated with scepticism, releasing the self from their conflict and from one sided ways of thinking and living. Foucault has often been awarded the label of sceptic or relativist, but does not pick up on the Ancient arguments, in the Sophists, the New Academy, or the Pyrrhonists. Kierkegaard and Nietzsche both gave respect to Ancient scepticism above Cartesian scepticism on the grounds that the ancient sceptics lived out their scepticism, it was a philosophy of life. There could be a productive approach to Foucault in working through the relevance of the antique sceptics, together with Kierkegaard and Nietzsche.