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A cock for life: Foucault’s third lecture March 10, 2009

Posted by Andy in Foucault, Le Courage de la Vérité.
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The third lecture of 1984 (the 15th February) examines Socrates’ appropriation of parrhesia. The transition I think he’s getting at is from the kind of truth-telling that opposes the powerful for the good of the collective towards the kind of truth-telling that opposes vanity for the sake of the good life (and this is where life is inserted into philosophical practice). But the main locus for this history is the last words of Socrates.
There are a few names to throw out at this point. Firstly, Dumezil: Foucault is in contact with both Dumezil and Veyne during these lectures (he tells his students what they said when he went and asked them about particular words and so on), and he comments on press reactions to Dumezil’s newly released book on Nostradamus and Socrates: Le moyne noir en gris dedans Varennes” : sotie nostradamique ; suivie d’un Divertissement sur les dernieres paroles de Socrate. I can’t see whether the English edition actually retains both parts, or suppresses the Socrates “diversion” at the end. One of Foucault’s points is that the latter tends to be ignored. He recommends his students to read this book in the lecture before this one, so if you were going to do a reading group on this text, that would be good background reading. Dumezil is perhaps a surprising reference for Foucault, but his work has been in the background since the beginning (he is acknowledged as an influence for the History of Madness). He is one of very few people (Canguilhem is probably another, although his presence is not felt to much towards the end) to have been constantly on Foucault’s mind.
Secondly, Alexander Nehamas, who has more or less made an industry out of describing the problem Foucault takes up in this lecture, namely: why are Socrates’ last words about sacrificing foul to Asclepius? You can see this in his concluding chapter to The Art of Living (University of California Press, 1998) where he despicably points out how very much he resembles Socrates, Nietzsche and Foucault. Well done, Alexander, you managed to find Foucault’s lectures before they were published. Maybe you should also try doing some work now and earn that oversized reputation.
Foucault’s first question is: how come Socrates didn’t stand up against the stuff going on in his city that he knew was screwed up? That’s basically the accusation the Laws bring against him in the Crito dialogue. It’s what killed him: if he’d worked to change his city during his lifetime, maybe it wouldn’t have caused his death. As it stands, his only real claims to fearless speech are when he was more or less forced into public service.
It’s not just that parrhesia works best under despotism: there were plenty of instances of Socrates’ life when Athens was clearly not being ruled by the people. Why didn’t he speak out?
The answer given (by Socrates himself) that if Socrates had engaged in politics, he would have died. Why not bite the bullet? Because his divinely-given task lies elsewhere. And this task is what the Socrates event is all about: not like Solon, not like Diogenes. It is all about Socratic truth-telling. And this kind of truth-telling has three parts:
– Searching: Socrates has to look for the wisest person on earth.
– Examination: Socrates has to interrogate people to see if they really are wise.
– Care of the self: Socrates has to lead people back to themselves, to concern themselves with themselves and with adjusting the way they are in the world (the care of the self: this section resonates with the 3rd volume of the History of Sexuality).
It is these three elements that make up Socratic parrhesia: looking for people, finding out if they are wise, and then leading them back to the correct concern for the self (unfettered by vanity, self-deceit, etc). And these form a kind of courageous speech that is quite different from political defiance.
Before moving on to Dumezil, Foucault relates the new kind of parrhesia to the other forms of truth-telling (prophecy, the sage, and the teacher/technician) and notes that it is still useful for the city. It’s a kind of formation of good citizens. And that’s why it is a political act, but also a pedagogical act.
The second half of this lecture is all about the interpretation of Socrates’ last words, that appeal to the ritual act thanking the god for a healing. Since they are spoken on his deathbed, many interpreters (including Nietzsche) have thought that Socrates is referring to his healing from this wretched life. But this is unsatisfactory because neither Plato nor Socrates seem to think of life as a disease. Dumezil refers to the Crito dialogue (to whom the final words are addressed) to present his solution, and Foucault backs it up with reference to Sophocles and Euripides. Socrates is celebrating his healing from the disease of popular opinion. He has not sold out, he has not agreed with his persecutors or compromised, and Crito has not swept him away from the city (as he had planned). So they have both been healed from the temptation to conform.
This kind of self-propelling from the masses (Bernauer’s “Force of flight”) is itself a form of care for the self. Which is why Foucault draws attention to the very last words: Socrates tells Crito that they owe Asclepius a cockrel, and then “do not forget, do not neglect”. The Greek word amelêsête is a cognate of the key word for care of the self – epimeleia seautou. So Socrates has managed to stay attentive to his own thoughts, and Crito must continue to be on the alert.
This lecture revolved around the final words of Socrates, as particularly related to the Apologia. The next lecture is a reading of the Laches.

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Comments»

1. Eric Lee - July 8, 2009

Just a minor clarification:

Secondly, Alexander Nehamas, who has more or less made an industry out of describing the problem Foucault takes up in this lecture, namely: why are Socrates’ last words about sacrificing foul to Asclepius? You can see this in his concluding chapter to The Art of Living (University of California Press, 1998) where he despicably points out how very much he resembles Socrates, Nietzsche and Foucault.

I’ve read this a couple times and I’m just not sure what the referent of “he” is in “he despicably points out…” Is Nehamas saying that he himself resembles all these figures? (Which would obviously explain why your describing it at despicable!) Or is it somebody else?

2. Andy - July 23, 2009

It’s just Nehamas trying to create an industry out of exegesis of himself. Me and Augustine hate that. Many of the church fathers follow my line on the issue in fact.


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