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Le Courage de la Vérité 4: Plato’s Laches March 11, 2009

Posted by Andy in Le Courage de la Vérité.
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Foucault’s fourth lecture on the Courage of truth is a reading of the Plato’s Laches. He says that no self-respecting professor of philosophy can avoid giving a course on Socrates and his death at some point in his life, and so this is it (“Salvate animam meam” he adds). This lecture sketches out a few more details concerning Socratic parrhesia before he leaves the period and goes on to talk about the Cynics. This is also the only lecture he gave this year without a break. I don’t think that’s significant…
He starts off with some etymological hypotheses about the key “care of the self” word: epimeleia, and its root meleo. He basically reckons it might be something to do with melodies, and the way in which they make appeals to our person. This stands alone and is a thought in such a raw state that it’s difficult to make anything of it. He passes quickly to the exegesis of the dialogue.

Foucault wants to oppose the Laches to what seems to be his favourite dialogue, the Alcibiades. Whereas the latter brings up the problem of care of the self and leads it into a consideration of the soul, the former does more or less the same thing but lands up in giving an account of one’s life (bios). This is the kind of thing that will presumably end up in the ascetic exercises of middle Platonism and early Christian asceticism. I don’t know if there is a further transition to Agamben’s bare life (zoe) at some point, but I’m waiting in anticipation.

Bibliographical note: it seems Foucault was really excited about Jan Patočka’s work on Plato and Europe as it gives a central role to the care of the self. But it is precisely with the reading of Laches and the role of one’s life (rather than soul) in the these spiritual exercises that separates the two.

The dialogue is basically about two young men (Lysimachus and Melesias) requesting help from two old men (Laches and Nicias) in bringing up their children. They are conscious of having led unremarkable lives and appeal to the old men’s experience and courage as a basis for helping them.

Predictably enough, Socrates is wheeled in to solve the issue – is Nicias or Laches the best qualified to teach young people the truth about courage? And of course, no-one present is qualified to speak the truth, because truth-telling requires a particular honest mode of life, so everyone has to look after themselves. But Socrates is the only one who has already started. He doesn’t lead them, but he asks them to adopt his own program. It’s a kind of direction of open-endedness. (And the entire discussion is an example of Socratic parrhesia, whereby the people are tested, give their consent to Socrates’ frankness, and so on)

This paradoxical status of Socrates, whereby he forces the conclusion that the problem is not one of techniques and discipleship, but at the same time sets himself up as a kind of guide, is demonstrated in the conclusion. Both Nicias and Laches admit their deficiency, and Socrates has already done so. Yet at the same time, both old men recommend the younger men to send their children to Socrates. The pedagogical conclusion reflects our current situation – the unease with which we retain pedagogical institutions, with all their necessary apparatus of power, and the task we give them to nurture critical thinking, independence, and even suspicion of power. I experienced this recently by conforming to the mandate given me by the Norwegian state by teaching my students about civil disobedience.
Socrates leads the discussion away from the political contest of expertise, away from received wisdom and techniques, and into the discussion of ways of life.

It’s not a matter of expertise, it’s not a matter of technique, it’s not a matter of mastery, or of an oeuvre. What is in question here? It is a question – and here the text takes it a bit further – of the way in which one lives (hontina tropon nun te zê) (p134)

Frustrating quotation – is the transition from bios to zoe the “little bit further” he means here? Or is this simply proof that Foucault translates both words in the same way, about the same thing? It is in any case passed over with no further comment here.

The conclusion of all this is that the truth about courage is available only to those who engage in the care of the self. And the care of the self consists in listening to a truth-teller. So we have a symmetrical relation of truth and care which is central to the Foucauldian question of truth and subjectivity:

Truth telling in the order of the care of men is to put their mode of life into question, to attempt to test this mode of life and to define what can be validated and recognised as good, and what on the other hand must be rejected and condemned in this way of life. That is where you see the organisation of this fundamental chain, which is one of care, of parrhesia (of frank speech) and of the ethical division between the good and the bad in the order of bios (of existence). We have here, I believe, the sketch, the design that is nevertheless already firm, of what this Socratic parrhesia is, which is not at all the political parrhesia of which I’d spoken of last time. It is nothing less than an ethical parrhesia. Its privileged object, its essential object, is life and the mode of life. (p139)


1. geoff - March 15, 2009

i just wanted to say thank you for these very interesting over views of foucault’s new work – i’m finishing up my phd on a post holocaust ethics of the self using camus, foucault and beckett (interestingly enough augustine connects the first two closely) and your posts/translations have been helpful in concreting a few ideas about where F was headed.

2. Patrick Waldron - November 10, 2010

I would like to thank you again for these wonderful summaries, and ask if you or anyone out there knows how one can gain access to the fourth volume of the history of sexuality. Can one visit the Foucault archive in paris and look at it? Has anyone written about it? Thanks, Patrick

3. Andy - November 11, 2010

well, rumour has it that some people were going around with a manuscript. But I’ve never seen it and have not taken steps to obtain it myself. I can’t tell any more from the Foucault archives website what they have available, because they are focussing so much on online material.

In any case, we now know that Foucault was quite right not to allow any quotation of his work that he had not published. He practically rewrote every book several times (except from the Roussel one) until the final product bore no resemblance to the initial drafts. So I’m not sure any manuscripts of the fourth volume would help you much.

Personally, I rely to a much greater extent on the published material, and then on the lectures. And I think most Foucault scholars are with me on that.

Let’s face it, most of us have enough on our hands with ploughing through Dits et Ecrits!

You can read Carrette’s view on this as a postscript to his collection Religion and Culture. But others have basically come out and contradicted him…

4. corriveau - September 17, 2011

You wrote : “The dialogue is basically about two young men (Lysimachus and Melesias) requesting help…” You should read again 189c

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