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Lecture 5: Arts of Existence March 18, 2009

Posted by Andy in Foucault, Le Courage de la Vérité.
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Foucault’s fifth lecture is an excellent example of how surprising it can be to read his stuff. There are three parts to it: first he wraps up Laches, then he introduces Cynic philosophy, and finally sketches out some of the ways this school can be detected in European history. It’s surprising because it involves discussion of Gregory of Nazianzen, the aesthetics of existence, Paul Tillich, the modern revolutionary, Dostoevsky, Christian spirituality and suicide bombers.

The summary of the Laches is also closing his discussion of Socratic parrhesia. The main theme here is the development of an ascesis of the self in addition to, and alongside an ontology of the self. If Alcibiades represents the latter, then Laches represents the former:

On the other hand, in the Laches, which has the same starting point (giving an account of oneself and taking care of oneself) the positing of oneself does not take place in the mode of the discovery of a psukhê as a reality ontologically distinct form the body, [but] as a way of being and a way of acting, a way of being and a way of acting where – it’s said explicitly in the Laches – it is a case of giving an account during the whole of one’s existence. (pp147-8, square brackets original)

Here Foucault points out that whilst these two influential streams of platonic philosophy – ontology and ascesis – work in parallel, and you never really get the one without the other, it is perfectly possible for each one ontology to work parallel to a number of different asceses, and vice versa. For example, consider the Christian metaphysic and ascetic:

You could find in Christianity, always in reference to this metaphysics that remains more or less constant, styles that have been successively very different. The style of Christian asceticism in the IVth or Vth century of our era is very different from [that of] the asceticism of the XVIIth century for example. So: a relatively constant metaphysic, with however a stylistics of existence that varies. (p152, square brackets original)

What I found curious about this summary is not as much the setting up of ascesis alongside ontology – this is the kind of Hadotian move we’d expect from the late Foucault – but the way he portrays Socratic parrhesia as a practice of the self that is both an individual practice, and useful for the city. It is different from the earlier political forms of parrhesia,

…even though, of course, this moral parrhesia, this ethical veridiction presents itself and justifies itself, at least in part, by its usefulness to the city and by the way in which it is necessary to the good government and salvation of the city. (p145)

This combination of ethical technique with political utility, and particularly when he puts it in terms of governmentality (bon gouvernement – a curious word in French) is surprising. Anyone familiar with the Tanner Lectures “Omnes et Singulatim” will note that Foucault describes modern raison d’état – and thereby police states, governmentality, secular pastoral power, and so on – as the combination of these techniques of the self inherited from antiquity, with the more Greek game of the salvation of the city. This is a major turning point for Foucault’s history, which he describes in no uncertain terms:

We can say that Christian pastorship has introduced a game that neither the Greeks nor the Hebrews imagined. A strange game whose elements are life, death, truth, obedience, individuals, self-identity; a game which seems to have nothing to do with the game of the city surviving through the sacrifice of the citizens. Our societies proved to be really demonic since they happened to combine those two games – the city-citizen game and the shepherd-flock game – in what we call the modern states. (Omnes et Singulatim, p239)

But in this chapter, Foucault backdates this cataclysmic event to the time of Socrates. Whether this is because he sees the logical necessity of universalising individual political techniques, or just has changed his mind on this is really difficult to see. It is in any case curious, and potentially revolutionary for our readings of Foucault’s meta-narrative.

The summary of the Cynic school of philosophy is basically Foucault’s reading of a series of texts (and this is where Gregory of Nazianzen comes in: his eulogy of Maximus the monk in Homily 25 praises him in terms of a philosophical, and specifically cynic, hero) that associate it with parrhesia. But what is peculiar to the Cynic mode of parrhesia is that the fearless speech is allied to their way of life. They live as witnesses to uncomfortable truths. This way of life – that is radically independent from honour, reduced to the bare essentials of life, and resistant to contingent convention – is their message, without their having to be bold to their friends, enemies, and disciples.

In sum, Cynicism makes of life, of existence, of bios, what we could call an alethurgie, a manifestation of truth. (p159)

In his development into posterity – which Foucault admits is highly hypothetical – Foucault uses some time to establish what is the essence of the Cynic philosophy. And he goes through a bit of modern literature, mostly post-war German literature (including Tillich), in order to affirm the idea that the core of the Cynic philosophy is a kind of individualism, affirmation of self, exasperation with particular, natural, and animal existence, in the face of the dislocation of social structures of antiquity and the absurdity of modern life (paraphrase of second paragraph of p166).

The first major influence the Cynics have had is (predictably?) to be found in Christian asceticism. He draws on Augustine, for example, to demonstrate the relation between the philosophical life of the cynics and the ascetic life of monks. This continues into the Middle Ages with spiritual movements, in a kind of eulogy of Christian spiritual revolution that theologians like us have become used to hearing from Foucault. This will no doubt be added to the canon of Foucault quotes that vindicate him as a theologian manqué (you can find a load of them in J Joyce Schuld’s Foucault and Augustine: Reconsidering Power and Love, but I guess Carrette and Bernauer’s Foucault and Theology has a load of them too):

The choice of life as scandal of truth, the stripping of life as a way of constituting, in one’s very body, the visible theatre of truth appear to have been, throughout the history of Christianity, not only a theme, but a particularly lively, intense, and strong practice, in all the reform efforts that have opposed the church, its institutions, its self-enrichment, and its slackening of morals. There has been en entire Christian cynicism, an anti-institutional cynicism, a cynicism that I would call anti-ecclesiastical, whose forms and traces were still lively and detectable on the eve of the Reformation, during the Reformation, within the Protestant Reformation itself, and even in the Catholic Counter-Reformation. You could do a long and complete history of this Christian cynicism. (pp168-9)

The second descendant of the Cynic philosophy is revolutionary practice, and here Foucault begins once again with Christian spirituality, although he soon goes on to outline three main forms this could take: secret societies, militant public institutions, and transformative ways of life:

This style of existence attached to revolutionary militarism, that assures the witness [to truth – AJT] by one’s life, is a rupture, has to be a rupture with the conventions, habits, and values of society. (p170, square brackets mine)

This style of existence witnesses to truth (as I suggest in my square brackets – witness to truth is a theme that recurs in these chapters) but also to an other life. And this is where Foucault comes closest to an appeal to monasticism, in my view.

Cynic revolution can be seen in history in a variety of loci: Foucualt names specificially Dostoevsky’s Russian nihilism (and we could of course question that designation), European and American anarchism, and terrorism with its limit situation of suicide bombers. This latter Foucault sees as based on one of the fundamental principles of the Greek courage of truth. He then goes on to sketch out European discussions of revolutionary lifestyle.

The third descendant is modern art. It is curious that it is here, rather than in the description of Christian spirituality, that Foucault appeals to the carnival tradition. This may be because he specifically mentions Bakhtin’s study. In any case, he mentions comedy, satire, carnival, and that whole tradition here, as the descendants of cynic philosophy, and the foundation stone of modern art forms. The hermeneutical key, around which he gathers Flaubert, Manet, Beckett, Bacon and Baudelaire, is the stripping of existence to its bare essentials:

Anti-platonism: art as place of the irruption of the elementary, existence made naked (mise à nu de l’existence). (p174)

All these exegetical transgressions and schematic hypotheses are to my mind not as much an invitation to just fill out parallels, but an opening for research into more charitable readings of the various locations for revolutionary practice. It certainly is meant to be an inspiration for further research, as some of the above quotations imply. But not simply research into the cynic heritage as such. I think Foucault wants us to draw out the ways in which Christian spirituality, modern art, discussions of styles of existence can all be interpreted as techniques for transforming values, challenging ways of life, and thinking differently. And that is what I’ve tried to do with my analyses of desert fathers and holy fools: not in order to vindicate them, but to increase our revolutionary toolbox. Foucault described his work as a series of explosive devices rather than one great big thesis (although it is clear that I still think he had an idea of the broad stretch of history): that’s the kind of work he is trying to get others to do here.

The manuscript of a conclusion that Foucault didn’t get time for is given, and its final paragraph seems worth giving in its entirety:

Cynicism and scepticism have been two ways of posing the problem of the ethics of truth. Their growth in nihilism brings out something essential very well, something central in occidental culture. This can be expressed briefly: it is where the concern for truth keeps bringing it into question, what is the form of existence that allows the question; what life is necessary when truth itself it not necessary? The question of nihilism is not: if there is no God, everything is permitted. Its formula is rather the question: if I must confront myself with “nothing is true”, how am I to live? At the heart of occidental culture, there is this difficulty of defining the link between the concern for truth and the aesthetics of existence. That is why cynicism appears to me to be an important question, even if, of course, a number of texts exist on the subject and they do not allow us to see any well-founded doctrine. The history of doctrine is not important, what is important is to establish a history of the arts of existence. In this occident that has well invented diverse truths and fashioned so many different arts of existence, cynicism constantly remembers this, that there is little truth that is indispensable the one that wants to live truly, and that little life is necessary when you truly adhere to truth. (p175)




1. Lecture 7: the Other life « ad absurdum - March 25, 2009

[…] other life”, and in doing so refers back to the sharp distinction he had already made in the fifth lecture between the metaphysics of the Alcibiades and the ascesis of the Laches. Whilst the former founded […]

2. Lecture 8: spiritual combat « ad absurdum - March 27, 2009

[…] I suspect he is trying to avoid the obligation towards the city that I mentioned in my notes on lecture five. But he still makes use of words like “useful” and “obligation” (p250). The difference is […]

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