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Lecture 6: Foucault wrings his hands about Cynics March 23, 2009

Posted by Andy in Foucault, Le Courage de la Vérité.
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The 6th lecture, from the 7th March, 1984, presents a picture of Foucault the Cynicism-researcher diametrically opposite to the last lecture. Whilst last time he drew wild parallels between the historical movement and the colourful developments in European art, politics, and religion, this lecture sees Foucault agonising – even obsessing – over the historical problems with studying Cynic philosophers in late antiquity. But then he’s back on track again, and sets up Plato’s notion of the true life as a framework against which to examine the transformations wrought by the Cynics.

The lecture starts, though, with a very telling aside. Someone sends him a note (and it wasn’t me, the sender was female) saying that this is all well and good, but isn’t it the Christian tradition that mediates the practice and theory of parrhesia to European modernity, and sending him to Cassian, John Climacus, the Apophthegmata Patrum, the church fathers, and so on. She doesn’t give any contact details, so Foucault answers her in his lecture:

In any case, I say to her that effectively she’s totally right. Her references are interesting, it is precisely in this direction I’d like to go, if I have time, this year: to show you how, across the very evolution of parrhesia in Greco-Roman antiquity, we have with Christianity arrived at a kind of dislocation of the senses of the word parrhesia that can be found in Christian literature. Certainly, when Gregory of Nazianzen, in his elogy of Maximus, presents him as a Cynic gifted with parresia, the word is employed in its completely traditional sense. But there will be brought to the word parrhesia an entire series of other significations, positive and negative. That is what I would like to try to study a bit later. (p177)

OK, so here are the four problems with studying Cynic philosophy in antiquity. Foucault’s into lists in these lectures, and so I shall follow his style here:

1. There are a number of attitudes and forms of life that are recognised as Cynic. He contrasts the aristocratic recognisable philosopher Demetrius (admired by Seneca) with the tortured individual, the vagabond, Peregrinus (who, in a curious death scene, legislated for his fellow citizens whilst committing a very public suicide).

2. Appraisals are usually highly ambiguous. Cynics are condemned for their violence, for being anti-social and transgressive, whilst at the same time seeming to fulfil the ideals of every philosophical school. They are both particular – and particularly objectionable – and universal, in the sense of acceptable to all schools:

Cynicism appears, on that point, as the universal of philosophy, its universality and doubtless also its banality. But you see that herein lies a very curious paradox, since, on the one hand, we have seen Cynicism described as a very particular form of existence, on the margin of the most recognised institutions, laws, social groups: the Cynic is someone that is truly on the margin of society and circulates around society itself, without it being acceptable to receive him. The Cynic is hunted, the Cynic is errant. And yet at the same time, Cynicism appears as the universal core of philosophy. Cynicism is at the heart of philosophy and the Cynic turns society around without being admitted into it. Interesting paradox. (pp186-7)

3. Cynicism has little or no theoretical literature. This makes it convenient for a philosophy for the people. Foucault claims that cynics “had hunted logic and physics from the domain of philosophy” (p190). I suspect Hadot would have a problem with that, but we can leave that to one side.

4. Cynicism has its own brand of tradition. This follows from the above remarks. You have no theory, so no possibility of teaching, but at the same time the variety of lifestyles of philosophical protagonists have not allowed for a canon of virtues. This form of tradition produces the philosophical hero:

The philosophical hero is different from the sage, the traditional sage, the sage of high Antiquity, from the kind of sage that could appear in Solon or Heraclitus. The philosophical hero is no longer the sage, but he is not yet the saint or the ascetic of Christianity. Between the sage of the archaic tradition – the divine man – and the ascetic of the final centuries of Antiquity, the philosophical hero represents [a certain] mode of life that has been extremely important in the very era in which it was constituted, to which [this] model had been transmitted, to the extent this figure of the philosophical hero has modelled a certain number of existences, has represented a kind of practical matrix for the philosophical attitude. (p195, square brackets original)

In keeping with this image of the neurotic philosopher, Foucault goes on in the second half of this lecture to laying out the meanings of “the true life” in antiquity. It is perhaps surprising for readers of Foucault who have not been scouring his work for traces of the influence of analytic philosophy that he doesn’t appear to like the term very much. He makes excuses for its use, and tries to get the hearer away from modern analytic usage by a kind of suspension of disbelief:

What is the true life? Given that our mental figures, our way of thinking makes us conceive, not without a certain number of problems, how an utterance [énoncé] can be true or false, how it may receive a truth value, what sense can be given to this expression “true life”? When it’s a question of life – you could say the same thing regarding a behaviour, sentiment, or attitude – how can one use the qualification true? What is a true sentiment? What is true love? What is the true life? This problem of the true life has been absolutely essential in the history of our philosophical and spiritual thought. (pp200-1, my square brackets)

He then goes on to draw up a kind of matrix that will follow us throughout the rest of the discussion of Cynic philosophy: truth is unveiled, unmixed, right, and immutable. Which is to say that it is not deceptive, nor compromised, nor deviant, nor changing. He then cashes out this characterisation of truth in terms of true love and the true life. His discussion of Cynicism will later elaborate on this, and since I think it’s fairly predictable to see how these four adjectives can apply to the true life, I won’t go into it here.

The final couple pages of this lecture transcript elaborates briefly on what we can now perhaps call the Goodchildean precept, in its original Cynic form: “change the currency!”

Here Socrates – with his Delphic message concerning wisdom – is contrasted with Diogenes, who was told by the Oracle at Delphi to change the currency. Foucault claims that this is a kind of motif for Cynic philosophy, which takes the ideals of ancient philosophy (the true life, etc.) to the limit, making them both logical and unrecognisable. Yes to the true life, but not this one. This is basically what I have been arguing the holy fools do to the asceticism of Christian late antiquity (which is probably the only thing that makes Krueger’s thesis interesting).

This is in keeping of course with what we said above about the paradox of Cynic philosophy – that it is condemned and claimed to be the summary of all philosophical ideals.

The Cynics tried to take the theme – traditional in philosophy – of the true life and make it grimace. Rather than seeing in Cynicism, because it was popular, or because it was never received admission into the concensus and the cultivated philosophical community, a philosophy that was one of rupture, we should rather see it as a kind of passage to the limit, a kind of extrapolation rather than exteriority, and extrapolation of the themes of the true life and a bringing back of those themes into a kind of figure that at the same time both conforms to the model, and however makes a grimace of the true life. It is much more a case of a kind of carnivalesque continuity for the theme of the true life than a rupture in relation to the received values of classical philosophy regarding true life. (pp209-10)


1. geoff - March 24, 2009

it’s interesting his problem with true. i think the truth gets wrapped up in this will to reason, the embedding of the the term in the christian and enlightenment construction of the subject, and he’s obviously trying to get around that… or perhaps saying, ok , at a different time, the preoccupation with what was termed truth, or true, were there but in differing ways…
how do you see this fitting in with his ideas of existence as an art? do you think F was also wanting to get to experience here, the living of one’s life as true to that life, not necessarily as Truth or a True life as the Christians would later have it?

2. Chathan Vemuri - March 24, 2009

This actually sounds like a very interesting lecture, much more exciting than perhaps you give credit for.

It would be interesting to see how the ideas about parrhesia and life in this and the previous lecture course can be used to articulate a politics of life similar to and perhaps superior to that of Giorgio Agamben and his vague “whatever singularity”?

3. Andy - March 24, 2009

Geoff, I suspect the second of your two options is the most appropriate: rather than trying to get around a problem, he is writing it’s history. I think his plotting of aesthetics of living is part of that, but obviously he does want to embrace this kind of project in the present as well. If there’s anything Foucault likes here, he doesn’t really say much. The only thing he seems to like is the institution of militantism (and Badiou has taken this up most systematically). But the instances in which this is most prevalent – with the cynics and monasticism – are so connected to universals that it is near impossible to retrieve them in any way. Remember, Foucault did consider antiquity to be one giant mistake precisely because of the temptation to universalism.

Chathan, I wasn’t trying to be derogatory concerning Foucault’s worries. I really appreciate his sympathies with analytic philosophy.
As you can perhaps see from notes on earlier lectures, I am trying to be sensitive to the use Agamben makes of Foucault. This is why I distinguish between bios and zoe so much. Foucault himself doesn’t note the difference at all.
The reason I didn’t expand on the notes on “true life” with reference to Agamben is that Foucault is addressing the (aristocratic) philosophical life here, and that does not seem to fit with Agamben’s work on bare life. To the extent that the early philosophers embrace nakedness (and Foucault talks a lot about this), it was for political aims, not in order to control the non-political masses.
To my mind, Agamben’s work does lack something, namely analysis of particular life-techniques. Foucault avoided institution criticism precisely in order to concentrate on these. However, as regards the analysis of life, I have noted where Foucault might have addressed it here, but doesn’t. For a real treatment of these themes, you’d want the final pages of the Will to Knowledge or the lecture series Security, Territory, Population. I think the 1984 course is building up an edifice on which he would have grounded some analyses along the lines of those pages. But that’s just my conjecture.

4. geoff - March 26, 2009

nods… it’s that tension of F’s later works between charting the course of these universals and that sense of a desire to interpret/break them down, to expose the modern self, which in a long-view way he is doing, to the questions of its own creation…

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