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Lecture 7: the Other life March 25, 2009

Posted by Andy in Foucault, Le Courage de la Vérité.
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The seventh lecture, of the 14th March (I hope to catch up with myself and pretentiously post the final lecture on its 25th anniversary) takes us from the Cynic transformation of the philosophical understandings of the true life up to a mode of being that is beginning to resemble early Christian asceticism on a great number of points. That is where my interest in Foucault started, and so the points are more obvious (and perhaps contrived) to me, but he outlines these resemblances and transformations in the final lecture so everyone’s clear about it. So we start the lecture with a philosophical account of Cynicism and end it with an examination of Cynic humiliation/humility.

He’s still defending his study of Cynicism at the beginning of this lecture, and you can hear Hadot’s analyses in the background: the various schools of classical philosophy had more common features than differences; the conception of the philosophical life is the main tenor of ancient Greek philosophy; spiritual exercises and detachment are shared ideals, etc. Foucault uses these kinds of insights to back up his point from the last lecture that Cynic philosophy takes ancient philosophy to its natural conclusion by turning it on its head:

Cynicism in a way plays the role of a broken mirror for ancient philosophy. A broken mirror where every philosopher can and should recognise himself, in which he can and should recognise the very image of philosophy, the reflection of what it is and what is should be, the reflection of what he himself is and what he himself would like to be. … I will say that Cynicism seems to me to be basically, in Antiquity, a kind of inversed eclecticism. … Cynicism constituted, and this is its paradox, the most common elements of philosophy in terms of the points of rupture of philosophy. (p214)

His two main reasons for studying Cynic philosophy, he tells us, is on account of their transformation of the courage of truth – from political bravado and Socratic irony to the scandal living out philosophical principles – and their tenacity to the importance of the philosophical life. They insist on asking the question “What may be the form of life that might allow the practice of truth-telling?” (p216)

After briefly discussing the relation between ontology and the philosophical life (in a purely historical light – he recounts which philosophers were concerned with linking them together – Montaigne, Spinoza, etc.), Foucault goes on to recount the four characteristics of the Cynic’s bios philosophikos, and they are all totally banal and familiar to the study of philosophy in antiquity:

  1. philosophy is a preparation for life, a way of rationally ordering life;
  2. It is a mode of care of the self;
  3. It is a life of purely useful study, whereby knowledge is subordinated to practical concerns;
  4. It is consistent with the precepts which its practitioners formulate. (summarised from pp219-220)

The recounting of these familiar elements of philosophy serves to demonstrate that this is not where the Cynics sever their connections with their predecessors. They receive these ways of life and then transform them by consistently bringing them back from convention, opinion, law, etc. And this seems to be a main answer to the question of the possibility of truth-telling: the way of life that makes truth-telling possible is the one that avoids unreflected knowledge and living. And these are primarily to be found amongst the masses. To my mind, this transition is key in the development of an aristocratic philosophical life.

Foucault himself sums this up with a fifth characteristic of the philosophical life: changing the currency, whether in order to put a spanner in the works, or in order to bring it back to its true value. He refers to Julian’s work Against Heracleios to elaborate this principle:

The fundamental precept is “revealuate your currency”; but this reevaluation can not be done without the channel and the means of the “know yourself”, which substitutes the false money of the opinion that one has of oneself, that others have of you, with a true currency which is that of the knowledge of self. It is possible to manipulate one’s own existence, to care for oneself as if for a real thing [comme d’une chose réelle], it is possible to have in one’s hands the true currency of one’s true existence on the condition of knowledge oneself. (p223, my square brackets)

Foucault takes this principle further by connecting it to the affinity Cynicism has always had with the dog, and he refers to a commentator on Aristotle’s Categories to see how this association was understood in antiquity. Cynics therefore embrace the life of the dog insofar the latter are:

  1. shameless in public
  2. indifferent
  3. aggressive
  4. good guards (phulaktikos – this is also a really important theme in early Christian asceticism). (summarised from p224)

These principles and ideals all lead the Cynic philosopher to self-alienation. They attempt to force their own flight (the reference to Bernauer is deliberate) from the normal masses (the reference to the proletariat is also deliberate). And if the true life is the alienated life (Foucault never uses the word alienated in this context, as it would be really confusing in French), then all philosophers should be aiming to project themselves from society. The true life is the other life.

I believe that with this idea that the true life is the other life, we arrive at a particularly important point in the history of Cynicism, in the history of philosophy, indeed in the history of occidental ethics. (p226)

Foucault spends the last few minutes of this half of the lecture clarifying what he means by “the 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 the notion of the other world – the world of purity, truth, and soul – the latter founded the pursuit of the other life – the life of ascesis and the care of the self.

These two lines of development – of which the one pursues the other world and the other the other life, both starting from the care of the self – are evidently divergent because the one will yield platonic and neoplatonic speculation and occidental metaphysics, whereas the other will in a sense yield nothing but cynic crudeness. But it will relaunch, as a question that is both central and marginal in relation to philosophical practice, the question of the philosophical life and the true life as other life. May not, and should not the philosophical life, the true life, be necessarily a radically other life? (pp227-8)

And if you expect me to insert a kind of Radical Orthodox interlude here about the way the only people who unite these two are the orthodox Christians with their formula that the other life leads us to the other world, and how this formula was lost with Scotus and the Reformation, you will be disappointed. I am deeply suspicious of any formula or movement that can be embraced as “safe”: that is my main criticism of the ethical Foucauldians. Foucault himself, however, is slightly more obliging, and slightly less orthodox:

In Gnostic movements, in Christianity, there was an attempt to think the other life, the life of rupture, the life of ascesis, the life without measure with [ordinary] existence as condition for access to the other world. And that is the relation between the other life and the other world – so profoundly marked at the heart of Christian asceticism by the principle that it is the other life that leads to the other world – which will find itself radically questioned in the protestant ethic, and by Luther when access to the other world will be able to be defined by a form of life absolutely in conformity with existence itself in this world. To lead the same life in order to arrive in the other world is the formula of Protestantism. And it is from that moment that Christianity became modern. (p228, square brackets original)

The second half of the lecture is taken up with showing how point for point the Cynics attempt to transform the platonic conception of the true life.

The true life is unveiled, not pretended: whilst most classical philosophy practised this principle by allowing the return of all principles of shame, doubling their power, and insisting on adherence to social laws, the cynics were radically visible and impudent. And this is illustrated by the most famous Cynic stories, of people masturbating in the market place, having sex in public, etc. It is incidentally the Cynics who insist on radical visibility, in case anyone thought that visibility and the panopticon are evil in themselves (as I kind of did in an article in Kirke og Kultur. The desert fathers also used the public eye to make themselves conscious of their lifestyle, but most of them ended up with impudence rather than normality too: both Crates and abba Ephraim attempted to have sex in a public place in the city.

The true life is unmixed, not dependent on external elements. Instead of being self-sufficient, it bears with poverty. Indeed, it embraces and pursues poverty in order to demonstrate its independence from the beauty of the world and the joys of pleasurable activity. Here, for once, Foucault openly shows his disgust for a philosophical move. He evaluates a historical occurrence (again as a cure for thinking that he thought the Greeks had the answer). Instead of Socrates’ prioritising inner beauty over external beauty,

Cynical poverty, on the contrary, is the affirmation of the value pertaining to and intrinsic to physical ugliness, dirt, wretchedness. This is important and has introduced, simultaneously in ethics, in the art of conduct, and unfortunately also in philosophy, the values of ugliness from which they have not in the least yet departed. (p239)

On the other hand, their pursuit of inglory (adoxia) makes them uniquely capable in antiquity of resisting opinion, conventions, and beliefs. This becomes a central part of the practice of the life that is scandalously other.

Interesting here is Foucault’s comparison of Cynic humiliation and Christian humility,

…which is a state, an attitude of the spirit manifesting itself and testing itself by undergoing humiliations – and then this Cynical dishonour which is a play on the conventions concerning honour and dishonour, in which the Cynic, at the very moment when he plays the most dishonourable role, asserts his pride and supremacy. [fait valoir son orgueil et sa suprématie] (p242)

The true life is in line with the right. And here the Cynics transform the value of rights by refusing conceptions of the human. This is a theme that Foucault has himself appropriated: tell me what you think is inevitably human, and I will reject that humanity. It is the way of Bataille and Nietzsche.

The Cynics did what we cannot do and embraced animality. Today our models of being human are framed in natural sciences. This was not the case for Cynic philosophers, and so they embrace the animal life in order to ascertain the line which distinguishes us from animals (I believe Badiou does something like this but have no idea where or how). The point is that by doing this, they undermine the impressions of civilisation, dignity and urbanity embraced by their fellow philosophers.

The bios philosophikos, as right life, is the animality of human being held up as a challenge, practised as an exercise, and thrown in the face of others as a scandal. (p245)

The immutability of the true life has to wait until the next lecture.


1. geoff - March 26, 2009

two q’s

so the cynics in a way function as the limit and the centre of greek philosophy’s end point – it is a product of the system that decries it?

and how do yuo see foucauldian ethics as safe, if indeed you do?

2. Andy - March 26, 2009

To the first question: yes yes yes. Cynics fulfill the ideals of ancient philosophy, and then mock the other philosophers with the absurdity of the result. I genuinely don’t know if they want to take the answers seriously themselves, or if their aims are purely pedagogical. I think you can see a lot of revolutions with this pattern, and the best I know of is Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, which claimed to solve all the problems of (logical) philosophy, in order to demonstrate how little is thereby achieved.

I do not see Foucauldian ethics as safe, nor even as existent. I worry that a great deal of work on his ethics is done in order to find a positive program (the art of the self, force of flight, etc.) that we do not even need to criticise. The way Foucault-esque slogans end up in executive seminars and pop psychology should alert us to the danger.

But this may be because I’m a theologian, and believe evil to be just as elusive as the good is incomprehensible. Both are an invitation: to cynical criticism on the one hand and a life of wonder and worship on the other.

3. geoff - March 27, 2009

thanks for the explanations…

I agree with you re F’s stuff ending up in pop psych – he spoke specifically against the cult of the self… and he certainly didn’t lay out a program, which is as much a criticism as it is a compliment… I guess his work on ethics is to suggest the possible by destabilising the normative…

but it is why F is not enough on his own, and I agree with yr final paragraph and wonder how we can even find the line between the two sometimes 🙂

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