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Lecture 8: spiritual combat March 27, 2009

Posted by Andy in Foucault, Le Courage de la Vérité.
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The penultimate lecture of the 21st March sets out to conclude Foucault’s study of Cynic philosophy so that he may move on to early Christianity in the final lecture. Once again, he is ill at the point, and warns that he may not be able to complete. There is no sign that this lecture was any shorter than the others though. It is certainly packed full of insight: he founds the philosophical life and later asceticism on the notion of the sovereign self militantly exercising its athletic reason to change the world. He argues that the ascesis of enduring insults, celibacy and separation from the world are all logical outcomes of the ethical thought of the classical world. Cynics are at the centre of occidental ethics by their installation of love in the relation between insulter and victim. Their disgrace is part of their pedagogical task of teaching the world the difference between happiness and unhappiness. That is their political program.

The lecture starts by rounding up the return and transformation of the philosophical understandings of the true life, and the fourth interpretation becomes the sovereign life.

What is essential about the sovereign life – which is to be associated with owning oneself, becoming one’s own, etc. – is that it institutes a relation to others. The relation is one of direction and aid, but also one of friendship.

Foucault seems to struggle with describing the connection between enjoying oneself, owning oneself, being independent on the one hand and on the other, becoming useful to, an example for, and guidance for others. He calls it an obligation, but in that case it is an obligation from nowhere. 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 that this duty is even applicable when the sage retreats from society. Foucault calls it “the other face of the relation to self” (p251): it is a surplus, an excess. Most of all, they are both aspects of the same sovereignty.

Being sovereign over oneself and being useful to others, enjoying oneself and oneself alone, and at the same time bringing to others the help they need in their predicament, their difficulties or even their misfortunes, that basically constitutes one and the same thing. It is the same foundational act of the self’s taking possession of itself, that on the one hand, will give me the enjoyment of myself and, on the other hand, will permit me to be useful to others when they are in a predicament or misfortune. (p251)

The transformation of this theme, the way Cynics make it grimace, is to be found in the arrogance of the Cynic philosophers in claiming that they themselves are kings, and not the current political kings that everyone knows. Whilst Stoics (Foucault gives Seneca as an example) may boast of their influence because they are advisors to the king, Cynics proclaim themselves as kings, and so mock the kingly farce of the world. The cynic is an anti-king king, “le roi anti-roi”. The stock case of this comparison is of course Diogenes’ (mythical?) meeting with Alexander the Great, and Foucault notes four ways in which they differ radically, in spite of the shared sovereignty the narrative sets up.

  1. Alexander is dependent on his entourage and political activity for his sovereignty. Diogenes needs nothing for his.
  2. Alexander needed a past and an education, whereas “The royal soul is such by nature, without any paideia.” (p254)
  3. Alexander still has parts of the world and himself to conquer, whereas the sage is already enjoying his conquest of the vices.
  4. Alexander has to guard his kingdom, but Diogenes faces no threats to his. (summarised from pp253-5)

So the Cynic royalty is different from that of the world. It is more genuine, but it is also secret, hidden in the derision and nudity of the Cynic life. Foucault calls the Cynic the king of derision: always mocked, always throwing his life into danger and tests of endurance. It is a royalty of dedication: to care of the self and others, to healing, and to aggression. And in this latter lies the Cynic athleticism. Like the philosophers that came before them, they work on their selves, desires, and passions. But they also struggle with custom, habit, and a certain state of humanity.

This struggle is also a characteristic of their militant call: the struggle against others and for others. Of care and resistance. Foucault contrasts this proactive philosophical life with the somewhat similar proselytising on the part of the philosophical schools:

a militantism that precisely does not require an education (a paideia), but that has recourse to a certain number of violent and drastic means, not so as to form people and teach them, but in order to help and convert them, to abruptly convert them. It is a militantism in an open environment, in the sense that it claims to attack not simply this or that vice or fault or opinion which this or that individual may have, but also the conventions, laws, institutions that themselves rest on the vices, faults, weaknesses, opinions that the human race share in common. It is therefore a militantism that claims to change the world, much more than a militantism that simply seeks to furnish its adepts with the means of attaining to the happy life. (p262)

This particular form of militant mock monarchy founds, according to Foucault, two major occidental experiences.

Firstly, the mock king, or the king and his grotesque fool (Foucault does not use the word grotesque himself). Here he makes the obvious reference to Lear.

Secondly, the Christian theme of the ascetic lives that save the entire world. And once again he refers to the mendicant orders, who seem to be at the back of his mind so often.

These themes are clearly central to the conception of the other life and the aspiration to the other world: two characteristics that are central to the Christian and modern experience, and yet so far from the majority of ancient thought. For Foucault, therefore, Cynic philosophy is a turning point:

So you see that the Cynic is the one that, taking up again the traditional themes of the true life in ancient philosophy, transposes these themes, and brings them back in the vindication and affirmation of an other life. And then, across the image of the figure of the king of wretchedness, he transposes this idea of the other life one more time into the theme of a life whose alterity must lead to the changing of the world. An other life for an other world. (p264)

The second half of the lecture consists in ascertaining the signs of the call to philosophy, in terms of free choice and divine call to the universal mission. The cynic philosopher ends up with an obligation to ascertain these in himself by the exercise of self-surveillance, which is also turned onto the world. The Cynic philosophers had bishops (“episcopes” – overseers) and their job was one of surveillance. This mission sends the Cynic to the human race, not for the sake of a city or even the community of humanity, but for all. Foucault does not say omnes et singulatim here, but it’s clearly close by.

So yes, the Cynic does embrace universal humiliation for the sake of universal conversion, for the good of all, out of love for others. But this is specifically not a political task in terms of forming people for the political life, as Stoic counselling was.

He [the cynic philosopher] does not discuss taxes, revenues, war and peace. What does he then discuss with all these men, Athenians, Corinthians, and Romans? “Happiness and misery, good and bad fortune, servitude and liberty”. Is it possible to exercise a greater authority that that? Is it not that (talking to all men about happiness and misery, good and bad fortune, servitude and liberty) true political activity, the true politeuesthai? (p278)

This kind of alterity, of other life for an other world, is what Foucault sees (in a part of the manuscript he never reached in his lecture) as the root of spiritual combat for the world: the mendicant orders, preaching, the movements before and after the Reformation, but also the revolutionary militantism of the 19th century. “The true life as an other life, as a life of combat, for a changed world.” (p279)

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