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Final Lecture: the fear of obedience March 30, 2009

Posted by Andy in Foucault, Le Courage de la Vérité.
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Foucault’s final lecture (whose 25th anniversary was on Saturday: I celebrated by getting a cold) makes the move from Cynic sovereignty to Christian obedience. He marks out the clear differences between Christian and Cynic parrhesia, and then goes through the uses of the word in the Old Testament (LXX), the New Testament, and the church fathers and mothers. His conclusion is that it is basically in cenobitic, or at least with institutional monasticism that pastoral power has its main roots, but that mystical Christian experience – which he associates with intimacy and freedom before God – will always have the potential to resist the more sinister ascetic pole of Christianity.

Foucault opens with a few final comments on Cynic sovereignty, and we are sucked into his world of fine distinctions, which always reminds me of Wittgenstein’s saying that we “We feel as if we had to repair a torn spider’s web with our fingers.” (Philosophical Investigations 106)

Firstly, he revises the two forms of derisory royalty: the Cynic is king both by being more truly royal than the kings of this present age, and at the same time a mock king by rejecting all the trappigs of royalty with which they surround themselves. It is not in line with this division, however, but across it that Foucault draws his next series of results: the ways in which Cynic sovereignty can be practised.

Firstly, its practice founds a blessed life, though the acceptance of one’s destiny. This theme is so familiar that Foucault doesn’t go into it in any great depth. Secondly, it founds practices of the manifestation of truth. And here he uses the work of Epictetus (the Discourses) to unpack the ways in which the truth is manifested in the life and practice of the Cynic.

One way in which this is done is by the conformity of life and truth. The body and practice of the Cynic philosopher has to be in homophony with its truth. Hence it is open, stripped, consistent, etc.

The Cynic is therefore like a visible statue of truth. Stripped of all these vain ornaments, of everything that may be for the body a kind of rhetoric, but at the same time blossoming in rull health: the very being of the true, made visible through the body. (p284)

A further way to manifest the truth in the life and practice of the Cynic is in his or her practice of self-knowledge, the self working its truth upon itself (le travail de la vérité de soi sur soi, p284). This knowledge again has two applications:

Firstly, self-assessment: the Cynic inspects and adjusts his work like an athlete checking his equipment, muscles, and the working of his body.

Secondly, self-surveillance. This is a way of becoming aware of the move of one’s representations, and assessment of one’s own capacity for knowledge.

This self-surveillance has to also become a surveillance of others. It is part of the manifestation of truth that it be perceived and applied to others. And here it is curious that Foucault’s Epictetus seems to defend the Cynics from accusations of indiscretion and brutality:

He is not the kind of indiscreet person that comes to concern himself with everyone’s private life, he questions this entire humanity of which he is a part. (p287)

The surveillance of others is designed to produce a change in others’ conduct, in the way they perceive good and evil. As such, it is a surveillance of others for the sake of a new world. And the surveillance takes place from the perspective of an other life in order to bring people back to the life of fidelity to truth.

There can only be a true life as an other life, and it’s from the point of view of this other life that the ordinary life of ordinary people will be made to appear as precisely other than the true. I live in an other way, and through the very alterity of my life, I show you that what you are looking for is elsewhere than where you are looking, that the road you are taking is an other road than the one you should be taking. (p288)

I could have numbered these a little, but my point in recounting this part was also to show that his enumerations are not the easiest nor the most appealing part of his work. It’s all very tentative, all very schematic. And he is, of course, aware of this.

Foucault then turns to Christianity, and makes a few comments before he starts:

  • The comments that follow on Christianity are both a draft proposal and an incitation that others follow the theme up.
  • They are totally provisory, and very uncertain. If he were to follow this up, he would have to start differently.
  • He doesn’t know what he will do next: maybe something on arts of living, maybe philosophy as form of life, maybe asceticism’s relation to truth in Christianity.

The first thing he notes is that Cynicism and Christianity have a number of similarities. In particular the following:

  1. Relations to food (much more important for early Christians than sex) in order to cultivate independence;
  2. Indifference to opinion and embracing scandal;
  3. The affirmation of animality (and here he seems vaguely aware of the grazers).

Foucault notes two major differences however: Firstly, returning to the above problem of the Platonic idea of the other world and the Cynic historical practice of world-criticism, Foucault notes that it is the Christians that manage to combine these two.

…one of the coups de force of Christianity, its philosophical force stands in this, that it has linked together the theme of the other life as true life and the idea of access to the other world as access to the truth. (p293)

The second difference consists in the principle of obedience (“in the broad sense of the term”). Christian obedience is, according to Foucault, a relation of the Christian to a master who represents God. It is the condition of access to the truth.

This is a theme he will expand on when he gets to the church fathers and mothers later, but note that this is a crucial distinction for Foucault, replacing all the caricatures of ancient philosophy and religion that he has consistently opposed:

It does not do to characterise the difference between paganism and Christianity as a difference between a Christian ascetic morality and a non-ascetic morality belonging to Antiquity. That is, as you know, a total chimera. Asceticism was an invention of pagan Antiquity, of Greek and Roman Antiquity. It will therefore not do to, in a Nietzschean way if you will, oppose Antiquity’s pagan non-ascetic morality to Christianity’s ascetic morality. Neither will it do, I think, to [oppose] an ancient asceticism, the violent and aristocratic one of Greece, to another form of asceticism that separates the soul from the body. The difference between Christian asceticism and other forms that were able to prepare the way for it and precede it is that be found in this double relation: relation to the other world to which access is granted through this asceticism, and the principle of obedience to the other (obedience to the other in this world, obedience to the other that is at the same time obedience to God and to the men who represent him). (p294)

The second half of the lecture goes fairly quickly through the biblical material before assessing the monastic movements: parrhesia in the Old Testament is a case of humanity’s relation to God, not least in prayer, whereby God is free to say what He likes, and humanity sometimes have the pleasure of saying what they like to God; in the New Testament, it describes the Christian’s assurance before God, and the apostles’ boldness in the face of persecution.

With the early Christian ascetics, however, everything becomes more complicated. On the one hand, we have the resurgence of the old theme that parrhesia implies chaos and unfettered unimportant talk. This is not new, but Foucault says that it is expanded in Christianity. On the other hand, the theme of the apostles’ parrhesia – so close to the pre-socratic political fearless speech – writ large in the martyrdom stories. These are of course transferred to the fearlessness of asceticism amongst the first anchorites.

Foucault then points out that fearlessness before people is only one side of the coin when it comes to Christian courage. Christians are also fearless before God. And of course, this kind of parrhesia never fails (as does that of Socrates, and Solon) because the confidence is in God’s goodness, not a fragile parrhesiastic contract. Foucault mentions Jerome, and refers to Gregory of Nyssa’s treaty on virginity.

Foucault claims that this jubilatory confidence (he really does wax eloquent on the theme) is only opposed by the practice of obedience, which subdues it under the will of God, and replaces it with the trembling fear of God. It is this obedience that lies at the heart of pastoral power (and all this is elaborated in more detail in Security, Territory, Population):

All this, of course, demands further elaboration, but you can see that – from let us say the fourth century, but more and more clearly in the fifth and sixth centuries – structures of authority develop in Christianity through which the individual ascetic will find himself embedded in the interior of institutional structures, like those of the cenobium and of collective monasticism, and those of the pastorate on the other hand, through which the conduct of souls will be entrusted to the pastors, priests, or bishops. At the same time as these structures develop, the theme of a relation to God that can only be mediated by obedience will drag with it, as condition and consequence, the idea that in itself, the individual is not able to make its own salvation, that of itself it is not able to rediscover this face-to-face meeting with God, this face-to-face meeting with God that may characterise its first existence. And if it is not able to attain by itself, by the movement of its own soul, by the opening of its heart, to this relation to God, if it can only have this by the intermediary structures of authority, that is the sign that, of itself, it should mistrust itself. (p304)

Foucault has been hunting down this mistrust in most of his histories. You can see one of the reasons why in his reaction to an invitation to psycho-analyse himself in the famous televised debate with Chomsky. You can see the roots of it in the Cynic attitude that criticises its own participation in humanity, in the political willingness to transform oneself and others for the sake of a better world. With the monastic institutions, it becomes a requirement and so stagnates. The curious thing is that 1600 years after this stagnation, certain Foucauldian scholars can (against Foucault) present the demand for self-transformation as the touchstone of freedom.

This transformation is studied in Dorotheus of Gaza’s comment on Agathon (which I was embarrassingly unaware of, even though I’d studied the Agathon saying he mentions). Dorotheus describes parrhesia as dangerous because it (1) knows no fear of God; (2) confidence in one’s self; (3) confidence in the world. It is hard to see how 2 and 3 are new, but in any case, Foucault claims (outside any exegesis) that these necessitated respect in monastic communities:

Consequently: evacuation of parrhesia as arrogance and confidence in self; necessity of respect, that requires its first form and essential manifestation in obedience. Where there is obedience, there can be no parrhesia. Rediscovery of what I told you earlier, knowing that the problem of obedience is at the heart of this inversion of the values of parrhesia. (p307)

 This analysis founds Foucault’s assertion of the two poles of Christianity: the parrhesiastic pole that establishes a relation to truth in its face-to-face meeting with God, in response to the outpouring of divine love (the mystical tradition); and the anti-parrhesiastic pole (the ascetic tradition) that establishes the fearful and reverent obedience to God and is worked out in a suspicious decoding of self.

I think I’m going to have to post again on where I think Foucault has misread obedience here. It takes an unusual place in his thought: he is rarely so clear in his condemnation of anything. In general, anything can be dangerous, anything redemptive. Parrhesia is a case in point (he has already mentioned that it results in the normalising speech of psychiatry).

Foucault had not the time to finish what he wanted to say and put everything into the context of his broader project, but happily the publishers have been allowed to include (in footnotes) his manuscript notes on this point. And they are most revealing, not least with reference to the uniting of the metaphysical and ascetic traditions. After summarising these two dimensions of the heritage of ancient philosophy, he summarises them in more constructive terms, and I shall translate his last two paragraphs:

In posing the question of the relations between the concern for the self and the courage of truth, it seems that Platonism and cynicism represent two great forms facing each other that each give way to a different genealogy: on the side of the psuchê, the knowledge of the self, the work of purification, access to the other world; on the side of the bios, the testing of the self, the reduction to animality, combat in the world against the world.

But what I would like to end by insisting on is this: there may be no installation of truth without an essential position of alterity; truth is never the same; there can only be truth in the form of the other world and the other life. (pp310-311)



1. geoff - March 30, 2009

i’m guessing this is where augustine comes in, taking up the notion of grace and self renunciation against the gnostic knowledge of god through self – it’s an adoption, an integration of practices of the self not for the self, but for the self beyond….

2. Final Foucault Summary « An und für sich - April 2, 2009

[…] April 2, 2009 Andy has posted the final Foucault summary. This batch of summaries is a real service to people unable to read French or too lazy to spend some […]

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