The Care of the Self, or Seven Questions to Michel Foucault


 Michel Foucault and I agreed to meet on top of the heavenly reflection of Mount Olympus to discuss the book that closed the chapter of his life on Earth. In the World of Beyond, not very much differs from Earth. The main difference being that you only have to wish you were somewhere to be there already. This saved me the mountain trek.

Between two drags from his scentless Gaulloise, Michel draws a pocketbook from underneath his coat and hands it to me. Is this what I think it is? The third volume of his renowned History of Sexuality, The Care of the Self (Le Souci de soi), was not meant to be the last: Confession of the Flesh (Les Aveux de la chair) - or the "unborn fourth" - was left incomplete, privately held in the Foucault archive up to these days. It is now also held in Florence's pocket. The task, now, is to avoid letting myself carried away by my ecstatic mood and bear in mind the focus of this present conversation, which will revolve around Michel's visionary exploration of Greek and Roman texts written in the first and second centuries A.D., which without necessarily dealing explicitly with the formation of the individual, allow us to trace up an early ethics of the subject.

Florence: Could you explain us your decision to open your book with "Dreaming of One's Pleasures", a whole chapter on Artemidorus' interpretation of dreams - or oneirocritica? How does it inform us on an early shaping of an ethics of the subject?  


Michel: The reason is quite simple, really. With The Care of the Self, I wanted to examine how the way the individual makes use of his (you'll pardon me, the texts I reference very rarely refer to female individuals) - of his body and mind starts to take up a moral stance throughout the two first centuries of our era. Artémidorus's interpretation of dreams reflects principles of an appreciation of a specific sexual conduct. As I write in the book, these principles underlie Artemidorus' analysis of sexual dreams. In this type of oneirocritica, the social position (and sometimes, the physical condition) of the dreamer in relation to that of his sexual partner matters more than the sexual act itself. It is thus possible to witness an evident correlation between sexual and social scenes. For instance, Artemidorus will only imply that it is a bad or a good omen to dream of a sexual intercourse with a person who occupies a given social status (penetration being the only conceivable sexual intercourse), without ever referring to the concept of morality. To properly answer your question, I would say that this opening chapter serves to remind the reader of the fact that sexual experience is, at the time, still very much understood in classical terms: the value of sexual acts, in many instances, is defined by the social position of those who engage in them. This first chapter hints on this idea that while the subject is still understood in terms of his place in society - as a citizen - his individuality becomes also "subject" to scrutiny. The sphere of citizenship is thus extended, and starts permeating the private sphere; an honourable citizen must have an honourable conduct when out in the city (or city-state) as well as in his dreams.

Florence: You however state that one has to understand Artemidorus's onerocritica as a very partial representation of what is to be considered as "honourable conduct" at the time: it was mainly addressed to a (male) privileged portion of the population. I believe that this is the reason why the texts that you examine in the following chapters, although also written around the same period, convey rather different and more straightforward judgements over sexual conducts. Can you explain us how this ties in with this growing concern with the culture of the self that took off at that time?

Michel: Certainly. Before beginning my analysis of these other texts, I wanted to spend some time clarifying this notion of the "culture of the self", which is also the name of my second chapter. I wanted to see how I could connect a growing sexual austerity with a more and more intensive relationship to the self. Indeed, I found out that it is not through the tightening of a legal or religious code that sexual prohibition seems to take place, but because the individual starts to see himself as subject of his actions. Through my examination of Seneca and Epictetus's texts, I got to see this culture of the self as a veritable art of self-knowledge - "art de la connaissance de soi". Each individual, according to these authors, is expected to be taking care of his self: there is no age, not a moment or a situation more appropriate than another: it must be a perpetual exercise. It is possible to point to three main components of this art of self-knowledge: (i) knowing how to live without luxury, through abstinence, (ii) regularly subject oneself to a thorough examination of one's conscience, (iii) be in constant control of oneself. Again, I want to stress that this culture of the self didn't emerge as a result of a solidification of the law or religious codes; this change concerns the way the individual comes to see himself as responsible for constituting himself as a moral subject.

Florence: You spoke about - excuse me the rephrasing - the importance of the individual to place himself as an honorable subject in the realm of the community; can we now go more in depth into the complex relationship between social position and identity - a problem that you investigate in your third chapter, "Self and Others"?

Michel: I would say that it is by observing the changes occurring on the marital and the political scenes that it is most practical to account for this relationship between self and others. For instance, the evolution of marriage from a private to a public institution has the effect of interrogating this institution as a way of life; marriage becomes more and more about a healthy relationship between partners. One also notes a drastic evolution concerning the way politics is understood: one shouldn't feel obliged to actively participate in the life of the city-state, and if one does, one should bear in mind that he has to be a moral example to others, and know when his time has come to withdraw from the public scene. In public life as well as in married life, the growing concern for one's control over one's self can also be understood as a crisis of subjectivation.


Florence: Now could you tell us how this crisis of subjectivation reflects itself in discourses at the time, referring to your fourth chapter, "The Body"?


Michel: It is interesting how philosophy and medicine elaborate very similar discourses on aphrodisia - sexual pleasures. Both agree on the fact that to take care of one's self correctly, one has to pay attention to the health of the mind and the body: the unhealthiness of the body will result in the degenerescence of the mind, and vice-versa.  The aphrodisia start to be comprehended as existing only for the purpose of reproduction, possibly detrimental to one's constitution when not refrained enough. Highly specific recommandations and precepts are developed by doctors (such as Galen) and philosophers as to what a good sexual conduct should be. These recommandations and precepts can't however be assimilated to a Christian moral: they are expected to be integrated within the experience the subject makes of his self.

Florence: God, time is running out. I'll have to go back to my own world soon, so let's try to get briefer. In your fifth chapter, "The Wife" you further your analysis on the evolution of the institution of marriage. What does this institutional change entail?


Michel: It means that marriage is now more about the bond between spouses than it is about economical arrangement. As far as the husband is concerned, a principle of moderation is to be respected: reciprocity, more than control over others, becomes the new duty. The art of married life takes shape through precepts - a lot of them developed by the Stoics. This way of life starts forming as a strong model, advertised as conform to nature and socially useful - beneficial to everyone's good. It is through marriage that man finds his rational form. And it is only through marriage that one can establish a satisfying relationship to one's self - the aphrodisia of course being subject to another form of scrutiny.

Florence: If sexual pleasures are more and more relegated to the domestic sphere, and recommandable only under certain very limited conditions, what happens to the traditional love for boys?

Michel: I must say that love for boys, at the end of the classical age, is no longer what is used to be at the time of Socrates. Plutarch and Pseudo-Lucian provide two contrasting examples of how love for boys and for women is rationally justified. Plutarch argues that relationships with boys are disgracious because non-consensual, while they are gracious with women, because reciprocal. Pseudo-Lucian hovers towards the opposite side, positting love for boys as more civilized, more evolved, than love for women - too natural, too primary. In any case, what happens at this time is that with the strengthening of the culture of the self, which implies a strong ambivalence and even hostility towards aphrodisia taking place outside the marriage/reproduction framework, a new erotica emerges, where virginity comes across as a highly respectable virtue.

Florence: Thanks a lot. To conclude, how is your examination of the care of the self relevant to us, living beings of this present era?


Michel: Ah, this is an interesting question. I recently had a discussion about this with Deleuze. I won't expand too much on this, but referring to his idea of detachment (décrochement) which engenders a folding, a reflection (un plissement, une réflexion), I would say that you can see my text as an edification of a facultative rule - the rule for facultatively commanding oneself, as a free man, and of course, as a free woman, or whoever you happen to be as a human being. 

It seems that Michel never ceased to use his time wisely since he left us. He has plenty of it to take care of his self, plenty of friends to share his reflections with. When I asked him if he still considered himself as a human-being, he frowned and, looking at the fog down below, responded with another question:

"Do you consider yourself a human-being?"

"We're not in heaven, are we?", I said, hyper-dubitatively. Here, another question. 

"Surely you don't need to ask me. Rather, ask yourself the following: why have I come up here? You could as well be talking to yourself right now."

Maybe I should have gone through the effort of climbing Mount Olympus instead of just wishing I were there.



I really like your format in this review, Flolou. Did you find your approach to be helpful in understanding the book? Would you recommend this approach to others?

Do you see any connections between "the care of the self" and troublemaking? Also, how do you think Foucault would answer if you asked him if we were a troublemaker or if he engaged in troublemaking practices?

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