The following essay was written by Fernanda Diab, from the Faculty of Humanities and Educational Sciences – Udelar, in Uruguay. Her views are her own. It was translated by Hiram Crespo and shared here with her permission. Please note that the idea of asceticism is here treated in terms of exercises in self-care, rather than self-denial, and also please compare Foucault’s ideas about ethics as self-care with Epicurus’ sermon on moral development.

The complexity of Michel Foucault’s work is such that it is very difficult to make a full assessment of it. The trajectory of his thought has different stages, on which the author himself has made reflections, explained the foundations, and given diagnoses. They can be found in interviews and prologues. The complexity increases if we consider the variety of topics that he has addressed throughout his career, which may even lead us to think, as Couzens maintains, that “there may not be a single Foucault” (1).

Beyond some nuances, there is an agreement to divide Foucault’s work into three stages. The first is that of methodological works, among which the main one is “Words and things”; the second includes the works on power, where another of his main works stands out: “Surveillance and punishment”; and the third is dedicated to works on morality, distinguishing the three volumes of “History of sexuality” that constitute a truncated series since Foucault died before completing the fourth volume he had planned.

Foucault himself has also reflected on the development of his work and made some self-criticisms. As an example of this in “History of Madness” refers to three levels, which every historian should address, which could correspond to three periods of the development of his work. (2) These three levels would be: first, an area of ​​knowledge made up of concepts, theories and disciplines; second, a set of normative rules, such as those that distinguish between normal and pathological; and third, the way of relating to oneself. Despite being these three levels well marked in each of the three stages mentioned above, they can appear together in any of their works.

Another conventional way of ordering Foucault’s work is around certain central questions that he tries to answer. A first stage would be centered on the question of knowledge and it is recognized with the name of archaeology. It is located between 1961 and 1969 and the central works are “History of Madness” and “The Archaeology of Knowledge”. The second stage is known as genealogy and revolves around the question of power. The paradigmatic works of this stage are “Watch and punish” and the first volume of “History of sexuality”. And the third stage addresses the question about subjectivity or the technologies of subjectivity, with volumes II and III of “History of sexuality” being its most characteristic feature.

In Miguel Morey’s introduction to “Technologies of the self”, the author argues that the conventional divisions of Foucault’s work can lead to conceptual errors. For example, accepting the division according to the methodological aspects (archaeology, genealogy, techniques of subjectivity), may lead one to believe that each of the methodological procedures that were used by Foucault would substitute each other. According to Morey this is wrong. Instead he claims that these procedures “are encompassed in ever wider circles, but are not replaced at all.” (3)

According to Foucault’s own writings, a new ordering of his work can be proposed, in terms of ontology: “historical ontology of ourselves in relation to the truth that constitutes us as subjects of knowledge”, “historical ontology of ourselves in relation to the field of power through which we constitute ourselves as subjects acting on others ”,“ historical ontology in relation to ethics through which we constitute ourselves as moral agents ”. (4)

It is also possible to divide Foucault’s work into three axes of analysis: archaeology, genealogy, and ethics. In agreement with Morey, Arnold Davidson maintains that ethics is not a substitute for archaeology or genealogy, but adds that ethics modifies certain final methodological implications of those two. (5)

In any case, whether one talks about “works of morality”, “way of relating to oneself”, “technologies of subjectivity”, “historical ontology of ourselves” or “ethics”, reference is always being made to the the last stage of Foucault’s work, and it is in it that the text to be analyzed in this work is found, contained in Volume II of “History of sexuality”.

In the introduction to Volume II, under the title Moral and self-practice, Foucault analyzes four fundamental aspects of ethics, understanding it as the way in which the individual relates to himself and thus constitutes himself as a moral subject. This work aims to carry out an analysis of these aspects and their identification in Epicurus’ ethics.

Sexuality and self-care

Sexuality is approached by Foucault as a historically singular experience in which the individual is objectified for himself and for others. This not only occurs through an external discipline process that is exerted on the individual, but the individual self-disciplines. It is on this last point that he will emphasize the last volumes of The history of sexuality. Foucault pays attention to this aspect of human life and not to another because “unlike most other major interdiction systems, the one concerning sexuality has been paired with the obligation of a certain deciphering of one same”. (6)

In previous works where he analyzes the problem of power–for example in “Surveillance and Punishment”–he emphasizes how people exercise power over others. But in The history of sexuality, he studies how people exercise power over themselves, that is, how they constrain themselves. This self-control or self-discipline occurs with the more or less implicit purpose of becoming a certain kind of person. Hence, the history of sexuality has as its general framework a history of morals, insofar as it is conceived as one of the clearest ways through which individuals become moral subjects.

In making this shift from the analysis of the methods of discipline that are exerted on the subject to the forms of self-discipline, and in particular when finding sexuality a central element in the self-construction of the subject, Foucault had to abandon the study of sources of modernity and look back on the Greeks. For them sexuality was part of the moral, political, economic customs and became self-care. Foucault’s works are characterized by beginning with a point of difference, a strange phenomenon for modern sensibility. In his history of sexuality, this phenomenon is sexual practice among free adult and young men in the Greco-Roman tradition. It is also different with respect to modernity that above all for the Greeks what was important was not sexuality but the practice of freedom.

In Volumes II and III of “History of Sexuality”, he focuses on the history of subjectivity, that is, in which the subject is built but not as a result of external forces exerted on him, but as a result of his self-representation and therefore the self-control he exercises over himself. The central question is how the constitution of the self occurs through the various discourses about sex. In Volume II “The Use of Pleasures” he discusses how pleasure and desire constitute an element of tension in Greek society even though it is part of it. Tension is given by the relationship between “superior” and “inferior”: ruler and ruled, free man and slave, young and adult. Obtaining pleasure is then linked to a social position, it is not a transgression. But this conflicts with the relationship between the domain of pleasure and the practice of freedom. “Self-care has been, in the Greco-Roman world, the way by which individual freedom – or civic freedom to a certain extent – has been thought of as ethics.” (7)

Sexuality becomes problematic when love for young people threatens the way of life of the Greeks. A morally good life can only be conceived for those who have dominion over themselves and others, that is, for free adult men. This domain is achieved through an active posture. But love for young people could lead young people to a passive life which is incompatible with the practice of freedom for which young people should prepare. In this way sexuality becomes a moral problem for the Greeks. In Dreyfus and Rabinow’s interview, Foucault puts it this way: “The problem was that it could not be accepted that a boy who supposedly should become a free citizen could be dominated and used for someone’s pleasure.”

In Volume II, “The use of pleasures”, Foucault denies the possibility of writing a history of regulative moral codes since these constitute neither the only or the most important element of morality. It gives more attention to the subjectivity techniques by which the individual is constituted as a moral subject. It is not the codes that vary from the Greeks to Christianity but the modes of self-knowledge of the subjects and their self-construction as moral subjects.

Another point of interest of Foucault in the last two volumes of the history of sexuality is to trace how self-care in Greco-Roman culture became a renunciation of itself in Christianity. He finds that both Greeks and Christians valued ascetics, that is, they regarded as a virtuous practice the restriction of pleasures. However, that assessment is not the same. According to what Foucault tries to demonstrate in Volume III, for the Greeks asceticism is not a resignation but the souci de soi, that is, the care of the self. In L’Usage des plaisirs insists on the problematic nature of sexuality for the Greeks, who regarded physical excess not as perversion but as aesthetic ugliness. Instead paradoxically for Christianity, self-care implies a renunciation of oneself.

Morality and self-care

In the introduction of Volume II of “History of Sexuality” Foucault raises his primary interest, which is to trace how sexuality became a fundamental element of the self-constitution of the individual as a moral subject. Or more specifically it claims to “show how, in ancient times, sexual activity and pleasures were made problematic through self-care practices, by creating criteria for an aesthetic of existence”. (8) Ascetic austerity and the measuring of pleasures are not conceived as prohibitions but as lifestyle, as a luxury within a society. However Foucault adds that austerity practices cannot be considered as a simple refinement. “On the contrary, it is easy to see that each of the great figures of sexual austerity relates to an axis of experience and a beam of concrete relationships…” (9) such as the relationship with health or with their own sex. It is about determining “under what forms sexual behavior was problematized, becoming the object of restlessness, element of reflection, matter of stylization.” (10)

Under the title Moral and Practice of the Self, he asks what aspect of morality will be analyzed. He seeks to clarify the object of his history of sexuality, and for this he analyses the ambiguity of the term “moral”. First, morality means “a set of values and rules of action that are proposed to individuals and groups through various prescriptive devices, such as family, educational institutions, churches, etc.” (11) These values are explicitly transmitted, but it is also the case that they become diffuse and thus morality is a more complex game. So the term “moral” is basically associated with a moral code. But it can also be understood as “moral” as “the real behavior of individuals, in their relationship to the rules and values that are proposed to them”. (12) Here “moral” is linked to the way individuals relate to the aforementioned code. It would consist of the actual conduct of individuals in respecting or rejecting the code. This other meaning of the term “moral”, Foucault calls it “morality of behavior”. There is then in the field of morality on the one hand the standard of conduct, and on the other the conduct itself.

There is another constituent aspect of morality that will be emphasized. It is not how the subject relates to the norm but how the subject relates to himself. That is, how the subject self-understands and self-constructs as a moral subject. Even if the moral code is the same, there are several ways to conduct yourself in front of it, several ways in which the subject conducts itself in front of that code. In this diverse way of acting the individual is not only a moral agent, but also a moral subject.

Ethics is in Foucault’s writings understood as the study of the relationship of self to self. He understood that ethics is only part of the study of morality. Without wanting to deny the importance of the moral code or the actual conduct of the people (the other aspects of morality), he intends to shift the analysis towards the ways in which the individual self-constructs himself as a moral subject of his actions. The relationship with oneself, which Foucault calls “ethics”, has four aspects: the ethical substance, the mode of subjection, self-forming activity or asceticism, and the teleology of the moral subject.

The ethical substance or aphrodisia is that part of the individual that is taken as a “raw material” of his moral conduct. It can be the body, sexuality, pleasures; that will be transformed, shaped in such a way that they constitute the way through which the subject in turn is self-transformed as a moral subject. It is the part of the individual that will become the central point of self-care, that which the individual will “work on” to self-control. The ethical substance is not always the same, it was acquiring different forms and is one of the points that Foucault wants to demonstrate when comparing Greek ethics with Christianity.

Foucault calls “determination of the ethical substance”, “the way in which the individual should shape such or that part of himself as the main matter of his moral conduct.” (13) This aspect of ethics would be the one that answers the following question: “What part of myself or my conduct concerns moral conduct?” (14)

The second aspect of ethics is the mode of subjection, it is the one that establishes the link between the moral code and the self. It determines how the code has power over the self. In L’Usage del Plaisirs he defines it as follows: “it is the way in which the individual establishes his relationship with this moral code and recognizes an obligation to put it into play.” (15) And in the interview of Dreyfus and Rabinow: “it is the way people are invited or incited to recognize their moral obligations.” By saying “invited or incited”, it would appear that Foucault is referring to external elements acting on the subject inciting him to obey the law, and then we would no longer be in the field of ethics. But such incitement is exercised by the subject on himself and has to do with the way in which the law is presented to him as obligatory. The way of subjection to the law may be given as a divine law, by belonging to a community of which the individual feels a part or by being the means to attain a more beautiful existence.

The self-training activity is the medium or the whole of them, through which the individual changes, transforming to become an ethical subject. It is the activity “that we perform in ourselves–not only to make our behavior according to a given rule, but to try to transform ourselves into a moral subject of our conduct”. (16) We can see that the work that the individual does on himself is not solely intended to behave according to the law, to abide by it, but that the goal is the construction of the self and to become a moral subject.

This third aspect of ethics is the one that answers the question: “What are the means by which we can transform ourselves into ethical subjects?” (17) The concept of self-sculpting or asceticism in the broad sense can be equated with what Foucault called “technologies of the self”, which he defines as those operations that the individual performs on his body and his soul, his thoughts, or any form of his being. It’s about “… thoughtful and voluntary practices by which men not only set rules of conduct, but seek to transform themselves, modify themselves in their singular being, and make their lives a masterpiece.” (18)

With such operations, the transformation of oneself is achieved with the aim of achieving a certain state which may be of happiness, purity, wisdom or immortality. In “The Subject’s Hermeneutics”, when analyzing Hellenic philosophy, he refers to self-concern, a concept to which the Greek term epimeleia heautou corresponds. It is the ways in which the subjects unfold and constitute at the same time the object of their own action, shaping, building themselves, in a process of refinement to transform into a certain type of subject. Self-care is both a set of self-transformation practices and a duty, that is, a principle that is prescribed as a model of good life.

Finally Foucault defines the teleology of the moral subject that represents the kind of being to which the individual aspires when he behaves morally. The purpose of moral action is not only the adequacy of certain values and norms, but also aims at the constitution of the individual as a moral subject. The telos with which they tend to fulfill moral actions is also changing; thus the individual will aim to transform himself into a pure, immortal being free from his passions.

Volumes II and III of “History of Sexuality” can be understood as a study of the relationships between these four aspects of ethics in Greek and Roman society. In L’Usage des Plaisirs, Foucault discusses these four aspects of ethics through the following topics: health, women and wives, and boys. It emphasizes the importance that Foucault attaches to the relationship with himself in morality:

It is true that any moral action implies a relationship with the reality in which it takes place and a relationship with the code to which it refers, but it also implies a certain relationship with itself; this is not simply “self-awareness”, but a self-constitution as a “moral subject”, in which the individual circumscribes the part of himself that constitutes the object of this moral practice, defines his position in relation to the precept that he follows, sets a certain way of being that will be worth moral fulfillment of himself, and for this he acts on himself , seeks to know each other, is controlled, tested, perfected, transformed. (…) There is no particular moral action that does not refer to the unity of moral conduct; nor moral conduct that does not claim the constitution of itself as a moral subject, nor the constitution of the moral subject without “modes of subjectivity” and without an “ascetic” or “self-practice” that supports them. (19)

An Example from Epicurean Ethics

What I intend to do here is to track and identify in the ethics proposed by Epicurus, the aspects of ethics defined by Foucault and discussed above. I will try to identify the ethical substance, i.e. part of the individual that is considered as a relevant element of ethical judgment for the Epicureans. It will also attempt to determine the individual’s manner of subjection with respect to the law, how the Epicurean conceives the law as obligatory and abides by it. The same will be done with self-forming activity and with teleology. To do this, each of these aspects will be analyzed separately and supplemented with quotes from the garden philosopher.

1. Ethical substance

Let us utterly drive from us our bad habits as if they were evil men who have long done us great harm. – Epicurean Saying 46

As a philosophical doctrine typical of the Hellenistic period, Epicureanism retains certain characteristics of the Greek tradition. For the Greeks, acts linked to pleasure and desire were the point of support for ethical assessment. The point of interest that was considered relevant in moral actions was desires and pleasures. We can say then that in Epicureanism the ethical substance was acts linked to pleasure and desire. Pierre Hadot argues that the “experience of the flesh” forms the basis of Epicureanism–“flesh” not in the physical sense but as the subject of pain and pleasure. (20) In fact this doctrine has been known as a hedonistic doctrine because of its emphasis on pleasures, although as Epicurus himself clarifies this was misunderstood, as it sought the denial of pain (as will be seen below).

Epicurus preached: “It is not the drinks, nor the enjoyment of women, nor the sumptuous banquets that make life pleasant, but the sober thought that discovers the causes of all desire and all aversion and takes away the opinions that trouble souls.” (21) The teachings of Epicurus led to self-care through the measuring of desires. He can only own himself who is not a slave to his desires. Whoever suffers for what he does not have and desires, can never be free or happy, so it is necessary to evaluate the pleasures in order to know which are necessary and which are not. “For none among the foolish are content with what they possess, but they grief for what they do not have.” (22)

2. Modes of subjection

Epicureanism is peculiar in that Epicurus constituted for his followers a kind of god or divine man (theios aner); this characterization having been given to him by having been the only one to be able to attain wisdom on his own. (23) His authority over his disciples was very great–so much so, that association with the teacher was supremely important for the formation of the disciples. So after his death, the fundamental precept of his school was this: “Act always as if Epicurus was watching you.” This means that one of the most important elements by which Epicurus’s followers felt compelled to abide by their precepts was by their master’s own influential figure.

With the exception of Epicurus himself, the rest of the members of the Garden School needed, to attain wisdom, a tutor (Hegemon) with whom they had to maintain a strong bond of friendship. Community life for the Epicureans was very important. Since the founding of the Garden School, rather than the study of books, the essential thing was community life; and the best form of learning was that based on personal contact and dialogue. It was not about coercing men, but persuading them, which did not exclude authority. In that community only Epicurus was considered and called wise, the remaining members were aspiring sages. Presumably, this aspiration would act as a means of subjection to the precepts of Epicurus in order to attain the wisdom of the master.

The mode of subjection of the Epicureans is then linked to their loyalty to Epicurus. Upon entering the community, one gave an oath: “I will be loyal to Epicurus, according to whom I have chosen to live.” That loyalty was identified with friendship, as his followers were called “friends.”

If the disciples were impelled by the teacher’s image to obey the law or the precepts he gave them, one might wonder what subjected Epicurus himself to the obedience of certain moral standards. At this point there could be an overlap between the aspects identified by Foucault, and the mode of subjection is the telos itself. The way in which the individual conceives the standard as obligatory is closely linked to the sense of duty towards the model of being that he wants to achieve.

3. Self-forming activity

The fundamental means by which the individual must self-transform to become a moral subject is reflection. Philosophy turns out to be a “four-fold drug” meant to help us have the right attitude towards the gods, death, pleasure and pain. Epicurus’s considerations on these points are found in the Letter to Menoeceus, which is an invitation to the philosophical attitude. Philosophy is for Epicurus a fundamental element in self-care, because only through it can the individual lose those fears that do not allow him to achieve the true state of happiness that consists in the tranquility of the soul (ataraxia).

Philosophy has a therapeutic character (therapeutike). Its practice itself has a healing, liberating function. It helps us to discern which pleasures are necessary and which are not, while giving us elements (e.g. the physics) to eliminate the fears that afflict individuals. This type of philosophy is able to free the individual from annoying desires. The individual can only be saved from a disturbed life if he practices philosophy and, for this purpose, Epicurus understands that there is no age:

Let no one put off the love and practice of wisdom when young, nor grow tired of it when old. For it is never too early or too late for the health of the soul. Someone who says that the time to love and practice wisdom has not yet come or has passed is like someone who says that the time for happiness has not yet come or has passed. – Epicurus’ Epistle to Menoeceus

True freedom for Epicurus can only be achieved through philosophy because it frees man from that which disturbs him, and in this lies the liberating value of all knowledge since knowledge of cosmology and physics are also fundamental to making man a free and therefore happy subject.

If we were not troubled by the thought of heavenly things and that death means something to us and not knowing the limits of pains and desires, we would have no need for the science of nature. – Epicurus’ Principal Doctrine 11

The theoretical value that Aristotle attributed to philosophy, the value of knowledge for its own sake, changes with Epicurus and it becomes practical value. Prudence, the measuring of passions and desires, and the end of disturbances are the ultimate end of philosophical reflection.

The search for knowledge has the liberating function of being a “four-fold medicine”. Man, in order to be happy, must be freed from certain errors that disturb him: fear of the gods, fear of death, seeking excessive goods, and the limit of evil. As for the gods, he argues that as long as they are incorruptible and blessed, they cannot be attributed anything that goes against these characteristics. Man should not fear the actions of the gods upon him, as the gods have no worries and there’s no reason why man should be a worry to them. The gods live in pure ataraxia (tranquil pleasure). As for not fearing death, the explanation is based on his atomistic physical theory (which I will not develop here).

Second, train yourself to hold that death is nothing to us, because good and evil consist in sensation, and death is the removal of sensation … So death, the most terrifying of evils, is nothing to us, because as long as we exist death is not present, whereas when death is present we do not exist … It is nothing to those who live (since to them it does not exist) and it is nothing to those who have died (since they no longer exist). – Epicurus’ Epistle to Menoeceus

With regard to the pursuit of goods, he argues that it is easy to achieve and seek the limit of goods. Pleasures are sought if pain is avoided, so the magnitude of pleasures will depend on the greater or lesser distance from the pain. And this would build on the practices that Epicurus followers should carry out to achieve happiness. As for the evils he argues that these are limited in duration. Epicurus identifies evil with pain and says:

Continuous pain does not last long in the body; on the contrary, pain, if extreme, is present a short time, and even that degree of pain which barely outweighs pleasure in the body does not last for many days together. Illnesses of long duration even permit of an excess of pleasure over pain in the body. – Epicurus’ Principal Doctrine 4

Another fundamental element in the self-forming activity prescribed by Epicureanism is the cultivation of friendship. In Vatican Saying XXIII, he writes: “Of all the means that wisdom procures for our complete happiness, the possession of friendship is by far the most important thing.” The bonds that were established in the Garden School between men, women and children were basically given by friendship. In his will he prescribed that the house be preserved and that the philosophers would all live together. He also prescribed annual commemorations in his honor and of the disciples who had already passed.

The Epicurean conception of friendship is problematic because while exalted as a value, it is reduced to utility. In his Vatican Saying he says: “Every friendship is desirable in itself; however, it had its beginning in utility.” However, he then states: “He is not a friend who always seeks usefulness, nor he who never binds utility to friendship: since the former, transacts with favors what is given in exchange, and the other cuts off great hopes for the future.” This tension is resolved for Foucault in the idea that the existence of friends is a condition not of real help, but of hope and security to know that friends will be available to help us in the future. That’s why friendship is one of the forms of self-care. “Any man who is uneasy about himself should make friends”, says Foucault.

Meditation and calculation of pleasures are also self-care practices. In the Letter to Menoeceus, Epicurus argues “one must meditate on these things night and day, and one will live as a god among men“. Since this inclination induces man to pleasure, one must reflect and calculate the consequences of each pleasure. In this way, one will be able to abandon those pleasures that cause many disgusts and endure those pains that generate greater pleasure. Reflection lets us know that the highest pleasure is the suppression of pain. It also allows us to determine several categories of desires: natural and necessary (e.g. desire to eat and drink); natural and unnecessary (e.g. desire to eat a delicacy); and others that are neither natural nor necessary (e.g. desire for a crown). According to this classification, the measuring of pleasures is prescribed, and then the wise will be able to achieve the greatest degree of pleasure giving satisfaction to the first kind of desires, and as Epicurus himself sustains “with a little bread and water, one rivals even Jupiter in happiness“.

The exercises prescribed by the wisdom teachers are of particular importance for self-care. Theory is not enough. Knowledge of the doctrine of Epicurus is not enough to reach wisdom. Permanent exercise is required. “First of all we must meditate, that is, assimilate intimately, become intensely aware of the fundamental dogmas.” (29) Epicurus prescribes in the Letter to Menoeceus: “All these teachings consider them, therefore, day and night, by yourself alone, and also with a companion like you. Thus you will not experience disturbance in sleep or vigil, but you will live as a god among men.” (30) One such exercise was a variant of praemeditatio malorum. This mental exercise consisted of meditating on future evils, but for the epicureans this was useless and they preferred to evoke past pleasures as a shelter from today’s evils. (31) In this regard, judgments, summaries, and dialogues with friends were considered to be the privileged means of exercising themselves on the road to wisdom.

4. Teleology of the Moral Subject

Epicurus identifies the end of man as happiness. Every man and woman should attain happiness. Happiness consists in the pursuit of pleasure. Pleasure is obtained by avoiding pain. The model that  guides the moral actions of the Epicureans is that of the one who has achieved both ataraxia (absence of mental perturbation, which is experienced as tranquil pleasure) and aponia (absence of bodily pain). The first consists of the tranquility of the soul that is distant from disturbances, and the second is the absence of pain. Whoever is in this situation will have found happiness. But these two states are subordinate to the pleasure that is the end that every man must pursue, and ataraxia and aponia are desirable because of the pleasure they bring.

Wise then is the one who achieves ataraxia, tranquility, peace of the soul, and he who does not allow himself to be disturbed by that which disturbs the vulgar: the fear of the gods, of death, of the future. Without such fears, and by limiting desires, happiness is attained.

The model pursued by the Epicureans is that of the gods who enjoy full tranquility and imperturbability. This is the telos they pursue, and in pursuit of which the prescriptions of the garden master are followed.

In short, Epicurean ethics is characterized by: taking pleasures as an object of transformation (ethical substance); basing obedience (to laws and conventions) in loyalty to Epicurus himself and in community, mainly based on the bonds of friendship (means of subjection); practicing self-care through philosophy, cultivation of friendship, meditation, and the calculation of pleasures (self-transforming activity); and by pursuing happiness–understood mainly as ataraxia (moral subject’s teleology).

What is the interest of this kind of morality for the contemporary subject? It is important to note that it does not seem to be Foucault’s intention to present such forms of self-compliance as alternatives to contemporary ones. He does not even intend to value them as better or worse, even though his work is presented as a critique of the society in which he lives. He, however, insists on the impossibility of returning to those earlier forms of understanding. As Couzens argues:

Although he does not build a totally different ideal than we can aspire to, his story makes us more aware of the inconveniences of our self-understanding and our practices. The imperative to change must come from within us, if it comes. Foucault can only hope that his historiography will help subvert what he believes are our self-deceiving tendencies to deny any such imperative. (32)

Or as Mark Poster (who considers Foucault’s “History of Sexuality” as a genealogical work) argues, the author’s intention is to “reveal the difference in a phenomenon in such a way that it undermines the certainty of the present without presenting the past as an alternative.” (33) This work denies all teleology and progressivism. At the same time it undermines the purported universality of the contemporary model of sexuality with its implications with respect to morality. This opens the way for the task of developing strategies to modify it.

However, I believe that what’s being proposed isn’t merely a negative path, which ends only in the acceptance of the impossibility of basing a morality on universalism. Beyond Foucault’s intention to resurrect morality as self-care, the model of self-transformation, of taking oneself as a center of concern and occupation, of making each person better, and in that way making us freer, can be a model of inspiration for contemporary man. As Paul Vayne argues: “Greek morality is dead, and Foucault considered it as undesirable as impossible to resurrect it; but an aspect of this morality, namely the idea of a working on oneself, seemed likely to return to a present meaning, in the manner of one of these columns of pagan temples that we sometimes see located in more recent buildings.” (34) The subject as an artist of his own life seems a very interesting normative principle in the context of massification, marginalization and lack of citizen participation, which are aspects of our societies that contrast with the modern ideal of autonomy.


1 Couzens, D., Foucault. Introduction, p.8.
2 Ibid., p.9
3 Morey, M., Introduction: The Question of method, in Technologies of the Self, p. 16.
4 Dreyfus, H., Rabinow, P., On the Genealogy of Ethics. Tell M.Foucault, p. 199.
5 Davidson, A., Archaeology, Genealogy, Ethics, in Foucault, p.246.
6 Foucault, M., Three Lectures at the University of Toronto, 1982; quoted by Morey, ibid., p.35
7 Foucault, M., Subject Hermeneutics, Annex, p.111.
8 Foucault, M., sex., II. The use of pleasures, p. 15.
9 Ibid., p. 25.
10 Ibid
11 Ibid., p.26.
12 Ibid.
13 Ibid., p.27.
14 Foucault, M., On the Genealogy of Ethics, Dreyfus-Rabinow interview, p.200.
15 Foucault, M., Hist. of sex., II. The use of pleasures, ibid.
16 Ibid., p.28.
17 Foucault, M.; On the genealogy of ethics, interview by Dreyfus-Rabinow, p.202.
18 Foucault, M.; Subject’s hermeneutics, p.59 quote 5.
19 Foucault, M., Hist. of sex., II. The use of pleasures, p. 29.
20 Hadot, P. What is Ancient Philosophy?, p.129
21 Usener, 64, 12 and sigs., quoted by Brehier, History of Philosophy, p.485.
22 Ibid. Frag. 471, quoted by Mondolfo, Ancient Thought, p.105.
23 Foucault, M.; Ibid., p.141
24 Epicurus, Letter to Meneceus, 122, quoted by Mondolfo, Ancient Thought, p. 94.
25 Epicurus, Sent.princ., 11, quoted by Mondolfo, Ibid., p. 95.
26 Epicurus, Letter to Meneceo, 124-5, quoted by Mondolfo, Ibid.
27 Epicurus, Sent. Princ., 4, quoted by Mondolfo, Ibid.
28 Foucault, M.; Subject’s Hermeneutics, pp. 193-194
29 Hadot, P.; What is ancient philosophy?, p.138
30 Quoted in Ibid.
31 Foucault, M.; Subject’s hermeneutics, p.475
32 Couzens, D., ibid., p. 27.
33 Poster, M., ibid., p. 229.
34 Veyne, P.; The last Foucault and his morals, p.55.

Further Reading:

 Epicurus’ sermon on moral development

The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1: An Introduction

The History of Sexuality, Vol. 2: The Use of Pleasure

The Foucault Reader

Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison