Techniques of the Self in an Anthropogenic Age

I’ve been reading, again and at last, Michel Foucault’s lectures from the College du France, 1981-82, collected in the volume The Hermeneutics of the Subject. The next two volumes of his lectures, The Government of the Self and Others (1982-83) and The Courage of Truth (1983-84) are on my desk. For those (like me) who find casually reading ‘real’ Foucault intimidating, these lectures are great because as lectures they are lucid.  They also touch on two of my great interests: spiritual practices and the Roman Empire.* I’ll skip the Empire for now and stick with the spirituality.

Foucault defines spirituality over and against philosophy. While philosophy is the study of the how we can access the truth (do I exist? I am thinking, therefore I exist), spirituality is the discipline that prepares the subject for the truth. We are not born as perfect minds who need to learn a series of true propositions, but as rough selves who need to be shaped into vessels fit to contain revelation: You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth! But, if you rigorously perform this series of spiritual exercises, you will some day in fact be ready for it—and then the truth shall set you free. 

The truth will set you free—so promises ancient philosophy. But it is a problematic promise. What is the truth? And what does it mean to be set free? These questions are too big for this little essay—and I don’t think Foucault answers them well—so instead I will turn toward the practices themselves and try to give a sense of what Foucault means by the discipline of spirituality. 

For the Stoic school, the highest good was freedom, and freedom meant never having to do what you did not want to do. Of course, it is much easier to shift your wants than to shift the entirety of the world. My high school calculus teacher, Mr. Rupprecht, once told us that the two ways to have enough money are to make a lot of money or not need a lot of money. And the Stoic view of freedom is similar. According to the Stoic, we should always get what we want—and the way to do that is to only want things that are under our control. The only thing under our control is whether we act in a moral way, because whatever else happens after that is due, in some part, to something outside us and outside our control. Non-attachment to outcome, in today’s spiritual language. So, by meditating every moment on our desires and passions and slowly pruning them away until all we have is the desire to be good, we gain the ultimate freedom to only do what we want. The only good is moral good. 

Of course, some will agree with the premise of this exercise, and others will not. (I do not). That’s why there were many ‘philosophical’ (read: spiritual) schools in antiquity, each with their own adherents. But that’s not the point—the point is that the practice of loving wisdom was a practice of truly becoming an ethical subject—or rather, a subject who through a process of self-realization has become ready to be ethical. And our problematic is how to apply that to the world today, when we are not Roman aristocrats ensconced in country villas.**

To be spiritual is to care [epimeleisthai] for the self. But the conception of that seld changes. For me, the most interesting shift in the practice of spirituality—care for the self—that Foucault charts is the shift from the Platonic/Socratic notion of care for the self as care for the soul to the Hellenistic/Roman view of care for the self as care for the unique combination of body and soul that makes up each of us. What in the early Platonic dialogues is a primarily intellectual task—coming to recognize our own ignorance—becomes in the later period a practice that involves training the mind and the body. Think yoga, but Greek.

This today opens up a whole world of new options for our own techniques of the self, because the threats to our bodies have multiplied in a world of toxic waste, environmental destruction, and large-scale anthropogenic climate change. When we think about the practice of loving wisdom as a practice that involves not only our minds but our bodies, and the need to care for those bodies, it puts the onus upon us to go out into the world and try to make change. Because unlike Roman aristocrats, the primary threats to our bodies come not from gluttony and laziness (although that is certainly a threat in our high fructose corn syrupy age) but from external threats, threats that can only be solved by collective, political action. When we worry as much about the state of our body as the state of our soul, we cannot believe with the stoic that the only good is moral good, because moral good does not protect our bodies from the ravages of an environment under attack.

When Socrates faced his accusers at the beginning of the Western philosophical tradition, he told them not only that “the unexamined life is not worth living” but that he had spent his life urging “every one of them, young and old,” saying to them each: “Oh, you best of men, being Athenian, of the greatest city and the one most well known for wisdom and strength, are you not ashamed that you care [epimeleisthai] for money--namely, that you should have the most of it--and for reputation and honors, and neither think nor care [epimeleisthai] about wisdom and truth and that your soul should be the best it can be?"

We must think about more than our souls, but for us Americans, the call is the same. The call to wisdom, the call to truth, interpreted in the twenty-first century, obligates us to act not for money nor reputation not honors. We must care about our selves—but our selves are not independent of others.



 *Now, it’s important to note here that Foucault’s interest in these exercises was spurred by the pioneering work of the French philosopher Pierre Hadot, and if you want to get into the real nitty-gritty of what the ancients actually thought and wrote, Hadot is a much better guide. But, as much as I love Hadot, he brings none of Foucault’s revolutionary fire to the study of spiritual practices.

**Full disclosure: this summer I am so ensconced.

***translation mine.

© Henry Gruber 2013