Barber, Stephen M.
Michel Foucault, Greek and Roman Philosophy, Subjectivity, Ethics, Care of the Self, Parrhēsia
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Through studying literature, literary theory, and poststructural philosophy within the English Department and Honors Program, I have learned to critically analyze texts and other media. Narratives, objects, and situations are so often other than what they appear to be, greater than what they offer through the first read, and are thus always in need of further analysis. Our lives, societies, and even our own subjectivities are no exception. Not only is what we observe and believe not as simple as it seems, but often what we regard as “true” may actually be far less stable than what that label denotes.
From 1981 until his death in 1984, Michel Foucault unraveled the genealogy of the ancient Greek and Roman concept of “Care of the Self,” uncovering, theorizing, and mapping the details and techniques of classical, philosophically driven self-care practices (ethics as ethos). His lectures from this last era—compiled in The Hermeneutics of the Subject (1981-82) and The Courage of Truth (1983-84)—delve fervently into the genealogy of self-care practices, trace momentous changes within Western subjectivity, thought, and self-knowledge, and offer groundbreaking examples of past Western societies that were radically different than their contemporary counterparts. Foucault further uncovers that through limitations imposed upon us by pastoral power, religious institutionalization, and, in the 18th century, the secularization of pastoral power into the formation of the modern state, members of Western society currently understand themselves and their lives via certain limiting “hermeneutic” truths—truths that appear to be deep and inescapable, yet are in fact thoroughly constructed and contingent.
My essay explores Foucault’s lectures from 1981-84, illustrating that his work offers examples of a Western society in which the self was considered a work of art to be constantly attended to and formed. I explain that this art of life was attainable through an ethical way of life—a mode of existence that was not made available just to the philosophical and political elite of antiquity, but a mode of life from which none were restricted. I then turn to some of Foucault’s earlier works, as well as later interviews and writings, to explain how, although the cultures, thoughts, and practices of antiquity may never be reinstated today, members of contemporary Western society may attempt to form their own guidelines for an ethically driven art of life. I illustrate that through a rigorous analysis of Foucault’s work, one may conclude that there are other ways of living within contemporary Western society—modes of life and self-subjectivity that do not surrender to limiting discourses and notions of “truth” handed down from pastoral power and its secularized version of bio power, but ways of living ethically in which an art of life and the subsequent self-forming subjectivity also become possibilities.