Foucault’s spiritual exercises

Here is Michel Foucault’s definition of “spirituality”:

… I think we could call “spirituality” the search, practice, and experience through which the subject carries out the necessary transformations on himself in order to have access to the truth. We will call “spirituality” then the set of these researches, practices, and experiences, which may be purifications, ascetic exercises, renunciations, conversions of looking, modifications of existence, etc., which are, not for knowledge but for the subject, for the subject’s very being, the price to be paid for access to the truth. Let’s say that spirituality, as it appears in the West at least, has three characteristics.

[1] Spirituality postulates that the truth is never given to the subject by right. … It postulates that for the subject to have right of access to the truth he must be changed, transformed, shifted, and become, to some extent and up to a certain point, other than himself. … It follows that from this point of view there can be no truth without a conversion or a transformation of the subject.

[2] Eros [the subject’s attraction to the truth, or the truth’s movement to the subject] and askesis [labor] are, I think, the two major forms in Western spirituality for conceptualizing the modalities by which the subject must be transformed in order finally to become capable of truth.

[3] The truth enlightens the subject; the truth gives beatitude to the subject; the truth gives the subject tranquility of the soul. In short, in the truth and in access to the truth, there is something that fulfills the subject himself, which fulfills or transfigures his very being.

Foucault, The Hermeneutics of the Subject, Lectures at the College de France 1981-2, translated by Graham Burchell (Palgrave, 2005), pp. 15-16

Foucault distinguishes spirituality from philosophy: “the form of thought that asks what it is that enables the subject to have access to the truth and which attempts to determine the conditions and limits of the subject’s access to the truth” (p. 15).

Although philosophy and spirituality are different, all the Greek and Roman philosophers–except (Foucault thinks) Aristotle–believed that a person could not have access to the truth without first being transformed into a better self. Therefore, all the classical philosophers argued for spirituality, as defined above. More than that, they combined their philosophical arguments with spiritual instruction, because they saw the two as inseparable.

One of the main topics that a self was supposed to understand was justice. To understand justice required improving oneself. In turn, learning about justice made a person better. “Consequently, taking care of oneself and being concerned with justice amount to the same thing” (p. 72, here interpreting Plato).

These presuppositions of ancient philosophy and spirituality contrast with two prevalent modern traditions. First:

  • Science is that set of methods and institutions (such as labs, PhD programs, and peer-review) that allow us to know nature without having to improve the self first. A scientist “can recognize the truth and have access to it in himself and solely through his activity of knowing, without anything else being demanded of him and without him having to change or alter his being as subject” (p. 17). In turn, science generates knowledge that may not improve anyone spiritually. Nature is precisely the realm that is independent of our spiritual condition. If some scientists prepare themselves mentally to do their jobs or gain tranquility from what they discover about nature, those are incidental facts about them as people. Spiritual preparation may not be necessary, and it certainly isn’t sufficient. Science is about methods, techniques, instruments, rules, and norms that prevent the self from influencing knowledge. And science pursues truth without flinching even when the results are morally problematic.

I would add another tradition as a contrast with ancient spirituality, although I am not sure Foucault would agree:

  • Liberalism is the political tradition that seeks to base good government on well-designed institutions (rights, checks-and-balances, elections and other mechanisms of accountability) so that good government need not depend on the moral excellence of either leaders or the people. Good institutional design is a more secure basis for justice than human excellence. Further, in a well-designed polity, we can leave people alone in their private lives instead of badgering them to transform themselves. Thus liberalism is compatible with freedom as autonomy and with diverse understandings of the good life.

According to Foucault, classical spiritual traditions lived on in Christianity. Spirituality ran into trouble with the rise of scholasticism, which made the study of God into a kind of science. Drawing on Aristotle, medieval scholastics provided methods for understanding God and nature that did not depend upon spiritual self-improvement. They left methods of self-improvement to non-scholars, a division that continues today.

I struggle to decide where Foucault stands himself. Does he give detailed lectures about Greco-Roman spiritual traditions because he believes that modern science and governance are bad and he wants us to return to a better way? Does he describe these Hellenistic traditions dispassionately, as a contribution to truth that may not improve us or himself? (In other words, is he a scientist of the past?) Or does he seek to liberate us from spirituality and science by demonstrating the historical contingency of both? If we shed spirituality and science, what are we left with?

I don’t know, but I enjoy the moments in the lectures when Foucault interacts with his audience. For instance, here he demonstrates concern:

[Is there] another room you can use? Yes? And are those people there because they cannot get into the other room or because they prefer to be there? I am sorry that the conditions are so bad, I can do nothing about it and as far as possible I would like to avoid you suffering too much. Okay, earlier, while talking about these techniques of the self and their existence prior to Platonic reflection on the epimeleia heautou [care of oneself], it came to mind, and I forgot to mention it to you, that there is a text … (p. 65)

And here he is playing with his audience:

I was saying that it seemed to me that at a certain moment … the link was broken, definitively I think, between access to the truth, which becomes the autonomous development of knowledge (connaissance), and the requirement of the subject’s trans- formation of himself and of his being. When I say “I think it was definitively broken,” I don’t need to tell you that I don’t believe any such thing, and that what is interesting is precisely that the links were not broken abruptly as if by the slice of a knife (pp. 25-6).

Foucault respected and learned from his colleague Pierre Hadot, a great scholar of Hellenistic thought. Hadot emphasized that the Hellenistic thinkers did not write systematic treatises. They were teachers who worked with students or other audiences in concrete circumstances.

Philosophy in antiquity was a spiritual exercise. … Whether we have to do with dialogues as in the case of Plato, class notes as in the case of Aristotle, treatises like those of Plotinus, or commentaries like those of Proclus, a philosopher’s works cannot be interpreted without taking into consideration the concrete situation which gave birth to them. They are the products of a philosophical school, in the most concrete sense of the term, in which a master forms his disciples, trying to guide them to self-transformation and -realization. Thus, the written work is a reflection of pedagogical, pyschagogic, and methodological preoccupations.

Although every written work is a monologue, the philosophical work is always implicitly a dialogue. The dimension of the possible interlocutor is always present within it. This explains the incoherencies and contradictions which modern historians discover with astonishment in the works of ancient philosophers.

Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life, translated by Michael Chase (Blackwell 1995), pp. 104-5

Foucault’s concrete situation was rather unusual. As a holder of a chair in the College de France, he was required only to conduct his own research and report the results annually in a series of lectures–free, public, and uncredited. Because he was an academic superstar, he gave these lectures to a packed lecture hall and overflow areas, with ranks of tape-recorders piled on the desk before him. The audience could not literally discuss with him, but he could address them in a dialogic way.

Here is Foucault’s description of Epictetus:

unlike Seneca, [Epictetus] is a teacher by profession [and] he really does have a school. He opens a school which is called “school” and in which he has students. And, of course, among his students there are a number, no doubt a considerable number, of young people who come to be trained. … It should not be thought that the care of the self, as principal axis of the art of life, was reserved for adults. But alongside this, intertwined with this training of young people, we can say that in Epictetus’s school there is also what could be called, employing an unjust metaphor no doubt, an open shop: an open shop for adults. And in fact adults come to his school to hear his teaching for one day, for a few days or for some time. Here also, in the social world evoked in the Discourses, you see, for example, a town inspector passing through, a sort of tax procurer if you like. He is an Epicurean who comes to consult Epictetus and ask him questions. There is a man sent to Rome by his town who, passing through Asia Minor to Rome, stops to ask Epictetus questions and get advice on how he can best accomplish his mission. Moreover, Epictetus by no means disregards this clientele, or these adult interlocutors, since he advises his own students, young people therefore, to find prominent people in their town and to shake them up a bit by saying: Tell me then, how do you live? Do you really take proper care of yourselves? (p. 90)

I think Foucault’s own role is similar. And that makes him–not a scientist of history–but a practitioner and provider of spiritual exercises.

See also Philosophy as a Way of Life (on Pierre Hadot); does focusing philosophy on how to live broaden or narrow it?;  Hannah Arendt and philosophy as a way of life; Kieran Setiya on midlife: reviving philosophy as a way of life; science, UFOs, and the diminishment of humankind; notes on the social role of science: 1. the example of fetal ultrasounds.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.