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Fr. 529

June 20, 2014

Foucault’s 1983 lecture at the University of California, Berkeley, entitled “Culture of the Self”, seeks to establish the existence of the aforementioned culture in Greco-Roman culture, particularly in the 4th century BC and the 1st century AD. His means of establishing these claims consist largely in the accumulation and juxtaposition of citations concerning epimeleia eautou (the care of the self), particularly in the Stoic and Epicurean schools. To this are joined his attempts to accord pride of place in the ancient world to the maxim epimelesthai eautou (take care of oneself – care for oneself) as opposed to gnothi seauton (know thyself), which, in the later histories of philosophy, came to displace the former as the culmination of Ancient thought.

To this end, Foucault enumerates four ways in which the maxims above diverge.  He highlights the following as trademarks of epimelesthai eautou:


1. Whereas gnothi seauton (as best captured in Plato’s Alcibiades) emphasizes this relation to the self as a temporary, preparatory state, epimelesthai eautou underscores rather the need for and existence of a permanent relation to the self.

2. Although gnothi seauton considers, as an extension of the first principle, the relation to the self as a complement to education in order to correct the latter’s shortcomings and bad habits, epimelesthai eautou calls for a critical relation to the self to be entertained independently of any other end, hence as an intrinsic good in itself.

3. If gnothi seauton treats the path to the self and the relation to another as an erotic relation, such as that between teacher and student, epimelesthai eautou advocates rather an authoritarian relation.

4. Whereas gnothi seauton portrays the relation to the self under the mode of contemplation (and thus much the same as the relation to the world), epimelesthai eautou puts forward a bundle of ascetic practices as the proper form for this same relation.


With these four distinctions signalled, Foucault then brings numerous texts to bear with the aim of showing to what extent epimelesthai eautou inaugurates a tradition as profound and pervasive as that of gnothi seauton. Of particular import for our work are the third and fourth points as these concern the relation between, on one hand, self and other, and, on the other, self and practices.

Concerning the first of these, Foucault lends particular attention to the way in which the care of the self requires the assistance, even intervention of another, in order to be properly carried out. This would be the authority of the authoritarian relation mentioned above. For certain ancient writers, this authority takes the form of a medical authority; in some sense, the physician becomes a doctor of the self. In other words, care of the self and the medical practice coincide to a greater or lesser extent, and the hospital itself becomes a laboratory to work out issues of the soul. Unfortunately, Foucault neither delves further into the texts under study nor elaborates on a vision of what such a medical practice for the self entails. Yet the essential point remains that the inner experience of oneself calls for a medical authority in much the same way as bodily experience necessitates this same authority. It will be up to us to imagine in what this practice might consist more precisely.


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