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Fr. 532

June 25, 2014

Yet Foucault’s presentation of classical self physicians does not end there, for, in the last part of his lecture, he turns to historical texts from the Greco-Roman period and textual evidence of the role of such physicians in society of the time. Specifically, he emphasizes one set of then-current practices in order to address the fourth distinction between gnothi seauton and epimelesthai eautou, the dominant ethical maxims of classical times.

We had earlier specified that distinction as follows:

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.

Indeed, if the Socratic and Platonic traditions put some emphasis on a relation to the self through the means of contemplation, this pride of place owes not to the predominance of the relation to self but rather as an instrument in the soul’s subsequent turn to and contemplation of the world around. In contrast, epimelesthai eautou moves the person’s relation to self from the passive mode to the active through the promotion of certain concrete practices. Of these practices, Foucault says:

We must not imagine that this culture of the self was only a piece of abstract advice, given by a few philosophers and technicians of the soul, to a handful of disciples. We must not imagine that this concern with oneself was only a moral attitude. It was a widespread activity, with a set of multivarious activities, techniques and devices.

In particular, he draws attention to the prominent place of writing within this culture.

It is often assumed that personal writing is a modern discovery […] in fact, the relation to oneself through writing has been a very long tradition of the West, and I think that it is possible to observe a shift from the culture of memory which is still dominant in the Socratic attitude towards the practice of writing and taking notes in the culture of the Greco-Roman period. The culture of the self in this period implied the use of personal notebooks […] and in those personal notebooks, you had to note your readings, your conversations, the themes for future meditation, you had also to write your dreams, you had to write your daily schedule. Writing letters was also something important among those practices of the self, because in the letter, you had at the same time to entertain a relation to yourself and a relation to somebody else, who can be a director or a friend or somebody to whom you gives advices [sic] which are valuable both for him and for you.

To what end, we might ask, were practitioners of the culture of the self instructed to record all of these details in writings? Presumably, the answer proves something like the following: in order better to lay out the self as something to be observed by the person, i.e. to force the passive elements of subjectivity to pass into the objective mode and so be observable by the subject. In this way, the person can track, indirectly at first but directly with further experience, both the various “outside” materials with which he or she comes into contact and how these same materials come to be reflected or integrated into the outward projection of self to others. By opening the self up as a space for reflection, the person can more easily isolate influences at work in his or her self: an empowering book, a talk with someone particularly persuasive, interesting lines of thought to follow up on, the nighttime work of the subconscious on the concerns of the everyday, the daily concerns which may capture to a greater or lesser extent the person’s priorities. All of these are materials with which the self comes into contact and by which self cannot help but be impacted, positively or negatively. To the materials above, we could doubtlessly add distinctly contemporary or modern ones as well: various forms of art, personal websites, internet personae, viewing habits, etc., even if some of these are commonly held to distract us from ourselves rather than serve as a means of getting at the self.

The case of letterwriting is particularly telling, for this practice entails putting forward a vision of oneself, in forms active and passive, manifest and hidden, such that one’s reader might come to understand that place from which one comes at a given moment or other. If the reader is to understand all that is at issue with the letterwriter, it is necessary that the latter present a more or less comprehensive version of him or herself. In producing such a thing for another person, this version likewise becomes cognitively available to the writer as well. This version will not be without its distortions or warpings. Yet the fact remains that this version remains an important step forward in self-articulation, particularly as regards the maxims of gnothi seauton.

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