3. Morality and Practice of the Self: Introduction part 3. from History of Sexuality Vol. 2: The Use of Pleasure.

— Foucault, Michel. 3. Morality and Practice of the Self In History of Sexuality Vol. 2: The Use of Pleasure, edited by Robert Hurley. Vintage Books, 1990.

Original Publication: Histoire de la sexualité, Vol. 2: L’usage des plaisirs (1984)

In order to answer this question, some methodological considerations need to be brought in; more specifically, it is best to reflect on the object one has in view when one undertakes to study the forms and transformations of a morality.”

Everyone is aware of the word’s ambiguity. By morality”, one means a set of values and rules of action that are recommended to individuals through the intermediary of various prescriptive agencies such as the family (in one of its roles), educational institutions, churches, and so forth. It is sometimes the case that these rules and values are plainly set forth in a coherent doctrine and an explicit teaching. But it also happens that they are transmitted in a diffuse manner, so that, far from constituting a systematic ensemble, they form a complex interplay of elements that counterbalance and correct one another, and cancel each other out on certain points, thus providing for compromises or loopholes. With these qualifications taken into account, we can call this prescriptive ensemble a moral code”. But morality” also refers to the real behavior of individuals in relation to the rules and values that are recommended to them: the word thus designates the manner in which they comply more or less fully with a standard of conduct, the manner in which they obey or resist an interdiction or a prescription; the manner in which they respect or disregard a set of values. In studying this aspect of morality, one must determine how and with what margins of variation or transgression individuals or groups conduct themselves in reference to a prescriptive system that is explicitly or implicitly operative in their culture, and of which they are more or less aware. We can call this level of phenomena the morality of behaviors”.

There is more. For a rule of conduct is one thing; the conduct that may be measured by this rule is another. But another thing still is the manner in which one ought to conduct oneself” — that is, the manner in which one ought to form oneself as an ethical subject acting in reference to the prescriptive elements that make up the code. Given a code of actions, and with regard to a specific type of actions (which can be defined by their degree of conformity with or divergence from the code), there are different ways to conduct oneself” morally, different ways for the acting individual to operate, not just as an agent, but as an ethical subject of this action. Take, for example, a code of sexual prescriptions enjoining the two marital partners to practice a strict and symmetrical conjugal fidelity, always with a view to procreation; there will be many ways, even within such a rigid frame, to practice that austerity, many ways to be faithful”. These differences can bear on several points worth considering.

They concern what might be called the determination of the ethical substance; that is, the way in which the individual has to constitute this or that part of himself as the prime material of his moral conduct. Thus, one can relate the crucial aspects of the practice of fidelity to the strict observance of interdictions and obligations in the very acts one accomplishes. But one can also make the essence of fidelity consist in the mastery of desires, in the fervent combat one directs against them, in the strength with which one is able to resist temptations: what makes up the content of fidelity in this case is that vigilance and that struggle. In these conditions, the contradictory movements of the soul —much more than the carrying out of the acts themselves— will be the prime material of moral practice. Alternatively, one can have it consist in the intensity, continuity, and reciprocity of feelings that are experienced vis-à-vis the partner, and in the quality of the relationship that permanently binds the two spouses.

The differences can also have to do with the mode of subjection (mode d’assujettissement); that is, with the way in which the individual establishes his relation to the rule and recognizes himself as obliged to put it into practice. One can, for example, practice conjugal fidelity and comply with the precept that imposes it, because one acknowledges oneself to be a member of the group that accepts it, declares adherence to it out loud, and silently preserves it as a custom. But one can practice it, too, because one regards oneself as an heir to a spiritual tradition that one has the responsibility of maintaining or reviving; one can also practice fidelity in response to an appeal, by offering oneself as an example, or by seeking to give one’s personal life a form that answers to criteria of brilliance, beauty, nobility, or perfection.

There are also possible differences in the forms of elaboration, of ethical work (travail éthique) that one performs on oneself, not only in order to bring one’s conduct into compliance with a given rule, but to attempt to transform oneself into the ethical subject of one’s behavior. Thus, sexual austerity can be practiced through a long effort of learning, memorization, and assimilation of a systematic ensemble of precepts, and through a regular checking of conduct aimed at measuring the exactness with which one is applying these rules. It can be practiced in the form of a sudden, all-embracing, and definitive renunciation of pleasures; it can also be practiced in the form of a relentless combat whose vicissitudes —including momentary setbacks— can have meaning and value in themselves; and it can be practiced through a decipherment as painstaking, continuous, and detailed as possible, of the movements of desire in all its hidden forms, including the most obscure.

Other differences, finally, concern what might be called the telos (téléology) of the ethical subject: an action is not only moral in itself, in its singularity; it is also moral in its circumstantial integration and by virtue of the place it occupies in a pattern of conduct. It is an element and an aspect of this conduct, and it marks a stage in its life, a possible advance in its continuity. A moral action tends toward its own accomplishment; but it also aims beyond the latter, to the establishing of a moral conduct that commits an individual, not only to other actions always in conformity with values and rules, but to a certain mode of being, a mode of being characteristic of the ethical subject. Many differences are possible here as well: conjugal fidelity can be associated with a moral conduct that aspires to an ever more complete mastery of the self; it can be a moral conduct that manifests a sudden and radical detachment vis-à-vis the world; it may strain toward a perfect tranquility of soul, a total insensitivity to the agitations of the passions, or toward a purification that will ensure salvation after death and blissful immortality.

In short, for an action to be moral”, it must not be reducible to an act or a series of acts conforming to a rule, a law, or a value. Of course all moral action involves a relationship with the reality in which it is carried out, and a relationship with the self. The latter is not simply self-awareness” but self-formation as an ethical subject”, a process in which the individual delimits that part of himself that will form the object of his moral practice, defines his position relative to the precept he will follow, and decides on a certain mode of being that will serve as his moral goal. And this requires him to act upon himself, to monitor, test, improve, and transform himself. There is no specific moral action that does not refer to a unified moral conduct; no moral conduct that does not call for the forming of oneself as an ethical subject; and no forming of the ethical subject without modes of subjectivation” and an ascetics” or practices of the self” that support them. Moral action is indissociable from these forms of self-activity, and they do not differ any less from one morality to another than do the systems of values, rules, and interdictions.

These distinctions are bound to have effects that are not confined to theory. They also have consequences for historical analysis. Anyone who wishes to study the history of a morality” has to take into account the different realities that are covered by the term. A history of moral behaviors” would study the extent to which actions of certain individuals or groups are consistent with the rules and values that are prescribed for them by various agencies. A history of codes” would analyze the different systems of rules and values that are operative in a given society or group, the agencies or mechanisms of constraint that enforce them, the forms they take in their multifariousness, their divergences and their contradictions. And finally, a history of the way in which individuals are urged to constitute themselves as subjects of moral conduct would be concerned with the models proposed for setting up and developing relationships with the self, for self-reflection, self-knowledge, self-examination, for the decipherment of the self by oneself, for the transformations that one seeks to accomplish with oneself as object. This last is what might be called a history of ethics” and ascetics”, understood as a history of the forms of moral subjectivation and of the practices of self that are meant to ensure it.

If it is true, in fact, that every morality”, in the broad sense, comprises the two elements I have just mentioned: codes of behavior and forms of subjectivation; if it is true that they can never be entirely dissociated, though they may develop in relative independence from one another-then we should not be surprised to find that in certain moralities the main emphasis is placed on the code, on its systematicity, its richness, its capacity to adjust to every possible case and to embrace every area of behavior. With moralities of this type, the important thing is to focus on the instances of authority that enforce the code, that require it to be learned and observed, that penalize infractions; in these conditions, the subjectivation occurs basically in a quasi-juridical form, where the ethical subject refers his conduct to a law, or set of laws, to which he must submit at the risk of committing offenses that may make him liable to punishment. It would be quite incorrect to reduce Christian morality —one probably should say Christian moralities”— to such a model; and yet it may not be wrong to think that the organization of the penitential system at the beginning of the thirteenth century, and its development up to the eve of the Reformation, brought about a very strong juridification”, —more precisely, a very strong codification”— of the moral experience. It was against this codification that many spiritual movements reacted before the Reformation.

On the other hand, it is easy to conceive of moralities in which the strong and dynamic element is to be sought in the forms of subjectivation and the practices of the self. In this case, the system of codes and rules of behavior may be rather rudimentary. Their exact observance may be relatively unimportant, at least compared with what is required of the individual in the relationship he has with himself, in his different actions, thoughts, and feelings as he endeavors to form himself as an ethical subject. Here the emphasis is on the forms of `relations with the self, on the methods and techniques by which he works them out, on the exercises by which he makes of himself an object to be known, and on the practices that enable him to transform his own mode of being. These ethics oriented” moralities (which do not necessarily correspond to those involving ascetic denial”) have been very important in Christianity, functioning alongside the code-oriented” moralities. Between the two types there have been, at different times, juxtapositions, rivalries and conflicts, and compromises.

Now, it seems clear, from a first approach at least, that moral conceptions in Greek and Greco-Roman antiquity were much more oriented toward practices of the self and the question of askesis than toward codifications of conducts and the strict definition of what is permitted and what is forbidden. If exception is made of the Republic and the Laws, one finds very few references to the principle of a code that would define in detail the right conduct to maintain, few references to the need for an authority charged with seeing to its application, few references to the possibility of punishments that would sanction infractions. Although the necessity of respecting the law and the customs —the nomoi— was very often underscored, more important than the content of the law and its conditions of application was the attitude that caused one to respect them. The accent was placed on the relationship with the self that enabled a person to keep from being carried away by the appetites and pleasures, to maintain a mastery and superiority over them, to keep his senses in a state of tranquility, to remain free from interior bondage to the passions, and to achieve a mode of being that could be defined by the full enjoyment of oneself, or the perfect supremacy of oneself over oneself.

This explains the choice of method I have kept to throughout this study on the sexual morality of pagan and Christian antiquity; that is, I had to keep in mind the distinction between the code elements of a morality and the elements of ascesis, neglecting neither their coexistence, their interrelations, their relative autonomy, nor their possible differences of emphasis. I had to take into account everything, in these moralities, that seemed to have to do with the privileged status of the practices of the self and the interest that may have been accorded them; with the effort that was made to develop them, perfect them, and teach them; and with the debate that went on concerning them. Consequently, the question that is so often raised regarding the continuity (or break) between the philosophical moralities of antiquity and Christian morality had to be reformulated; instead of asking what were the code elements that Christianity may have borrowed from ancient thought, and what were those that it added in its own right, in order to define what was permitted and what forbidden within a sexuality assumed to be constant, it seemed more pertinent to ask how, given the continuity, transfer, or modification of codes, the forms of self-relationship (and the practices of the self that were associated with them) were defined, modified, recast, and diversified.

I am not supposing that the codes are unimportant. But one notices that they ultimately revolve around a rather small number of rather simple principles: perhaps men are not much more inventive when it comes to interdictions than they are when it comes to pleasures. Their stability is also rather remarkable; the notable proliferation of codifications (concerning permitted or forbidden places, partners, and acts) occurred rather late in Christianity. On the other hand, it appears —at any rate this is the hypothesis I would like to explore here— that there is a whole rich and complex field of historicity in the way the individual is summoned to recognize himself as an ethical subject of sexual conduct. This will be a matter of seeing how that subjectivation was defined and transformed, from classical Greek thought up to the formulation of the Christian doctrine and pastoral ministry regarding the flesh.

In this volume, I would like to take note of some general traits that characterized the way in which sexual behavior was considered by classical Greek thought as a domain of moral valuation and choice. I will start from the then common notion of use of the pleasures” —chrèsis aphrodisiõn— and attempt to determine the modes of subjectivation to which it referred: the ethical substance, the types of subjection, the forms of elaboration of the self, and the moral teleology. Then, starting each time from a practice whose existence, status, and rules were native to Greek culture (the practice of the health regimen, that of household management, that of courtship), I will study the way in which medical and philosophical thought worked out this use of the pleasures”, formulating several recurrent themes of austerity that would center on four great axes of experience: the relation to one’s body, the relation to one’s wife, the relation to boys, and the relation to truth.

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