Self Writing


These pages are part of a se­ries of stud­ies on the arts of one­self”, that is, on the aes­thet­ics of ex­is­tence and the gov­ern­ment of one­self and of other in Greco-Roman cul­ture dur­ing the first two cen­turies of the em­pire.

— Foucault, Michel. Self Writing.” Translated from Corps écrit no 5 (Feb. 1983): 3-23.

The Vita Antonii of Athanasius pre­sents the writ­ten no­ta­tion of ac­tions and thoughts as an in­dis­pens­able el­e­ment of the as­cetic life. Let this ob­ser­va­tion be a safe­guard against sin­ning: let us each note and write down our ac­tions and im­pulses of the soul as though we were to re­port them to each other; and you may rest as­sured that from ut­ter shame of be­com­ing known we shall stop sin­ning and en­ter­tain­ing sin­ful thoughts al­to­gether. Who, hav­ing sinned, would not choose to lie, hop­ing to es­cape de­tec­tion? Just as we would not give our­selves to lust within sight of each other so if we were to write down our thoughts as if telling them to each other, we shall so much the more guard our­selves against foul thoughts for shame of be­ing known. Now, then, let the writ­ten ac­count stand for the eyes of our fel­low as­cetics, so that blush­ing at writ­ing the same as if we were ac­tu­ally seen, we may never pon­der evil. Molding our­selves in this way, we shall be able to bring our body into sub­jec­tion, to please the Lord and to tram­ple un­der foot the machi­na­tions of the Enemy.” Here, writ­ing about one­self ap­pears clearly in its re­la­tion­ship of com­ple­men­tar­ity with reclu­sion: it pal­li­ates the dan­gers of soli­tude; it of­fers what one has done or thought to a pos­si­ble gaze; the fact of oblig­ing one­self to write plays the role of a com­pan­ion by giv­ing rise to the fear of dis­ap­proval and to shame.

Hence, a first anal­ogy can be put for­ward: what oth­ers are to the as­cetic in a com­mu­nity, the note­book is to the recluse. But, at the same time, a sec­ond anal­ogy is posed, one that refers to the prac­tice of asce­sis as work not just on ac­tions but, more pre­cise]y, on thought: the con­straint that the pres­ence of oth­ers ex­erts in the do­main of con­duct, writ­ing will ex­ert in the do­main of the in­ner im­pulses of the soul. In this sense it has a role very close to that of con­fes­sion to the di­rec­tor, about which John Cassian will say, in keep­ing with Evagrian spir­i­tu­al­ity, that it must re­veal, with­out ex­cep­tion, all the im­pulses of the soul (omnes cog­i­ta­tiones). Finally, writ­ing about in­ner im­pulses ap­pears, also ac­cord­ing to Athanasius’s text, as a weapon in spir­i­tual com­bat. While the Devil is a power who de­ceives and causes one to be de­luded about one­self (fully half of the Vita Antonii is de­voted to these ruses), writ­ing con­sti­tutes a test and a kind of touch­stone: by bring­ing to light im­pulses of thought, it dis­pels the dark­ness where the en­e­my’s plot are hatched. This text —one of the old­est that Christian lit­er­a­ture has left us on the sub­ject of spir­i­tual writ­ing— is far from ex­haust­ing all the mean­ings and forms the lat­ter will take on later. But one can fo­cus sev­eral of its fea­tures that en­able one to an­a­lyze ret­ro­spec­tively the role of writ­ing in the philo­soph­i­cal cul­ti­va­tion of the self just be­fore Christianity: its close link with com­pan­ion­ship, its ap­pli­ca­tion to the im­pulses of thought, its role as a truth test. These di­verse el­e­ments are found al­ready in Seneca, Plutarch, Marcus Aurelius, but with very dif­fer­ent val­ues and fol­low­ing al­to­gether dif­fer­ent pro­ce­dures.

No tech­nique, no pro­fes­sional skill can be ac­quired with­out ex­er­cise; nor can the art of liv­ing, the technê tou biou, be learned with­out aske­sis that should be un­der­stood as a train­ing of the self by one­self. This was one of the tra­di­tional prin­ci­ples to which the Pythagoreans, the Socratics, the Cynics had long at­tached a great im­por­tance. It seems that, among all the forms taken by this train­ing (which in­cluded ab­sti­nences, mem­o­riza­tions, selt-ex­am­i­na­tions, med­i­ta­tions, si­lence, and lis­ten­ing to oth­ers), writ­ing —the act of writ­ing for one­self and for oth­ers— came, rather late, to play a con­sid­er­able role. In any case, the texts from the im­pe­r­ial epoch re­lat­ing to prac­tices of the self placed good deal of stress on writ­ing. It is nec­es­sary to read, Seneca said, but also to write. And Epictetus, who of­fered an ex­clu­sively oral teach­ing, nonethe­less em­pha­sizes sev­eral times the role of writ­ing as a per­sonal ex­er­cise; one should meditate” (meletan), write (graphein), train one­self (gumnazein): May these be my thoughts these my stud­ies, writ­ing or read­ing, when death comes upon me.” Or fur­ther: Let these thoughts be at your com­mand [prokheiron] by night and day: write them, read them, talk of them, to your­self and to your neigh­bor… if some so-called un­de­sir­able event should be­fall you, the first im­me­di­ate re­lief to you will be that it was not un­ex­pected.” In these texts by Epictetus, writ­ing ap­pears reg­u­larly as­so­ci­ated with meditation,” with that ex­er­cise of thought on it­self that re­ac­ti­vates what it knows, calls to mind a prin­ci­ple, a rule, or an ex­am­ple, re­flects on them, as­sim­i­lates them, and in this man­ner pre­pares it­self to face re­al­ity. Yet one also sees that writ­ing is as­so­ci­ated with the ex­er­cise of thought in two dif­fer­ent ways. One takes the form of a lin­ear series”: it goes from med­i­ta­tion to the ac­tiv­ity of writ­ing and from there to gum­nazein, that is, to train­ing and trial in a real sit­u­a­tion —a la­bor of thought, a la­bor through writ­ing, a la­bor in re­al­ity. The other is cir­cu­lar: the med­i­ta­tion pre­cedes the notes which en­able the reread­ing which in turn reini­ti­ates the med­i­ta­tion. In any case, what­ever the cy­cle of ex­er­cise in which it takes place, writ­ing con­sti­tutes an es­sen­tial stage in the process to which the whole aske­sis leads: namely, the fash­ion­ing of ac­cepted dis­courses, rec­og­nized as true, into ra­tio­nal prin­ci­ples of ac­tion. As an el­e­ment of self-train­ing, writ­ing has, to use an ex­pres­sion that one finds in Plutarch, an ethopoi­etic func­tion: it is an agent of the trans­for­ma­tion of truth into ethos.

This ethopoi­etic writ­ing, such as it ap­pears through the doc­u­ments of the first and the sec­ond cen­turies, seems to have lodged it­self out­side of two forms that were al­ready well known and used for other pur­poses: the hupom­ne­mata and the cor­re­spon­dence.


Hupomnemata, in the tech­ni­cal sense, could be ac­count books, pub­lic reg­is­ters, or in­di­vid­ual note­books serv­ing as mem­ory aids. Their use as books of life, as guides for con­duct, seems to have be­come a com­mon thing for a whole cul­ti­vated pub­lic. One wrote down quotes in them, ex­tracts from books, ex­am­ples, and ac­tions that one had wit­nessed or read about, re­flec­tions or rea­son­ings that one had heard or that had come to mind. They con­sti­tuted a ma­te­r­ial record of things read, heard, or thought, thus of­fer­ing them up as a kind of ac­cu­mu­lated trea­sure for sub­se­quent reread­ing and med­i­ta­tion. They also formed a raw ma­te­r­ial for the draft­ing of more sys­tem­atic trea­tises, in which one pre­sented ar­gu­ments and means for strug­gling against some weak­ness (such as anger, envy, gos­sip, flat­tery) or for over­com­ing some dif­fi­cult cir­cum­stance (a grief, an ex­ile, ruin, dis­grace). Thus, when Fundamus re­quests ad­vice for strug­gling against the ag­i­ta­tions of the soul, Plutarch at that mo­ment does not re­ally have the time to com­pose a trea­tise in the proper form, so he will send him, in their pre­sent state, the hupom­ne­mata he had writ­ten him­self on the theme of the tran­quil­ity of the soul; at least this is how he in­tro­duces the text of the Peri eu­thu­mias. Feigned mod­esty? Doubtless this was a way of ex­cus­ing the some­what dis­jointed char­ac­ter of the text, but the ges­ture must also be seen as an in­di­ca­tion of what these note­books were —and of the use to make of the trea­tise it­self which kept a lit­tle of its orig­i­nal form.

These hupom­ne­mata  should not be thought of sim­ply as a mem­ory sup­port, which might be con­sulted from time to time, as oc­ca­sion arose; they are not meant to be sub­sti­tuted for a rec­ol­lec­tion that may fail. They con­sti­tute, rather, a ma­te­r­ial and a frame­work for ex­er­cises to be car­ried out fre­quently: read­ing, reread­ing, med­i­tat­ing, con­vers­ing with one­self and with oth­ers. And this was in or­der to have them, ac­cord­ing to the ex­pres­sion that re­curs of­ten, prokhe­iron, ad manum, in promptu. Near at hand,” then, not just in the sense that one would be able to re­call them to con­scious­ness, but that one should be able to use them, when­ever the need was felt, in ac­tion. It is a mat­ter of con­sti­tut­ing a lo­gos bioethikos for one­self, an equip­ment of help­ful dis­courses, ca­pa­ble —as Plutarch says— of el­e­vat­ing the voice and si­lenc­ing the pas­sions like a mas­ter who with one word hushes the growl­ing of dogs. And for that they must not sim­ply be placed in a sort of mem­ory cab­i­net but deeply lodged in the soul, planted in it,” says Seneca, and they must form part of our­selves: in short, the soul must make them not merely its own but it­self. The writ­ing of the Hupomnemata is an im­por­tant re­lay in this sub­jec­ti­va­tion of dis­course.

However per­sonal they may be, these hupom­ne­mata ought not to be un­der­stood as in­ti­mate jour­nals or as those ac­counts of spir­i­tual ex­pe­ri­ence (temptations, strug­gles, down­falls, and vic­to­ries) that will be found in later Christian lit­er­a­ture. They do not con­sti­tute a narrative of one­self”; they do not have the aim of bring­ing to the light of day the ar­cana con­sci­en­tiae, the oral or writ­ten con­fes­sion of which has a pu­rifi­ca­tory value. The move­ment they seek to bring about is the re­verse of that: the in­tent is not to pur­sue the un­speak­able, nor to re­veal the hid­den, nor to say the un­said, but on the con­trary to cap­ture the al­ready-said, to col­lect what one has man­aged to hear or read, and for a pur­pose that is noth­ing less than the shap­ing of the self.

The hupom­ne­mata need to be re­si­t­u­ated in the con­text of a ten­sion that was very pro­nounced at the time. Inside a cul­ture strongly stamped by tra­di­tion­al­ity, by the rec­og­nized value of the al­ready-said, by the re­cur­rence of dis­course, by citational” prac­tice un­der the seal of an­tiq­uity and au­thor­ity, there de­vel­oped an ethic quite ex­plic­itly ori­ented by con­cern for the self to­ward ob­jec­tives de­fined as: with­draw­ing into one­self get­ting in touch with one­self, liv­ing with one­self, re­ly­ing on one­self, ben­e­fit­ing from and en­joy­ing one­self. Such is the aim of the hupom­n­er­nata: to make one’s rec­ol­lec­tion of the frag­men­tary lo­gos, trans­mit­ted through teach­ing, lis­ten­ing, or read­ing, a means of es­tab­lish­ing a re­la­tion­ship of one­self with one­self, a re­la­tion­ship as ad­e­quate and ac­com­plished as pos­si­ble. For us, there is some­thing para­dox­i­cal in all this: how could one be brought to­gether with one­self with the help of a time­less dis­course ac­cepted al­most every­where? In ac­tual fact, if the writ­ing of hupom­ne­mata can con­tribute to the for­ma­tion of the self through these scat­tered lo­goi, this is for three main rea­sons: the lim­it­ing ef­fects of the cou­pling of writ­ing with read­ing, the reg­u­lar prac­tice of the dis­parate that de­ter­mines choices, and the ap­pro­pri­a­tion which that prac­tice brings about.

Seneca stresses the point: the prac­tice of the self in­volves read­ing, for one could not draw every­thing from ones own stock or arm one­self by one­self with the prin­ci­ples of rea­son that are in­dis­pens­able for self-con­duct: guide or ex­am­ple, the help of oth­ers is nec­es­sary. But read­ing and writ­ing must not be dis­so­ci­ated; one ought to have al­ter­nate re­course” to those two pur­suits and blend one with the other.” If too much writ­ing is ex­haust­ing (Seneca is think­ing of the de­mands of style), ex­ces­sive read­ing has a scat­ter­ing ef­fect: In read­ing of many books is dis­trac­tion.” By go­ing con­stantly from book to book, with­out ever stop­ping, with­out re­turn­ing to the hive now and then with one’s sup­ply of nec­tar —hence with­out tak­ing notes or con­sti­tut­ing a trea­sure store of read­ing— one is li­able to re­tain noth­ing, to spread one­self across dif­fer­ent thoughts, and to for­get one­self. Writing, as a way of gath­er­ing in the read­ing that was done and of col­lect­ing one’s thoughts about it, is an ex­er­cise of rea­son that coun­ters the great de­fi­ciency of stul­ti­tia, which end­less read­ing may fa­vor. Stultitia is de­fined by men­tal ag­i­ta­tion, dis­trac­tion, change of opin­ions and wishes, and con­se­quently weak­ness in the face of all the events that may oc­cur; it is also char­ac­ter­ized by the fact that it turns the mind to­ward the fu­ture, makes it in­ter­ested in novel ideas, and pre­vents it from pro­vid­ing a fixed point for it­self in the pos­ses­sion of an ac­quired truth.8 The writ­ing of hupom­ne­mata re­sists this scat­ter­ing by fix­ing ac­quired el­e­ments, and by con­sti­tut­ing a share of the past, as it were, to­ward which it is al­ways pos­si­ble to turn back, to with­draw. This prac­tice can be con­nected to a very gen­eral theme of the pe­riod; in any case, it is com­mon to the moral phi­los­o­phy of the Stoics and that of the Epicureans —the re­fusal of a men­tal at­ti­tude turned to­ward the fu­ture (which, due to its un­cer­tainty, causes anx­i­ety and ag­i­ta­tion of the soul) and the pos­i­tive value given to the pos­ses­sion of a past that one can en­joy to the full and with­out dis­tur­bance. The hupom­ne­mata con­tribute one of the means by which one de­taches the soul from con­cern for the fu­ture and redi­rects it to­ward con­tem­pla­tion of the past.

2. Yet while it en­ables one to coun­ter­act dis­per­sal, the writ­ing of the hupom­ne­mata is also (and must re­main) a reg­u­lar and de­lib­er­ate prac­tice of the dis­parate. It is a se­lect­ing of het­ero­ge­neous el­e­ments. In this, it con­trasts with the work of the gram­mar­ian, who tries to get to know an en­tire work or all the works of an au­thor; it also con­flicts with the teach­ing of pro­fes­sional philoso­phers who sub­scribe to the doc­tri­nal unity of a school. It does not mat­ter, says Epictetus, whether one has read all of Zeno or Chrysippus; it makes lit­tle dif­fer­ence whether one has grasped ex­actly what they meant to say, or whether one is able to re­con­struct their whole ar­gu­ment. The note­book is gov­erned by two prin­ci­ples, which one might call the lo­cal truth of the pre­cept” and its cir­cum­stan­tial use value.” Seneca se­lects what he will note down for him­self and his cor­re­spon­dents from one of the philoso­phers of his own sect, but also from Democritus and Epicurus. The es­sen­tial re­quire­ment is that he be able to con­sider the se­lected sen­tence as a maxim that is true in what it as­serts, suit­able in what it pre­scribes, and use­ful in terms of one’s cir­cum­stances. Writing as a per­sonal ex­er­cise done by and for one­self is an art of dis­parate truth —or, more ex­actly, a pur­pose­ful wayof com­bin­ing the tra­di­tional au­thor­ity of the al­ready-said with the sin­gu­lar­ity of the truth that is af­firmed therein and the par­tic­u­lar­ity of the cir­cum­stances that de­ter­mine its use. So you should al­ways read stan­dard au­thors; and when you crave a change, fall back upon those whom you read be­fore. Each day ac­quire some­thing that will for­tify you against poverty, against death, in­deed against other mis­for­tunes as well; and af­ter you have run over many thoughts, se­lect one to be thor­oughly di­gested that day. This is my own cus­tom; from tho many things which I have read, I claim some part for my­self. The thought for to­day is one which I dis­cov­ered in Epicurus; for I am wont to cross over even to the en­e­my’s camp, —not as a de­serter, but as a scout [tanquam ex­plorator].

3. This de­lib­er­ate het­ero­gene­ity does not rule out uni­fi­ca­tion. But the lat­ter is not im­ple­mented in the art of com­pos­ing an en­sem­ble; it must be es­tab­lished in the writer him­self, as a re­sult of the hupom­ne­mata, of their con­struc­tion (and hence in the very; act of writ­ing) and of their con­sul­ta­tion (and hence in their read­ing and their reread­ing) Two processes can be dis­tin­guished. On the one hand, it is a mat­ter of uni­fy­ing these het­ero­ge­neous frag­ments through their sub­jec­ti­va­tion in the ex­er­cise of per­sonal writ­ing. Seneca com­pares this uni­fi­ca­tion, ac­cord­ingto quite tra­di­tional metaphors, with the bee’s honey gath­er­ing, or the di­ges­tion of food, or the adding of num­bers form­ing a sum: We should see to it that what­ever we have ab­sorbed should not be al­lowed to re­main un­changed, or it will be no part of us. We must di­gest it: oth­er­wise it will merely en­ter the mem­ory and not the rea­son­ing power [in memo­riam non in in­ge­nium]. Let us loy­ally wel­come such foods and make them our own, so that some­thing that is one may be formed out of many el­e­ments, just as one num­ber is formed of sev­eral el­e­ments.” The role of writ­ing is to con­sti­tute, along with all that read­ing has con­sti­tuted, a body” (quicquid lec­tione col­lec­turn est, stilus redi­gat in cor­pus). And this body should be un­der­stood not as a body of doc­trine but, rather —following an of­ten evoked metaphor of di­ges­tion— as the very body of the one who, by tran­scrib­ing his read­ings, has ap­pro­pri­ated them and made their truth his own: writ­ing trans­forms the thing seen or heard into tis­sue and blood” (in vires et in san­guinem). It be­comes a prin­ci­ple of ra­tio­nal ac­tion in the writer him­self.

Yet, con­versely, the writer con­sti­tutes his own iden­tity through this rec­ol­lec­tion of things said. In this same Letter 84 —which con­sti­tutes a kind of short trea­tise on the re­la­tions be­tween read­ing and writ­ing— Seneca dwells for a mo­ment on the eth­i­cal prob­lem of re­sem­blance, of faith­ful­ness and orig­i­nal­ity. One should not, he ex­plains, re­shape what one re­tains from an au­thor in such a way that the lat­ter might be rec­og­nized; the idea is not to con­sti­tute, in the notes that one takes and in the way one re­stores what one has read through writ­ing, a se­ries of portraits,” rec­og­niz­able but lifeless” (Seneca is think­ing here of those por­trait gal­leries by which one cer­ti­fied his birth, as­serted his sta­tus, and showed his iden­tity through ref­er­ence to oth­ers). It is one’s own soul that must be con­sti­tuted in what one writes; but, just as a man bears his nat­ural re­sem­blance to his an­ces­tors on his face, so it is good that one can per­ceive the fil­i­a­tion of thoughts that are en­graved in his soul. Through the in­ter­play of se­lected read­ings and as­sim­ila­tive writ­ing, one should be able to form an iden­tity through which a whole spir­i­tual ge­neal­ogy can be read. In a cho­rus there are tenor, bass, and bari­tone voices, men’s and wom­en’s tones: The voices of the in­di­vid­ual singers are hid­den; what we hear is the voices of all to­gether…I would have my mind of such a qual­ity as this; it should be equipped with many arts, many pre­cepts, and pat­terns of con­duct taken from many epochs of his­tory; but all should blend har­mo­niously into one.”


Notebooks, which in them­selves con­sti­tute per­sonal writ­ing ex­er­cises, can serve as raw ma­te­r­ial for texts that one sends to oth­ers. In re­turn, the mis­sive, by de­f­i­n­i­tion a text meant for oth­ers, also pro­vides oc­ca­sion for a per­sonal ex­er­cise. For, as Seneca points out, when one writes one reads what one writes, just as in say­ing some­thing one hears one­self say­ing it. The let­ter one writes acts, through the very ac­tion of writ­ing, upon the one who ad­dresses it, just as it acts through read­ing and reread­ing on the one who re­ceives it. In this dual func­tion, cor­re­spon­dence is very close to the hupom­ne­mata, and its form is of­ten very sim­i­lar. Epicurean lit­er­a­ture fur­nishes ex­am­ples of this. The text known as the Letter to Pythocles” be­gins by ac­knowl­edg­ing re­ceipt of a let­ter in which the stu­dent has ex­pressed his af­fec­tion for the teacher and has made an ef­fort to recall the [Epicurean] ar­gu­ments” en­abling one to at­tain hap­pi­ness; the au­thor of the re­ply gives his en­dorse­ment: the at­tempt was not bad; and he sends in re­turn a text —a sum­mary of Epicurus’s Peri phuseos—  that should serve Pythocles as ma­te­r­ial for mem­o­riza­tion and as a sup­port for his med­i­ta­tion.

Seneca’s let­ters show an ac­tiv­ity of di­rec­tion brought to bear, by a man who is aged and al­ready re­tired, on an­other who still oc­cu­pies im­por­tant pub­lic of­fices. But in these let­ters, Seneca does not just give him ad­vice and com­ment on a few great prin­ci­ples of con­duct for his ben­e­fit. Through those writ­ten lessons, Seneca con­tin­ues to ex­er­cise him­self; ac­cord­ing to two prin­ci­ples that he of­ten in­vokes; it is nec­es­sary to train one­self all one’s life, and one al­ways needs the help of oth­ers in the soul’s la­bor upon it­self. The ad­vice he gives in Letter 7 con­sti­tutes a de­scrip­tion of his own re­la­tions with Lucilius There he char­ac­ter­izes the way in which he oc­cu­pies his re­tire­ment with the two-fold work he car­ries out at the same time on his cor­re­spon­dent and on him­self: with­draw­ing into one­self as much as pos­si­ble; at­tack­ing one­self to those ca­pa­ble of hav­ing a ben­e­fi­cial ef­fect on one­self; open­ing one’s door to those whom one hopes to make bet­ter  —“The process is mu­tual; for men learn while they teach.”

The let­ter one sends in or­der to help one’s cor­re­spon­dent —advise him, ex­hort him, ad­mon­ish him, con­sole him— con­sti­tutes for the writer a kind of train­ing: some­thing like sol­diers in peace­time prac­tic­ing the man­ual of arms, the opin­ions that one gives to oth­ers in a press­ing sit­u­a­tion are a way of prepar­ing one­self for a sim­i­lar even­tu­al­ity. For ex­am­ple, Letter 99 to Lucilius: it is in it­self the copy of an­other mis­sive that Seneca had sent to Marullus, whose son had died some time be­fore. The text be­longs to the consolation” genre: it of­fers the cor­re­spon­dent the logical” arms with which to fight sor­row. The in­ter­ven­tion is be­lated, since Marullus, shaken by the blow,” had a mo­ment of weak­ness and lapsed from his true self”; so, in that re­gard, the let­ter has an ad­mon­ish­ing role. Yet for Lucilius, to whom it is also sent, and for Seneca who writes it, it func­tions as a prin­ci­ple of re­ac­ti­va­tion —a re­ac­ti­va­tion of all the rea­sons that make it pos­si­ble to over­come grief, to per­suade one­self that death is not a mis­for­tune (neither that of oth­ers nor one’s own). And, with the help of what is read­ing for the one, writ­ing for the other, Lucilius and Seneca will have in­creased their readi­ness for the case in which this type of event be­falls them. The con­so­la­tio that should as­sist and cor­rect Marullus is at the same time a use­ful praemed­i­ta­tio for Lucilius and Seneca. The writ­ing that aids the ad­dressee arms the writer -and pos­si­bly the third par­ties who read it.

Yet it also hap­pens that the soul ser­vice ren­dered by the writer to his cor­re­spon­dent is handed back to him in the form of return ad­vice”; as the per­son be­ing di­rected pro­gresses, he be­comes more ca­pa­ble, in his turn, of giv­ing opin­ions, ex­hor­ta­tions, words of com­fort to the one who has un­der­taken to help him. The di­rec­tion does not re­main one way for long; it serves as a con­text for ex­changes that help it be­come more egal­i­tar­ian. Letter 34 al­ready sig­nals this move­ment, start­ing from a sit­u­a­tion in which Seneca could nonethe­less tell his cor­re­spon­dent; I claim you for my­self… I ex­horted you, I ap­plied the goad and did not per­mit you to march lazily, but roused you con­tin­u­ally. And now I do the same; but by this time I am now cheer­ing on one who is in the race and so in turn cheers me on.” And in the fol­low­ing let­ter he evokes the re­ward for per­fect friend­ship, in which each of the two will be for the other the con­tin­u­ous sup­port, the in­ex­haustible he that will be men­tioned in Letter 109:”Skilled wrestlers are kept up the mark by prac­tice; a mu­si­cian is stirred to ac­tion by one of equal pro­fi­ciency. The wise man also needs to have his virtues kept in ac­tion; and as he prompts him­self to do things, so he is prompted by an­other wise man.”

Yet de­spite all these points in com­mon, cor­re­spon­dence should not be re­garded sim­ply as an ex­ten­sion of the prac­tice of hupom­ne­mata. It is some­thing more than a train­ing of one­self by means of writ­ing, through the ad­vice and opin­ions one gives to the other: it also con­sti­tutes a cer­tain way of man­i­fest­ing one­self to one­self and to oth­ers. The let­ter makes the writer present” to the one to whom he ad­dresses it. And pre­sent not sim­ply through the in­for­ma­tion he gives con­cern­ing his life, his ac­tiv­i­ties, his suc­cesses and fail­ures, his good luck or mis­for­tunes; rather, pre­sent with a kind of im­me­di­ate, al­most phys­i­cal pres­ence. I thank you for writ­ing to me so of­ten; for you are re­veal­ing your­self to me [te mihi os­tendis] in the only way you can. I never re­ceive a let­ter from you with­out be­ing in your com­pany forth­with. If the pic­tures of our ab­sent friends are pleas­ing to us… how much more pleas­ant is a let­ter, which brings us real traces, real ev­i­dence of an ab­sent friend! For that which is sweet­est when we meet face to face is af­forded by the im­press of a friend’s hand upon his let­ter —recognition.”

To write is thus to show one­self,” to pro­ject one­self into view, to make one’s own face ap­pear in the oth­er’s pres­ence. And by this it should be un­der­stood that the let­ter is both a gaze that one fo­cuses on the ad­dressee (through the mis­sive he re­ceives, he feels looked at) and a way of of­fer­ing one­self to his gaze by what one tells him about one­self. In a sense, the let­ter sets up a face-to-face meet­ing. Moreover Demetrius, ex­plain­ing in De elo­cu­tione what the epis­to­lary style should be, stressed that it could only be a simple” style, free in its com­po­si­tion, spare in its choice or words, since in it each one should re­veal his soul. The rec­i­proc­ity that cor­re­spon­dence es­tab­lishes is not sim­ply that of coun­sel and aid; it is the rec­i­proc­ity of the gaze and the ex­am­i­na­tion. The let­ter that, as an ex­er­cise, works to­ward the sub­jec­ti­va­tion of true dis­course, its as­sim­i­la­tion and its trans­for­ma­tion as a personal as­set.” also con­sti­tutes, at the same time, an ob­jec­ti­fi­ca­tion of the soul. It is note­wor­thy that Seneca, com­menc­ing a let­ter in which he must lay out his daily life to Lucilius, re­calls the moral maxim that we should live as if we lived in plain sight of all men,” and the philo­soph­i­cal prin­ci­ple that noth­ing of our­selves is con­cealed from god who is al­ways pre­sent to our souls. Through the mis­sive, one opens one­self to the gaze of oth­ers and puts the cor­re­spon­dent in the place of the in­ner god. It is a way of giv­ing our­selves to that gaze about which we must tell our­selves that it is plung­ing into the depths of our heart (in pec­tis in­ti­mum in­tro­spicere) at the mo­ment we are think­ing.

The work the let­ter car­ries out on the re­cip­i­ent, but is also brought to bear on the writer by the very let­ter he sends, thus in­volves an introspection”; but the lat­ter is to be un­der­stood not so much as a de­ci­pher­ment of the self by the self as an open­ing one gives the other onto one­self. Still, we are left with a phe­nom­e­non that may be a lit­tle sur­pris­ing, but which is full of mean­ing for any­one wish­ing to write a his­tory of the cul­ti­va­tion of the self: the first his­tor­i­cal de­vel­op­ments of the nar­ra­tive of the self are not to be sought in the di­rec­tion of the personal note­books,” the hupom­ne­mata, whose role is to en­able the for­ma­tion of the self out of the col­lected dis­course of oth­ers, they can be found, on the other hand, in the cor­re­spon­dence with oth­ers and the ex­change of soul ser­vice. And it is a fact that in the cor­re­spon­dence of Seneca with Lucilius, of Marcus Aurelius with Fronto, and in cer­tain of Pliny’s let­ters, one sees a nar­ra­tive of the self de­velop that is very dif­fer­ent from the one. that could be found gen­er­ally in Cicero’s let­ters to his ac­quain­tances: the lat­ter in­volved ac­count­ing for one­self as a sub­ject of ac­tion (or of de­lib­er­a­tion for ac­tion) in con­nec­tion with friends and en­e­mies, for­tu­nate and un­for­tu­nate events. In Seneca and Marcus Aurelius, oc­ca­sion­ally in Pliny as well, the nar­ra­tive of the self is the ac­count of one’s re­la­tion to one­self; there one sees two el­e­ments stand out clearly, two strate­gic points that will later be­come the priv­i­leged ob­jects of what could be called the writ­ing of the re­la­tion to the self: the in­ter­fer­ences of soul and body (impressions rather than ac­tions), and leisure ac­tiv­ity (rather than ex­ter­nal events); the body and the days.

Health re­ports tra­di­tion­ally are part of the cor­re­spon­dence. But they grad­u­ally in­creased in scope to in­clude de­tailed de­scrip­tion of the bod­ily sen­sa­tions, the im­pres­sions of malaise, the var­i­ous dis­or­ders one might have ex­pe­ri­enced. Sometimes one seeks to in­tro­duce ad­vice on reg­i­men that one judges use­ful to one’s cor­re­spon­dent. Sometimes, too, it is a ques­tion of re­call­ing the ef­fects of the body on the soul, the rec­i­p­ro­cal ac­tion of the lat­ter, or the heal­ing of the for­mer re­sult­ing from the care given to the lat­ter. For ex­am­ple, the long and im­por­tant Letter 78 to Lucilius: it is de­voted for the most part to the prob­lem of the good use” of ill­nesses and suf­fer­ing; but it opens with the rec­ol­lec­tion of a grave ill­ness that Seneca had suf­fered in his youth, which was ac­com­pa­nied by a moral cri­sis. Seneca re­lates that he also ex­pe­ri­enced, many years be­fore, the catarrh”, the short at­tacks of fever” Lucilius com­plains of: I scorned it in its early stages. For when I was still young, I could put up with hard­ships and show a bold front to ill­ness. But I fi­nally suc­cumbed, and ar­rived at such a state that I could do noth­ing but snuf­fle, re­duced as I was to the ex­trem­ity of thin­ness. I of­ten en­ter­tained the im­pulse of end­ing my life then and there; but the thought of my kind old fa­ther kept me back.” And what cured him were the reme­dies of the soul. Among them, the most im­por­tant were his friends, who helped me greatly to­wards good health; I used to be com­forted by their cheer­ing words, by the hours they spent at my bed­side, and by their con­ver­sa­tion.” It also hap­pens that the let­ters re­trace the move­ment that has led from a sub­jec­tive im­pres­sion to an ex­er­cise of thought. Witness that med­i­ta­tion walk re­counted by Seneca: I found it nec­es­sary to give my body a shak­ing up, in or­der that the bile which had gath­ered in my throat, if that was the trou­ble, might be shaken out, or, if the very breath [in my lungs]  had be­come, for some rea­son, too thick, that the jolt­ing, which I have felt was a good thing for me, might make it thin­ner. So I in­sisted on be­ing car­ried longer than usual, along an at­trac­tive beach, which bends be­tween Cumae and Servilius Vatia’s coun­try house, shut in by the sea on one side and the lake on the other, just like a nar­row path. It was packed un­der foot, be­cause of a re­cent storm… As my habit is, I be­gan to look about for some­thing there that might be of ser­vice to me, when my eyes fell upon the villa which had once be­longed to Vatia. And Seneca tells Lucilius what formed his med­i­ta­tion on re­tire­ment — soli­tude and friend­ship.

2. The let­ter is also a way of pre­sent­ing one­self to one’s cor­re­spon­dent in the un­fold­ing of every­day life. To re­count one’s day —not be­cause of the im­por­tanceof the events that may have marked it, but pre­cisely even though there was noth­ing about it apart from its be­ing like all the oth­ers, tes­ti­fy­ing in this way not to the im­por­tance of an ac­tiv­ity but to the qual­ity   of a mode of be­ing —forms part of the epis­to­lary prac­tice: Lucilius finds it nat­ural to ask Seneca to give [him] an ac­count of each sep­a­rate day, and of the whole day too.” And Seneca ac­cepts this oblig­a­tion all the more will­ingly as it com­mits him to liv­ing un­der the gaze of oth­ers with­out hav­ing any­thing to con­ceal: I shall there­fore do as you bid, and shall gladly in­form you by let­ter what I am do­ing, and in what se­quence. I shall keep watch­ing my­self con­tin­u­ally, and —a most use­ful habit— shall re­view each day.” Indeed, Seneca evokes this spe­cific day that has gone by, which is at the same time the most or­di­nary of all. Its value is ow­ing to the very fact that noth­ing has hap­pened which might have di­verted him from the only thing that is im­por­tant for him to at­tend to him­self. Today has been un­bro­ken; no one has filched the slight­est part of it from me.” A lit­tle phys­i­cal train­ing, a bit of run­ning with a pet slave, a bath in wa­ter that is barely luke­warm, a sim­ple snack of bread, a very short nap. But the main part of the day —and this is what takes up the longest part of the let­ter— is de­voted to med­i­tat­ing on the theme sug­gested by a Sophistic syl­lo­gism of Zeno’s, con­cern­ing drunk­en­ness.

When the mis­sive be­comes an ac­count of an or­di­nary day, a day to one­self, one sees that it re­lates closely to a prac­tice that Seneca dis­creetly al­ludes to, more­over, at the be­gin­ning of Letter 83, where he evokes the es­pe­cially use­ful habit of reviewing one’s day”: this is the self-ex­am­i­na­tion whose form he had de­scribed in a pas­sage of the De Ira. This prac­tice —familiar in dif­fer­ent philo­soph­i­cal cur­rents: Pythagorean, Epicurean, Stoic— seems to have been pri­mar­ily a men­tal ex­er­cise tied to mem­o­riza­tion: it was a ques­tion of both con­sti­tut­ing one­self as an inspector of one­self,” and hence of gaug­ing the com­mon faults, and of re­ac­ti­vat­ing the rules of be­hav­ior that one must al­ways bear in mind. Nothing in­di­cates that this review of the day” took the form of a writ­ten text. It seems there­fore that it was in the epis­to­lary re­la­tion— and, con­se­quently, in or­der to place one­self un­der the oth­er’s gaze— that the ex­am­i­na­tion of con­science was for­mu­lated as a writ­ten ac­count of one­self: an ac­count of the every­day ba­nal­ity, an ac­count of cor­rec­tor in­cor­rect ac­tions, of the reg­i­men ob­served, of the phys­i­cal or men­tal ex­er­cises in which one en­gaged. One finds a no­table ex­am­ple of this con­junc­tion of epis­to­lary prac­tice with self-ex­am­i­na­tion in a let­ter from Marcus Aurelius to Fronto. It was writ­ten dur­ing one of those stays in the coun­try which were highly rec­om­mended as mo­ments of de­tach­ment from pub­lic ac­tiv­i­ties, as health treat­ments, and as oc­ca­sions for at­tend­ing to one­self. In this text, one finds the two com­bined themes of the peas­ant life —healthy be­cause it was nat­ural— and the life of leisure given over to con­ver­sa­tion, read­ing, and med­i­ta­tion. At the same time, a whole set of metic­u­lous no­ta­tions on the body, health, phys­i­cal sen­sa­tions, reg­i­men, and feel­ings shows the ex­treme vig­i­lance of an at­ten­tion that is in­tensely fo­cused on one­self. We are well. I slept some­what late ow­ing to my slight cold, which seems now to have sub­sided. So from five A.M.till nine I spent the time partly in read­ing some of Cato’s Agriculture and partly in writ­ing not such wretched stuff, by heaven, as yes­ter­day. Then, af­ter pay­ing my re­spects to my fa­ther, I re­lieved my throat, I will not say by gar­gling —though the word gar­garisso is I be­lieve, found in Novius and else­where— but by swal­low­ing honey wa­ter as far as the gul­let and eject­ing it again. After eas­ing my throat I went off to my fa­ther and at­tended him at a sac­ri­fice. Then we went to lun­cheon. What do you think I ate? A wee bit of bread, though I saw oth­ers de­vour­ing beans, onions, and her­rings full of roe. We then worked hard at grape-gath­er­ing, and had a good sweat, and were merry. … After six o’­clock we came home.

I did but lit­tle work and that to no pur­pose. Then I had a long chat with my lit­tle mother as she sat on the bed…. Whilst we were chat­ter­ing in this way and dis­put­ing which of us two loved the one or other of you two the bet­ter, the gong sounded, an in­ti­ma­tion that my fa­ther had gone to his bath. So we had sup­per af­ter we had bathed in the oil-press room; I do not mean bathed in the oil-press room, but when we had bathed, had sup­per there, and we en­joyed hear­ing the yokels chaffing one an­other. After com­ing back, be­fore I turn over and snore, I get my task done [meum penso ex­plico] and give my dear­est of mas­ters an ac­count of the day’s do­ings [diei ra­tionern meo suavis­simo mo­gistro reddo] and if I could miss him more, I would not grudge wast­ing away a lit­tle more.”
The last lines of the let­ter clearly show how it is linked to the prac­tice of self-ex­am­i­na­tion: the day ends, just be­fore sleep, with a kind of read­ing of the day that has passed; one rolls out the scroll on which the day’s ac­tiv­i­ties are in­scribed, and it is this imag­i­nary book of mem­ory that is re­pro­duced the next day in the let­ter ad­dressed to the one who is both teacher and friend. The let­ter to Fronto re­copies, as it were, the ex­am­i­na­tion car­ried out the evening be­fore by read­ing the men­tal book of con­science.

It is clear that one is still very far from that book of spir­i­tual com­bat to which Athanasius refers a few cen­turies later, in the Life of Saint Antony. But one can also mea­sure me ex­tent to which  this pro­ce­dure of self-nar­ra­tion in the daily run of life, with scrupu­lous at­ten­tion to what oc­curs in the body and in the soul, is dif­fer­ent from both Ciceronian cor­re­spon­dence and the prac­tice of hupom­ne­mata, acol­lec­tion of things read and heard, and a sup­port for ex­er­cises of thought. In this case— that of the hupom­ne­mata— it was a mat­ter of con­sti­tut­ing one­self as a sub­ject of ra­tio­nal ac­tion through the ap­pro­pri­a­tion, the uni­fi­ca­tion, and the sub­jec­ti­va­tion of a frag­men­tary and se­lected al­ready-said; in the case of the monas­tic no­ta­tion of spir­i­tual ex­pe­ri­ences, it will be a mat­ter of dis­lodg­ing the most hid­den im­pulses from the in­ner re­cesses of the soul, thus en­abling one­self to break free of them. In the case of the epis­to­lary ac­count of one­self, it is a mat­ter of bring­ing into con­gru­ence the gaze of the other and that gaze which one aims at one­self when one mea­sures one’s every­day ac­tions ac­cord­ing to the rules of a tech­nique of liv­ing.