Michel Foucault and Philosophy as a Way of Life

In his History of Sexuality, Michel Foucault analyses the way sexuality has been used throughout periods of history. In The Will to Knowledge, he analyses Victorian society and how many believe in the Repressive Hypothesis, which claims that during this time a censoring of sex was implemented on discourse and that before that sexuality was a free place to do whatever people wanted. A deeper investigation, however, would show that this is not the case. Thus, the next volume of this ‘history’, The Use of Pleasure, went back to antiquity, more specific the age of the Greek philosophers like Plato and Aristotle, to investigate how sexuality was used as a way to conceive power relations with people. This would take form in a certain way of life different schools of philosophy would have.

            Knowledge and power are concepts interwoven with one another in the works of Foucault. This is not to say the powerful create the truth but rather only those with power have the power to say what can be conceived as true. Philosophy for Foucault then is not a way of achieving the truth, but rather a way of life. It has this inherent practical element in it. He bases this on his findings on sexuality and on his discussions with the philosopher Pierre Hadot, who had already claimed that ancient philosophy wasn’t what we think of as philosophy, but rather a conceptual frame of a way of standing in this world. For Hadot, you could walk through the street and see the Platonists, stoics, and cynics. We might even do this ourselves. When we look at people on the street, we might conceive a perception of what that person will be like and what kind of viewpoints they might have.

            In ancient Greece, the dominant idea about people was that they were political animals, the Zoon Politikon according to Aristotle. Humans needed to be social in order to survive. They are the only animal that can form governments and debate about right and wrong. They can produce knowledge. The fact that it can produce things, is one of the positive aspects of power according to Foucault. The ancient Greek philosophers produced ‘arts of living’, practices where one not only has to adhere to rules of conduct but are used to transform one’s life. This goes from rules of behaving certain ways, to eating certain ways in specific points of time. The goal as Nietzsche would say, is to make an artwork out of your life. Sexuality is just one of the many aspects Foucault could have given where this applies, but many other domains can be used for this study.

            This view is not a thing of the past. We continuously have these kinds of conceptual frameworks when we are going about our everyday business. Think about the resurgence in stoicism on YouTube. Or the way people act out their gender. Philosophy as a way of life is still very much present. Most of the time we have this unconsciously, but we have them, nonetheless. When Nietzsche claims that we have forgotten where our concepts of good and evil come from, he is pointing at the same idea that Foucault is pointing at in regard to sexuality. We are not conscious of the frameworks we use but analyzing them might help us transform our life for the better. This analysis is what philosophy is supposed to be doing. Which conceptual framework are we using and is it something that can potentially help us in our process to become ourselves? That is a question a philosopher must ask himself.

            Foucault analyzes this way of living through the concept of sexuality. The ancient Greeks didn’t have a conception of sexuality the way that we have it. But they do give us ways of thinking about it. The Greeks thought about things in an active or a passive way. Being active means that you yourself are the autonomous agent in the act. You decide what happens and what rules you follow. Being passive means that you are submitted to someone or something, you are on the receiving end. As children we begin as passive beings. Just like de Beauvoir says, we start by idolizing our parents. If your mother told you something it was right. You do not question the answer of your mother. It is when we start to doubt about the answers, that our passiveness begins to fade. It is education then that makes sure that we become adults. The asymmetrical disposition of teacher and student was there to make sure that the student would become an active citizen in the Athenian polis. That is why it was important that this happened in the right way and thus sexuality was problematized. This happened in four ways.

            The term of sexual morality in ancient Greece is the aphrodisia, which is the acts that produce some kind of pleasure. Which dynamic did people have with the aphrodisia? That was the more important question that philosophers tried to answer. Was the person active or passive in the dynamic relationship? The idea is that someone with an active role in politics wasn’t allowed to have a passive role in sexuality. Or at least, that was frowned upon. In the homosexual relationships between teacher and students, the teacher was the active player in the relationship and thus was never allowed to be penetrated. Otherwise, that would put him in the passive role, which was not in line with his status. Women, who were always seen as passive, could never be the active player, definitely not with a man. For an autonomous man of the polis, it was always immoral to be in the passive role and thus in a homosexual relationship there was always an immoral person, or someone who took on the role of woman.

            In the aphrodisia it was also important to have temperance. It wasn’t bad to have these inclinations to do certain things. It was bad, however, to let it control you. You should constrain yourself and not indulge in it. It is not bad that you want to go drink alcohol with your friends and get black-out drunk. What is bad, is that you let that feeling control your actions. Here the question about the quantity of how ‘active’ one is. The Aristotelian virtue is one between two means and this is also the case with aphrodisia. You can have too many and too few, but this again depends on your status in the political sphere. Thus, we can claim that the way your life had to be conceptualized in ancient Greece was dependent on the social role you take. We still see this today. When Kanye West harasses his ex-wife and says antisemitic slurs on podcasts, we are less prone to criticizing him because we think it’s funny or because we like his music, than a profound politician.

            The question now becomes: How do we use these pleasures? This is where the concept of chresis comes into play. Foucault typifies three strategies that have been used in antiquity. The first strategy is the strategy of needs. The exemplar of this strategy is Diogenes the Cynic who would masturbate on the street because there is nothing unnatural about masturbating, he would do it whenever his body would feel like doing it. Although this is the extreme version, the idea is still that one does it whenever he feels like it. He might not do it in public but will retreat to his room with some tissues at hand. This is also the case with people who need to have food whenever they feel like it, unable to wait until the rest of the people at the table have their plate. The second strategy is one of the right moments, or the kairos. As Professor Oaks words would always echo, there is a time and place for everything. That is the idea of kairos. There are right moments to eat, sleep, have sex, etc. This art needs to be thought and conceptualized because there are multiple levels on which these functions. It might be in the moment itself or looking years into the future. If you want to lose weight, now is not the right time to eat a pizza. If you have a stable income and a loving partner, it might be the right time to have kids. The third strategy is that the sexual ethic might differ depending on what status one has within society. The higher one’s position in society, the more active the person is, the more that person needs to think about his sexual commitments. The high-status person needs to have an increased temperance.

            But how do we get that kind of temperance? Enkrateia is the concept of self-control. The enkrateia keeps the pleasures in check but it needs to battle to make sure that the pleasures are kept under control. It is a continuous fight against oneself. The active person has to overcome himself. Only if you decide to fight against your pleasures and dispositions can there be a morality, because then a hierarchy of values come to fruition. The pleasures have a certain control over you. This is why, when you want to lose weight, you still grab to the fries that you love so much. This is a fight against the objects that produce that desire within you, but it is also a fight against yourself. You have those desires and those pleasures, and you have to fight yourself as to not indulge in your pleasures, even though you might want to. In the Phaedrus, Plato sketches the way the soul works. There are two horses, one pulling the cart downwards to the earthly pleasures and one upwards to the heavenly virtues. Reason is the cart driver trying to control the one while steering the other upwards. These two horses fight within us and are a part of ourselves. We need to tame the horse pulling us downwards. This results in our own self-overcoming. We push ourselves to a new limit, just like a weightlifter does when he breaks his own record. The new bar is set, and we have something new to overcome. We become a master over ourselves. To do this we need to train and take care of our body. We need to learn what is right and wrong and we need to take care of our body, so it is healthy enough for us to achieve the next level. This sounds a lot like many of those self-help gurus but they kind of say the same thing.

            This whole analysis of Foucault, functions so we can achieve freedom in truth. We are no longer slaves to our pleasures and desires but rather we control them. If our desires and pleasures control our behavior, then it cannot be said that we are free. Thus, philosophy as a way of life needs to conceptualize what freedom is. This is not to be conceptualized as a free will, because when we do something according to our pleasures, we still do this according to our free will. We want to grab a snack. We want to go out. The freedom that was conceptualized in ancient Greece was one of control over oneself. Not to be a slave of his pleasures. The danger of aphrodisia is thus submission rather than being filthy or unclean. The best way to be moral then for most people was to submit themselves to honorable persons. In the Republic, Plato conceptualizes the ideal society which he divides in three classes: workers, guards and philosopher-kings. Only the philosopher-king was truly free and autonomous. The rest did well to listen to the benevolent speech of the philosopher-king. A true free person would rule over himself as he would rule over others. The good leader is one who has control over his own desires and can make sure that the desires and pleasures of society are also tempered.

            This freedom is an active freedom. The idea is that you don’t have no rules, but rather that you choose what your rules are. You are active towards the things that are passive by nature. The emotions that you have are passive in the sense that you don’t choose which emotion you have at what specific time. But you can control if you act on that emotion in the appropriate way. This asks for a continuous reaffirmation of the philosophy that you hold. Sometimes you slip and then it is important to reflect and to learn. In this kind of philosophy, it is immoral to be passive towards your pleasures. You need to take an active control over them.

            This is intrinsically connected with the concept of truth. You need to know what temperance is and how to achieve it. You need to know which pleasures control you and how you can fight against them. Socrates claimed that people are only immoral through ignorance. People only want to do the best for themselves and if they do something immoral it is only because they don’t know what is best. Thus, you have to submit yourself to the logos, to reason. Here there are three elements. The structural element shows us that the logos is given a superior position. The instrumental element shows us that there is need for a practical reason that shows what needs to be done, when and how, as we explained above. The ontological element is the need to know ourselves for us to control our pleasures.

            This all culminates in an esthetic of existing. The individual becomes a good person by being an exemplar towards others. People look up to him and want to be like him. They submit themselves to them so they can one day be like the person they look up to. It is like a kid who wants to be a firefighter. The child cannot rationally say why he wants to be a firefighter other than that they are cool, which means that they function as an exemplar for the child. The way of life becomes an example for those who want to live like the virtuous person.

            The analysis of Foucault on sexuality is broader than just the concept of sexuality. This analysis can be used for many different concepts and most of the concepts are intertwined. His analysis is more about morality and knowledge than it is about sexuality. The question to be answered is: how can a certain sexuality be moral? And for the ancient Greeks it was one in line with what we have investigated.

            What this shows is that the practical element could be separated from the theoretical in ancient Greece. One works of the other. And this is exactly what Foucault wants to show us. The concepts we use are there to legitimize a practice in the world. And our practices are influenced by the concepts we use. When we talk about courage, we have some kind of conception of it. Depending on your conception of courage, you will act differently in the world. Thus, the Greeks claimed, it is important to know what your concepts mean and what the right meanings are. When Socrates used his elenchus method by having a conversation about a specific topic, he wanted to find a plausible definition of a certain concept. Philosophy for the ancient Greeks becomes the way in which we conceptualize the world and how we live well in this world. Philosophy is a way of life and only by debating about it can we find what the true meaning of that life is.


By elenchusphilosophy

Philosophy student from Ghent, Belgium. I write about what I find interesting which is about nearly anything. Though my guiding question in life is how to be a good person.

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