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.