On Twitter yesterday I posted a link to Michael Foucault: Ethics, Subjectivity and Truth (Essential Works 1954-1984 Volume 1). In the book are important interviews and lectures that Foucault gave, often not covered directly in his major works. I went through a Foucault phase about fifteen years ago when I immersed myself deeply in his work, particularly these pieces on ethics.
At the time I was reaching for an ethical code. There were parts of my self I knew I should relinquish, characteristics that required reforming. What I understood of Kantian morality failed to appeal; its over emphasis on reason and divinity sent me first toward Schiller. Though there was much about Schiller’s “ethics with aesthetics” that I liked, ultimately I found his thought insubstantial. Foucault’s ethical approach appealed, partly because I sensed he retained a belief in aesthetics, partly because his approach to ethics is deeply grounded in Greek and Greco-Roman antiquity, particularly the stance taken by the Epicureans (which I come back to time after time for sustenance and inspiration).
What also appealed of Foucault’s approach to ethics was his discourse on technologies of the self, a means for humans to effect “a certain number of operations on their own bodies and souls, thoughts, conducts, and way of being, so as to transform themselves in order to attain a certain state of happiness, purity, wisdom, perfection or immortality”. That sentence is open to wide interpretation, but to me has always been about modification of the self through reflection, reading and writing.
This idea of self-conscious modification appealed to me deeply (and still does). What is lacking, to my mind, in Foucault’s lectures and writing on ethics is his own statement of what ethical principles and ideal that he pursued. During a discussion on Twitter, it was suggested that, unlike Kant, he simply ran out of time to do so. A central part of my own technological modification was developing an affective ethical code. Without describing, at least to myself, a set of ideals and understanding how they motivate, I would have failed, to successfully (how successful is ever arguable) install the ethical codes into my body.
There is so much in that volume of Foucault worth reading. I’m intending to reread the chapters on Self Writing, that speak to what I’ve written above and on what the Epicureans and Foucault called “the arts of oneself”.