Smith 1 Michel Foucault A

Smith 1

Michel Foucault

A prominent French philosopher, social theorist and literary critic, Michel Foucault is widely considered a leading post-structuralist whose theories aimed to address the relationship between power and knowledge. A renowned author, Foucault published numerous books and pieces during his lifetime. One of those publishings is a three-volume study of sexuality in the Western world which he called, The History of Sexuality, from which this selection derives. The first and probably most well-known of the volumes was Volume One; The Will to Knowledge, published in 1976. That volume explored the “repressive hypothesis,” or the idea that Western society repressed sexuality, arguing that people’s identities became increasingly tied to their sexualities. This idea is further explored in the second and third volumes. Still, a departure is made from the structural ideas of oppression found in his earlier works, to these current theories of autonomy and individualism.

The Care of Self

Published in 1984, The Care of the Self was the final selection from a planned seven volume history of sexuality that Foucault was unable to complete due to his untimely death the same year. Here Foucault takes us through the Greek and Roman Eras to demonstrate the differences the Romans had from the Greeks in regards to sexual pleasure. What he reveals to us is the Roman’s growing distrust of “unnatural” sexual desire and sexual acts.

The book is broken down into six parts. Foucault begins with Artemidorus’s book and utilizes its exploration of different forms of sexual acts so that ideas of ethics and values are presented. He then follows with the cultivation of the self and how self respect was derived from depriving “oneself of pleasure or by confining one’s indulgence to marriage or procreation (41).” The self and other section comes next and here Foucault argues that the cultivation of the self was a response to changes in marriage and politics. The book then goes into part four, which analyses Greek/Roman conceptions of the body and the medical concerns of the self at the time. Here, the medical regimen meant one had to pay careful attention to oneself for health reasons, to the state of one’s body and the acts that one performed.

The Wife, Self-Mastery, and Relationships

Sexual ethics of the self were developed within marital confinement. Using classical theories, Foucault shows that marriage was originally situated within larger social structures such as the household and that it required a level of self-mastery. The relationship between the husband and wife is regarded as the main relationship around which all other relationships are organized; that is, through a lens of self-love and mutual respect. Marriage at this point was less about how the government organized it and more based on individual bonds. Also a major change came in the fact that the men more often engaged in “duties of reciprocity than in mastery over others (148).” This means the nature of the relation to oneself must change (149). Marriage accentuated sexual ethics by placing a greater emphasis on the sexual relationship between spouses and on "love, affection, understanding, and mutual sympathy" (149). These ethics demonstrated how people should conduct themselves in the public and private spheres and how they should live as couples.


Consider in this reading that for the, Romans self-mastery is the ethical work people must do. Where prior, man fought his temptations for desire and struggled to keep them maintained so he would not be controlled by them; now through self mastery desire could be forced to match the proper designs of nature. For the Romans, all pleasure that is not from within oneself comes from desires that may not be so easily appeased. If a man engages those external desires, he may harm his body and soul. One must be careful and reflect enough so that a difference between desires can be identified,  meaning those desires that are natural and those that transgress natural law.

Marriage was the scenario that emphasized these ethics. If a man pursued other sexual partnerships outside of his marriage, this was considered a failure of self control because men and women were naturally made for each other and fulfilled each other’s spiritual needs through sex with each other. The well being of the two of them was an imperative part to the human community’s balance and well being.

The following selection is from The History of Sexuality Volume 3: The Care of the Self pages 147-185.





1. Why do you think Foucault begins his work with the analysis of Artemidorus and the interpretation of dreams? How does this relate to the larger discussion of ethics and individuality?


2. Foucault notes, "one can discern a different type of modification: it concerns the way in which ethical thought defines the relation of the subject to his sexual activity" (p. 36). What do you think is meant by this and why is it important for the ethics to be grounded in sexual activity?  


3. How does Foucault’s care of self compare/contrast with an ethics of care as described by Gilligan and Riddick? How might the two combine to develop a theory of gender and ethics?


4. Do you agree that "[a]round the care of the self, there developed an entire activity of speaking and writing in which the work of oneself on oneself and communication with others were linked together" and that they "constituted, not an exercise in solitude, but a true social practice" (p. 51). Why or why not? Does this still hold true today?


5. How might the discussion of marriage and family be different if they were queered and centered around same-gender loving relationships?