I will be summarising and commenting Les Aveux de la chair, Foucault’s fourth volume in the history of sexuality tetralogy philosophically. In this first substantial post I wish to show how the first few pages conform to the theses that can be extracted from the sketch for an introduction appended in Annex 1.
The book’s first, and longest, chapter has for title: “The formation of a new experience”, which situates it as a demonstration of the thesis of the mutability of experience.
This is at first sight an epistemological thesis (there is no “raw” experience), but we must not forget that it is also a political (prescriptions for conduct can be neither legitimated nor invalidated by an appeal to constituted experience) and an ontological one (Being scinds experience, rescinds its authority, and prescinds it from exteriority).
The title of the first part of the first chapter is “Creation, Procreation”. The book begins abruptly:
Thus it is non Christian philosophers and directors who formulated the regime of aphrodisia, defined in terms of marriage, of procreation, of the disqualification of pleasure and of a tie of respectful and intense sympathy between spouses (Les Aveux de la chair, 9, my translation, henceforth noted AC).
According to Foucault this same regime, first formulated by pagan philosophers, is to be found almost unchanged in the writings of the early Church Fathers. This is what I have called the thesis of prescriptive continuity.
The Christian moral prescriptions concerning the mastery of desire, the mistrust of pleasure, marriage, procreation, adultery, and continence are virtually identical to those of their immediate pagan predecessors. This prescriptive continuity allows the Church Fathers to refute charges of Christian immoralism and to emphasise that Christian belief in God and the after life constitutes a powerful motive to really put these precepts into practice.
A change of emphasis comes about towards the end of the Second Century, as seen in the writings of Clement of Alexandria. The bulk of part one of this chapter is devoted to a reading of Clement’s Paedogogus (also called The Instructor).
Foucault focuses on the new meaning given by Clement to the familiar precepts (thesis of meaning incommensurability), and cites this passage from the end of Chapter XIII:
And the end of piety is eternal rest in God. And the beginning of eternity is our end. The right operation of piety perfects duty by works; whence, according to just reasoning, duties consist in actions, not in sayings. And Christian conduct is the operation of the rational soul in accordance with a correct judgment and aspiration after the truth [Logos], which attains its destined end through the body, the soul’s consort and ally. Virtue is a will in conformity to God and Christ in life, rightly adjusted to life everlasting. For the life of Christians, in which we are now trained, is a system of reasonable actions — that is, of those things taught by the Word [Logos] — an unfailing energy which we have called faith. The system is the commandments of the Lord, which, being divine statues and spiritual counsels, have been written for ourselves, being adapted for ourselves and our neighbours.
The translation given here differs in many details from the French translation, but the essential point remains:
in these laws of everyday existence we must see the teaching of the Logos itself (AC, 11).
Foucault distinguishes three levels of prescriptivity (thesis of multiple embedding). One must recognise in such acts in conformity to the Logos a “triple determination” : fitting conducts in accord with Nature, that are founded in universal reason or Logos, and are conducive to eternal rest in God.
There is a fundamental difference in the prescriptions offered by Clement to those taught by the preceding philosophical schools despite their quasi-identity of content (thesis of epistemico-ethical reconfiguration):
the whole effort of Clement is to insert these well-known and familiar aphorisms in a complex weave of citations, references, or examples which make them appear as prescriptions of the Logos, whether it enounces itself in Nature, in human reason, or in the Word of God (AC, 16).
Thus the abrupt beginning embodies a set of theses that situate the book over and above its historical claims within a philosophical horizon.
Foucault is analysing the passage from pagan antiquity to Christian onto-theology, and the re-signification of the Stoic precepts within a new configuration dominated by an overarching transcendent instance.