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THE CARE OF THE SELF
In this first chapter I present Michel Foucault's concept of "care of the self." Straightaway, though, I should say that this is not a book on Foucault. I discuss him to the extent that his later work on ethics and care of the self allows me to spotlight an aspect of human rights.
What do I mean? A much-discussed topic in recent human rights scholarship is the role human rights play in shaping subjectivity and our sense of self. In fields as diverse as political theory, history, art and literary criticism, philosophy, sociology, and anthropology, several works examine how human rights are central not only to the protection but also to the formation of individuals. I would venture to say that there is an excellent book on how human rights impact nearly every human capacity or faculty, whether that is our political imagination, our aesthetic sensibility, our felt awareness of the suffering of others, our self-conception as agents, or even our notion of what it means to be a person.
These studies are crucial to my argument, but none exactly capture the phenomenon I am trying to identify: how human rights are used as a tool for self-transformation and self-improvement for the sake of oneself. That is why I draw on Foucault. His definition of care of the self encapsulates features that are surprising to find in the human rights tradition. As I said in the introduction, we do not expect to find a preoccupation with personal transformation at the heart of the human rights imagination. And it is certainly counterintuitive to discover a priority given to caring for oneself in an idea and institution devoted to global justice and concern for the other. Yet read with a certain Foucauldian eye, these themes of self-care are discoverable time and again at key junctures in the history of human rights. So much so, in fact, that by tracking these multiple iterations it is possible to identify a persistence of the care of the self, mutable and porous though it may be, that human rights have never been without.
But the value of using Foucault's notion of the care of the self to study human rights is not only historical. It is a resource for us here and now. To begin with, it helps to make key human rights authors speak to us anew. The main ones I discuss — Wollstonecraft, Tocqueville, Bergson, Roosevelt, and Malik — struggle against problems that are still very much with us. Chivalry, in Wollstonecraft's sense, is far from dead; neither is the individualism, xenophobia, conformity, and materialism that Tocqueville, Bergson, Roosevelt, and Malik respectively address. That all of them reach for human rights as a therapeutic aid may lead us to recognize attitudes and practices that can be adapted for our own use.
More generally, and these specific authors aside, there is another advantage to viewing human rights in terms of care for oneself: it gives human rights education and advocacy an additional anchor. Today, as we will see later, Roosevelt's slogan for human rights has truly caught on: over the past twenty years or so, policy documents, educational initiatives, and international law have routinely advocated for human rights to become "a way of life." But a shortcoming of much of this discourse is that it is virtually silent as to what can motivate people to do so. Why, to adopt a language of moral individualism that I believe human rights need to engage, perhaps even mimic, in order to be widely heard — why is it personally advantageous to adopt human rights as a way of life? Why should I do it? How will it help me? These are hard questions, especially in light of the diverse audiences of human rights education. But if human rights can be aligned with care of the self, one line of answer could be opened up.
I am getting ahead of myself. Before we turn to any particular human rights author, before we assess his or her ongoing relevance, and before we examine how care for the self can complement care for others in contemporary practice, we need to first ask what care of the self is.
Morality: Code, Conduct, and Ethics
"Care of the self" (le souci de soi-même, in French) is the defining concept of Foucault's later period (1981–84). It is the cornerstone of the work he produced in the last four years of his life, which includes two books, the delivery of five lecture series (published posthumously), and roughly a dozen essays and interviews. One way to introduce it is to say that, for Foucault, care of the self is a morality; that is to say, it is a particular kind of morality that emerges at a specific time and place. That time and place is Western antiquity: ancient Greece, Rome, and early Christianity. But given that Foucault has a rather idiosyncratic understanding of what morality is and does, this is not a particularly helpful starting point. We should begin, instead, by taking a step back and looking at his conception of morality in general.
A handy overview is found in the Introduction to The History of Sexuality, volume 2: The Use of Pleasure (1984). This piece is a gateway to Foucault's later period and serves as an introduction to this book and to its companion volume, The History of Sexuality, volume 3: The Care of the Self (1984). In it he states his reasons for undertaking a two-volume study of ancient Greco-Roman culture and, in particular, a study of its sexual practices. In brief, the classical world emphasizes a valuable dimension of morality that today has faded from sight (which he calls "ethics"). To reach this claim, however, he begins by setting out a broad schema of what he takes morality to be in and of itself and, from there, marks out the place and importance that care of the self occupies within it.
Let's start as Foucault does: with the big picture. Morality, he says, has three components. He calls them "moral code," "moral conduct," and "ethics." Each particular historical morality has its own distinct codes, conduct, and ethics. Nevertheless, Foucault insists that morality, any morality, is always an amalgam of these three components.
"Moral code" and "moral conduct" work as a pair and are straightforward to understand. By moral code Foucault means "a set of values and rules of action that are recommended to individuals through the intermediary of various prescriptive agencies." Moral conduct refers to the actual behavior of individuals, and considers whether or not it conforms to the code. A moral code, then, consists of the prescribed rules and principles of a morality, and moral conduct denotes whether or not the code is followed in practice.
There are any number of moral codes and instances of moral conduct to cite as examples. Perhaps not surprisingly, the field of human rights abounds with them. It is even tempting to think that these two categories exhaust it. On the one hand, the world of human rights is replete with moral and legal codes, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the panoply of conventions designed to enact and supplement it. So too, on the other hand, is the international human rights apparatus (both governmental and nongovernmental) dedicated to ensuring that these codes are honored and that the conduct of nation-states lives up to what they affirm on paper. The notions of moral code and moral conduct thus seem apt to cover the basic goals of the human rights project. The question, though, is whether or not they capture all of its aims.
To get a handle on this, we need to return to Foucault and his third component of morality: ethics. This is the one he is keen to discuss. Distinct from codes and conduct, ethics refers to the relationship that the self establishes with itself in relation to the precepts that make up the code. Ethics, he writes, is 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 undertake to know himself, to monitor, test, improve, and transform himself." It is clear that when Foucault uses the term ethics he does not mean something interchangeable with morality, as we often do in ordinary language. Neither does he refer to what that word designates in Anglo-American philosophy, namely the metaphysical and epistemological examination of ethical concepts (metaethics) or the investigation of the criteria for evaluating actions (normative ethics). For Foucault, rather, ethics designates the relation the self establishes with itself through a moral code, and, more specifically, the work the individual undertakes on him- or herself in order to become a subject of that code.
An example helps. Take the precept that enjoins sexual fidelity between marital partners. One way to look at it is in terms of code and conduct. We could trace it back to a particular prescription (say, by a moral or religious authority). We could also look at the degree to which marital fidelity is actually honored in a given society. Yet to consider this precept only from the perspective of code and conduct misses something essential about how morality functions, namely how individuals take up the code to constitute themselves as moral subjects in the first place. A person might, for example, use the prescription to identify that part of himself that needs attention and work, in this case to get one's desire or attention under control. An individual could also take up the precept to identify the kind of person he wishes to become — for example, a dependable and serious partner. (Contrariwise, it is perfectly possible to stake an ethic by breaking moral rules. Think, to continue the example, of someone who refuses to be bound by what he sees as the puritanical rules of his milieu.)
In sum, for Foucault, morality is more than a set of rules or exhortations for individuals to follow. Moreover, and this is crucial, morality does not work simply to regulate relations between people. A core aspect of morality is also to establish the relation we have to ourselves, what Foucault calls "le rapport à soi," or more specifically, "the kind of relationship you ought to have with yourself." Ethics is the name he gives to this process of self-constitution.
Care of the Self
Where does "care of the self" fit in this trio of code, conduct, and ethics? To use Foucault's language, it belongs to a historical period in Western culture that gave strong priority to ethics. He coins the phrase "care of the self" to demarcate a long tradition in the history of morality that begins in ancient Greece, migrates to Rome and flourishes, and persists into early Christianity and beyond. What makes this period special for Foucault is that it centers on the exhortation for individuals to be concerned with themselves, to attend to themselves, and to work upon themselves.
To introduce care of the self, it is helpful to start with the original French phrase it translates: le souci de soimême. Notably, Foucault's final book is titled Le souci de soi (1984), but the phrase makes its thematic appearance in his work a few years earlier, in his 1981–82 lectures at the Collège de France.
To start with I would like to take up a notion about which I think I said a few words last year. This is the notion of "care of oneself" ["souci de soimême"]. With this term I've tried my best to translate a very complex, rich, and frequently employed Greek notion which had a long life throughout Greek culture: the notion of epimeleia heautou, translated into Latin with, of course, all the flattening of meaning which has so often been denounced or, at any rate, pointed out, as cura sui. Epimeleia heautou is care of oneself [souci de soi-même], attending to oneself, being concerned about oneself, etc.
Foucault makes this remark at the beginning of his lecture course in order to indicate his topic for the year. He also signals the tangle of languages and traditions that he will be working through. In this short paragraph, one idea is translated into three languages: "epimeleia heautou" (ancient Greek), "cura sui" (Latin), and "souci de soi-même" (French). English speakers can add a fourth to this list: "care of the self."
The core meaning of this phrase is the same in all languages. It designates attention to oneself and work on oneself. At the same time, however, there is some slippage in that the Greek and French phrases convey something that the Latin and English do not. Epimeleia and souci signify a sense of worry and preoccupation, such that in the phrases epimeleia heautou and souci de soi-même the self is a source of anxiety as well as an object of concern. Le souci de soimême is an attitude of concerned attention for oneself as well as a practice of working on oneself.
Ethics and care of the self are not synonymous. Although each and every historical morality has an ethical component (insofar as all morality must concern itself with the relation the self establishes with itself in relation to a code), Foucault is clear that only one moral tradition centered on the exhortation to care for the self: ancient Greek and Roman (and, to a degree, early Christian) culture. "What we have there," he observes, "is an entire ethics that pivoted on the care of the self and that gave ancient ethics its particular form. I am not saying that ethics is the care of the self, but that, in antiquity, ethics as the conscious practice of freedom has revolved around this fundamental imperative: Take care of yourself [soucie-toi de toi-même]." The imperative to care for the self is thus a modality of ethics. It is a particular way in which the relation to oneself is envisaged and actualized within a tradition.
Much of Foucault's lectures and writings on the care of the self are taken up with descriptions of the practices and exercises of the ancient schools of philosophy: Platonic, Cynic, Epicurean, and Stoic. In a sense, this focus is perfectly understandable. These schools are treasure troves of practices and discourses to cultivate the self. And so, over four years Foucault fills volume after volume — seven in total, if we count the lecture series — describing in loving detail the various exercises to care for the self in antiquity. Some exercises are physical and corporeal, such as dietary regimens. Others are spiritual in nature. For example, in his 1981–82 lecture course The Hermeneutics of the Subject, Foucault covers the following exercises: nightly examination of conscience to prepare restful sleep (HOS 345, 364, 480–84), the drilling into memory of key precepts so as to have them ready for action (HOS 360–62, 367), daily meditation to withdraw from the world and remain undisturbed by what is taking place (HOS 47–48, 537–38), regular trials of endurance to help resist temptations (HOS 421–32), arts to cultivate listening so as to better receive instruction (HOS 338–52), and daily reflection on one's own death in order to better appreciate what you have and to bear what is to be expected (HOS 417–18, 477–88).
This is only a handful of the techniques Foucault discusses. There are many more. But the question is, why are they so important to him? It is worth asking because Foucault is not interested in recovering or resurrecting any particular exercise. He never enjoins us, for example, to meditate or to abstain from certain pleasures. And it is crystal clear that he doesn't urge a return to a Greco-Roman lifestyle. Even if this were an attractive option — and for Foucault, it certainly is not — it simply wouldn't be possible. As he says, "you can't find the solution of a problem in the solution of another problem raised at another moment by other people." But if this is his opinion, the question remains: Why spend so much time and energy on describing exercises that are arguably only of historical interest?
His answer is direct. The ancient tradition is much more than a fascinating cultural phenomenon. It is an "event in thought" (HOS 9). It is, he elaborates, "an important phenomenon not just in the history of representations, notions, or theories, but in the history of subjectivity itself or, if you like, in the history of practices of subjectivity" (HOS 11). In detailing the spiritual exercises of the ancient tradition, Foucault is trying to extract something striking and more general: a conception of ethics and morality — and so too of subjectivity — which is not only singular and impressive but also, he adds, "still significant for our modern mode of being subjects" (HOS 9).
Excerpted from "Human Rights and the Care of the Self"
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Table of ContentsAcknowledgments ix
1. The Care of the Self 9
2. The Juridical Subject as Ethical Subject: Wollstonecraft on the Rights of Man 25
3. Critique of Human Rights and Care of the Self 47
4. Human Rights as Spiritual Exercises: Tocqueville in America 61
5. Human Rights as a Way of Life: Bergson on Love and Joy 85
6. On Human Rights Criticism 105
7. An Ethic of Resistance I: Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 119
8. An Ethic of Resistance II: Malik and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 141
9. Human Rights Education 165
What People are Saying About This
“Alexandre Lefebvre is a unique voice in the humanities, one who takes up topics of enormous difficulty and does so with such tremendous erudition and fundamental insight that it is almost as if he is having a friendly discussion with the reader. Lefebvre claims that improving oneself rather than helping strangers is what the idea of human rights is all about and always has been—a claim that he pulls off with considerable brilliance. His reconstruction of human rights discourse in the 1940s is the truest that has ever been presented. Reading this remarkable book provided the most intellectually enjoyable hours that I can remember in a long time.”
“With an astute and powerful central argument, strong writing, a distinctive and compelling defense of human rights, and sharp insights into an impressive range of thinkers, Human Rights and the Care of the Self makes a provocative contribution to contemporary political thought and human rights scholarship.”