'About the Beginning of the Hermeneutics of the Self' by Michel Foucault (1980)

A selection from 'About the Beginning of the Hermeneutics of the Self: Two Lectures at Dartmouth' by Michel Foucault (1980).


Note: see Sexuality and Solitude. The introduction to both of these lectures is pretty much identical, beginning with the scene of Leuret interrogating one of his patients under a shower as he attempts to elicit a confession from him, and ending with Foucault signalling his point of departure from a philosophy of the subject through what he calls a genealogy of the subject. I have included the first half of this introduction here, at the head of these two lectures, and the second half at the head of Sexuality and Solitude.

Lecture 1: Subjectivity and Truth

In a work consecrated to the moral treatment of madness and published in 1840, a French psychiatrist, Leuret, tells of the manner in which he treated one of his patients – treated and of course, as you may imagine, cured.
One morning he placed Mr A., his patient, in a shower-room. He makes him recount in detail his delirium.
‘But all that,’ said the doctor, ‘is nothing but madness. Promise me not to believe in it any more.’
The patient hesitates, then promises.
‘That is not enough,’ replies the doctor. ‘You have already made me similar promises and you haven’t kept them,’ And he turns on the cold shower above the patient’s head.
‘Yes, yes! I am mad!’ the patient cries. The shower is turned off; the interrogation is resumed.
‘Yes. I recognise that I am mad,’ the patient repeats. ‘But,’ he adds, ‘I recognise it because you are forcing me to do so.’ Another shower. ‘Well, well,’ says Mr A., ‘I admit it. I am mad, and all that was nothing but madness.’
To make someone suffering from mental illness recognize that he is mad is a very ancient procedure. Everybody in the old medicine, before the middle of the nineteenth century, everybody was convinced of the incompatibility between madness and the recognition of madness. And in the works, for instance, of the seventeenth and of the eighteenth centuries, one finds many examples of what one might call truth-therapies. The mad would be cured if one managed to show them that their delirium is without any relation to reality.
But, as you can see, the technique used by Leuret is altogether different. He is not trying to persuade his patient that his ideas are false or unreasonable. What happens in the head of Mr. A. is a matter of indifference for the doctor. Leuret wishes to obtain a precise act: the explicit affirmation, "I am mad." It is easy to recognize here the transposition within psychiatric therapy of procedures which have been used for a long time in judicial and religious institutions. To declare aloud and intelligibly the truth about oneself- I mean, to confess- has in the Western world been considered for a long time either as a condition of redemption for one's sins or as an essential item in the condemnation of the guilty. The bizarre therapy of Leuret may be read as an episode in the progressive culpabilization of madness. But, I would wish, rather, to take it as a point of departure for a more general reflection on this practice of confession, and on the postulate, which is generally accepted in Western societies, that one needs for his own salvation to know as exactly as possible who he is and also, which is something rather different, that he needs to tell it as explicitly as possible to some other people. The anecdote of Leuret is here only as an example  of the strange and complex relationship developed in our societies between individuality, discourse, truth, and coercion.

I'll take only two passages of a Roman philosopher, Seneca. They may be considered as rather good witnesses on the practice of self-examination and confession as it existed with the Stoics of the Imperial period at the time of the birth of Christianity. The first passage is to be found in the De Ira of Seneca. Here is the passage:

What could be more beautiful than to conduct an inquest on one's day? What sleep better than that which follows this review of one's actions? How calm it is, deep and free, when the soul has received its portion of praise and blame, and has submitted itself to its own examination, to its own censure. Secretly, it makes the trial of its own conduct. I exercise this authority over myself, and each day I will myself as witness before myself. When my light is lowered and my wife at last is silent, I reason with myself and take the measure of my acts and of my words. I hide nothing from myself; I spare myself nothing. Why, in effect, should I fear anything at all from amongst my errors whilst I can say: "Be vigilant in not beginning it again; today I will forgive you. In a certain discussion you spoke too aggressively or you did not correct the person you were reproaching, you offended him,..." etc.

 Seneca employs a vocabulary which at first glance appears, above all, judicial. He uses expressions like cognoscere de moribus suis, and me causam dico- all that is typical judicial vocabulary. It seems, therefore, that the subject is, with regard to himself, both the judge and the accused. In this examination of conscience it seems that the subject divides itself in two and organizes a judicial scene, where it plays both roles at once. Seneca is like an accused confessing his crime to the judge, and the judge is Seneca himself. But, if we look more closely, we see that the vocabulary used by Seneca is much more administrative than judicial. It is the vocabulary of the direction of goods or territory. Seneca says, for instance, that he is speculator sui, that he inspects himself, that he examines with himself the past day, totum diem meum scrutor; or that he takes the measure of things said and done; he uses the word remetior. With regard to himself, he is not a judge who has to punish; he is, rather, an administrator who, once the work has been done or the year's business finished, does the accounts, takes stock of things, and sees if everything has been done correctly. Seneca is a permanent administrator of himself, more than a judge of his own past.

These faults [with which he reproaches himself], as he says himself, are not really faults; they are mistakes. And why mistakes? Either because he did not have in his mind the aims which the sage should set himself or because he had not applied in the correct manner the rules of conduct to be deduced from them. The faults are mistakes in that sense that they are bad adjustments between aims and means. Significant is also the fact that Seneca does not recall those faults in order to punish himself; he has as a goal only to memorize exactly the rules which he had to apply. This memorization has for an object a reactivation of fundamental philosophical principles and the readjustment of their application. In the Christian confession the penitent has to memorize the law in order to discover his own sins, but in this Stoic exercise the sage has to memorize acts in order to reactivate the fundamental rules.
One can therefore characterize this examination in a few words. First, this examination, it's not at all a question of discovering the truth hidden in the subject. It is rather a question of recalling the truth forgotten by the subject. Second, what the subject forgets is not himself, nor his nature, nor his origin, nor a supernatural affinity. What the subject forgets is what he ought to have done, that is, a collection of rules of conduct that he had learned. Thirdly, the recollection of errors committed during the day serves to measure the distance which separates what has been done from what should have been done.
Well, after this examination of conscience, which constitutes a kind of confession to one's self, I would like to speak about the confession to others: I mean to say the expose of one's soul which one makes to someone, who may be a friend, an adviser, a guide. This was a practice not very developed in philosophical life, but it had been developed in some philosophical schools, for instance among the Epicurean schools, and it was also a very well known medical practice. The medical literature is rich in such examples of confession or expose of the self.  

Well, another text of Seneca might also serve us as an example here of what was confession in the Late Antiquity. It is in the beginning of De Tranquillitate Animi [On Tranquillity of Mind]. Serenus, a young friend of Seneca, comes to ask him for advice. It is very explicitly a medical consultation on his own state of soul. "Why," says Serenus, "should I not confess to you the truth, as to a doctor?... I do not feel altogether ill but nor do I fell entirely in good health." Serenus feels himself in a state of malaise, rather as he says, like on a bost which does not advance, but is tossed about by the rolling of the ship. And, he fears straying at sea in this condition, in view of firm land and of the virtues which remain inaccessible. In order to escape this state, Serenus therefore decides to consult Seneca and to confess his state to Seneca. He says that he wants verum fateri, to tell the truth, to Seneca.
 ...we can see that such a practice of confession and consultation remains within the framework of what the Greeks for a long time called the gnome [γνώμη] . The term gnome designates the unity of will and knowledge... . Then, we could say that even as late as the first century A.D., the type of subject which is proposed as a model and as a target in the Greek, or in the Hellenistic or Roman, philosophy, is a gnomic self, where the force of the truth is one with the form of the will.
In this model of the gnomic self, we found several constitutive elements: the necessity of telling truth about oneself, the role oft he master and the master's discourse, the long way that leads finally to the emergence of the self. All those elements, we find... also in the Christian technologies of the self, but with a very different organization. I should say, in sum, and I'll conclude there, that as far as we followed the practices of self-examination and confession in the Hellenistic or Roman philosophy, you see that the self is not something that has to be discovered or deciphered as a very obscure text. You see that the task is not to put in the light what would be the most obscure part of our selves. The self has, on the contrary, not to be discovered but to be constituted, to be constituted through the force of truth. This force lies in the rhetorical quality of the master's discourse,... . [...] In the Christian technologies of the self, the problem is to discover what is hidden inside the self; the self is like a text or like a book that we have to decipher, and not something which has to be constructed by the superposition, the superimposition, of the will and the truth. This organization, this Christian organization, so different from the pagan one, is something which is I think quite decisive for the genealogy of the modern self... .

Lecture 2: Christianity and Confession

The theme of this lecture is... how was formed in our societies what I would like to call the interpretive analysis of the self... ? [...] In spite of the fact that we can find very early in the Greek, in the Hellenistic, in the Latin cultures, techniques such as self-examination and confession, I think that there are very large differences between the Latin and Greek- the Classical- techniques of the self and the techniques developed in Christianity. And I'll try to show this evening that the modern hermeneutics of the self is rooted much more in those Christian techniques than in the Classical ones.

As everybody knows, Christianity is a confession. That means that Christianity belongs to a very special type of religion, the religions which impose on those who practice them obligation of truth.

When one speaks of confession and self-examination in Christianity, one of course has in mind the sacrament of penance and the canonic confession of sins. But these are rather late innovations in Christianity. Christians of the first centuries knew completely different forms for the showing forth of the truth about themselves, and you'll find these obligations of manifesting the truth about oneself in two different institutions- in penitential rites and monastic life. [...] ... in the first centuries of Christianity, penance was not an act. Penance, in the first centuries of Christianity,... is a status, which presents several characteristics. The function of this status is to avoid the definitive expulsion from the church of a Christian who has committed one or several serious sins. As penitent, this Christian is excluded from many of the ceremonies and collective rites, but he does not cease to be a Christian, and by means of this status he can obtain his reintegration. [...] So, penance is not an act corresponding to a sin; it is a status, a general status in the existence.

... to designate the truth... obligations inherent to penitents, the Greek fathers use... a very specific word (and very enigmatic also); the word exomologesis. This word was so specific that even Latin writers, Latin fathers, often used the Greek word without even translating it.

In a very general sense, the word refers to the recognition of an act, but more precisely, in the penitential rite, what was the exomologesis? Well, at the end of the penitential procedure, at the end and not at the beginning,... when the moment of the reintegration came, an episode took place which the texts regularly call exomologesis. [...] Tertullian, for instance, at the end of the second century, describes the ceremony in the following manner. He wrote, "The penitent wears a hair shirt and ashes. He is wretchedly dressed. He is taken by the hand and led into the church. He prostrates himself before the windows and the priest. He hangs on the skirts of their garments. He kisses their knees." And much later after this, in the beginning of the fifth century, Jerome described in the same way the penitence of Fabiola... a well known Roman noblewoman, who had married the second time before the death of her first husband (which is something quite bad), and she then was obliged to do penance. And Jerome describes thus this penance: "During the days which preceded Easter," which was the moment of the reconciliation,

Fabiola was to be found among the ranks of the penitents. The bishops, the priests, and the people wept with her. Her hair dishevelled, her face pale, her hands dirty, her head covered in ashes, she chastened her naked breast and the face with which she had seduced her second husband. She revealed to all her wound, and Rome, in tears, contemplated the scars on her emaciated body.

No doubt Jerome and Tertullian were liable to be rather carried away by such things; however, in Ambrose and in others one finds indications which show clearly the existence of an episode of dramatic self-revelation at the moment of the reconciliation of the penitent. That was, specifically, the exomologesis.
But the term of exomologesis does not apply only to this final episode. Frequently the word exomologesis is used to designate everything that the penitent does to obtain his reconciliation during the time in which he retains the status of penitent. The acts by which he punishes himself must be indissociable from the acts by which he reveals himself. The punishment of oneself and the voluntary expression of oneself are bound together.
A correspondent of Cyprian in the middle of the third century writes, for instance, that those who wish to do penance must, I quote, "prove their suffering, show their shame, make visible their humility, and exhibit their modesty." [...] In a few words, penance in the first Christian centuries is a way of life acted out at all times out of an obligation to show oneself. And that is, exactly, exomologesis.
Exomologesis obeyed a law of dramatic emphasis and of maximum theatricality.  [...] Fabiola did not confess her fault, telling to somebody what she has done, but she put under everybody's eyes the flesh, the body, which has committed the sin. And, paradoxically, the exomologesis is... to rub out the sin, restitute the previous purity acquired by baptism, and this by showing the sinner as he is in his reality- dirty, defiled, sullied.

Tertullian has a word to translate the Greek word exomologesis; he said it was publicatio sui, the Christian had to publish himself. Publish oneself, that means that he has two things to do. One has to show oneself as a sinner; that means, as somebody who, choosing the path of the sin, preferred filthinesss to purity, earth and dust to heaven, spiritual poverty to the treasures of faith. And that was the reason why exomologesis was a kind of representation of death. It was the theatrical expression of the sinner as dead or as dying. But this exomologesis was also a way for the sinner to express his will to get free from this world, to get rid of his own body, to destroy his own flesh, and get access to a new spiritual life. It is the theatrical representation of the sinner as willing his own death as a sinner. It is the dramatic manifestation of the renunciation to oneself.

The exomologesis seeks... to superimpose by an act of violent rupture the truth about oneself and the renunciation of oneself. In the ostentatious gestures of maceration, self-revelation in exomologesis is, at the same time, self destruction.

...if we turn to the confession in monastic institutions, it is of course
quite different from this exomologesis. [...] the monastic life presented itself as the true form of philosophical life, and the monastery was presented as the school of philosophy. There is an obvious transfer of several technologies of the self in Christian spirituality from practices of pagan philosophy.
Concerning this continuity I'll quote only one witness, John Chrysostom, who describes an examination of conscience which has exactly the same form, the same shape, the same administrative character as that described by Seneca in the De Ira and which I spoke about last week.

It is in the morning that we must take account of our expenses, then it is in the evening, after our meal, when we have gone to bed and no one troubles us and disquiets us, that we must ask ourselves to render account of our conduct to ourselve. Let us examine what is to our advantage and  what is prejudicial. Let us cease spending in appropriately and try to set aside useful funds in the place of harmful expenses, prayers in place of indiscrete word.

[Cont. here]