Part III: Augustine and Foucault on Developing an Ethic of Humility, Confessional Technologies in a Secular Key, the Birth of the Scientia Sexualis, and the “New” Priesthood

As we have seen, with the old categories of sin and salvation transmuted into the language of pathology and cure, the role of experts in our everyday lives becomes increasingly common and (seemingly) “natural.” As the new discourse of normalization gains ground, playing on “our fears of pathology” and “entic[ing] us with visions of unending health,” it seems all the more “natural” to turn to these highly trained experts when our lives begin to fissure, whether physically or mentally.[1] Consonant with Foucault’s analyses, consider the ways that we today entrust ourselves with the utmost faith to medical experts. For example, we allow them to inquire into the most intimate details of our lives, both past and present; in fact, in a most unreflective casual manner, we willingly hand over our souls and bodies so that they may poke, prod, cut, inject, and anesthetize us, assuming in an act of faith that they have our best interests in view. Because now our seemingly natural yet socially created impulse is to turn to specialists of various kinds—specialists with particular knowledge of which we have little or no access apart from submitting ourselves to their care—, our relation to these experts is one-sidedly stacked in their favor.

With the psychiatrist/patient relation a new power-knowledge complex is formed.  This asymmetrical relationship shares certain similarities with the power-knowledge differential which constituted the confessor/confessee relationship. However, having been translated into a scientific and secular key, the ailing person is not instructed to confess sins and cry out for divine mercy and grace; rather, he or she is encouraged throw off such guilt-ridden, constricting thoughts in order to develop a positive, autonomous self.[2] Although speaking of sex and the “repressive hypothesis,” Foucault sees rightly how the new narratives—as he puts it, the “preaching” of the new physician-priests—have conditioned us to believe in their version of salvation now, evermore feeding our “longing for the garden of earthly delights.”[3] On the final page of his book, The History of Sexuality, volume 1, Foucault pens a noteworthy paragraph, summarizing how our embrace of these modern discourses, particularly the discourse about sex, ought to make us pause and consider how, when all is said and done, we may have been duped. Having discussed Freud’s place in this grand narrative about sex and its secrets, Foucault then states:

We are often reminded of the countless procedures which Christianity once employed to make us detest the body; but let us ponder all the ruses that were employed for centuries to make us love sex, to make the knowledge of it desirable and everything said about it precious. Let us consider the stratagems by which we were induced to apply all our skills to discovering its secrets, by which we were attached to the obligation to draw out its truth, and made guilty for having failed to recognize it for so long. These devices are what ought to make us wonder today.[4]

Whether we focus on discourses about sex or the claims of contemporary biotechnologies, this scientized,[5] enlightened “good news” holds out promises that both Foucault and Augustine call into question. Given what we have seen of Augustine’s embrace of our finitude and fallibility, he too would take issue with these and any narratives proclaiming hope in a utopian existence now. For Augustine, human solidarity began with Adam and finds its fulfillment in Christ. Our present salvation in Christ will not reach its final perfection in this life; consequently, given our solidarity with Adam and thus, as Schuld puts it, our “solidarity in sin,” our present existence is one of eschatological tension and existential struggle in which our hope and joy coexist continually with disappointment and pain. Though starting from very different perspectives and fundamental assumptions, both Foucault and Augustine speak in this instance with one voice, warning us to be weary of embracing claims, scientific or otherwise, promising to free us from “relational fragility, ambiguity, and finitude.”[6] Rather, than certitude based on so-called “scientific objectivity,” they point us toward a more humble approach to knowledge, urging us to reject a sovereign, autonomous self, and to embrace a decentered, ever-enigmatic self “on the way” (in via).


[1] Schuld, Foucault and Augustine, 154.

[2] As Schuld puts it, our in modern rituals, “’fragments of darkness’ are countered not through confessing our fallibility and need for mercy and sanctifying grace but through bold exercises of autonomy. Not self-forgetting love and surrender but self-assertion frees one from all such dangerous impulses” (ibid., 153).

[3] Foucault, The History of Sexuality, vol. 1, 7. Emphasis added.

[4] Ibid., 159.

[5] Schuld suggests that certain instantiations of biogenetics may be replacing discourses about sex and thus serving as the new hermeneutical key to human existence. For her discussion of the “science of genetics, see Foucault and Augustine, 155-6.

[6] Ibid., 156-7. As Schuld points out, and I agree, Augustine’s view “would require of us not the rejection of contemporary science or the denial of its manifest contributions to personal and social well-being but a clear-eyed vigilance concerning the way s in which it is applied, especially with regard to those who are most vulnerable” (ibid., 157). I take Foucault’s view to be similar, namely, he is not advocating a full-scale rejection of science, psychiatry, or medicine; rather, he wants us to be aware of the dangers of embracing their respective claims uncritically, especially given the unequal and potentially harmful power-knowledge differential involved.