Part II: 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

Having spent several pages offering critical analyses of his failed education, Augustine highlights a specific event in which he comments on his own misdirected love while also calling into question the values of the educated Roman elite. Similar to the passage in book four where Augustine characterizes his weeping as misguided, here too we read of a weeping Augustine—this time; however, he weeps not over the loss of a dear friend but over a fictive literary character, Dido. As he explains, his having acquired the skills of reading and writing were “far more useful” than the stories he

was forced to memorize the wanderings of some fellow called Aeneas, while forgetting my own waywardness, and to weep over Dido, who killed herself for love, when all the while in my intense misery I put up with myself with never a tear, as I died away from you, O God, who are my life.[1]

Here Augustine, no doubt, discusses his personal shortcomings, primarily his failure to care for his own moral and spiritual development. Yet, in the passage just mentioned and the paragraphs which follow, Augustine simultaneously chides the elite, educated class and those aspiring for membership in this group. After all, the Aeneid had an almost canonical status in Augustine’s day, and Aeneas—the great founder of Rome—was heralded as the hero extraordinaire. In stark contrast, Augustine refers to him rather casually as “some fellow called Aeneas,” thus demoting him of his hero status and calling into question Roman constructions of virility, honor, and pride. Again, Augustine’s retelling of his own wanderings manifest theological and socio-political aims.  That is, just as Augustine through his own self-questioning had come to value humility and a proper assessment of our frailty over the self-aggrandizing narratives inculcated through the Roman educational system, he wants his readers to put themselves and their own socially constructed narratives into question.

Like Augustine, Foucault also values a more humble view of ourselves and our claims to knowledge.  As Schuld observes, Foucault offers critical analyses of how, with the ushering in of modernity, “scientific or pseudo-scientific” discourses and practices come to be seen as definitive, unassailable,[2] or to utilize a Bakhtinian grammar, a negative instantiation of authoritative discourse. One of Foucault’s greatest concerns is what happens “when such presumptuous modes of knowledge take as their task examining, classifying, and eradicating the frailties and imperfections of human lives.”[3] As he traces the transformation of Christian confessional technologies whose emphasis had become fixated increasingly on sexual sins, categorizing and defining them ad infinitum, Foucault traces how confessional technologies are transposed into a scientific key. In the History of Sexuality, volume 1, Foucault provides a lucid account of this transformation:

The obtaining of the confession and its effects were recodified as therapeutic operations. Which meant first of all that the sexual domain was no longer accounted for simply by the notions of error or sin, excess or transgression, but was placed under the rule of the normal and the pathological (which, for that matter, were the transposition of the former categories); […] sex appeared as an extremely unstable pathological field: a surface of repercussion for other ailments, but also the focus of a specific nosography, that of instincts, tendencies, images, pleasure, and conduct. This implied furthermore that sex would derive its meaning and its necessity from medical interventions: it would be required by the doctor, necessary for diagnosis, and effective by nature in the cure. Spoken in time, to the proper party, and by the person who was both the bearer of it and the one responsible for it, the truth healed.[4]

In the modern episteme where the discourse of medical science and its truth games predominate as opposed to the theological discourses of the Middle Ages, not only sexual acts but sexuality itself becomes an object for medical experts to diagnose, treat, and allegedly “cure.” Whereas the Christian tradition—and Augustine expresses this repeatedly in his narrative—understood certain sexual desires and acts as sins, which like all other sins must be bring into the light and dealt with, it in no way claimed to heal or cure the person in this life.  Rather, it recognized sin as an ongoing struggle of our earthly pilgrimage requiring a constant renunciation of self and dependent reliance on divine grace, as well as the help of likeminded others—others, who were also in need of grace.

In contrast, with the birth of the scientia sexualis and sexuality as a medical category and thus open to “normal” and “pathological” instantiations, an entire discourse and set of discursive practices likewise emerged, infiltrating society at large and promising definitive cures for its ailing patients. Thus, the history of sexuality quickly thrusts us into the history of discourses wherein sex becomes a discourse reverberating throughout the body politic, bidding us to engage in our own sex-talk. “As if it suspected sex of harboring a fundamental secret. […] As if it was essential that sex be inscribed not only in an economy of pleasure but in an ordered system of knowledge.”[5] Sex was now the secret to human identity—if only we could get to reach this truth buried deep within, we could at last realize the Socratic imperative, “know thyself.” We demand, as Foucault explains, that sex “tell us our truth, […] that truth about ourselves which we think we possess in our immediate consciousness. We tell it its truth by deciphering what it tells us about that truth; it tells us our own by delivering up that part of it that escaped us.”[6] As this mutually shaping dialogue formed over time, it produced “a knowledge of the subject; […] of that which divided him, determines him perhaps, but above all causes him to be ignorant of himself.”[7] This ignorance about our sexual desires and sexual “identity” requires the help of medical and psychological experts, those who have helped to create the “scientific” categories into which they now place us. As we trace the transmutations of Christian confessional technologies through modernity, we become increasingly aware of the reduction of human beings to (essentially) sexual beings.

[T]he project of a science of the subject has gravitated, in ever narrowing circles, around the question of sex. Causality in the subject, the unconscious of the subject, the truth of the subject in the other who knows, the knowledge he holds unbeknown to him, all this found an opportunity to deploy itself in the discourse of sex. Not, however, by reason of some natural property inherent in sex itself, but by virtue of the tactics of power immanent in this discourse.[8]

Moreover, as these newly reconfigured secular practices migrated into the broader social domain—the family, pedagogical relations, psychiatry, medicine, the legal system, prisons, and so forth—a complex machinery was established. This newly opened field of truth had little place for religious or theological answers for our human condition; modern discourses of truth must be spoken using a scientific grammar, as this, rather than God’s “sweet truth” [dulcis veritas],[9] was the language, the new melody that had become pleasing to the ear. As human history attests, because our lives are all too often interspersed with suffering, injustices, and disappointments, myriad opportunities exist for the “new priests,” the specialized experts, to proclaim their gospel of health and happiness, wholeness and self-fulfillment now rather than in some other-worldly “heaven.” Thus, Schuld notes the irony of how these discourses have gained power, not through external compulsion or violent force, but through our own socially conditioned desires and beliefs that we can achieve—whether through a finely-tuned exercise regime, a nutritionally balanced diet, regular medical examinations, and the list goes on—a more stable, secure, defect-free existence.[10] “In an attempt to flee [our] fragility, however, [we] have made [ourselves] more vulnerable.”[11]

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.”


[1] Augutine’s Confessions, 1.13.20; 53 (Boulding trans.).

[2] Schuld, Foucault and Augustine, 129.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Foucault, The History of Sexuality, vol. 1, 67.

[5] Ibid., 69.

[6] Ibid., 69–70.

[7] Ibid., 70.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Augustine, Confessions, 4.15.27; my translation.

[10] Schuld, Foucault and Augustine, 129.

[11] Ibid.