Part III: Augustine and Anti-Modern (Autobiographical) Confessio: mihi quaestio factus sum

As I have discussed in previous posts, Foucault’s later works focus on how subjects actively transform themselves through various self-imposed disciplinary technologies and other practices. Foucault describes this active self-modification as a way to live one’s life as a work of art; hence, the title of his essay on the topic, “Self-Writing,” which speaks of a kind of self-composition or an ongoing improvisational elaboration of the self. In his analyses of self-writing, Foucault examines both Greco-Roman and Christian technologies of the self, pointing out that both engage in ascetical practices. That is, they purpose to live a certain kind a life—a beautiful life—which requires intentional choices and the practice of specified activities in a regular and goal-directed manner. Writing, as Foucault observes, plays an important role in this self-training or askēsis broadly understood. For example, in Epictetus, Foucault highlights the central role of writing in the process of self-fashioning. “As an element of self-training, writing has, […] an ethopoietic function: it is an agent of the transformation of truth into ēthos.[1]

Foucault also elaborates the ancients’ use of the hupomnēmata or notebooks as part of their self-technologies. These notebooks contained collections of wise sayings, literary fragments, accounts of virtuous deeds worthy of imitation, and so forth.  A person not only turned to these notebooks as aids for his guiding his own actions, but he might also use them to advise a friend. If we consider what we said above regarding the crucial role of writing in one’s self-formation, bearing in mind the character and use of the hupomnēmata, several connections with Augustine’s project in the Confessions begin to surface.  For example, the text of the Confessions is a tightly woven fabric constructed from at least three traditions:  classical, biblical, and philosophical.[2] Augustine’s initial conversion to the good comes through his reading of Cicero’s text, the Hortensius, which incited in him a longing for true wisdom. Likewise, his reading of the Platonists, whose teachings he references at length in book seven, enable him to take further steps toward the kind of life he desires. For, according to Augustine, through his study of the Platonists’ writings, he gains not only a better understanding of God’s nature and his own mind as non-corporeal, but likewise he learns that evil is not a substance but rather a privation. The latter insight allows him to embrace matter, including his own body, as something good. Because the entire created order receives its existence from God, who is existence and goodness, matter per se cannot be evil. For Augustine, this truth has existential import, as he can no longer, following Manichean doctrine, blame his sexual wanderings solely on his alleged “evil” body. Lastly, as we have seen in our analyses of Augustine’s narrative, his text is saturated with biblical quotations, allusions, and paraphrases. Similar to the way the ancients’ collected philosophical fragments and other bits of wisdom—what Foucault calls the “already-said”[3]—appropriating them as standards and principles to guide their actions, so too, Augustine weaves together the wisdom of various traditions as he narrates his new subjectivity in Christ.

In his discussion of the hupomnēmata, Foucault stresses that these are not simply external memory devices; rather, the truths they contain must be internalized; they, in effect, must become one with the person such that they flow naturally from him and shape his actions in manifest ways. As Foucault puts it, the hupomnēmata function as a “framework for exercises to be carried out frequently […] with oneself and with others. And this was in order to have them […] prokheiron, ad manum, in promptu.[4] Once again, especially when we focus upon Augustine’s use of scriptural truths and sayings, we find significant overlaps with Foucault’s analyses of ancient technologies of the self.  It is evident when one reads the Confessions that Augustine has poured over Scripture in a contemplative way, familiarizing himself not merely with its words but with its narrative, which in a very real way has become his narrative. That is, Scripture has become second nature to Augustine; he knows it so well that he is able to use it creatively, improvising with it for purposes of his own self-narration and in order to guide others.  In short, like the aim of the hupomnēmata, Augustine’s Confessions likewise takes the “already said […] for a purpose that is nothing less than the shaping of the self.”[5]

In addition, Foucault describes how the act of calling to mind the “fragmentary logos” serves as a “means of establishing a relationship of oneself with oneself, a relationship as adequate and accomplished as possible.”[6] In other words, when made part of oneself through practice, this disparate collection of wise-sayings helps to facilitate a more unified self. Both Foucault and Augustine agree that a perfectly unified self is unattainable.[7] Even after his conversation, as I argue below, Augustine the Bishop refers to himself as a puzzle, a question (quaestio).[8] This puzzling of which Augustine speaks is not due to his inability to uncover hidden thoughts and desires—what Foucault calls exposing “the arcane conscientiae.”[9] In fact, Augustine seems fairly clear as to the nature of his particular struggles and misguided loves. As he contemplates the purpose of his confessions, which he says are, on the one hand, confessions to God “in silence”; yet, on the other hand, “not altogether silent,” he shares some of Foucault’s own concerns about the dangers of confessing one’s deeds to others. “What point is there for me in other people hearing my confessions? Are they likely to heal my infirmities? A curious lot they are, eager to pry into the lives of others, but tardy when it comes to correcting their own.”[10] Recognizing that some will turn Augustine’s narrative against him, distorting it for their own selfish purposes, Augustine, nonetheless, decides to make his narrative public, realizing that some—those made good through charity—will be encouraged in their faith.[11]

Similarly, the ancient notebooks were used not simply for one’s own self-training but were also used via epistolary correspondence to counsel others as to potential courses of action; consequently, we need not view the hupomnēmata in an overly restricted, self-focused light. That is, the truths they contained were not limited in their applicability to the development of one’s own self-fashioning, but were likewise means through which one influenced the subjectivity of others. Of course, by corresponding with another on matters such as dealing with grief or persevering in one’s duty, the writer’s own subjectivity is affected. In light of these comments, we can claim in a non-contradictory way that, one the one hand, Augustine’s narrative is theologically focused having as its center, the Trinitarian God and by implication the Christian faith. Yet, on the other hand, as an historical, socio-political being, whose own nature as an image-bearer of God (imago Dei) suggests a relationality at the core of his (Augustine’s) and human existence in general, we can also speak of Augustine’s narrative as an exercise in self-writing inflected in the grammar of (written and thus public) prayer.



[1] Foucault, “Self-Writing,” in Ethics, Subjectivity, and Truth, 209.

[2] For a detailed study of the relationship between Augustine’s Confessions and the early Dialogues, see Courcelle, Rescherches sur les Confessions de Saint Augustin.  Rather than approach this issue by way of the well-worn methods of doctrinal history, Courcelle develops and applies a philological and an historico-literary method of analysis. In so doing, he is able to bypass the impasse of deciding once and for all whether Augustine was first converted to Neoplatonism or to Christianity; rather than an either/or solution, Courcelle opts for a both/and position, arguing that through Ambrose’s influence Augustine was exposed to both Christianity and Neoplatonism simultaneously. See esp., Appendice IV, “Aspects variés du Platonisme Ambrosien,” 311–82.

[3] Foucault, “Self-Writing,” in Ethics, Subjectivity, and Truth, 211.

[4] Ibid., 210.

[5] Ibid., 211.

[6] Ibid., 211.

[7] Perhaps Augustine would advocate for a perfectly unified self in the next life; however, in this life, which for Foucault is the only life, such a state is never fully realized.

[8] See, for example, Augustine’s Confessions, 10.33.50; 270 [CSEL 33, 264].

[9] Foucault, “Self-Writing,” in Ethics, Subjectivity, and Truth, 210.

[10] Augustine, Confessions, 10.3.3; 238.

[11] Ibid., 10.3.3; 238–39.


Part VI: Selections from Foucault and Augustine: Reconsidering Power and Love

Next, Schuld discusses the second theme structuring her analysis:  Foucault’s interpretations of “infirmity” as the new hermeneutical lens through which we, “enlightened” (post)moderns, decipher human difference, deviation, and deficiency.  With the shift from the medieval emphasis upon salvation and the soul to the modern emphasis on science and mechanized matter-in-motion, we likewise have a shift in governing metaphors.  As Schuld explains,  “[t]ransformations of the self are no longer interpreted in terms of the movement from sin to salvation, but from pathology to well-being” (148).  Instead of pursing purity in a Cassian ethic of chastity, we now strive for “physical vigor and mental health.”  Salvation, now defined as health, well-being and security is not sought after in the next world but in this world.Schuld on Augustine and Foucault

The “modern scientific-medicalized paradigms” claim to offer a neutral, “objective” account.  They “presume to stand at a safe remove from traditional disputes over what constitutes the good…Such discourses tend to ignore the moral and social biases of those who decipher information and the moral and social consequences of their determinations.  Because knowledge is always put to use by fallible human beings in a practical world of competing interests and visions, we are deluding ourselves…if we believe that questions of truth can be disentangled from questions of normative worth and value.  Even what appears to be most self-evidently natural is inevitably situated in a cultural context, and thus, shot through with social meanings and moral ambiguities” (149).  In other words, scientists too are human beings, shaped by specific cultures, language games, and personal proclivities—all of which influence their scientific pursuits and findings.

According to Foucault, with the shift from a religious frame to a scientific frame, the categories of “normal” and “abnormal” not only replace but alter in significant ways what was formerly understood as sin and a fallen state in need not of medical correction but of grace.  “Once moral and religious discourses are transposed into a scientific key, a whole range of human frailties and fallibilities … are ‘placed under the rule of the normal and the pathological’” (149).  Of those classified as “abnormal,” Foucault is particularly interested in “children, women, homosexuals, the mentally ill, and the condemned.” For example, in his book, Birth of the Clinic, he provides vivid descriptions of what a mentally ill person undergoes in a mental hospital in order to impress upon us the extreme lengths to which our culture is willing to go in order to try and “eliminate disorder and clean up social messes” (150).

In place of exile or physical torture for illicit acts, the new modes of societal exclusion and punishment, or rather rehabilitation, involve updated, scientifically compatible differentiating techniques.  For example, in contrast to “commemorative accounts” and “genealogies,” one now “becomes known by scientifically defined variances and anomalies” (151).  Instead of legends of brave saints, we produce “distinctively modern epic genres—the psychological autobiography and the carefully monitored and charted case study” (151).  In sum, Schuld states, “No longer moral transgressions and guilt, no longer honor and shame, no longer action and social consequence, but nature and defect analyzed through rational quantitative study govern the relations of power of those falling outside expected norms, values and behaviors” (151).

With these things in view, some of Foucault’s passions and concerns come into focus.  For instance, he wants us to be acutely aware of how an “uncompromising passion for clarity about and control over our frailties and infirmities suffuses our culture” (151). Its presence can be felt in self-help bookstores, in gyms with their personal trainers, counselors etc.  We are all “vulnerable to becoming scientifically normalized subjects and scientifically normalizing judges” (151).

In our modern “confessional” techniques, we, like the ancients and the medievals, dwell on selected personal experiences, and by applying socially constructed interpretations to them, we establish individualized identities” (152).  We have turned everything, sex included, into a discourse. “We have culturally created as modern ‘confessing animals’ a new field of pleasure, the pleasure of analysis, and an unexamined devotion to the self-knowledge and bliss that it promises” (152).  In this modern myth, not only those regarded as “abnormal” but also the “seemingly normal are haunted by dark yearnings that must be brought out into the light and liberated” (152).  But isn’t this, after all, very similar to the medieval practice of confession?  Didn’t Christians back then and even those today who practice some form of confession, formally or otherwise, attempt to bring to light those shadowy places of the soul?  According to Schuld, “[i]n some ways, this mirrors Augustine’s conception of the universality of sin and the need for continual confession.  But here, ‘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 self-surrender but self-assertion frees one from all such dangerous impulses” (153)

Part V: Selections from Foucault and Augustine: Reconsidering Power and Love

Foucault is interested in how “technologies” of confession shape one’s personal and communal identity.  He understands, for example, the emergence of monastic practices of self-examination as “power technologies that enabled persons to navigate themselves and others” through common perils (136).  These “self-examining and [self-]renunciating practices” are likewise structured by various “relational rules” (137).  Though such practices were a significant part of the Christian Middle Ages (and of course are still operative today), Foucault is interested in the ways that the modern State alters, incorporates, and puts them to use for secular purposes.  Augustine, like Foucault, recognized that the Christian Schuld on Augustine and Foucaultpractice of confession whether spoken or written was “never simply an act of expression; it was an act of making or constructing”; it was an act of remaking the individual (137). As the self turns inward, it discovers various hidden places and “encircling shadows,” and this leads the self to an understanding that it will not be abandoned, but retrieved by the Good Shepherd.  “The biblical images of the good shepherd establish the basic social expectations in early Christian monastic culture and shape…a complex field of social power within which persons search for self-knowledge, truth and perfection” (139).  The confessor-confessee relationship does involve an assymetrical dynamic; that is, each partner has a definite role and must play by certain “rules.”  As Schuld explains, “[s]tructuring the social relations of this narrative…are…on one side, a selfless kindness whose only concern is the welfare of those who need tending…On the other side, being looked after in such a way calls for and exemplifies a social response that is grateful, humble and obedient.  Ever-present care can only be assured by renouncing the self in ‘a kind of everyday death’ and thereby becoming utterly trusting of and reliant on the devoted other” (139).  For Foucault, this asymmetrical dynamic, lays the ground rules for “a strange game” whose success can only be achieved by a “detachment with respect to oneself and the establishing of a relationship with oneself which tends toward a destruction of the form of the self” (140).  However, as he warms to the idea of “monastic technologies,” Foucault comes to see it more as a “chastity-oriented asceticism” in which renunciation works on the self as a whole (140).  This new perspective comes via Cassian’s insight that vices and virtues have an inherent interconnection (140).  “To reform one, they must be reformed together.  Purity, therefore, is always a labor involving the whole, even though it works on particulars as it strives for a harmonious self-identity.  Yet, the individual cannot reach the truth on his own and thus must labor “by way of submission to the wise mediation of another” (140).

Given that power relations can be both positive and negative, formative and de-forming, Foucault highlights some possible dangers in confessional technologies.   It’s not that relation is asymmetrical that makes it problematic—for Foucault, asymmetry is not a social evil in and of itself (141).  Nonetheless, he takes issue with such relationships on two fronts:  (1) “it inhibits a fluid and reversible flow of power among participants”; (2) “It increases the opportunities to manipulate and exploit others without their being sufficiently aware or sufficiently empowered to resist” (141).  Moreover, Foucault’s suspicions and concerns regarding asymmetrical power relations grow as such relations take on new forms and are instantiated in modern institutions (for example, hospitals, schools, prisons etc.)  As Schuld observes,

[b]y examining fractures and shifts that surface as ancient monastic practices of confession become institutionalized for medieval and Tridentine purposes, we begin to see the lay of geography that modernity builds itself on and adapts to its own secular ends. […] Foucault … signals that something important has occurred, changing how these cultures comprehend and respond to the dangers of the desiring person  (141).

Next, Schuld traces two conceptions of the self that lead up to our situation of a “scientized self.” Both involve practices of the self and of sex.  In the early monastic attitude, the focus was not on a list of forbidden or permitted actions.  Rather, in Cassian’s ethic of chastity, changes were made to a “moving whole, not to isolated fragments” (143).  In contrast, the later medieval and early modern developments, created a rigid systematic codification in which “compilations of rules, acts, and satisfactions could be classified in unambiguous categories of kind and degree, making it easier for persons to sort, identify, evaluate, and effectively make reparations for explicitly detailed transgressions” (142).  Thus, uncertainties and apprehensions could be controlled with exactitude.  With regard to the second more rigid and codified approach, Foucault highlights a two-fold danger:  (1) Rather than desexualize the self, the intense concentration on specific details would have actually sexualized one’s religious identity (144). (2) “In analytically breaking down the subject into fragments and privileging sexual vices and virtues over other formative desires, there is a dual danger of neglecting valuable aspects of the self while marginalizing and hounding others” (144).

Part of Foucault’s project involves a genealogical retrieval of the changes occuring in specific cultural practices from one epoch to another. The modern era, according to Foucault, has been formed significantly by incorporating their own secular version of Christian confessional techniques.  In other words, our present story is built on many older ones.  In important ways our drama is similar to the ancient ascetics; however, we have translated former religious practices into a scientized realm replete with its experts as to what is best for our de-souled bodies.

[W]e exercise powerful practices on our desiring selves and submit ourselves to the wise counsel of others as we pursue promises of truth and perfection. Even in the most secular corners of the world, the story of the good shepherd still generally governs our expectations…we [still] set our hopes on living under some protective knowledge that is shielded from error (145).

Our modern drama, however, is different from the former drama in that we refuse “to acknowledge that we in fact live storied lives” (145).  We desire a security that drama with its contingencies cannot provide.  “For Foucault this change in sentiment is the principal reason that our particular story has proven so compelling. It is a story that promises to alleviate such fears and clean out all dangerous spaces, and it claims to have the power to do precisely that because it is no longer a story” (146-7). 

Lastly, our search for the purity of truth and the safety of certitude becomes validated scientifically (147).  The modern version of confession employs a variety of techniques that claim to yield an “unclouded knowledge of ourselves and others through the rarified and neutral viewpoint of science” (147). However, the presuppositions of the modern drama, despite its efforts to “withdraw itself from the messiness of the drama…traditions and rituals…manifests elements of them all” (for example, Foucault’s description of the “carefully staged” regimens of a hospital, 147).  Though the modern drama has different costumes, props and stages, it “still has privileged players and spaces and ritualized patterns of interaction with coded contents” (147).  Its claim to objectivity, precision and cool disinterest … “bolsters our confidence that finally we have managed to leave behind fallibility, contingency, uncertainty and disorder” (147).