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Thursday, August 14, 2008

foucault's the use of pleasure: in a nutshell

In The Use of Pleasure: The History of Sexuality, Vol. 2, Michel Foucault reveals that Greek ethics was about “the relationship with the self and the self that enabled a person to keep from being carried away by the appetites and pleasures, to maintain a mastery and superiority over them, to keep his senses in a state of tranquility, to remain free from interior bondage to the passions, and to achieve a mode of being that could be defined by the full enjoyment of oneself, or the perfect supremacy of oneself over oneself.” This called for discussing four components namely (1) the determination of the ethical substance, (2) the mode of subjection, (3) moral work, and (4) the moral goal. In the Greek épistémè or knowledge, the ethical substance is bodily pleasure (aphrodisia), the mode of subjection was proper use (chrēsis), the moral work involved a struggle for continence (enkrateia), and the moral goal was the freedom generated by self-mastery (sōphrosynē).
The first area of ethics for Foucault is the determination of the ethical substance. The ethical substance is the “material” of one’s moral conduct. It answers the question, “Which is the aspect or the part of myself or my behavior which is concerned with moral conduct?” The ethical substance is the area of people’s lives that is to be morally assessed. In the Greek épistémè, the ethical substance is aphrodisia. Aphrodisia are “the acts, gestures, and contacts that produce a certain form of pleasure.” Aphrodisia are bodily pleasures that are related with specific actions like eating, drinking, and having sex.
For Foucault, aphrodisia are considered both positive and negative. They are positive since they are natural and necessary, i.e. everyone must eat, drink, and reproduce—nature encourages animals to eat, drink, and procreate by making these activities immensely pleasurable. Nonetheless, bodily pleasures also had a negative quality, which required for their delimitation. The main reason for this was that the Greeks deemed aphrodisia as possessing an “inferior character” for they “were common to animals and men,” “mixed with privation and suffering,” and “depended on the body and its necessities.”
However, it was more than the inferior quality of aphrodisia that rendered them the point of ethical concern. Two major problems emerge: the predicament of excessiveness, and the horror of passivity. According to Foucault, excessiveness and passivity in the Greek épistémè are “[f]or a man…the two main forms of immorality.” Because these two problems were the major forms of immorality, and because both were linked to and associated with bodily pleasures, aphrodisia is the ethical substance of Greek ethics. Excessiveness is a “lack of self-restraint with regard to pleasure.” Considering that pleasures obtained in aphrodisiac activity are high, one begins to pursue pleasure beyond one’s natural needs that cause the desire for the activity to begin with. This is the problem of intemperance, which is characterized by gluttony, drunkenness, and nymphomania, all of which are excessive performances of otherwise natural and necessary bodily processes. Foucault asserts that “the primary dividing line laid down by moral judgment in the area of sexual behavior was not prescribed by the nature of the act…but by the activity and its quantitative gradations.”
In the intemperate person, pleasures are pursued regardless of need, which brought strained relations with oneself. The other ethical problem is that one turns passive to pleasures. Aphrodisia have an active and a passive sense. In the sexual form of aphrodisia, there are two roles: the active, penetrating, “masculine” role; and the passive, penetrated, “feminine” role. There is “the one who performs the activity and the one on whom it is performed.” Passivity has two senses that are yet interconnected. First, one can seek after pleasures attained by passive activity, i.e. men who seek the pleasure of being anally penetrated; second, one could fall short of being actively vigilant about one’s bodily needs, and through excessive behavior could become passive to eating, drinking, and having sex (even in its “masculine” role) such that one lives to eat instead of eats to live.
In summary, aphrodisia are natural and necessary, yet dangerous when used incorrectly. Pleasures of the body, while not evil in themselves, lead morally weak people into excess and passivity, making people lose their humanity and behave like animals, which only obey their appetite. Hence, one must make bodily pleasures an ethical concern since aphrodisia are always morally relevant in Greek ethics.
The second component of ethics for Foucault is the mode of subjection. This is taken as “the way in which the individual establishes his relation to the rule and recognizes himself as obliged to put it into practice.” In short, it is the way in which people are incited to recognize their moral obligations. The mode of subjection is the manner one should ethically address the ethical substance. Once the ethical substance is established, what should one do with it and why? In the Greek épistémè, the mode of subjection was proper use of pleasures. This is where the book draws its title. The Greek understanding of the proper use of pleasure is detailed in parts two, three and four of the book: “Dietetics” deals with eating and drinking, “Economics” has to do with sexual relations with women and slaves, and “Erotics” focuses on sexual relations with boys who were fated to grow up to become free men in the polis, respectively. The Greeks did not differentiate these areas. Foucault argues that “[f]ood, wines, and relations with women and boys constituted analogous ethical material; they brought forces into play that were natural, but that always tended to be excessive.”
It is in the first part of the text, nevertheless, that Foucault describes chrēsis in general. According to him, there are three factors to the proper use of pleasures: need, timeliness, and social status. By studying these three aspects, one will come to understand not only how one tackled the ethical substance, but also what motivates one for using pleasures correctly. First, the proper use of pleasure subsisted on need. Since desire emerges from a condition of privation, one’s fulfillment of those desires must correspond to the level of need. The ethical Greek ate only when hungry, and did so only with the amount needed to satisfy that hunger correctly. In effect, the pleasure of eating is properly used. As Foucault asserts, “the objective was not to reduce pleasure to nothing; on the contrary, what was wanted was to maintain it and do so through the need that awakened desire.” Provided that needs vary from person to person, it is the responsibility of each ethical agent to consider the right amount of food, drink, and sex one needed to have, and never exceed those limits. Timeliness, the second factor of the proper use of pleasure, is connected to the general obsession with time that the Greeks have regarding medicine, government, and navigation. Kairos is of the essence in the Greek épistémè, and actions had to be done at the right time. There is a time for everything, and certain pleasures should be experienced only at certain instances. One should eat only at certain times of the day, and certain things should be eaten only during certain seasons. Given that different people have different biorhythms and “internal clocks,” it is the responsibility of each ethical agent to do matters at the right time. Finally, the proper use of pleasure subsisted on one’s status, the role the agent plays in society. How well one has to use pleasure depended on whether one is a man, a woman, a slave, or a child. The rationale for Greek men to use pleasure correctly is that their ethical strength, their masculinity, their potential as an important leader in the polis, all reflected in how they use pleasure. Foucault argues that “[i]t was a generally accepted principle of government that the more one was in the public eye, the more authority one had or wanted to have over others, and the more one sought to make one’s life into a brilliant work whose reputation would spread far and last long—the more necessary it was to adopt and maintain…rigorous standards of…conduct.”
In summary, one’s subjectivity was judged based on how one used pleasures. Those who use pleasure correctly—those who eat, drink, and have sex only as is suited to one’s need, time, and status—were better people, and were thus justified to hold positions of power over those who were ethically weak. This is the reason why men are valued over women and children in this assertion of knowledge: men are able to control themselves in a way that women and children cannot.
The third component of Foucauldian ethics is moral work, which consists of the actions “that one performs on oneself…to attempt to transform oneself into the ethical subject of one’s behavior.” Another word for ethical work is “self-forming activity.” In the Greek épistémè, the moral work is a kind of training, which prepares one to use pleasures correctly. Foucault quotes Xenophon on this instance: “if one does not exercise the soul, one cannot sustain the functions of the soul, so that one will not be able to ‘do what one ought to do nor avoid what one ought to do.’”
The ethical work of the Greeks rested in training the body or developing mastery over one’s own person. Through ethical work, one learned how to “face privations without suffering…[and] reduce every pleasure to nothing more than the elementary satisfaction of needs.” Once one is trained in the art of self-mastery and the proper use of pleasure, one would have the virtues necessitated to participate in the polis. Thus, for the Greeks, moral work “formed part of the paideia [education] of the free man who had a role to play in the city and in dealings with others.”
One has to be master of oneself in order to have the freedom necessary to help run the city and justify the mastery over others. The moral work taught one of continence, which is the capacity to have mastery over oneself in order to avoid improper uses of pleasure. It is the battle that takes place when pleasures are being put to proper use. Self-mastery, Foucault asserts, is “located in the axis of struggle, resistance, and combat…it is self-control…but has to struggle to maintain control.”
Foucault discusses four facets of continence before describing moral work: (1) it is a type of power struggle, (2) the struggle is against forces within oneself, (3) the mastery comes in putting pleasures to use and keeping them under control, and (4) self-mastery relates to domestic and civic life. Foucault understands continence as a kind of power struggle, arguing that “[o]ne could behave ethically only by adopting a combative attitude toward pleasures.” In short, there is a torturous relationship between oneself and one’s pursuit of pleasures. The enemy in this battle is pleasure, “whose origin and finality were natural, but whose potential, by the fact that they had their own energy, was for revolt and excess.” Once again, pleasures are not evil in themselves; the intemperate person abuses pleasures to excess, the incontinent person allows himself to be passive to pleasure, letting appetite overpower reason. The only means to avoid excess and passivity is to engage in a battle against them. Second, this battle is not an outside battle but is a battle with oneself. Foucault says that “[t]his combative relationship…was also an agonistic relationship with oneself. The battle to be fought…the victory to be won, the defeat that one risked suffering…took place between oneself and oneself.” In short, even if pleasures were themselves evil, the fault of intemperance and incontinence fell on the ethical agent. In the end, it is one’s responsibility to use pleasures correctly, so the true battle against pleasures is against ethical weakness, excessiveness, and passivity. Greek ethics is about self-mastery; one must be in a battle with oneself and win.
In summary, one must work hard at self-mastery, struggling against one’s passive pursuits of pleasure and one’s desire to seek pleasures beyond the limits of need, time, and status. Continence is a skill that is learned through practice of restriction. This is part of the preparation for leaders of the polis.
Finally, there is the moral goal of Foucauldian ethics. Foucault says that “an action is only moral in itself, in its singularity; it is also moral in its circumstantial integration…[with] a certain mode of being, a mode of being characteristic of the ethical subject.” In other words, the moral goal is the kind of person that one aspires to be by participating in ethical work. What is the free boy training for when practicing how to use pleasures correctly? The moral goal is the answer to the question, “What do you want to be when you (morally) grow up?” Sōphrosynē is the moral goal of Greek ethics. Although Aristotle holds continence and sōphrosynē as separate from each other, Foucault argues that most Greeks define one in terms of the other. Continence is the battle for sōphrosynē, and sōphrosynē is the kind of mastery exerted over pleasures and appetites. The difference between the two is that enkrateia is “an active form of self-mastery, which enables one to resist and struggle, and to achieve domination in the area of desires and pleasures;” whereas sōphrosynē is “a very general state that ensures that one will do ‘what is fitting as regards both gods and men.’” Sōphrosynē is a state of being, whereas enkrateia is the moral work that leads to this state. In other words, “enkrateia can be regarded as the prerequisite of sōphrosynē, as the form of effort and control that the individual must apply to himself in order to become moderate (sōphrōn).” Most important, sōphrosynē is directly linked to freedom. The sōphrōn is a free man, not only in terms of political citizenship, but also in terms of being free from pleasures: “[t]o be free in relation to pleasures was to be free of their authority; it was not to be their slave.” Freedom is “on equal footing with justice, courage, or prudence; that is, it was a virtue that qualified a man to exercise his mastery over others.” It is the power over oneself that qualifies one to have power over others. Foucault shows the difference between the good ruler and the tyrant as an example of this fact. Tyrants are not masters of themselves, which is why they are bad rulers over others.
In associating the moral goal to the mode of subjection as it describes the ethical substance, freedom is virile. As such, sōphrosynē is a masculine virtue for the Greeks. If submitting to pleasures and being passive to them is an immorality during the Greek épistémè, mastery over pleasures becomes the active, masculine, power necessary in the polis. Foucault says that “[s]elf-mastery was a way of being a man with respect to oneself; that is, a way of commanding what needed commanding, of coercing what was not capable of self-direction, of imposing principles of reason on what was wanting in reason; in short, it was a way of being active in relation to what was by nature passive.” This mastery places husbands over wives, masters over slaves, parents over children, and oneself over one’s appetite.
Finally, there is a relationship between freedom and truth. Foucault says that during the Greek épistémè “one could not practice moderation, without a certain form of knowledge that was at least one of its essential conditions.” Foucault describes three principle forms of the relationship between sōphrosynē and logos: (1) wisdom required moderation, for fear that knowledge will not rule within a person i.e. Plato’s account of the control of the rational part over the irrational parts in Republic; (2) practical wisdom is needed; and (3) being virtuous is needed for self-knowledge, i.e. “Know yourself” goes hand in hand with “Take care of yourself”. In summary, freedom and truth are the results of the battle for enkrateia entered into by the sōphrōn in order to gain mastery over the pursuit of pleasures. In effect, the ethically superior agent correctly uses pleasures. For Foucault, these two points sum up Greek ethics and presents the basic differences between Greek ethics and modern “morality.”
David, Luis. “Reclaiming Antiquity within the Spaces of Discipinarity: Transgression as Transcendence.” In COMIUCAP 2008 World Congress MANILA. Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University, 2008.
Foucault, Michel. “On the Genealogy of Ethics: An Overview of Work in Progress.” In The Essential Foucault.
__________. “Technologies of the Self.” In The Essential Foucault.
__________. The Use of Pleasure: The History of Sexuality, Vol. 2, trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Random House, 1985.
Lamb, Andrew. “Freedom, the Self, and Ethical Practice According to Michel Foucault.” In International Philosophical Quarterly Vol.XXXV, No.4 Issue No. 140 (December 1995).
Veyne, Paul. “The Final Foucault and His Ethics.” In Critical Inquiry (Autumn 1993). trans. Catherine Porter and Arnold Davidson. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1993.


  1. Anonymous2:35 AM

    Good job for offering a summarized version of the use of pleasure. I find this book rather hard to understand. God bless!

  2. Anonymous7:16 AM

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  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. Anonymous11:21 PM

    Thanks for the great summary!

  5. Succinct and informative!