In Michel Foucault’s late work he turns to ancient practices of the self, including stoicism, to explore whether such ‘technologies of the self’ can be taken up by the contemporary subject to cultivate a non-subjugated self. For Foucault, technologies of the self “permit individuals to effect by their own means or with the help of others, a certain number of operations on their own bodies and souls, thoughts, conduct, and way of being, so as to transform themselves in order to attain a state of happiness, purity, wisdom, perfection or immortality.” Foucault does not suggest we simply copy these ancient practices, which are embedded in a particular culture and time, but does hope to use them as examples of how technologies of the self could be used to cultivate a different relationship to the self. Foucault rejects, any notion of a universal human nature that we are aiming to realize, claiming that the subject is produced. He warns against “the risk of falling back on the idea that there exists a human nature or base that, as a consequence of certain historical, economic, and social processes, has been concealed, alienated, or imprisoned in and by mechanisms of representations”. He suggests that it is never “completely clear or resolved in Hellenistic and Roman thought whether the self is something to which you return because it is given in advance or an objective you must set for yourself”. Can we, however, make sense of these practices without reference to a universal concept of human nature? In this chapter, I will explore whether the aim of creating a non-subjugated self provides a sufficient teleological reference point against which to frame a contemporary practice of self-cultivation. How can we understand self-mastery if there is no prior concept of what a self is?
Mitcheson, K. (2018). Foucault, stoicism and self-mastery. In M. Dennis, & S. Werkhoven (Eds.), Ethics and Self-Cultivation: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives. Routledge