A whole corpus of moral reflection on sexual activity and its pleasures seems to mark, in the first centuries of our era, a certain strengthening of austerity themes. Physicians worry about the effects of sexual practice, unhesitatingly recommend abstention, and declare a preference for virginity over the use of pleasure. Philosophers condemn any sexual relation that might take place outside marriage and prescribe a strict fidelity between spouses, admitting no exceptions. Furthermore, a certain doctrinal disqualification seems to bear on the love for boys. Does this mean that one must recognize, in the schema thus constituted, the lineaments of a future ethics, the ethics that one will find in Christianity, when the sexual act itself will be considered an evil, when it will no longer be granted legitimacy except within the conjugal relationship, and when the love of boys will be condemned as unnatural? Must one suppose that certain thinkers, in the Greco-Roman world, already had a presentiment of this model of sexual austerity which, in Christian societies, will be given a legal framework and an institutional support? One would thus find, formulated by a few austere philosophers isolated in the midst of a world that did not itself appear to be austere, the outline of a new ethics, destined, in the following centuries, to take more stringent forms and to gain a more general validity. The question is important, and it has a long tradition behind
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it. Since the Renaissance, it has laid down, in Catholicism and Protestantism alike, relatively similar dividing lines. On the one side, a certain ancient ethics closely related to Christianity (this is the thesis of the Manuductio ad stoicam philosophiam by Justus Lipsius, which Karl Barth radicalized by making Epictetus into a true Christian; it is, later, on behalf of the Catholics, the thesis of J.-P. Camus and, most notably, of the Epictste chritien by Jean-Marie de Bordeaux). On the other side, those for whom Stoicism was just another philosophy, one that was virtuous, certainly, but indelibly pagan (thus Salmasius among the Protestants, and Arnauld or Tillemont among the Catholics). The point at issue, however, was not just to bring certain of the ancient philosophers within the bounds of the Christian faith or to preserve the latter from any pagan contamination; the problem was also to determine what foundation to give to an ethics whose prescriptive elements seemed to be shared, up to a point, by Greco-Roman philosophy and the Christian religion. The debate that developed at the end of the nineteenth century is not unconnected with this problematic either, even if it sets up an interference with problems of historical method. Zahn, in his famous address, did not try to make a Christian of Epictetus, but to call attention to the signs of a knowledge of Christianity and to the traces of its influence.' Bonhiiffer's work, which replied to Zahn, sought to establish the unity of philosophy without there being the need to appeal to the disparate elements of an external action in order to explain this or that aspect of i t 2But it was also a matter of knowing where to look for the basis of the moral imperative and whether it was possible to detach Christianity from a certain type of ethics that had long been associated with it. Now, in this debate it seems that the participants granted, in a relatively confused way, three presuppositions: according to the first, the essential component of an ethics is to be sought in the code elements it contains; according to the second, the philosophical ethics of late antiquity resembled Christianity in its severe precepts, which represented an almost complete break with the previous tradition;
lastly, according to the third presupposition, it was in terms of loftiness and purity that Christian ethics could best be compared with the ethics that, in certain philosophers of antiquity, prepared the way for it. It is hardly possible, however, to let the matter remain there. One has to bear in mind, first, that the principles of sexual austerity were not defined for the first time in the philosophy of the imperial epoch. We have encountered in Greek thought of the fourth century B.C. formulations that were not much less demanding. After all, as we have seen, the sexual act appears to have been regarded for a very long time as dangerous, difficult to master, and costly; a precise calculation of its acceptable practice and its inclusion in a careful regimen had been required for quite some time. Plato, Isocrates, and Aristotle recommended, each in his own way, at least some forms of conjugal fidelity. And the love of boys could be held in the highest esteem. But the practice of abstention was demanded of it as well, so that it might preserve the spiritual value expected of it. Hence a very long time had passed during which concern for the body and for health, the relation to wives and to marriage, and the relationship with boys had been motifs for the elaboration of a severe ethics. And in a certain way, the sexual austerity that one encounters in the philosophers of the first centuries of our era has its roots in this ancient tradition. It is true that one should not ignore the carefully maintained continuity and the conscious reactivation evident in this thought of the first centuries, so manifestly haunted by classical culture. Hellenistic philosophy and ethics experienced what Henri Marrou called "a long summer." But the fact remains that several modifications are perceptible: they prevent one from considering the moral philosophy of Musonius or that of Plutarch simply as the accentuation of the lessons of Xenophon, Plato, Isocrates, or Aristotle; they also prevent one from considering the recommendations of Soranus or Rufus of Ephesus as variations on the principles of Hippocrates or Diocles. As concerns dietetics and the problematization of health,
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the change is marked by an increased apprehension, a broader and more detailed definition of the correlations between the sexual act and the body, a closer attention to the ambivalence of its effects and its disturbing consequences. And this is not just a greater preoccupation with the body; it is also a different way of thinking about sexual activity, and of fearing it because of its many connections with disease and with evil. With regard to wives and to the problematization of marriage, the modification mainly concerns the valorization of the conjugal bond and the dual relation that constitutes it; the husband's right conduct and the moderation he needs to enjoin on himself are not justified merely by considerations of status, but by the nature of the relationship, its universal form and the mutual obligations that derive from it. Finally, as regards boys, the need for abstinence is less and less perceived as a way of giving the highest spiritual values to the forms of love, and more and more as the sign of an imperfection that is specific to sexual activity. Now, in these modifications of preexisting themes one can see the development of an art of existence dominated by selfpreoccupation. This art of the self no longer focuses so much on the excesses that one can indulge in and that need to be mastered in order to exercise one's domination over others. It gives increasing emphasis to the frailty of the individual faced with the manifold ills that sexual activity can give rise to. It also underscores the need to subject that activity to a universal form by which one is bound, a form grounded in both nature and reason, and valid for all human beings. It likewise emphasizes the importance of developing all the practices and all the exercises by which one can maintain self-control and eventually arrive at a pure enjoyment of oneself. It is not the accentuation of the forms of prohibition that is behind these modifications in sexual ethics. It is the development of an art of existence that revolves around the question of the self, of its dependence and independence, of its universal form and of the connection it can and should establish with others, of the procedures by which it exerts its control over itself, and of
the way in which it can establish a complete supremacy over itself. And it is in this context that a dual phenomenon, characteristic of this ethics of pleasure, occurs. On the one hand, a more active attention to sexual practice is required, an attention to its effects on the organism, to its place and function within marriage, to its value and its difficulties in the relationship with boys. But at the same time as one dwells on it, and as the interest that one brings to bear on it is intensified, it increasingly appears to be dangerous and capable of compromising the relation with oneself that one is trying to establish. It seems more and more necessary to distrust it, to confine it, insofar as possible, to marital relations-even at the cost of charging it with more intense meanings within that conjugal relationship. Problematization and apprehension go hand in hand; inquiry is joined to vigilance. A certain style of sexual conduct is thus suggested by this whole movement of moral, medical, and philosophical reflection. It is different from the style that had been delineated in the fourth century, but it is also different from the one that will be found in Christianity. Here sexual activity is linked to evil by its form and its effects, but in itself and substantially, it is not an evil. It finds its natural fulfillment in marriage, but-with certain exceptions -marriage is not an express, indispensable condition for it to cease being an evil. It has trouble finding its place in the love of boys, but the latter is not therefore condemned as being contrary to nature. Thus, as the arts of living and the care of the self are refined, some precepts emerge that seem to be rather similar to those that will be formulated in the later moral systems. But one should not be misled by the analogy. Those moral systems will define other modalities of the relation to self: a characterization of the ethical substance based on finitude, the Fall, and evil; a mode of subjection in the form of obedience to a general law that is at the same time the will of a personal god; a type of work on oneself that implies a decipherment of the soul and a purificatory hermeneutics of the desires; and a mode of
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ethical fulfillment that tends toward self-renunciation. The code elements that concern the economy of pleasures, conjugal fidelity, and relations between men may well remain analogous, but they will derive from a profoundly altered ethics and from a different way of constituting oneself as the ethical subject of one's sexual behavior.
Published on Jan 14, 2013
The last published installment in his multi-volume 'History of Sexuality,’ Foucault examines moral themes regarding sexual activity in the f...