Saturday, July 16, 2016

Historical Cynicism: The Care of Self

A recent reading of Michel Foucault, The Courage of Truth,[1] reveals the long history of Cynicism viewed on the basis of a theme of life as “scandal of the truth”, or of “style of life as site of emergence of the truth”  (bios as alethurgy[2]) (p. 180).  Foucault wrote,

[In its ancient form] Cynic practice, the requirement of an extremely distinctive form of life—with very characteristic, well defined rules, conditions, or modes—is strongly connected to the principle of truth-telling, of truth-telling without shame or fear, of unrestricted and courageous truth-telling, of truth-telling which pushes its courage and boldness to the point that it becomes intolerable insolence. The connecting up of truth-telling [parrhêsia] and mode of life, this fundamental, essential connection in Cynicism between living in a certain way and dedicating oneself telling the truth us all the more noteworthy for taking place immediately as it were, without doctrinal mediation, or at any rate within a fairly rudimentary theoretical framework. . . Cynicism appears . . . to be a form of philosophy in which the mode of life and truth-telling are directly and immediately linked to each other. (pp. 165-6)

Cynicism was a distinct shift within the locus of the parrhesiatic speech, from the political domain to the ethical, truth-telling as part of democratic citizenship. More than mere franc speech it is more closely associated with the notion of ethos. The Cynics and their concerns went beyond the traditional topics of politics and democracy, unto questions of “happiness and unhappiness [3] Historically Foucault traced three profound historical paths or stances that resulted in the ethical development of the self: the confession or the Christian hermeneutics of the self, the Greek and Roman philosophical care of the self and the Cynical parrhêsia or fearless speech.
[eudaimonia], good and ill fortune, slavery and freedom” of all humankind. Cynicism established and sustained “constant relationship to the self on the basis of a particular truth discourse”.

We could say today, the cynic ("gentle" or otherwise) is one who publicly lives out inconvenient truths concerning one’s daily existence, an existential attitude and the mark of a sage (or development of); i.e., one who transforms one’s own body in a ”theater of the scandal of truth” which ultimately challenges ones’ fellow friends/citizens to radically revise their opinions, institutions and common shared values.  Cynicism should be viewed as beginning with the “care of the self” in the struggle of living daily against the normalization of injustices, violence, and uncaring modes and methods of people and the planet. It means at some level a resistance to solitude or estrangement, to “everything which separates the individual, breaks his links with others, splits up community” and forces an individual back on himself and ties him to his own identity in a constraining way.[4] Thus in its subjective forms, truthful speech (parrhesia)  is truth telling as a form of the care of self, intended to do work, to have an effects on others and on ourselves—to govern self and influence others.

[1] M Foucalt, The Courage of Truth(The Government of Self and Others II) Lectures at the College De France, 1983-84.
[2] ἀληθουργής, someone who speaks the truth (a hapax legomenon); This hapaxadjective is the result of composing the noun meaning “truth” (alétheia, ἀλήθεια) with the noun meaning “action” or “deed” (érgon, ἔργον). The “fictive word” forged by Foucault, alethurgy, is decidedly defined to signify “the set of possible verbal and non-verbal procedures by which one brings to light what is laid down as true as opposed to false, hidden, inexpressible, unforeseeable, or forgotten,” in order to conclude that “there is no power without something like alethurgy”. The word does not only sound like the combination of alétheia and érgon, but also like the combination of alétheia and liturgy. Liturgy, in turn, is a civil duty that one performs at his or her own expenses (and risks). As civil duty, it has a certain ritual, a series of forms and spaces where it can be performed. In fact, throughout Foucault’s text, alethurgy goes from “manifestation of truth” to mean the forms and rituals in which truth is manifested as part of the technique of government.
[3] Foucault’s 1984 lectures on The Courage of Truth,
[4] Cristian Iftode, Foucault’s Idea of Philosophy as ‘Care of the Self:’ Critical Assessment and Conflicting Metaphorical Views. West University of Timisoara, Romania: Elsevier Ltd., 2013

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