The Culture of Confession from Augustine to Foucault
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The Culture of Confession from Augustine to Foucault

A Genealogy of the 'Confessing Animal'

Chloe Taylor

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eBook - ePub

The Culture of Confession from Augustine to Foucault

A Genealogy of the 'Confessing Animal'

Chloe Taylor

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About This Book

Drawing on the work of Foucault and Western confessional writings, this book challenges the transhistorical and commonsense views of confession as an innate impulse resulting in the psychological liberation of the confessing subject. Instead, confessional desire is argued to be contingent and constraining, and alternatives to confessional subjectivity are explored.

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Confession from Antiquity to the Counter-Reformation


In lectures and articles he wrote in the 1980s, Foucault traces forms of confessional discourse through antiquity and into the first centuries of Christianity.1 Regarding such discursive acts in antiquity, Foucault observes that examinations of conscience were exceedingly rare, existing only as a rather uncommon philosophic practice: “in all the ancient philosophical practices, the obligation to tell the truth about oneself occupies a rather limited place.”2 In comparison to the explosion and omnipresence of confessional discourses today, it should be stressed first and foremost that such discourses were nearly absent in antiquity. Moreover, as shall be seen, the discursive acts which Foucault analyzes in antiquity do not share all of the characteristics of confession detailed above: telling the truth of the self, and modifying the self in the process, are present in antiquity, but these statements of truth do not come accompanied by protestations of difficulty and repression and shame. These later elements, confession as such, only appear in monastic confessions of the Middle Ages. Moreover, since Greek philosophy was less about the project of knowing the subject than about knowing how the subject could change himself in order to live a better life, the form such self-examinations took was different from the forms they would take in modernity. In particular, ancient techniques of self-examination pursued the goals of self-transformation and self-mastery rather than self-discovery and interpretation. The element of “modifying” the self through truth-telling is consequently more self-conscious in antiquity than in modernity, at which point the subject will think she is “discovering” herself, blind to the manners in which her self-“discovery” is in fact a positive act of production.
So far as techniques of truthful examinations of conscience did exist in antiquity, the crucial argument that Foucault makes about such practices is, first, that the truth in question was not, as in modernity, a hidden and secret truth unique to the being of the speaking subject, but was a rationally cognized philosophical truth about how all persons wanting to live the good life ought to behave. One examined one’s actions, but less to tell the truth of these actions than to see and to manage how well they conformed to the philosophical truth of the good life. Among ancient philosophers, one was ideally one’s own master, and any tutelage prior to self-mastery was transitory and aimed at autonomy. Thus, while such self-examinations and confessions were not common, one finds certain philosophical practices of recording and recounting one’s acts and thoughts either to oneself or, if one was still in the process of becoming autonomous, to a temporary master. Such inventories of acts were judged in terms of how well they conformed to certain ideas regarding how the subject ought to act. These ideas about the good life were considered true, and the aim was to examine how well one’s behavior had adhered to these true ethical guidelines in order to better attain them over time. Examinations of one’s acts were thus part of a self-consciously undertaken process of becoming a certain kind of subject in conformity with the philosophical truth of an ethical teaching which one rationally accepted. Importantly, the emphasis on truth does not lie with the truth of one’s declarations, nor with the truth of one’s self, but with the truth of the ethical ideal at which those declarations aim and to which one compares them. Indeed, in contrast to today, there was no truth of the self, and this absence of truth was related to the fact that the self was free, autonomous, and could thus become other than what it was.
In “Self Writing,” Foucault gives the example of ancients who would exchange daily letters in which they would record all of their actions of that day, in a practice that can be compared to keeping a diary for another to read.3 Here we can see the conjunction of discipline and techniques of the self in antiquity. Foucault is analyzing these daily correspondences as ways in which the ancients would work towards shaping their actions in conformity with a rationally chosen model of the ethical life, and thus as a technique of the self. Nevertheless this form of correspondence involves offering one’s life up to the surveillance of another. Moreover, knowing that one’s activities will be judged by another, the point was that the ancient subject would monitor himself in order to have nothing shameful to report to or to have seen by the other. Correspondence was a self-conscious attempt to enforce a habit of self-surveillance through a pact of surveillance between two subjects. Nonetheless, this is not the panopticism of modernity which Foucault would describe in Discipline and Punish, since the ancient subject is choosing to offer his day’s activities up to the judgment and surveillance of another, rather than monitoring himself because he finds himself already-monitored, and the transformation of surveillance into self-surveillance will only work with the subject’s truthful cooperation from the outset. The ancient subject submits to and internalizes surveillance not because he is dominated, but because he has rationally decided that he wishes to be subjected to and to internalize, and thus to conform to, the model of the ethical life which he philosophically endorses.
In “Subjectivity and Truth,” Foucault notes that confession to another—for instance the correspondence analyzed in “Self Writing”—was “a practice not very developed in philosophical life” in antiquity, but it did exist in the Epicurean schools and in medical practice, and also existed in Seneca’s school of thought. In an example of confession involving another, Foucault describes the case of Serenus’s confession to Seneca regarding his spiritual malaise, a sort of medical consultation concerned with the state of his soul. Unlike in Christian and modern forms of confession, Foucault notes that what is confessed to is not concerned with “shameful desires” and “things of that sort,” but related to the more properly Greek concerns of riches, political life, and glory: the domains of activity of the free man. Once more, in this act of truth-telling, the truth involved is not a correspondence with reality, and is not psychologically buried and to be discovered through analysis of the individual, but is a philosophical truth which is rationally known and which is true of the good life, the life of the philosopher.4 If Seneca, as master of himself, can examine his own deeds at the end of the day, Serenus, like the ancient correspondents, confesses to Seneca in the process of attaining a similar self-mastery. The function of this form of confession is not self-discovery and self-interpretation but becoming-autonomous, and the hierarchical relation involved in Serenus’s truth-telling to Seneca is not intrinsic to the discourse, as in modern confession, but is part of the process of becoming autonomous and thus of telling the truth to oneself, in the process abolishing the need for this hierarchy.
Seneca himself, further along in the process of self-mastery than Serenus, undertakes a similar examination of self without the mediation of another. He describes taking a nightly “inventory” of his day’s activities, not as a judge of them, but as an administrator, deeming any errors in judgment to be, not faults of the subject, but mistakes, wrong applications of his ideas rather than tell-tale indicators of character flaws. Seneca undertakes his nightly self-examination not with anxiety or guilt, but with aesthetic pleasure and serenity. He asks:
What could be more beautiful than to conduct an inquest of one’s day? What sleep better than that which follows this review of one’s actions? How calm it is, deep and free, when the soul has received its portion of praise and blame, and has submitted itself to its own examination, to its own censure. Secretly, it makes the trial of its own conduct. I exercise this authority over myself, and each day I will myself as witness before myself. When my light is lowered and my wife at last is silent, I reason with myself and take the measure of my acts and of my words…. 5
Though, as shall be seen in later chapters, modern confessants certainly take pleasure in their confessions, the pleasure is more perverse, erotic, and less calm, often followed by displeasure, accompanied by predictable claims about the difficulty of the discursive act involved, the courage required, denial of masochistic, narcissistic, or exhibitionist pleasure, and so forth. Seneca’s pleasure, in contrast, is aesthetic (“What could be more beautiful … ?”) and serene (“How calm it is”), and is a practice in self-mastery (“I exercise this authority over myself, and each day I will myself as witness before myself”) without submitting itself to or fantasizing the shameful exposure to and condemnation by another, whether it be God or the reading public. While Seneca reproaches himself for how he spoke to an individual during the day, this examination of conduct is not accompanied by guilt or shame, but a calm pleasure in knowing that by examining the mistake he is in the process of improving and mastering himself such that he will remember to act according to the code of behavior which he ascribes to in the future. While in the case of correspondence found in “Self Writing,” surveillance is needed to produce the requisite self-surveillance in a subject, Seneca has reached a point of self-mastery at which he monitors himself without need of another.
To sum up, in contradistinction from modern confession, the deeds Seneca reflects on do not reveal to Seneca truths about his character or about his personal predilections, drives, or desires, but simply truths about how well he has conformed to a certain and true idea of ethical behavior in action. Also in contrast to modern confession, this truth is immediately and fully accessible to him, it is not hidden or indecipherable or unconscious, and does not require the intervention of another to be interpreted. Finally, the examination of conscience in Seneca is part of the process of becoming of the self, rather than a means of discovering a certain essential being of the subject. It is clear that this form of confession as means of becoming autonomous would have been a technique of the self used only by a small and élite group of individuals in Ancient Greece and Rome: a select group of free men, and certain philosophers more specifically. Legal confessions could be tortured from slaves in ancient Greece, though not from free men such as Seneca, but in either case, confession in law was not, as in modernity, a reflection of a more everyday demand that subjects confess. Moreover, legal confessions in antiquity admitted to acts rather than to the psychological being (motives, intentions) of the confessing subject. What Foucault is provisionally calling “confession” or self-examination in Greek and Roman antiquity was thus not a wide-spread aspect of subject-formation intrinsic to identity, which is to be noted in contrast to modern forms of confession which, Foucault will argue, would become crucial in the formation of the modern subject across classes and genders. Confession and self-examination in ancient Greece and Rome were relatively simple techniques based on an un-complex conception of the self. They involved discipline but in the form of rationally chosen and cultivated self-discipline, however culturally-circumscribed the notion of the good life (and who had access to it) entailed may have been. In contrast, techniques of truth-telling and practices of the self in Christianity would be increasingly complex as well as increasingly close to modern truth-telling technologies and notions of subjectivity. At the same time, the discipline involved would augment and aim towards obedience rather than autonomy, an anxiety-ridden obedience to a doctrine within a hierarchy ever less clearly and less calmly chosen.


Making Truths

In “Christianity and Confession,” Foucault notes that Christianity is a confession, and that this entails that Christians, as with persons of other confessions, tell the truth. A confessional faith is not a private spirituality; rather, in Christianity, and particularly in Catholicism, one is obliged to subscribe to a certain set of doctrines as true, to believe that certain texts are sources of truth, to accept the decisions of religious authorities as true, and to manifest one’s subscription to this faith.6 A confessional faith thus requires its followers to develop certain relations between themselves and the truth. Beyond these relations to the truth of the faith, however, Christianity developed an idea according to which one also needed to know and to manifest the truth of oneself, and this second form of truthfulness was related to one’s knowing and manifesting the truth of the religion. According to Augustine, qui facit veritatem venit ad lucem: by making truth inside oneself one could get access to the light.7 By knowing one’s sins and temptations, and by bearing witness to these sins and temptations in the presence of others, a Christian could better access the truth of God. From a notion of truth as external in antiquity, we move to a notion of two truths, one external (God) and one internal (the self), and have thus taken one step towards the modern confessional interest in truth as purely internal or introspectively-discovered. What interests Foucault, of course, are not the manners in which Christians confessed the truth of their faith, which I argue below is crucial to his neglect of Augustine. Rather, Foucault is far more concerned with the techniques which Christianity developed for “making truth inside oneself.” The method which comes to mind is of course the sacrament of penance. As Foucault notes, however, this is a late invention of Christianity, one which he will not discuss at all in “Christianity and Confession,” attending instead to forms of manifesting one’s truth between the second and fifth centuries A.D. In particular, in this lecture Foucault will discuss the practices of exomologesis and exagoreusis, or publishing oneself and permanent ve...

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