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On The Government of the Living: Lectures at the Collège de France,…

by Michel Foucault

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: Lectures at the Collège de France (1979-1980)

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1147214,537 (4)1
With these lectures Foucault inaugurates his investigations of truth-telling in the ethical domain of practices of techniques of the self. How and why, he asks, does the government of men require those subject to power to be subjects who must tell the truth about themselves?                                                                … (more)

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Showing 1-5 of 7 (next | show all)
I guess this is really important for Foucault's development, or maybe there's a much larger audience for explication of early Christian theories of baptism than I had suspected, but this is wildly over-rated here on Goodreads. The basic idea remains compelling: when did 'truth' become what we think of as 'truth'? But I'd skip this unless you're writing a dissertation on him, which I, for the record, am not. ( )
  stillatim | Oct 23, 2020 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
At the beginning of this series of lectures (God, I hope I'm revered enough a professor someday for my lectures to be recorded, transcribed, and published, though mine will have many more Doctor Who jokes than Foucault's), Foucault promises something that I thought would be very interesting. He tells the story of Septimius Severus, a Roman emperor who ostensibly presided in an audience hall whose ceiling was painted with the stars in the sky at the moment of his birth. This is because, Foucault, asserts, there is an intrinsic relationship between power and knowledge: "it would [...] be very difficult to find an example of a power that is exercised without being accompanied, one way or another, by a manifestation of truth" (4). Not necessarily utilitarian knowledge (because surely astrology does not make Severus a better emperor), but just that power requires "a ritual of manifestation of the truth" (6). To me this sounded fascinating: one of my recurrent interests is the way scientific knowledge is deployed to justify violence, and there seems to be a connection there in that so often (in fiction at least) it matters less that actual science has been utilized, and more that someone has said that science is at work.

It seems a potent idea (for example, Roger Green discusses alethurgy, Foucault's term for the way we make something true, in the context of President Trump), but as I feel often happens with Foucault, the book I imagined based on his stated project is nowhere near as interesting as the one I got. Which, to be fair, could be my fault and not his, but On the Government of the Living mostly consists of detailed readings of Oedipus Rex and early Christian practices of repentance. These were not interesting to me at all. Near the end of the lecture series he gets to the idea that the way Christianity requires one to know oneself in order to repent is a precondition for power: "the need to drag interiority from itself, to bring it out in order to display it in a relationship of exteriority and obedience" (308). But this insight comes at the end of three hundred pages of monotony, and it was too little, too late.

(Also: never trust an academic who says they have "limited" their critical apparatus to the necessities, as the general editors of this series claim (xv). Most of the twelve lectures here have at least sixty end notes, some as many as ninety, drowning the text in incomprehensible detail. One shudders to think what the unlimited critical apparatus looks like!)
1 vote Stevil2001 | May 12, 2017 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
This is the second I've read of Foucault's transcribed lectures at Collège de France, and confirms it would have been an immense pleasure to attend in person. These essays were as enjoyable as -- when an undergraduate -- I was introduced to Discipline and Punish: not knowing what to make of the heady mix of abstraction and precise archivalism, nevertheless I was left enthusiastic and inspired by the prospects for social theory.

Foucault's lectures from 1980 follow two related strands:
1 - Foucault's continued examination of subjectivity and truth / truth and power; how truth always accompanies power, is wedded to self-disclosure / self censorship, the cyclical relationship of truth/power providing insight into the operation of Western subjectivity. "The exercise of power is almost always accompanied by a manifestation of truth" [6] and "no hegemony without alethurgy". [7,9]
2 - Hermeneutics: first, reconsideration of Oedipus Rex in light of truth as self-interrogation; then, critical history ("anarchaeology") of Christian theology (2nd through 8th Century Patristics) and its distinct character from prior histories (Greek and Roman philosophical traditions), the persistence of this Christian outlook through Western Civilisation even into its secular forms.

Christianity as truth regime is characterized as evolving from exomologesis to exagoreusis; from public acknowledgment of one's status as sinner, to examination and vocal confession of the details of one's sins, even unto a constant vigilance against the betrayal of one's own thoughts and impulses. That is, the subject (in this case a Christian believer) becomes an object of truth, for that subject, through an obedience to someone else (anyone else), and for the purpose of self renunciation. [308] Foucault implies the evolution of Christian practices (baptism, penance, and spiritual direction) shaped the technologies of the subject and formation of the Self in Western Civilisation. "If you are obliged to tell the truth [about yourself] it is because, without knowing it, despite everything, there's a bit of Oedipus in you too." [312] This comment about Oedipus after most of his time was spent on Christian theology and practice displays Foucault's conception of both as related, and emblematic of the Western mind.

Foucault states the shape of Christian subjectivity is true for "the Christian West and civilization generally" (K12); there is room to push back against this implicit argument that a Patristic outlook holds true in a modern, secular society. I suspect he would welcome such an interrogation of his method and argument, constraints of time and format require he leave them implicit.


Both the title and dates are misleading. Foucault registered the course title in Spring 1979, but all lectures were delivered in 1980. He never addresses a "government of the living", exploring instead Christian penitential practices from the 2nd through 5th Centuries (and monastic traditions of 7th & 8th Centuries).

Such commentary on what these lectures are not, though, merely reflects Foucault's creativity and careful reading. His research and thinking don't fit neatly into his original outline of intentions, drafted almost a year beforehand. Developing ideas spill over into multiple years' lectures, while relatively discrete research is published as separate works, even as he identifies foundational concepts and traces the evolution of discursive practice. Michel Senellart's "Course Context" suggests Foucault eventually arrives at his intended destination: he expands in later courses this notion of biopolitics ("the means by which power takes charge of the life of men and women as population", Senellart [327]), examining in these (1980) lectures how subjects are controlled by a personal relation to truth, and implying this subjectivity may be influenced by governments or other truth regimes. Foucault is tidying up & setting the stage for more focused thinking on the hermeneutics of the subject (1981-82) and government of the self and others (1982-83).

All of which argues that the most profitable reading of the Collège de France lectures is as an unhurried survey of the territory, forward and back, and a little to one side or another, ultimately gathering coherence around his understanding of discursive practices, a perspective perhaps otherwise unobtainable to readers of only the published works.


Meta: Foucault's "Course Summary", Senellart's "Course Context", Foreward, Translator's Note, two indices
Power/Truth: K1, hegemony & alethurgy
Oedipus Revisited: K2 - K4, a dramatic manifestation of hegemony & alethurgy
Regimes of Truth: K5a
Christian Penance 1 / Baptism: K5b - K7, Tertullian's invention (Original Sin)
Christian Penance 2 / Repentance: K8 - K10a, "Ecclesial and Canonical Penance"
Christian Penance 3 / Examination of Conscience: K10b - K12, Confession & Spiritual Direction


Foucault self-categorises as Anti-Foundationalist / refusing all universals / negative theorist [K1]

Unexpected linkages between NCP and Christian Theology:
• Spiritual Direction in Classical & Christian traditions; adherence to another person but never ceding one's will, never involving coercion; the demarcation between spiritual direction and politics rests on this distinction [K10, 229-31]
• Foucault implies root of power isn't violence or coercion, speculates on power "stripped" of its trappings [K1]; a possible solution is that power is rooted in meaning, in truth (though this is never stated explicitly in these lectures) ( )
2 vote elenchus | Jan 29, 2015 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
All of Foucault's best qualities as a philosopher are on display in these lectures -- his wonderfully creative, synthetic thinking, his passion and sheer verbosity. These are dazzling displays of intellect, and they pose significant questions about how Christian traditions have shaped the structure of our minds and, by extension, our institutions in the West. As lectures, this book's arguments can seem tendentious -- and he often substitutes the emblematic example for the thoroughgoing examination of sources. In front of a packed audience, one suspects that the suggestive works better than the exhaustive. These volumes provide the reader with short summaries of the lectures and good commentary from the editors. These lectures are forceful and for those who find his ideas as fertile as the generation of students who heard them live -- they will want to seek out more from his rich body of work. Recommended! ( )
1 vote marmel.cest.moi | Jan 7, 2015 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
As a continuation of the wonderfully endless lectures Foucault gave at the College de France, this volume is jam-packed with ideas that are fast-paced and brilliant. However the only way to deeply respond to his thought is to slow down and think. This is not a book for the uninitiated either in the history of philosophy or Christianity. Like his other courses, this demands a profound patience and an ability to stop and think and also to stop and read other books as Foucault has clearly done. His mind is rapacious and conservative thinkers and historians will be highly suspect of his method as well as his conclusions - though he really has neither a true method and comes to few "conclusions." I never come away from reading Foucault without a dizzy excitement and a feeling that I just don't know enough to fully grasp what he wants me to do with all of this stuff. I stand in awe and will return to think. ( )
2 vote michaelg16 | Jan 1, 2015 |
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» Add other authors (1 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Michel Foucaultprimary authorall editionscalculated
Burchell, GrahamTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Davidson, Arnold I.Series Editorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Ewald, FrançoisForewordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Fontana, AlessandroForewordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Senellart, MichelEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed

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With these lectures Foucault inaugurates his investigations of truth-telling in the ethical domain of practices of techniques of the self. How and why, he asks, does the government of men require those subject to power to be subjects who must tell the truth about themselves?                                                                

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