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Queering Plato: Foucault on Philosophy as Self-fashioning and Resistance in Plato’s 7th Letter

Paul Allen Miller

Résumé

This paper argues that the late Foucault’s final focus on antiquity and ethics does not represent a withdrawal from the political but rather a renewed from of engagement. The task of the philosopher is not to tell people who to vote for, or what tax plan to adopt, or even what laws should or should not regulate sexual conduct, although the philosopher like anyone else will have opinions on these topics, but those opinions are not per se philosophical. The philosopher rather stands as an index of truth in relation to the political, as someone who is willing to take personal risks to speak the truth regardless of party or program, as someone who has formed him- or herself in the commitment to that truth, not simply as a profession but as a mode of life. The philosopher d’après Foucault, in forming him or herself as a truth-teller, creates spaces of resistance, not by telling people what they should believe, nor by enforcing ideological or party discipline, but by allowing subjugated forms of knowledge to come to the fore, by problematizing the space in which government seeks to inscribe individuals (especially the marginalized), and by making possible new forms of experience whose truth has yet to be imagined. This can be seen most clearly in Foucault’s engagement with Plato’s Seventh Letter.

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  • 1 The bibliography here is voluminous and often filled with controversy and polemic. For some of the (...)

1In 1980 the first cases of AIDS were reported. In 1982, the disease was named. By the spring of 1983, Michel Foucault was symptomatic and more than likely had a definitive diagnosis by the end of the year. In June 1984, he died at the age of 57, shortly after correcting the proofs of Volumes 2 and 3 of the History of Sexuality (1984a and 1984b). For those of us who remember those dark days, it was a time of horror. Friends, colleagues, brothers, and, yes, even sisters began dying by the thousands. People we all knew. People we loved. Mainstream heteronormative society by and large did not seem to care until it became obvious that this was not simply a gay plague visited on Sodom by a wrathful god, but a blood-borne illness that could be more easily and effectively transmitted by a medical transfusion than anal penetration. It was not till 1987, that the President of the United States, Ronald Reagan, so much as uttered the word AIDS in public. « Enlightened » socialist regimes in countries such as Cuba rounded up homosexuals and placed them in quarantine. To many this seemed like genocide by other means. The actual cause of Foucault’s death was not revealed till two years later by his longtime partner Daniel Defert who founded the French AIDs activist and support group AIDES1.

  • 2 All translation are my own, unless otherwise specified.

2In the early 1980s, however, Foucault’s work turned definitively from a direct engagement with the modern world and its immediate genealogy to an engagement with the texts of antiquity. While volumes 2 and 3 of History of Sexuality, ostensibly continued the work of Volume one, as every commentator observed, they were very different. In fact, questions of sexual pleasure had only a very small place in the final Foucault. As he famously said in an interview given at Berkeley the year before his death, “I must confess that I am much more interested in the problems posed by the technology of the self or in things of this order than in sexuality. Sexuality is boring”2 (Foucault 1994c: 383; cf. 1994j: 331). The final volumes of the History of Sexuality, far from retelling the history of a golden age of sexual freedom, as has some times been alleged, in fact, pay special attention to the formation of the subject in the ancient world (Macy 1993: 458, 468; Nehamas 1998: 178; Gros 2001: 503, 511-13; Gros 2008: 358), and specifically to the techniques used to fashion a self capable of recognizing its own desire, monitoring that desire, and shaping it in ways that allow the subject to wield power over itself and others (Foucault 1984a: 12-15, 36, 74, 82-96, 237; Kremer-Marietti 1985: 225-26, 247-52; Gros 2001: 494-95). This is also a genealogy of the confessing subject, of the subject who tells the truth about himself, who plumbs himself as the locus of a truth that lies hidden, but also of the philosopher as truth-teller, as someone empowered to speak the truth to power, whether in the form of Socrates to the Athenian people or the advisors to later emperors and princes (Foucault 2008: 42, 66-67, 178-80, 320; Foucault 2012: 79-83, 111-12, 151).

3Foucault in these final lectures is, in fact, writing a history of the power of truth, a history of the “will to know” (Foucault 2012: 24-25, 49-51, 98-99). The last five years of courses he gave at Collège de France were primarily focused on the question of what it means for the subject to speak the truth—he would coin the term aléthurgie, “act of truth,” for this process—and in the final three courses he focused increasingly on the texts of Plato (2001, 2008, 2009, 2012, 2014). While throughout the early 80s he continued to give interviews in the gay press decrying attempts to regulate the bathhouses of Toronto, extolling the virtues of New York and San Francisco as laboratories of sexual experimentation, and celebrating sadomasochistic practices as forms of self-invention (1994j; 1994k; 1994l), a review of the interviews given in 1983-84 shows him to fall largely silent on these topics (see 1994a).

4Was this from a sense of shame? Was this an abdication of his intellectual responsibility as a leading gay intellectual? Was this part of a deliberate death wish in which he kept silent on the topic of his declining health, while continuing to engage in the very practices through which he had contracted AIDS and was more than likely spreading it? All of these scenarios have been propounded by the biographers and critics of the time, most prominently James Miller (1993: 28-29, 375-78). Instead of speaking out from his lectern about the dangers of AIDS, the dying philosopher carefully and methodically read texts like Plato’s Apology and Seventh Letter or Eurpides’ Ion (2008). He investigated the origins of terms such as parrhesia or « truth telling » in the texts of antiquity, and wrote of the personal risk such truth telling entailed for figures like Socrates or Diogenes the Cynic. He spoke of the courage necessary to speak truth to power more than two thousand years ago rather than doing so today (2008: 43-66). At the same time, he advanced a notion of ethics as aesthetics (1994c: 617). His focus was increasingly on the subject, how it formed itself, how it cared for itself, and it could produce a self worthy of admiration, even emulation (1984a: 35; 1994b; 1994d: 415; 1994f; 1994h: 214; 2001: 11-13, 58, 443-44; Kremer-Marietti 1985: 248, 277; Nehamas 1998: 168-69). Was this mere solipsism? How, we are asked, could he abdicate his political responsibility in the face of an increasingly dire contagion and a culture of reaction (Zizek 1991: 141; Black 1998: 42-44, 51-53; Larmour et al. 1998: 31-33; Vizier 1998: 66-68)?

  • 3 For a good example of the continuing vitality of Foucault’s work on questions of ancient sexuality (...)

5The political consequences of Foucault’s late work, however, I would contend, are more complex than this common summary would lead one to believe and easy to underestimate. David Halperin, once famously said that Foucault’s History of Sexuality volume 1 was to Gay Liberation, AIDS activists, and the Queer movements of the eighties and early nineties in the United States, what Herbert Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man was to the student activists of the sixties or Marx’s Communist Manifesto had been to previous generations of political activists (1995: 15-16). It was a kind of bible for ACT UP and Queer Nation. How, then, could he just all of a sudden stop or turn his interests exclusively to the esoteric concerns of ancient philosophy or the aesthetics of self-formation? This must surely be a misreading. Nonetheless, while it would be foolish to contest the importance of Foucault’s contribution to rethinking sexuality as both a discourse of power and a locus of resistance, it is also doubtful that the philosopher himself would have ever actually wanted to be seen as a political messiah or as “a fucking saint” in another of Halperin’s memorable formulations (1995: 6). In fact, Foucault both disclaimed any role as a law-giver or legislator for the gay community and specifically argued against there being anything identifiable, let alone laid down, as a « homosexual style », in direct contradiction to Halperin’s own more prescriptive views (Foucault 1994j: 325, 334; cf. Halperin 1995: 115-18 ; Larmour et al. 1998: 12-13)3. The essence of sexual freedom for Foucault was to be found in choice, consent, and self-invention, not a specific disciplinary regime (1994j: 322; 1994n: 308-13; 1994o: 295).

6Foucault, having come to political consciousness after the second world war, amidst the ideological conformity demanded by institutions like the Parti Communiste Français, and in the shadow of public intellectuals like Jean-Paul Sartre, deliberately eschewed all gestures of presenting himself as a master thinker who could or should provide recipes for political action or formulas for resistance, although he remained personally active in a number of struggles till the end of his life. « The intervention of the intellectual as a giver of lessons or opinions concerning political choices, I confess that I don’t accept that role ; it doesn’t fit me. I think people are sufficiently grown up to choose for themselves who to vote for » (1994m: 747). Foucault saw only too clearly how every act of liberation carried with it the potential to become another locus of oppression, just as every gesture of power could also become a tactic of resistance (1976: 132-35; 1994g: 711; 1994o: 289). The work of the philosopher, he would argue in his 1983 course, was not to produce political bromides but to speak the truth to power, in all the different forms this « parrhesiastic » activity could assume, whether in Plato’s relationship with Dionysius of Syracuse, or Diogenes the Cynic’s with Alexander the Great, or his own with the Socialist government of François Mitterrand:

Philosophical discourse in its truth, inside the game that it necessarily plays with politics in order to find its truth, does not have to project what a political action ought to be. It does not speak the truth of political action, it does not speak the truth for political action, it speaks the truth in relation to political action, in relation to the exercise of politics, in relation to the political personage. And this is what I call a recurrent trait, a permanent and fundamental relation between philosophy and politics. … If we want effectively to truly understand these relations, we must keep in mind, one more time, that the task of philosophy is to speak the truth in relation to politics, not to say what politics truly has to do. (Foucault 2008: 265-66; compare Gros 2008: 358-61)

7The distinction Foucault outlines here is a subtle but important one. The task of the philosopher is not to tell people who to vote for, or what tax plan to adopt, or even what laws should or should not regulate sexual conduct, although the philosopher like anyone else will have opinions on these topics, but those opinions are not per se philosophical. The philosopher rather stands as an index of truth in relation to the political, as someone who is willing to take personal risks to speak the truth regardless of party or program, as someone who has formed him- or herself in the commitment to that truth, not simply as a profession but as a mode of life. The philosopher d’après Foucault, in forming him or herself as a truth-teller, creates spaces of resistance, not by telling people what they should believe, nor by enforcing ideological or party discipline, but by allowing subjugated forms of knowledge to come to the fore, by problematizing the space in which government seeks to inscribe individuals (especially the marginalized), and by making possible new forms of experience whose truth has yet to be imagined (Foucault 1994c: 612; 1994n: 311; Foucault 1997: 7-10; Foucault 2001: 241-42; Kremer-Marietti 1985: 294; Sawicki 1994: 294; Gros 2001: 524-25; Gros 2003: 12).

  • 4 See Heidegger 1982 and 1998; Derrida 1972: esp. 96 and 126; and Popper 1945. On the vast secondary (...)
  • 5 Again the bibliography is lengthy and other examples could be added. But see Irigaray 1977: 78-88; (...)

8In his final years of life, then, Foucault turned his attention increasingly to the philosophers of the ancient world, and specifically to Socrates, Plato, and the traditions that traced their genealogies therefrom. Edward Said and others have faulted Foucault for this turn, claiming it was a withdrawal from the political arena, a renunciation of commitment if not a direct form of reaction (Said 1984; Macey 1993: 475). In the history of the west, and particularly the history of metaphysics as understood since Heidegger and Derrida, but even for thinkers such as Popper, Plato has been seen as the great normalizer4. Platonic metaphysics as generally understood, though I would argue as commonly misread, establishes certain transcendental essences that both establish and regulate the order of things in the phenomenal world. The properly trained individual is the one who can bring the world of appearances into line with those essences, whether this be on the political, the ethical, or the epistemic levels: a place for everything and everything in its place. Such a universe functions as a locus of gender normativity in spades. Men and women, fathers and mothers, families and the state, each have their specific functions within the world that are ideally in accord with their essence, and when they deviate from those functions, they are to be led back into conformity with their natures5. At its most reductive, this form of thinking results in the recent North Carolina bathroom law, which seeks to establish gender at birth and enforce conformity with what a certain part of the Christian community in the United States sees both as « nature » and as god’s will (Bathroom Law 2017).

  • 6 See republican Presidential candidate Rick Santorum’s infamous analogy of heteronormative marriage (...)

9It is easy to see how in its most simplified form this type of Platonism was ready for appropriation by institutions like an ascendant Catholic church at the end of the Roman imperial period. For these thinkers, the phenomenal world was a fallen copy of the image in the mind of god. Christian Neoplatonism, in turn, provided the doctrinal basis for defending what was to become an increasingly heteronormative world in the West. As Catholic theology became more systematic—and I am being very schematic here for reasons of space—sexual behavior became increasingly seen as a purposeful relationship between individuals possessed of specific natures destined to realize a preordained purpose (procreation). Everything else was perversion. All other forms of sexual expression were literally queer. At its most reductive, this form of thinking in the modern world results in oppressive measures such as the bathroom law or in Presidential candidates who wax metaphysical on the topic of the sanctity of marriage, as ideal essences are defended against their material deviations6.

10The phenomenal world, however, can prove remarkably recalcitrant. For in so far as the world of appearances must always in some sense be deviant, if it is to appear at all, since by nature the world of appearances must always be different from the ideal essences to which they are to conform, then there must be a constant and contradictory effort both to hold that difference at bay and constantly to reassert it. It is this contradiction that gets directly thematized in works like Luce Irigaray’s famous reading of the “Myth of the Cave” in Speculum : de l’autre femme. There, woman as such is the invisible material surface that forms the backdrop against which the shadows of the cave are projected, the screen against which the phenomenal world of phallogocentrism is re-presented. Woman is at once what must remain invisible if the phenomenal world is to appear, and the inverse image of man insofar as she does appear (1974; P.A. Miller 2016: Chapter 1).

11The political task of decentering heteronormative masculinity, then, would appear to be the opposite of what classical Platonism calls for. Rather than a reduction of the phenomenal to its ideal essence, rather than the subjection of the wandering and the deviant to the transcendental norm, it would be the celebration of the material itself, of the fact of inscription, of an unruly and queer sexuality, of bodies and pleasures to paraphrase the conclusion of volume 1 of the History of Sexuality, or of writing over speech in Derrida’s reading of the Phaedrus (1972). And so maybe, Said and more recently James Porter are right, the late Foucault represents not just an ethical turn, as is commonly observed (Porter 2005, 2006, 2012; Boyle 2012), but an inward turn, a withdrawal from the political arena of Surveiller et Punir (1975) and La Volonté de savoir (1976), a fundamentally conservative return to the self, to aesthetics, and to Plato.

  • 7 For more on Foucault’s and Derrida’s differing understandings of these passages and the wider probl (...)

12But I want to argue in this article that just the opposite is true: that in Foucault’s turn to Plato what we see is not a capitulation to a fundamentally conservative nostalgia but a radical re-envisioning of what it means to be an intellectual, of what it means to speak truth to power, of what Plato saw as the essence of philosophy. Indeed, of what truth is. The Seventh Letter is Plato’s endeavor to justify his one attempt to directly intervene in politics in the course of his three voyages to Sicily and his actions in the court of Dionysius the Younger and on behalf of his young cousin, Dion. It is also the locus of one of the philosopher’s more famous diatribes against writing and hence a privileged passage for Derrida’s reading of the role writing and logocentrism play in the Platonic text7. I will leave aside the concerns about whether the letter is genuine and, instead, like Foucault himself in Le Gouvernement de soi et des autres (2008), accept the standard view that if the letter is not by Plato himself it is by one of his close collaborators at the Academy and that it represents the thinking of the master if not necessarily his actual words.

  • 8 See for example, Derrida (1993: 81-83), but also a wide range of work that indicates the Socratic a (...)

13In particular, I want to focus on a passage that describes Plato’s relationship with Dionysius the Younger, when the philosopher returned to the island a third and final time. It is here, specifically, that Plato refers to what I would term the irreducible quality of the philosophical experience, and to his position that it is the irreducible quality of that experience that constitutes both the truth of philosophy and its primary contribution to the practice of governance, or what Foucault would term governmentality. Such a position would seem at variance with the common reading of the Republic and the Laws, as well as the common understanding of Platonism writ large, but it is just that position that Foucault seeks to defend in his late lectures and that Plato argues for in the 7th Letter. Elsewhere I have already argued, and I am certainly not alone8, that this orthodox reading of the Republic is itself an abstraction from the text, and that Platonism and its history is itself a bad or limited essentialization of the Socratic and the Platonic project (P.A. Miller 2007: 108-21, 178-235; P.A. Miller 2010a; P.A. Miller 2015). Foucault too in these late lectures is making the argument that the purpose of philosophy—both in the ancient and the contemporary world—is not to provide formulaic prescriptions concerning how our polities should be ordered or on how we should live our lives. Speaking truth to (and through) power is not a matter of simply voicing an opinion, but rather it is about certain sets of practices and experiences of truth, which are irreducible to a given opinion or doxa, to a specific set of policy recommendations.

14This practice of philosophical veridiction is in fact very close to what Foucault outlines as the goal of his own theoretical labor in 1980 in his course at the Collège de France, the first course that features what has been termed his turn to antiquity, Du gouvernement des vivants. This course opens with a description of the throne room of the Roman Emperor Septemius Severus, then moves through a detailed reading of Oedipus Tyrannus, before finally concentrating on the function of the confession in early Christianity. In each case, the questions posed by Foucault are: what is the function of truth in the constitution of power; and how do different forms of truth-making in relation to different regimes of power—what he labels with a neologism different forms of aléthurgie—presume different forms of subjectivity and different relations between the truth, the subject, and power? Foucault makes it clear that the vision he has of his work is not the return to some kind of « source » or « golden age », it is not the correction of the phenomenal and the particular in terms of the transcendental and the universal (1994i : 698), but rather a persistent and consistent displacement of the relations binding the dominant forms of subjectivity and the dominant forms of knowledge to specific regimes of truth and power.

15The purpose of Foucault’s return to antiquity is then precisely the opposite of what is traditionally claimed for Platonism and for the regime of phallogocentrism and heteronormativity envisaged by a reader like Irigaray. The Foucauldian labor of truth is to open a queer space not only for relations of gender and sexuality but for knowledge, truth, and subjectivity per se. The Foucauldian turn to the topics of ethics and the formation of the self does not represent a retreat to solipsism, but an interrogation of the possibilities of freedom, of ways of being that go beyond the given, beyond the traditional verities of humanism and liberalism (1994g; 1994p: 782).

For me, theoretical work does not really consist … in establishing and maintaining the totality of the positions that I would sustain and the fact that the presumed linkage between these different positions would form a coherent system. My problem, or the only possibility of theoretical work that I perceive, is to leave, according to the most intelligible design possible, the trace of the movements through which I am no longer at the place where I was just now. Hence, if you will, this perpetual need, or necessity, or desire, this perpetual need to bring up in some fashion the junctions at which each displacement runs the risk of modifying, if not the entire arc [of my theoretical work], at least the manner in which one can read its arc and in which one can grasp it, insofar as that arc is able to have a share in the intelligible. (Foucault 2012: 74-75)

16The purpose of philosophy, for Foucault, is less to create a system of propositions that correspond to an unchanging or universal reality beyond themselves than to modify the relation of the self to the self through a continuous labor of seeking the truth and documenting the displacements that labor creates (1994e). But that labor can only take place in terms of the subject’s relationship to truth, and the truth to which it points must always lie beyond the empirical given. The role of philosophy is not to ratify the present, but to displace it, to create a brief opening, the possibility of change, of movement, of going beyond.

17I will spend my remaining pages looking directly at the passages from the Seventh Letter to which Foucault sought to draw our attention before briefly turning my attention to engagement with Cynic philosophy as a model for the final Foucault. Plato tells us that when he left Dionysius the first time, the latter was surrounded by people who had listened to Plato’s conversations with Dion and to those who had heard them. Their heads were filled with these bits of philosophical hearsay (parakousmatōn) rather than true philosophical knowledge (338d3). These people gathered around Dionysius and tried to engage him in dialogue as if he had heard everything that Plato had intended, which Dionysius permitted, owing to his vanity as well as to a « nature that was not completely alien to learning » (338d6-8). Plato’s critique here is clear. These are people who lack understanding. They may have heard, and they may repeat back, but they pass philosophical « formulae » back and forth to one another like tokens or badges of belonging. These are formulaic responses, which in their unchanging repetition do not gain in truth, but rather lose the specific value they possessed in their initial articulation. Dionysius would then go to take these bits and pieces of philosophical language and record them in a book, which he attempted to pass off as representing his own original philosophy (341b1-6). Such an undertaking is by nature, Plato claims, wrong headed; for it assumes that philosophical knowledge is information, like mathematical formulae, or names and dates, or observational data, which can be written down and repeated, and in that repetition there is a confirmation of its truth value. No matter how many times you count the number of stones, two plus two is four. Astronomy as an empirical science depends on the same observations being able to be made again and again. The more times these statements can be said and received as true, the stronger their correspondence value. Statement and meaning coincide and are confirmed in the world. Laws are propounded, things defined, types delimited, genders and genres established. You can write these things in a book and pick that book up in a different time and place and they will be, or at least they will purport to be, the very same things.

18But philosophy, at least as Plato understands, is not like that. Rather he says those producing such books, « do not understand anything about the matter »:

And that is why there are not any writings from me, nor will there ever be, about these things: for what is spoken here is not the same as in other sciences (mathēmata), but as a result of a great amount of time being spent together (sunousia) concerning this very matter and of living together, suddenly just as a light is kindled from a fire that has blazed up, that very thing having been born in the soul then nourishes itself. (341c4-d2, emphasis mine)

19The kind of philosophical understanding, Plato refers to here, is what I have termed in another context unrepeatable knowledge, a form of knowledge that is deeply contextual and experiential (P.A. Miller 2010b). It is closer to the truth of psychoanalysis or to the reading of a poem than to physics: a moment of interpretive insight contingent upon a particular set of events and associations. It is not the case, of course, that these flashes of light do not transcend their immediate context, that they do not illuminate what surrounds them, but they are never universalizable as such, and when they are decontextualized and reduced to formulas in the here and now, they become oppressive, they become the Law, and their very transcendental quality becomes a finite and enforceable typology.

20For Plato, at least in the Seventh Letter, and at least as read by Foucault, this is not philosophy. Philosophy is something far more powerful, far more destabilizing, and far more queer. It is an act of truth that cannot be reduced to its referent.

What is the real of philosophy? I believe that this question concerning the real of philosophy does not consist in asking what is the real for philosophy. It does not consist in asking to what referent or references philosophy does refer. This question does not consist in asking what is the real to which philosophy refers, which it confronts? It does not consist in asking how you can measure if philosophy is true or false. To pose the question of the real of philosophy, as I believe the Seventh Letter does, is to ask what is, in its very reality, this very particular and singular will to speak the truth, this activity of speaking the truth, this act of veridiction—which is perfectly able to be mistaken and to speak falsely—that calls itself philosophy. This question, I think, is the following: how, in what fashion, in what mode does the truth-telling of philosophy, this strange form of veridiction, inscribe itself into the real? (2008: 210, emphasis mine)

  • 9 Compare Festugière (1950: 43); Koyré (1962: 20); Morgan (1992: 232); Nightingale (1995: 49); Szlezá (...)

21The answer for both the Plato of the Seventh Letter and for Foucault is that philosophy is never just information. It is not just a series of true or false statements, nor a series of rules to determine which statements are true or false, but a manner of being, a practice, an askesis9. The philosopher by practicing parrhesia, by performing the difficult act of speaking truth to power at personal risk, by the act of forming a self whose very being is a constant challenge to political power, but one which also cannot be conceived separately from its relation to the contingencies of that power, gives to her words the status of acts, makes them « real ». The philosopher in this complex and sometimes tense relationship is one whose logos is also an ergon. This is what separates philosophy from other discourses that aspire to be true—mathematics, natural science, various forms of practical didaxis—as well as from those that simply seek to persuade, rhetoric (Foucault 2008: 200-02). Philosophy is both the work of truth and the work of producing a self capable of speaking that truth (Gros 2008: 354-55). Such a vision is not a retreat from politics but a fundamental rethinking of what it means for the philosopher to engage the political. The philosopher’s job, on this view, is not to defend a particular political platform, to become the mouthpiece of a given, preconstituted set of ideas or ideology but to confront “the political and put its truth to the test” (Gros 2008: 359).

  • 10 Plato is not always consistent in his use of these terms. As Brisson and Pradeau (2007) observe, el (...)

22« Knowledge » or « information » as normally understood for Plato then is a repeatable structure. It is information that is dependent upon a framework that seeks to align language (onoma), argument (logos), image and perception (eidolon), the totality of which is called epistēmē, often translated « knowledge »10. But for Plato in the Seventh Letter, philosophy’s concern is not so much with these three elements and their correct alignment to produce repeatable knowledge, as with the contingency of those structures in relation to what makes them possible, which he calls being (on) and the known (gnōston) (342 a-b). Any identifiable phenomenon has a name, let us say « woman », though Plato uses the example of a circle. We can then make propositions about that phenomenon. For example, « women are mothers ». We can then check that proposition against the image we receive of women, whether through culture or personal experience—yes, my mother is a woman—and when we perceive an alignment between these three we then have epistēmē. But while certain forms of empirical research would stop there, and might even deduce certain consequences from that, i.e., women have certain anatomical characteristics, women have certain emotional characteristics, women have certain roles in societies and families, philosophy on Plato’s understanding, and I would argue on Foucault’s, does not stop there. It involves a continuous running up and down of these categories, rubbing them against one another finding the friction points between them (343e). In the same manner, Socrates in the elenchus continuously seeks agreement with his interlocutor about a given proposition and then tests that proposition against a variety of cases, generalizations, and counterexamples, often leaving his interlocutors not in the possession of firm knowledge, from which they can deduce positive prescriptions concerning the nature of things or the organization of social life, but in a state of perplexity or aporia, as the solid links between names, arguments, and perception become frayed, and a moment of what belies any contingent epistemic reality becomes visible (Hadot 1995: 55-57, 103; Nehamas 1998: 82-85; Blondell 2002: 100, 124; compare Sophist 230a-d). To return to our example, then, the reality of woman, which seemed to inhere in both the name itself and the propositions in which it appeared and to be confirmed by personal perception and the social imaginary suddenly seems to float free of those constraints. What seemed to be rock-solid reality before is now shown to lack being, and any attempt to enforce that « reality », through for example laws that would seek to control the toilets people use, are revealed to be arbitrary exercises of power and control.

23Hence Plato concludes in the Seventh Letter, in a passage to which Foucault explicitly draws our attention (2008: 232):

It is necessary to learn these things, the true and the false, at the same time from the whole of being, with all the work (tribēs, literally « rubbing, friction ») and much time I spoke of at the beginning. But by rubbing (tribomena) each of these things together against one another with exertion—names and arguments, observations and perceptions—by testing them in good faith and by using questions and answers without rancor or envy, reflection and intellect shine forth, extending to the limits of human potential. (344b)

The recollection here of the earlier image of the light of understanding blazing forth is clearly deliberate. Such vision of philosophical activity is the opposite of Dionysius compiling a set of propositions heard here and there and presenting them as though they were the object of philosophy. Rather the mission of philosophy is to disrupt such certitudes. To return to the passage from Foucault cited earlier, « My problem … is to leave, according to the most intelligible design possible, the trace of the movements through which I am no longer at the place where I was just now », or to return to a justly famous formulation from volume two of the History of Sexuality:

But then, what is philosophy today—philosophical activity, I mean—if it is not the critical work that thought brings to bear on itself? In what does it consist, if not in the endeavor to know how and to what extent it might be possible to think differently, instead of legitimating what is already known. (1986: 9; 1984a: 14-15)

24The role of the philosopher in Foucault’s last lectures is precisely to speak the truth to power, to have the « courage of truth » (2009). That truth is not a set of infinitely repeatable propositions, but rather the result of a continuous labor, a continuous friction, a patient work in the archive that carefully, over time, destabilizes our most fundamental epistemic realities and thereby offers the possibility to remake even our most fundamental certainties and to expand the realm of the possible.

25In Foucault’s last lectures, he turned to the Cynics (2009). At a time when he was obviously ill, and increasingly frail, he continued to give his weekly lectures at the Collège de France. He spoke of these ancient philosophers who, like the Platonists traced their lineage to Socrates, but who refused to accumulate a body of doctrine, who lived their lives in the public square, who begged, ate scraps, and masturbated in public. The Cynics were the « dogs » of philosophy. They were the street corner preachers who confronted us with our conformity, our petty hypocrisies, our dishonesties. Their bodies themselves were a locus of truth and a challenge to complacency. Foucault in his penultimate lecture says:

Cynicism was not simply a crude, insolent, and rudimentary reminder of the problem of the philosophic life. It posed a very important question, or rather, it seems to me, it gave its position on the theme of the philosophic life by posing the following question: life, in order truly to be the life of truth, should it not be an other life, radically and paradoxically other? (2009: 226)

26This call for a radical otherness, as defined by the Platonic spark or the Cynic provocation, is at the center of the final Foucault, and it is this same call that I would argue we must heed. In the end, what is most authentic is not the infinitely reproducible, but the moment of irreducible insight, of queer intelligibility, which makes possible a form of self-relation and of relation to others that is based on curiosity and care, one which opens new possibilities of self-invention and resistance, new forms of truth. Thus at the end of his lecture notes, though he did not have time to utter these words, Foucault writes, “But to finish what I want to insist on is this: there is no instilling of truth without an essential position of alterity: truth is never the same; there can only be truth in the form of another world, another life” (2009: 311).

27He did not have time to deliver these, however. Instead, of course, the last words his audience heard were simply, « Well then, listen. I had some things to tell you concerning the general framework of these analyses. But, in the end, it’s too late. So, thank you » (2009: 309). And it is perhaps to this final spirit of care, gratitude, and humility that we owe our greatest debt: his simple but effective and moving commitment to the « courage of truth ».

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Notes

1 The bibliography here is voluminous and often filled with controversy and polemic. For some of the most important points, see Zonana 1988; Macey 1993: 470-78; J. Miller 1993: 21-25, 348-55; Eribon 1994: 52-54; Halperin 1995: 32-33, 171; duBois 1988: 100-02; White 2004.

2 All translation are my own, unless otherwise specified.

3 For a good example of the continuing vitality of Foucault’s work on questions of ancient sexuality and of the continuing importance of Halperin’s interpretations of this work for the field, see Blondell and Ormand 2015.

4 See Heidegger 1982 and 1998; Derrida 1972: esp. 96 and 126; and Popper 1945. On the vast secondary bibliography, see inter alia Annas 1981; Ferrari 1987: 214; Berger 1994: 76; Renaut 1993: 49-50; Zuckert 1996: 46-47; and P.A. Miller 2016.

5 Again the bibliography is lengthy and other examples could be added. But see Irigaray 1977: 78-88; Irigaray 1984: 123; Irigaray 1990: 16-17, 64-68; Derrida 1978; Butler 1993: 42; Braidotti 1994: 121-24; Berry 1994: 232-37; Hodge 1994: 203-04; Mortensen 1994: 11-13; 59-63, 80-81; Jones 2011: 22, 26, 189; and P.A. Miller 2016: Chapter 1.

6 See republican Presidential candidate Rick Santorum’s infamous analogy of heteronormative marriage to a napkin as opposed to a paper towel (gay marriage) in 2012 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VuibTsfspP0). Santorum is a very strict traditional Catholic.

7 For more on Foucault’s and Derrida’s differing understandings of these passages and the wider problematic of writing in Plato, see P.A. Miller 2005.

8 See for example, Derrida (1993: 81-83), but also a wide range of work that indicates the Socratic and Platonic project is not a dogmatic knowledge of unchanging essences, but an unending pursuit of wisdom in the midst of aporia and perplexity. Notable examples are Festugière (1950: 42-43, 191); Saxonhouse (1994: 82); Brown (1994: 164-65); and Hampton (1994: 236); Hadot (1995: 104-06); Hunter (2004: 86-87).

9 Compare Festugière (1950: 43); Koyré (1962: 20); Morgan (1992: 232); Nightingale (1995: 49); Szlezák (1999: 49).

10 Plato is not always consistent in his use of these terms. As Brisson and Pradeau (2007) observe, elsewhere epistēmē has a meaning much close to what Plato here terms gnōsis.

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Paul Allen Miller, « Queering Plato: Foucault on Philosophy as Self-fashioning and Resistance in Plato’s 7th Letter », TRANS- [En ligne],  | 2018, mis en ligne le 22 juin 2018, consulté le 18 janvier 2019. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/trans/1807 ; DOI : 10.4000/trans.1807

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Paul Allen Miller

Paul is Vice Provost and Carolina Distinguished Professor at the University of South Carolina. He received his PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Texas in 1989. He has held visiting appointments at the University of the Ruhr (Bochum), the University of Paris 13, and Beijing Language and Cultural University. Dr. Miller is the former editor of Transactions of the American Philological Association. He is the author of Lyric Texts and Lyric Consciousness (1994), Latin Erotic Elegy (2002), Subjecting Verses (2004), Latin Verse Satire (2005), Postmodern Spiritual Practices (2007), Plato’s Apology of Socrates (2010) with Charles Platter, A Tibullus Reader (2013), and Diotima at the Barricades: French Feminists Read Plato (2015). He has edited fourteen volumes of essays on literary theory, gender studies, and topics in classics as well as published more than 70 articles on Latin, Greek, French, and English literature and philosophy. His Understanding Horace is forthcoming from I.B. Tauris. He is currently at work on a book on Foucault’s late lectures on antiquity.

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