Foucault's Reinvention of Philosophy as a Way of Life: Genealogy as a Spiritual Exercise

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This chapter examines the significance of Michel Foucault’s “trip” to antiquity for modern ethics. It begins by unpacking his account of the ancient model of philosophy. Section one shows how he challenges conventional histories of philosophy by conceiving ancient philosophies as practices of the self or ways of life rather than simply as theoretical doctrines. Foucault also claims that ancient philosophy invented a new cultural type: viz., the philosophical hero. In doing so, he implies, it sublimated the archaic ideal of a beautiful existence exemplified by Greek heroes like Achilles and Odysseus. For Foucault Cynicism epitomizes this ancient philosophical heroism. He shows how ancient Cynics aimed to realize the beauty of sovereignty, but through the new means of living the truth. Living the truth made the Cynic the true sovereign. Section two briefly examines how Foucault sought to reinvent ancient philosophy in order to develop a contemporary ethics without absolute obligations or sanctions. The final section, however, questions whether, as he suggests, his own philosophical ethos reclaims “the living substance of ancient philosophy”. It suggests that we can conceive Nietzschean genealogy as Foucault’s spiritual exercise. It then argues that his genealogical exercise of self-dissolution necessarily opposes the basic goal of ancient ethics: self-sufficiency or sovereignty. By taking this Nietzschean slant on Foucault’s philosophical ethos, the chapter shows that he does not refashion the ancient practices of the self. Rather, it argues that his trip to antiquity unintentionally brings to light how contemporary subjectivity is partly constituted by a chiastic crossing of the ancient ethics of self-completion and the modern ethics of self-dissolution.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Late Foucault
Subtitle of host publicationEthical and Political Questions
EditorsMarta Faustino, Gianfranco Ferraro
Place of PublicationLondon UK
PublisherBloomsbury Academic
Number of pages17
ISBN (Print)9781350196773
Publication statusPublished - 2020


  • Michel Foucault, Stoicism, Cynicism, Philosophy as a Way of Life

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