LX:82 | Training of the Self By Oneself

No technique, no professional skill can be acquired without exercise; nor can the art of living, the tekhnē tou biou, be learned without an askēsisthat should be understood as a training of the self by oneself. This was one of the traditional principles to which the Pythagoreans, the Socratics, the Cynics had long attached a great importance. It seems that, among all the forms taken by this training (which included abstinences, memorizations, self-examinations, meditations, silence, and listening to others), writing – the act of writing for oneself and for others – came, rather late, to play a considerable role. In any case, the texts from the imperial epoch relating to practices of the self placed a good deal of stress on writing. It is necessary to read, Seneca said, but also to write.1And Epictetus, who offered an exclusively oral teaching, nonetheless emphasizes several times the role of writing as a personal exercise: one should “meditate” (meletan), write (graphein), train one-self (gumnazein): “May these be my thoughts, these my studies, writing or reading, when death comes upon me.”2Or further: “Let these thoughts be at your command [prokheiron] by night and day: write them, read them, talk of them, to yourself and to your neighbor … if some so-called undesirable event should befall you, the first immediate relief to you will be that it was not unexpected.”3In these texts by Epictetus, writing appears regularly associated with “meditation,” with that exercise of thought on itself that reactivates what it knows, calls to mind a principle, a rule, or an example, reflects on them, assimilates them, and in this manner prepares itself to face reality. Yet one also sees that writing is associated with the exercise of thought in two different ways. One takes the form of a linear “series”: it goes from meditation to the activity of writing and from there to gumnazein, that is, to training and trial in a real situation – a labor of thought, a labor though writing, a labor in reality. The other is circular: the meditation precedes the notes which enable the rereading which in turn reinitiates the meditation. In any case, whatever the cycle of exercise in which it takes place, writing constitutes an essential stage in the process to which the whole askēsisleads: namely, the fashioning of accepted discourses, recognized as true, into rational principles of action. As an elements of self-training, writing has, to use an expression that one finds in Plutarch, an ethopoieticfunction: it is an agent of the transformation of truth into ēthos.

Seneca, Lettres à Lucilius, trans. H. Nublot (Paris: Belles Lettres, 1945-64), vol. 3 (1957), bk. 11, let. 84, §1, p. 121 [Ad Lucilium Epistulae Morales, with an English translation by Richard M. Gummere(Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1961), vol. 2, let. 84, p. 277]

[2]Epictetus, Entretiens, trans. J. Souilhé (Paris: Belles Lettres, 1963), vol. 3, bk. 3, ch. 5: “A ceux qui quittent l’école pour raisons de santé,” §11, p. 23 [The Discourses and Manual, trans. P.E. Matheson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1916), vol. 2, bk. 3: “Against those who make illness an excuse for leaving the lecture-room,” p. 20.]

[3]Ibid., bk. 3, ch. 24: “Qu’il ne faut pas s’émouvoir pour ce qui ne depend pas de nous,” §103, p. 109 [ch. 24: “That We Ought Not Spend Our Feelings on Things Beyond Our Power,” p. 99].


Foucault, Michel.  Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth.  Ed. Paul Rabinow. The New Press, 1994. 208-9.

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