Power, Nietzsche and the Greeks: Foucault’s Leçons sur la volonté de savoir


Areopagus from the Acropolis, Athens

 by Stuart Elden

Michel Foucault, Leçons sur la volonté de savoir: Cours au Collège de France, 1970-1971, suivi de Le savoir d’Œdipe,
edited by Daniel Defert,
Paris: Gallimard/Seuil

The most recently published lecture course from Michel Foucault’s time at the Collège de France is his first, entitled ‘La Volonté de Savoir’—the will to know or the will to knowledge. To avoid confusion with the first volume of his History of Sexuality, which reused the title, the editor, Daniel Defert, has chosen Leçons sur la volonté de savoir as this volume’s title. The addition of ‘lectures on…’ is appropriate, as this volume includes two pieces not originally delivered in Paris: a lecture on Nietzsche from later that year, to make up for a missing lecture from the Paris transcript, and a manuscript on Oedipus that served as the basis for lectures in the Americas over the next couple of years, developing themes from the course. Unlike the other courses published to date, this volume is based almost entirely on Foucault’s manuscript for the course, rather than transcribed from tape recordings of the actual delivery. Defert has done exemplary work in making these texts available, and supplemented them with useful notes and an essay contextualizing the course. An English translation is forthcoming with Palgrave Macmillan by Graham Burchell, but is unlikely to be out before 2013.

The course ranges widely in its content and theoretical engagements. Foucault’s inaugural lecture, published as ‘The Order of Discourse’, was delivered on the 2nd December 1970, and this course began the following week. Foucault discusses, among many other things, Aristotle’s Metaphysics, the Sophists, Homer’s Iliad, Hesiod, justice and injustice, agrarian crises, the role of the army, money, law and economy in ancient Greece, Oedipus and Nietzsche. The reading of Oedipus, which is explicitly opposed to Freud’s sexual reading, is concerned with the history and politics of truth and knowledge. As Defert perceptively notes, the reading of Oedipus sits in relation to the rest of the course rather as the discussion of Velasquez’s Las Meninas does to The Order of Things: it illustrates the key themes being discussed through a reading of a work of art.

Another key element of the course, and one that is likely to generate much interest, is the material on Nietzsche. Despite Foucault’s oft-cited interest in Nietzsche, only a couple of pieces on him were ever published. The most sustained is the ‘Nietzsche, Genealogy, History’ piece published in 1971. Here Foucault develops different themes, especially concerning the history of truth, though there are moments where related issues emerge. Foucault uses Nietzsche to trace the invention of knowledge, and the later invention of truth, suggesting that for Nietzsche truth relates to the will “under the form of constraint and domination… not liberty but violence” (p. 206). He suggests that, following Nietzsche, and “against the warm softness of a phenomenon, we must develop the murderous tenacity of knowledge” (p. 198). His reading is influenced by works across Nietzsche’s career, especially early manuscripts on truth and The Birth of Tragedy, rather than just On the Genealogy of Morality.

One of the things that is striking about the course is that here we find a Foucault who is deeply engaged with Greek thought. This alone should act as a correction to those who thought his turn to the Greeks was a late phase in his work. It should also be noted that here the project of genealogy is very clearly a complementary analysis to that of archaeology, rather than its replacement, and that genealogy is first brought to bear on knowledge, then truth, and only subsequently to concerns with power. Yet while the discussions of knowledge and truth in themselves are important, it is likely their links to the question of power that will prove the most interesting for readers.

Foucault is already beginning to sketch out the themes that will occupy him for the rest of his career. While there is no overlap of material with Discipline and Punish and the volumes of the History of Sexuality, there are very many connected themes. Foucault is interested, for example, with the relation between truth and torture [la supplice]; the complicated interrelations between the exercise of power, the construction of knowledge, and the constitution of truth that we find in mechanisms of confession; and the way structures of knowledge allow, enable and constrain the exercise of power.

Yet it not simply that in this course the theme of power emerges and takes a central role in his thought, but that the very transition Foucault will find towards the end of the classical age is paralleled in Greek thought and politics. Foucault is forging his conceptual vocabulary through an analysis of the Greeks, but also in looking at their political transformations. He suggests, for instance, that in the archaic period “knowledge is found naturally located in the hands of functionaries: knowledge is a state service and a political instrument. It follows that its character is necessarily secret. It can neither circulate nor spread. It is linked directly to the possession of power” (p. 113); but that “the justice-truth link and the knowledge-power break are never definitively acquired; they remain continually in question” (p. 115).

It is in the analysis of juridical and political practices in ancient Greece that perhaps the most striking analyses are found. These include the management of agrarian crises, particularly in terms of fragmented lands and the legacy of colonization; advances in the army, especially in terms of the developments of mining techniques and the use of iron, and the new types of inter-city and intra-city warfare; the emergence of a new class of artisans; and wider political transformations including production, slavery, and the development of urban civilization. There is an important discussion of the development of written legal codes (nomos) and money as an institution, not simply of exchange, but of distribution, allocation and social correction. Foucault also spends a good deal of time discussing popular power, as the reverse side of the plans of Plato, Aristotle and the legislators. As well as the conceptual aspects of this discussion, it is important to link this to Foucault’s own activism, especially the foundation of the Groupe d’information sur les prisons at the same time. Their manifesto was read by Foucault on 8th February 1971; about midway through the delivery of this course.

In some of the most striking passages of the course, Foucault suggests how the Greek statesman Solon was crucial to the transition to the Greek polis, a political community where the citizens as a whole share power, and where that power is exercised through them all (p. 153). In a passage linking themes across Foucault’s career, he declares “it is there that can be mapped the place of a knowing and neutral [connaissant et neutre] subject, the form of an unveiled truth and the content of a knowledge [savoir] which is no longer magically linked to the repetition of an event but to the discovery and maintenance of an order” (p. 157). Perhaps most interestingly, Foucault suggests that the transition effectuated by Solon means that power is no longer “exclusively held by someone”; no longer “universally endured by others”; and no longer concentrated in time and space “in ritual gestures, words, commands or instances” (p. 153). Just as Foucault would argue for a time two millennia later, power should not be understood as a top-down model of domination, concentrated in a single source and exercised over those who do not have it; and it is not focused in spectacular bursts or displays but operates through what he would later call a micro-physics of small actions and continual operations.

It is clear from this course that Foucault’s analysis of power develops out of his work on knowledge; is theoretically enriched by his engagement with Nietzsche; and is born out of his reading of the Greeks. While the first two claims were evident to all careful readers of his work; it is in the last of these that the course’s biggest surprises are to be found. As the back cover of the French edition suggests, “we can no longer read him as before”.


About the Author:

Stuart Elden is a Professor of Political Geography at Durham University. His interests range across history, politics, philosophy and geography. He has written books on Heidegger, Foucault and Lefebvre, and his most recent book is Terror and Territory: The Spatial Extent of Sovereignty (University of Minnesota Press, 2009). He has recently completed a manuscript entitled The Birth of Territory. He runs a blog here.