A Classical Foucault


Brigitte: 10 Und davor der Place Michel Foucault, 2009 (CC)

by Stuart Elden

Foucault’s Seminars on Antiquity: Learning to Speak the Truth
Paul Allen Miller,
London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2021. 232 pp

In the final years of his life, Michel Foucault devoted his teaching, both at the Collège de France and in visiting posts abroad, to antiquity. While he had begun his Collège de France career with a course published as Lecture on the Will to Know, in which he discussed Ancient Greece in detail, most of his previous teaching had looked at European thought and history after the Renaissance. Those later periods had also been the focus of his books, including his histories of madness, clinical medicine, forms of knowledge and punishment. With the History of Sexuality, whose first volume was published in 1976, he initially intended to focus on a similar period. But when the second and third volumes were published in 1984, shortly before his death, they treated classical antiquity. Another volume on the early Church, nearly complete when he died, was eventually published in 2018 and translated into English in 2021. It had initially been planned as a second volume, but Foucault decided it needed to be preceded by a treatment of pagan thought, and so it moved down the sequence to be the fourth volume. He was doing some revision work on the text during his final illness.

As Foucault tells the story, he turned to pagan antiquity because he needed to break from the secondary accounts he had initially relied upon. Foucault scholarship has long grappled with the choice Foucault made to return to much older material, initially based on the published books and a few traces of teaching or shorter publications. Now, with the publication and translation of all his late lecture courses in Paris, as well as lectures or short courses delivered elsewhere, there is much more material available. In Foucault’s Seminars on Antiquity, Paul Allen Miller, Carolina Distinguished Professor of Classics and Comparative Literature at the University of South Carolina, discusses his final five courses in detail. The result is a convincing and nuanced study of Foucault’s engagement with classical texts.

The courses discussed are translated as On the Government of the Living, Subjectivity and Truth, The Hermeneutics of the Subject, The Government of the Self and Others and The Government of the Self and Others II: The Courage of Truth. Miller treats each course in a separate chapter along with an Introduction. He relates these to other courses Foucault gave elsewhere – in California, Louvain, Vermont and other US universities – and the published books, but the focus is on the Paris teaching. As he compellingly argues, while the courses relate to the published books, with the exception of Subjectivity and Truth they are “largely unconcerned with sexuality” (p. 9). Instead, they treat related material with different questions in mind. In particular they relate to a new project Foucault was working on late in his life, on technologies of the self, which he discussed in some interviews but of which he published very little.

While many, perhaps most, of Foucault’s readers know his sources through his work, Miller is as comfortable discussing the classical texts as he is Foucault’s reading of them. This adds a depth which is lacking from many other accounts of Foucault’s work in this period. Miller’s focus is on both the arguments Foucault makes, with his wider questions in mind, and on the classical texts he examined in process of doing this. It is largely a focus on the Greek and Roman texts, as Miller says little about the Christian material Foucault examined, especially in On the Government of the Living and the text published as the fourth volume.

For readers of Foucault’s late courses this is an invaluable companion, relating the readings to the sources Foucault used. It recognises Foucault’s blindspots on gender, and the focus of the sexuality series on men and texts by men:

Sexuality, for Foucault was not a thing, and it certainly was not natural. It was a discourse, a set of enunciations that provided definition and unity to a disparate group of behaviors, sensations, and biological functions, creating a singular entity that was not there before (p. 14).

As such, in Miller’s reading of Foucault, the investigation of sexuality is less about biology and behaviour than about truth. For a certain period of his career he was focused on very ancient texts to explore these questions. The focus on truth allows Miller to situate the various courses effectively in relation to each other. From the concern with government, present in the first of these five courses through to the final two, to truth-telling and parrēsia, to technologies of the self.

Miller situates his reading in the Introduction with some very helpful discussion of how Foucault’s work on antiquity was initially received, especially within the US classical establishment. The mix of surprise and hostility is well captured here, and the study is worth reading for this alone, not just for the initial situation of the reception, but the engagement with his critics throughout. He also movingly situates the final lecture course in relation to Foucault’s illness and death from AIDS (pp. 155-56, 182). There is a strong biographical element to the final lectures, and Foucault himself indicates his ongoing struggles with illness in remarks delivered to the class and transcribed in the publication. As has long been recognised, his discussion in the course on Socrates death relates to his own sense of impending mortality. It is however unfortunate that some of the more unpleasant slurs about Foucault, repeated in one of the biographies, are mentioned, even if largely dismissed (pp. 156-57).

There are some interesting connections of other readings of Foucault. These include Giorgio Agamben’s analysis of what he sees as a fundamental distinction between zõē and bios. Although Agamben partly derives this from a reading of Foucault, he suggests Foucault does not go far enough in his analysis. As Miller briefly summarises, Agamben’s reading “is unsupported in terms of both the philology and Foucault’s philosophy” (p. 80). There is also a brief discussion of Martha Nussbaum’s criticism of Foucault, which Miller helpfully indicates is based on the limited sources available to her at the time of writing, which have been greatly supplemented today (p. 110). More detail is given to Pierre Hadot’s discussion of Foucault (esp. pp. 113-18), a topic which has received quite a bit of attention elsewhere.

Miller’s reading is carefully situated within scholarship on the final period of Foucault’s life, including the work of his editor Frédéric Gros. He situates him in relation to his critics and the work of his contemporaries including Gilles Deleuze and Paul Veyne. Foucault is, for Miller, a serious reader of the classics, and deserves to be read seriously. He effectively distances the Foucault he finds from the more lurid Foucault of bodies and pleasures, especially as imagined in James Miller’s biography and of popular imagination. In Miller’s compelling reading, Foucault was long concerned with traditional philosophical questions which, in the final years of his life, he explored through classical texts.

About the Author

Stuart Elden is Professor of Political Theory and Geography at the University of Warwick, UK. He is the author of several books, of which the most recent is The Early Foucault (Polity 2021). He has recently completed the manuscript of The Archaeology of Foucault, the final volume in his intellectual history of Foucault’s entire career. In October 2022 he begins a Leverhulme Major Research Fellowship on Indo-European thought in twentieth-century France. He runs a blog at

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Post image is thierry ehrmann: Michel Foucault, painted portrait, 2008 (CC).

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