The strange hypochondria of the soul

February 14, 2013 § 1 Comment

Austerity is delight in the challenge of commonness. So much so that “the relation to self takes the form not only of a domination but also of an enjoyment without desire & without disturbance” (Foucault “The Cultivation of the Self” 68). Much has been said regarding the relationship between one’s actions & responsibility, but their connection cannot simply rely on the freedom of the individual for in that free state — as the example of bad faith, or the desire not to be free, makes clear — many more people would make the choice of a non-active life.

Michel Foucault crafts a response by means of first century philosophers (largely) to account for this through pleasure. An ethical system is pulled from the aesthetic value of the human being: a fact especially evident when Greek & Roman sculpture are considered. The body is valorized into a false realism — from its geometric roots — so as to encourage comparison between viewer & object (making more like to liken). The effect was to inspire prudence & betterment, exploiting the esteem of already established apotheosis myths. From our free states, people have traditionally chosen to improve, to not passively accept the body & character they inherit but to fight it. This choice places responsibility on the self for the self alone. [Relations with others ran along ties of duty & the learning to be gained from them as being privately advantageous.]

A youthful Hercules in marble, 69—96 A.D. The Metropolitan Museum of Art

A leisure class is necessary for philosophy & general growth. Time is the currency that makes a leisure class rich. For those under the spell of apotheosis

time is not empty; it is filled with exercises, practical tasks, various activities. Taking care of oneself is not a rest cure. There is the care of the body to consider, health regimens, physical exercises without overexertion, the carefully measured satisfaction of needs. There are the meditations, the readings, the notes that one takes on books or on the conversations one has heard, notes that one reads later, the recollection of truths that one knows already but that need to be more fully adapted to one’s own life. (51)

There are a great many curious things can be said regarding these sentiments, for instance that their values are identical today & apply to the Capitalist system in that the individual’s capacity to progress is made central. I think it more pertinent to the work of this blog to point out that such practices are actually a means of cultivating an identity, of self-dictating a chosen character. This is the pride of health: exhibiting oneself as having transcended into (some form of) a whole.

Eugen Sandow, the first famous modern body-builder, posing — as ever — in the classical style

Eugen Sandow, the first famous body-builder of the modern world, posing — as ever — in the classical style

The practice involves a testing as well as the labors already described, “always making sure that one will not become attached to that which does not come under our control. To keep constant watch over one’s representations” (64). Essentially, this is a process of judgement which requires division of the individual, in that one must both be & be looked at — at once. Both roles of patient & doctor that are thus assumed by the single body are bundled with their respective sets of responsibilities: the patient for the accountability & cause of any illness, while the doctor for the accuracy of diagnosis & future preservation of the subject.

The more typical division of mind & body is of less interest here for “the ills of the body & those of the soul can communicate with one another & exchange their distresses” (56) & very often do. The body ought to be clear of ailments before the work on the mind may commence & vice-versa.

Cure hangs on diagnosis; in an eagerness to surpass oneself, one can easily imagine a strange hypochondria of the soul. As such, “there is the inducement to acknowledge oneself as being ill or threatened by illness… not simply as an imperfect, ignorant individual who requires correction, training & instruction” (57). The purpose, of course, is to challenge any temptations toward immodest mediocrity. The use of the illness metaphor (hello, Susan!) is effective for finding a function for death which surpasses the memento mori sentiment of situating humanity within time. Sickness is used to define oneself, that is, the hollowed face has more distinguishable features. Genius is completely squandering oneself; genius is never admitting health. This is the pride in illness.*

Such vigorous self-examination, regardless of whether it begins with an aim to a healthy or ill report, makes the self subject & delights in that study. “The development of the cultivation of the self produced its effect not in the strengthening of that which can thwart desire, but in certain modifications relating to the formative elements of ethical subjectivity” (67). By pursuing the potential selves that give us pleasure, people are unified into a coherent identity with an impression of wholeness — an aesthetic project, necessarily — & from it an ethical system is suggested.


There are two distinct infringements on logic in the theory of caring for the self which deserve mention (especially for having been left out by Foucault) & as a means of beginning the working out of the “suggested ethics”. Firstly, the value of individual lives surpasses their rational “social” worth — euthanasia is the only question we can reasonably pose here without approaching hyper-rational justifications of eugenics. Humanism is an impossibility without this base. Secondly, the persistence of the love concept belongs to the logic of cultivating the self & to none other. While, the division of self that is required to learn (& therefore care) about oneself is, ideally speaking, “dramatized” by the partner, there are also the smaller explanations of hygiene & the practical use of time.


* It is only right to add that there are many who are externally acknowledged as ill, usually to reinforce social oppression. Only she who pronounces herself sick — only the hypochondriac — can enjoy this pride, for the responsibility lies with her.


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