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The Betterment Of Society Through Self Improvement Philosophy Essay

“The [philosophical act] is entitled to explore what might be changed in its own thought through the practice of a knowledge that is foreign to it.” Michel Foucault

Through the portal into thinking about what we are doing, provided by our own tree-planting activity processes of the care of the self, suggest themselves that involve developing an understanding and ethics of mastery over the self, that blossoms out into the political agency in relation to which both Michel Foucault and Hannah Arendt read the relationship to gradually and with increasing resoluteness, play out in our lives those practices and communities.

Philosophical thought begins with a rupture, a departure from one’s comfort zone into one that is foreign. It does not necessarily have to be a complete and total removal from one’s everyday life; rather, it merely needs to disrupt the daily routine that one has grown accustomed to. It has been realized by philosophers, time and time again, that one cannot gain a deeper understanding of life without first being separated from the workaday routines that dominate human existence. Foucault himself states in The Use of Pleasure that philosophy involves the “practice of a knowledge that is foreign to it”. [1] In essence, one cannot be content with merely passing through the hours in a lifetime without any intention of seeking for anything beyond predetermined schedules and workaday routines.

During the semester, we were instructed to perform a task that was, arguably, unlike any other assignment found within an academic context. Our group of five was to plant two Norfolk seedlings on a specified weekend, armed only with a pickaxe and our bare, untrained hands. Unsurprisingly, the most immediate thought disregarded the task as absurd. Some might have even deemed it an imposition on a time allotted for relaxation, more so when the class was told that planting unauthorized trees was frowned upon. It was, however, only in retrospect that we students realized the profound purpose of this assignment, once thought of as a chore. It was, simply put, a rupture in the weekend routine that most students had grown accustomed to. Despite its simplicity, it was, much like Foucault proposed, an immersion in a practice that was foreign to the subject. Beyond the unquestionable fact that planting Norfolk seedlings benefits the environment, the task in itself benefited and continues to benefit those that performed it.

Without a doubt, the students were given the opportunity for quiet reflection. Personally, breaking the ground with the spike was surprisingly cathartic. In the immediate act of smashing the ground and pulling out the loosened soil, I found myself literally contemplating my life. It was as if the monotony of a repetitive action cleared my mind to reflect on the semester that has passed. Due to the rainy weather, I fortunately did not have to personally water the seedlings. I do, however, take the time to walk the quiet, serene path behind Faura Hall rather than the conventional and noisy Red Brick Road between classes to check on the growth of the plants.

In retrospect, this exercise was much more than a deliberate catalyst for a rupture. It served as our own personal “cultivation of the self,” as presented in Foucault’s The Care of the Self. Much like we take the time to tend and watch over the growth of the trees, so too must we take time out to care for our own personal growth. Foucault cites Greek literature that emphasize that the soul, along with the body, must be cultivated into order to live happily. [2] This practice is more than a necessity that benefits us presently: it is an obligation that we must fulfill in order to be free, such is the reason why Foucault terms the care of the self a gift-obligation. [3] Secondly, this care of the self is characterized by it requiring utmost attention that “implies a labor,” and not just a “general attitude” addressing a “preoccupation.” [4] Naturally, this process is not instantaneous; it involves a long-term commitment that looks into even the most mundane details of one’s personal life. [5] Thirdly, as may be expected, this exercise involves “medical thought and practice,” in that one must be constantly educated about the latest developments in the medical sciences. [6] Fourthly, given the process of tending one’s growth is “at once personal,” it necessitates self-knowledge, which according to Foucault, must clearly “[occupy] a considerable place.” [7] Lastly, working towards a final model, these practices are ultimately for the “conversion of the self” into one who has improved physically, mentally, and spiritually. [8]

It may be seen throughout these works of Foucault that the notion of self-improvement has consistently been present, even if they are not necessarily manifested in a similar way. It is a common thread that runs through the entirety The History of Sexuality. In 1984, prior to The Care of the Self, Foucault published the second installment entitled The Use of Pleasure. It is interesting to note that in the introduction, Foucault explicitly states that his writings do neither dwell on the “history of sexual behaviors” nor an analysis of “the scientific, religious, or philosophical ideas through which [sexual] behaviors are represented”; the act of sexual intercourse was not to be the focus of the volume. [9] In order to develop a more sound analysis, Foucault deemed it necessary to distance himself from the notion of “sexuality,” and view it not as a societal constant, but rather as a “historically singular experience. [10] In other words, he treated sexuality as subject to the dynamic progression of historical contexts. It was through this that he determined that the term “sexuality” developed concurrently with the emergence and progress of “diverse fields of knowledge” in the nineteenth century. [11] In understanding that sexuality itself is linked to “practices that have been of unquestionable importance in our societies,” the so called, “arts of existence” or “techniques of the self,” and uses “Greek and Greco-Roman culture” as a starting point of his problematization. [12]

According to Foucault, although it may be argued that there are clear differences in their perceptions of human “sexuality,” the Christian view finds its roots in pagan ideologies. [13] He then presents four parallels that serve as evidence of this connection. Firstly, “there is the expression of fear” of the male who is physically spent from too much sexual activity, so much so that he becomes “harmful to society,” due to the then perceived notion that “partnerless activity” led to “the gradual exhaustion of the organism, the death of the individual, the destruction of his offspring, and finally, harm to the entire human race.” [14] Foucault notes that this fear was “very ancient,” in that it preceded the perception of sexuality that old church teachings presented. [15] Secondly, both early Christians and Greeks present “models of conduct” which deem certain habits as honorable. [16] Foucault cites a rather humorous piece of writing that praises elephantine habits of monogamy, cleanliness, and discretion, which the author recommends that readers emulate. [17] This elephantine behavior necessarily translates to that of “marital conjugal fidelity,” an ideology that is a key aspect of Christianity to this very day. Thirdly, there is the “image of a stigmatized attitude,” wherein homosexual relations highlight the frailty of the males in question. [18] This is interesting, as the Greeks are known to have a culture that accepted homosexual activity as part of the norm. Foucault reveals to readers that there still were threads of opposition that were woven in Greek society, particularly in literature. [19] Lastly, he identifies “models of abstention,” wherein men, being men, should have the capacity to turn away from the temptations of pleasure. Apparently, for the ancient civilizations, “abstention was linked directly to a form of wisdom that brought them to some superior element in human nature and gave them access to the very essence of truth.” [20]

The purpose of the writings, according to Foucault himself, is to “suggest rules of conduct” that are rooted in the discoveries he makes in the annals of history, and the subsequent analyses he develops from them. [21] The rest of the volume deals heavily with human sexuality as recalled in Greek and Greco-Roman “codes, customs, and religious prescriptions.” [22]

In the section on Dietetics concerned with the body, Foucault identifies that the “moral reflection of the Greeks on sexual behavior [sought to] stylize a freedom – that freedom which the ‘free’ man exercised his activity.” [23] At this period in time, the social sciences had yet to emerge, and as such, “their reflection was not concerned with analyzing the different pathological effects of sexual activity.” [24] Rather than “therapeutic,” “the preoccupation was much more ‘dietetic,” in that a great deal of focus was placed on the “management of health and the life of the body,” instead of eliminating pathological forms.” [25]

As can be easily discerned from the title, this section deals with the “diet” that humans had adopted in the beginning of ancient civilization in order “to better [suit] ‘to their nature,'” thereby setting themselves apart from animals. [26] From this, humanity developed the notion that health was directly related to the food one consumed, and “medicine thus came into being as an appropriate ‘diet’ for the sick.” [27] The ‘regimen’ that was proposed, became, in essence, a “whole art of being.” [28] This “art of living” had four characteristics.

Firstly, the suggestions for a proper regimen were conventionalized into a list for different aspects of human life, including, but not limited to “exercises [ponoi], foods [sitia], drinks [pota], sleep [hypnoi], and sexual relations [aphrodisia].” [29] These propositions even went so far as to define the combination of bath temperature with exercise, as determined by the season, or the processes by which one can purge the body of impurities. Secondly, these lists contained specific measurements for the different areas that required it, in order to establish a form of limitation, such that “even a pig would know.” [30] The interesting aspect of this characteristic is that the measurements referred both to the corporeal and moral realms, “[emphasizing] the correlation between the care given the body and the concern for preserving the purity and harmony of the soul.” [31] These moral implications were essentially meant to regulate the vices and “abuse connected with eating, drinking exercises and sexual activities.” [32] Thirdly, the regimens were intended not for the unlimited extension of life; rather they worked within the limits of mortality, and sought to make life useful and joyful within the confines of human mortality. [33] Lastly, the patient that received the dietetic recommendations needed to perform the practices deliberately. [34] In other words, the patient could not simply submit to the effects of the “diet.”

Foucault delved deeper into human sexuality, and analyzed the dietetics of aphrodesia as well. He writes that despite the existence of those regimens that “moderated their practice, [the Greeks] did not operate on the assumption that sexual acts in themselves and by nature were bad.” [35] They were merely concerned with the negative effects of performing the sexual act – it had the tendency to make you weaker. [36] In fact, they believed, at least perhaps remain suspicious, that constant sexual activity led to the abuse and deterioration of vital organs, such as the brain, spinal cord, or even kidneys. [37] With regards to sexual activity, they were also concerned with the effects of excesses on the children that were born. To put it in Foucauldian terms, this “concern about progeny also motivated the vigilance that one needed to display in the use of pleasures.” [38] The Greeks took great care of their hereditary lineage, for they viewed it as “fragile, at least in terms of its quality and worth,” particularly because they firmly believed in conceptual interventions by their pagan gods. [39] The most striking analysis Foucault puts forth in this section is the fact that for the Greeks, the concept of sexual activity was not at all evil; what they feared was the abuse that the body suffered due to the excessive use of this pleasure.

In the section Economics concerned with marriage, Foucault problematizes the sexual relations within the context of matrimony, between husband and wife. [40] His first example is of Chinese polygamous relationships, which are defined largely by parties’ socioeconomic statuses, and the “correct erotic behavior” that necessarily arises from them. [41] Much like the Greeks, the Chinese also valued the quality of their progeny, or more aptly, the heirs to their wealth, and as such acted accordingly. [42] Foucault, in this chapter, goes on to neutrally analyze the asymmetry in societal requirements of fidelity. In Greek society, for example, while wives are required to be faithful to one man, “the husband was bound by a certain number of obligations to his wife, […] but having sexual relations only with his lawful wife did not by any means form part of his obligations.” Moreover, the moral obligation of respecting the virtue of wife of another was directed towards the honor of the husband to whom she is married, rather to her own personal dignity. [43] Ultimately, “it was insofar as he was married that a man needed to restrict his pleasures [and] being married in this case meant, above all, being the head of the family.” [44] The actions and behavior of men directly portrayed the quality of the household that they ran, and was, in essence, a portrayal of the man’s “economic” command within the household, and ultimately, his socioeconomic standing. [45] Based on Foucault’s research, the theme of sexual moderation within the context of marriage was not commonplace, but several texts sprung forth that proposed reciprocal conjugal fidelity, under which the notion of sexual moderation falls. [46] The use of pleasure in the “economics” of marital relationships dealt always with the quality of the household, the frailty of the hereditary line, and the progenies that would eventually inherit the wealth of the clan.

In the section Erotics concerned with the subject of boys, Foucault states that the term, “homosexuality” does not properly, or even fairly, describe a cultural phenomenon that was so widely accepted in Greek society. [47] Apparently, in Greek thought, the sexual act with either gender was not necessarily distinguished as it is in modern times – either heterosexual or homosexual. [48] There did exist a distinction, and Foucault presents his analysis of the existence of two supposed theories on Grecian “love.” The gender of the person that the sexual act is performed with was not determined by any tendency or inclination of the individual in question. [49] Foucault presents the distinction of “Urania,” or “heavenly love,” that is “directed exclusively to boys,” for it is a “more reasonable love that is drawn to what has the most vigor and intelligence.” [50]

It is important to note here that Foucault constantly reminds readers to be wary of the words used to describe Grecian approaches to “sexuality.” In this section, for example, he implies that it would not be accurate to describe their society as “tolerant” of “homosexual” behavior because the concept of homosexuality was not, in any way, similar to that which is present in modern society. [51] As he presented in the introductory volume, the social sciences were a recent development, and it was only with the advent of these “sciences” that the notion of specifying inclinations became a necessary topic. The concept of eros is neatly tied up in the fifth theme that Plato presents with regards to Urania. According to Foucault, “Eros could unite human beings no matter what their sex happened to be.” [52]

Hence, it may be clearly seen how Foucault’s historical analysis of the technologies of the self and the uses of pleasure may be used to aid in the constant care and cultivation of the self, thus providing a better contribution to society. It would thus be interesting to tackle the perspective of another writer with regards to how one can approach self-improvement for the betterment of society.

Much like Foucault, Hannah Arendt seeks to provide an analysis of the facets of life, rather construct abstractions and theories that claim to have a pattern under which scenarios can fit. Moreover, it is interesting to note that despite the fact that she and Foucault have not collaborated, there seems to be a convergence of ideologies – the words written by these two great thinkers, although different in language and terminology, follow a similar train of thought. Her renowned work, The Human Condition, written in 1958, as mentioned previously, is thoroughly analytical of the progression of human beings and the development of our existence throughout the course of history. As there are many ways of doing so, she focuses on what she terms the vita activa, the active life, or rather the human world which has developed through human activity. [53]

In the Prologue, Arendt writes of an event that would have been, for the time that this book was published, a recent occurrence. The launch of “a man-made satellite” in 1957 seemed, for Arendt, a catalyst for thought on the progression and development of humanity itself. [54] She speaks of the unparalleled joy that our race must have felt at that very moment. In that instant, there was proof that human beings had the capacity to dominate not only the world that we inhabit, but potentially the entire universe. [55] Truly, that momentous triumph of technology over the natural world, for Arendt, seemed to have empowered man. This domination sought to unbind humanity from the shackles and limitations of living on the Earth, a dangerous notion, seeing as she herself claims that “the earth is the very quintessence of the human condition.” [56] To be bound on Earth meant that we retain our very humanity. The moment that the first satellite was launched was, for her, the realization of what had only been dreamed before – a translation from science fiction into science fact. [57]

Given that this book was written in the fifties, the decade directly succeeding the Second World War, it is of no surprise that it caused Arendt some alarm. Indeed, the last time the scientific world made a great discovery, a great catastrophe occurred. Within the same half-century, Albert Einstein had proposed the theory of relativity, his famous equation, E=mc2, that made it conceivable to perceive matter as pure energy. What followed was something that he himself, despite his intellect, could not fathom – the fact that his discovery had led to the atom bomb. Arendt articulates her worry by stating, “the fact that the ‘truths’ of modern scientific world view, though they can be demonstrated in mathematical formulas and proved technologically, will no longer lend themselves to normal expression in speech and thought.” [58]

In other words, the author wants the readers to realize that these scientists have “been forced to adopt a ‘language’ of mathematical symbols which, though it was originally meant only as an abbreviation for spoken statements, now contains statements that in no way can be translated back into speech.” [59] They have become so engrossed in the mathematical models that so elegantly explain the natural world, that they inevitably lose the aspect of themselves that makes them human – speech and thought. Simply put, these scientists prefer to view the world as numbers, and the loss of normal speech and thought, as implied by Arendt, dehumanizes them. This analysis proposes an interesting thought. From the author’s perspective, there is the potential that knowledge and thought as we know it will cease to exist. Rather than thoughts being distilled from wild, unfiltered imagination, humans will rely on “artificial machines to do our thinking and speaking.” [60]

From the anecdotes written in the Prologue, it may be argued that it is for these realizations that Arendt wrote this masterpiece of a volume. Releasing humanity from the shackles that tether us to the earth may not necessarily benefit humanity, much like other advancements in technology have. From this, she presents three forms of human activity, each one a higher rung on the ladder of the vita activa.

Firstly, labor is a human activity that “corresponds to the biological processes of the human body,” which involves and includes, rather than breaks, the natural cycles of life. [61] Labor is monotonous and repetitive, and relates to the natural aspect of the humans that perform this activity. It seeks to live through the flow and ebb of the cycle of life, and merely functions within the dictates of its temporality. An example of labor would be the mundane attainment of food. Being a requisite for human existence, the simple acquirement of nourishment is classified as labor, for it does not necessitate the involvement of a permanent disruption of the order of any natural cycle. Indeed, despite attempts to seize the reigns from nature, the acquisition of food is still heavily dictated by seasonal cycles and natural occurrences. Even the creation of shelter in the most basic sense is classified under this form of human activity. This, of course, does not pertain to the mass rampaging of the landscape to create an idyllic suburban community. Rather, it refers to the search for basic shelter that provides protection from the natural elements, such as a cave or a thick canopy of leaves in the rainforest. In essence, this form of human activity is not very much removed from those performed by animals, for they conform to the natural cycle of life, the defining temporariness of living on this earth.

Where labor seeks to coexist under the confines of the temporary, work strives to attain permanence. It may be understood as the “unnatural,” “artificial” aspect of our existence. [62] This form of activity involves the breaking of the natural order of things, as the objects fabricated through human work, are built to outlast the lifespan of the human. Unlike that objects created by human labor, those constructed here are intentional deviations from nature. Unlike objects created with labor, the consumption of objects created with work does not deplete them – as Arendt describes it, only their durability is “worn out.” [63] Take, for example, the simple hammer. Before considering the simple fact that the hammer is meant to be used with nails, we must appreciate that this object has the capacity to outlive its maker by decades. The usage of these goods does not “reduce” it rather, and as such, it is this “durability which gives the things of the world their relative independence from men who produced and use them.” [64] The implications of this phenomenon are truly remarkable. Paleontologists and archeologists have, for over a century, dug up tools that have outlived their original users by thousands, some even millions of years.More than simple durability, Arendt identifies that “the actual work of fabrication is performed under the guidance of a model in accordance with which the object is constructed. Shoes, for example, have existed in civilization for several millennia. Despite variations in its structure, composition, design, and functionality, it still aims to protect and relieve the wearer’s feet from discomfort caused by natural terrain.

The aspect of work that makes it so interesting is that although it seeks to break from the seasonal cycle and temporality imposed by nature, human work seems to have developed its own rhythm and cycle, arguably at least for the last two centuries. However Arendt answers this by stating simply that “the impulse toward repetition comes from the craftsman’s need to earn his means of subsistence, in which case his working coincides with his laboring; or it comes from a demand for multiplication in the market.” [65] The repetition itself is not rooted in and does not follow the seasonal cycles found in nature. In fact, it may be argued that repetitive fabrication, or manufacturing, has historically created its own cycles.

In essence, work is the activity that distinguishes humans from animals. It appears to be, at least according to Arendt’s unique distinction, a higher form of activity, presuming of course that we set ourselves above animals. The human

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