By Michel Foucault

Translated by Ann Hobart


The Montréal Review, June 2024

These pages are part of a series of studies on the "arts of the self," that is, on the aesthetic of the existence and the government of self and others in Greco-Roman culture during the first two centuries of the empire.

[The “series of studies” of which Foucault speaks had been conceived initially as an introduction to L'Usage des plaisirs (The History of Sexuality, Volume 2: The Use of Pleasure) under the title Le Souci de soi (The History of Sexuality, Volume 3: The Care of the Self). This title having been retained for a new arrangement of the parts of L'Usage des plaisirs, a more general series of studies on governmentality was then planned with Editions du Seuil under the title Le Gouvemement de soi et des autres.]

Athanasius’s Vita Antonii presents the written expression of actions and thoughts as an indispensable element of the ascetic life.

Here is one thing to observe to ensure that one does not sin. Let us each take note of and write down the actions and movements of our souls as though to make them mutually known to one another, and let us be sure that out of shame at being known, we will cease sinning and have nothing perverse in our hearts. Who, after all, consents to be seen when he sins, and when he has sinned does not prefer to lie to hide his fault. One would not fornicate in front of witnesses. By the same token, by writing our thoughts as if we had to communicate them mutually to one another, we will better keep ourselves from impure thoughts out of shame at having them known. May writing replace the looks of our companions in asceticism; blushing to write as well as to be seen, let us keep ourselves from every bad thought. Disciplining ourselves in this way, we can reduce the body to servitude and outsmart the enemy. [Athanasius, Vie et conduite de notre Pere Saint Antoine, in Antoine Le Grand: Pere des moines, trans. Benoit Lavaud (Paris, 1943), pp. 69-70.]

Self-writing clearly appears here in its complementary relation to anchoritism; it offsets the dangers of solitude; it exposes what one has done or thought to a possible gaze; the fact of being obliged to write fills the role of companion by inciting human respect and shame. One can thus posit a primary analogy: that which others are to the ascetic in his community the notebook will be to him in his solitude. But, at the same time, a second analogy is posited that refers to the practice of asceticism as work not only on actions but more precisely on thoughts. The constraint that the presence of others exerts in the domain of behavior, writing will exert in the domain of the interior movements of the soul. In this sense, it has a role very near to that of confession to the spiritual director in the Algerian line of spirituality, which Cassien will say must reveal, without exception, all movements of the soul (omnes cogitationes). Finally, the writing of interior movements also appears, according to the text of Athanasius, as a weapon of spiritual combat. Since the devil has the power to deceive and make one deceive oneself (a large portion of the Vita Antonii is dedicated to his ruses), writing constitutes a test and acts as a touchstone. In bringing to light the movements of thought, it dissipates the interior shadow where the snares of the enemy are laid. This text—one of the oldest that Christian literature has left us on this subject of spiritual writing—far from exhausts all the significations and forms that the latter will take later on. But one can draw from it several features that permit a retrospective analysis of the role of writing in the philosophical culture of the self just prior to Christianity: its close tie with apprenticeship; its applicability to movements of thought; its role as test of truth. These vari­ous elements are already to be found in the writing of Seneca, Plutarch, and Marcus Aurelius, but with very different values and following com­pletely different procedures.

No technique, no professional skill can be acquired without exercise; nor can one learn the art of living, the techne tou biou, without an askesis that must be understood as a training of the self by the self. This was one of the traditional principles to which the Pythagoreans, the Socratics, and the Cynics had long attached great importance. Indeed it seems that among all the forms that this training took (and that included absti­nences, memorizations, examinations of consciousness, meditations, silence, and listening to others), writing—the fact of writing for oneself and for others—came to play a considerable role rather late. In any case, the texts of the imperial period that refer to the practices of the self are devoted in large part to writing. One must read, Seneca said, but write as well.1 And Epictetus, who however gave only oral teaching, insisted several times on the role of writing as personal exercise. One must “meditate” [meletan], write [graphein], train [gumnazein]; “may death take me while thinking, writing, reading this.” Or again, “Keep these thoughts ready day and night [prokheironj; write them down; read them; let them be the object of your conversations with yourself, with another ... if one of those events that are called undesirable should happen to you, you will find yourself comforted by the thought that it was not unexpected.”2 In these texts of Epictetus, writing is regularly associated with “meditation,” with that exercise of thought on itself that reactivates what it knows, that makes present a principle, a rule, or an example, reflects on them, assimi­lates them, and thus prepares itself to confront the real. But one sees as well 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 in a real and taxing situation: work of thought, work through writing, work in reality. The other is circular; meditation precedes the notes that permit rereading, which in its turn revives meditation. In any case, in whatever cycle of practice it takes place, writing constitutes an essential step in the process to which all askesis tends: to know the elaboration of received and recognized discourses as true in rational principles of action. As an ele­ment of the training of the self, writing has, to use an expression found in the writing of Plutarch, an ethopoetic function. It is an operator of trans­formation of truth into ethos.

This ethopoetic writing, such as it appears throughout the docu­ments of the first and second centuries, seems to locate itself outside of two forms already known and used for other ends: hupomnemata and corre­spondence.


Hupomnemata, in the technical sense, can be books of accounts, public registers, or personal notebooks to be used as memoranda. Their use as books of life or guides of conduct seems to have become a common thing among an entire cultivated public. They contained quotations, fragments of works, examples, and actions of which one had been the witness or had read the narrative, reflections or arguments that one had heard or that had occurred to one. They constituted a material memory of things read, heard, or thought; they would offer them thus as treasures accumulated for later rereading and meditation. They also formed the primary material for writing more systematic treatises in which one gave the argu­ments and methods to struggle against some fault (like anger, envy, gossiping, or flattery) or to surmount some difficult circumstance (mourning, exile, ruin, disgrace). Thus, when Fundanus asks for advice on struggling against agitations of the soul, Plutarch at that very moment hardly has the time to compose a treatise in proper form; he is thus going to send him without delay the hupomnemata that he had himself written on the theme of tranquillity of spirit. At least it is thus that he presents the text of Peri euthumias.3 Feigned modesty? No doubt this was a way of making excuses for the somewhat disjointed quality of the text; but one must also see here an indication of what these notebooks were—as well as of the practice of making the treatise itself, which retained something of its form of origin.

One should not envision these hupomnemata as a simple prop of memory that one could consult from time to time if the opportunity presented itself. They were not destined to be substituted for the possibly failing memory. Rather, they constituted the material and a framework for exercises to be done frequently: to read, reread, meditate, converse with one­self and with others, and so on. And this in order to have them, according to a frequently appearing expression, prokheiron, ad manum, in promptu. “At hand,” thus, not simply in the sense that one could recall them to consciousness, but rather in the sense that one must be able to use them, as soon as one has need of them, in action. It is a matter of constituting a logos bioethikos, a supply of helpful discourses capable—as Plutarch put it—of raising their voices themselves to quiet the passions as a master may, with one word, calm the growling of dogs.4 And for this it is necessary that they not simply be tucked away as though in an armoire of memories but rather be deeply implanted in the soul, “driven into it,” as Seneca says, and that they thus make up a part of ourselves; in short, that the soul make them not simply its own but itself. The writing of hupom­nemata is an important relay in this subjectification of discourse.

As personal as they are, these hupomnemata must not, however, be understood as the intimate journals or as the narratives of spiritual experience (temptations, struggles, failures, and victories) that will be found in later Christian literature. They do not constitute a “narrative of the self”; their objective is not to bring into the light the arcana conscientiae for which confession—oral or written—has a purifying value. The move­ment that they seek to effect is the inverse of that; it is not a matter of pursuing the unsayable, nor of revealing the hidden, nor of saying the unsaid, but on the contrary of capturing the already-said, of reassembling what one could hear or read, and this for an end that is nothing less than the constitution of the self.

The hupomnemata must be resituated in the context of a very appreciable tension of the age. At the interior of a culture very strongly marked by traditionalism, by the recognized value of the already-said, by the recurrence of discourse, by a “citational” practice under the seal of antiquity and authority, developed an ethic very explicitly oriented by the care of the self toward definite objectives such as withdrawing into the self, getting in touch with the self, living with the self, sufficing in the self, profiting from and enjoying the self. Such indeed is the objective of hupomnemata: to make of this recollection of the fragmentary logos transmitted through teaching, listening, or reading a means of establishing between the self and the self as appropriate and complete a relationship as possible. There is, for us, something paradoxical in this. How can one be put in the presence of oneself through the aid of an ageless discourse that is received just about everywhere? In fact, if the writing of hupomnemata can contribute to the formation of the self across these scattered logoi, it is for three principal reasons: the effects of limitation owing to the coupling of writing and reading, the regulated practice of the disparate that determines the choices, and the appropriation that it effects.

Seneca insists on it: the practice of self implies reading, because one cannot draw everything from one’s own funds nor arm oneself by oneself with the principles of reason that are indispensable to conduct oneself. As guide or example, the help of others is necessary. But one must not dissociate reading and writing; one must “have recourse by turns” to these two occupations and “temper one by means of the other.” If writing too much exhausts (Seneca is thinking here of the work of style), an excess of reading disperses. “Abundance of books, agonizing indecision of mind.”5 Passing ceaselessly from one book to another, without ever stopping, without returning from time to time to the hive with one’s provision of nectar, as a consequence, without taking notes or composing in writing a collection of reading, one exposes oneself to retaining nothing, to dispersing oneself through different thoughts, and to forgetting oneself. Writing as a way of collecting reading already done and of reflecting on it is an exercise of reason that is opposed to the great fault of stultitia, which infinite reading risks promoting. Stultitia is defined by agitation of spirit, instability of attention, changes of opinion and intention, and, consequently, by fragility before all events that can occur. It is also characterized by the fact that it turns the spirit toward the future, makes it curious about novelties and keeps it from giving itself a fixed point in the possession of an acquired truth.6 The writing of hupomnemata contrasts with this dissipation in fixing the acquired elements and in constituting them, as it were, “from the past,” to which it is always possible to return and retire. This practice can be linked to a very general theme of the period. In any case, it is common to the morality of the Stoics and the Epicureans: the refusal of a spiritual attitude directed toward the future (which, because of its uncertainty, provokes anxiety and agitation of spirit) and the positive value accorded to the possession of a past that one may enjoy utterly and without embarrassment. The contribution of the hupomnemata is one of the means by which one detaches the soul from concern for the future in order to bend it toward meditation on the past.

However, if it permits thwarting the dispersion of the stultitia, the writing of hupomnemata is also (and it must remain) a regulated and volun­tary practice of the disparate. It is a choice of heterogeneous elements. In that way it contrasts to the work of the grammarian who seeks to know all of a work or all of the works of the professional philosophers who lay claim to the doctrinal unity of a school. “It is of little importance,” says Epictetus, “that one has or has not read all of Zeno or Chrysippus; it is of little importance that one has seized exactly what they meant, and that one is capable of reconstructing the unity of their reasoning.”7 The notebook is controlled by two principles that could be called “the local truth of the maxim” and “its circumstantial, customary value.” Seneca chooses what he notes for himself and for his correspondents from the work of one of the philosophers of his own sect, but from the work of Democritus and Epicurus as well.8 The essential thing is that he can consider the sentence retained as a maxim true in what it affirms, acceptable in what it prescribes, and useful according to the circumstances in which one finds oneself. Writing as a personal exercise done by the self and for the self is an art of disparate truth; or, more precisely, a reflexive way of combining the traditional authority of the thing already said with the singularity of the truth that is affirmed there and the particularity of the circumstances that determine its use.

"Thus always read," says Seneca to Lucilius, "authors of recognized authority, and if the desire takes you to pursue a point in the writings of others, return quickly to the former. Secure yourself every day a defense against poverty, against death, without forgetting our other scourges. From all that you have skimmed, ex­tract one thought to digest well that day. This is also what I do. Among several texts that I have just read, I set my heart on one of them. Here is my booty for today: it is in the work of Epicurus that I found it, because I also like to pass through the camps of others. As a renegade? no; as a scout [tamquam explorator]"9

This deliberate ill-assortment does not preclude unification. But this is not brought about in the art of making up a collection; it must develop in the writer himself as a result of hupomnemata, of their composition (and thus in the very act of writing), of their consultation (and thus in reading and rereading them). Two processes can be distinguished. It is a matter, on the one hand, of unifying these heterogeneous fragments by their subjectification in the exercise of personal writing. Seneca compares this unification, according to very traditional metaphors, to either the labor of the bee, or to the digestion of food, or to the addition of figures making up a sum.

Let us not permit anything that enters us to remain intact, for fear that it will never be assimilated. Let us digest the material, otherwise it will enter into our memory, not into our intelligence [in memoriam . . . non in ingeniumj. Let us cordially adhere to these thoughts of oth­ers and be conscious of making them ours in order to unify one hun­dred different elements, just as addition makes a single number of isolated numbers.

The role of writing is to constitute, with all that reading has constituted, a “body” [quicquid lectione collectum est, stilus redigat in corpus]. And this body must not be understood as a body of doctrine, but rather—following the metaphor of digestion so often invoked—as the body itself of he who, in transcribing his readings, appropriates them and makes their truth his. Writing transforms the thing seen or heard “into strength and blood” [in vires, in sanguinem]. It becomes a principle of rational action in the writer himself.10

But, inversely, the writer constitutes his own identity through this recollection of things said. In this same letter 84—which is like a small treatise on the connections between reading and writing—Seneca dwells for an instant on the ethical problem of resemblance, fidelity, and originality. He explains that one must not elaborate on what one retains of an author in such a way that he may be recognized. It is not a matter of composing in the notes that one takes and in the manner that one reconstitutes in writing what one has read a series of portraits that are recogniz­able but “dead” (Seneca is thinking here of those portrait galleries by which one vouched for his birth; validated his status; and marked his identity with reference to others). It is his own soul that he must constitute in what he writes; but, as a man wears in his face natural resemblance to his ancestors, so it is good that one can perceive in what he writes the filiation of the thoughts that are engraved in his soul. Through the play of chosen reading and assimilative writing, one must be able to form an identity through which a complete spiritual genealogy may be read. In a choir there are high, low, and medium voices, the timbres of men and women. “No individual voice can be distinguished; only the whole im­poses itself on the ear... I want it to be thus with our souls, that they have a good supply of knowledge, precepts, examples borrowed from many ages, but that converge into one unity.”


Notebooks that, in themselves, constitute exercises of personal writing, can serve as the primary material for texts that one sends to others. On the other hand, the missive, a text that by definition is destined for others, also leads to personal exercise. Seneca recalls that when one writes, one reads what one writes just as in saying something one hears what one says.11 The letter that one sends acts, by the very act of writing, on the one who sends it, as it acts through reading and rereading on the one who receives it. In this double function, correspondence is very close to hupomnemata, and its form is often very close. Epicurean literature gives some examples. The text known as the “letter to Pythocles” begins by acknowledging reception of a letter in which a student testifies to his friendship for the master and in which he does his best to “recall the Epicurean arguments” that permit one to attain happiness. The author of the response gives his support. The attempt was not bad, and it in turn expedited a text—the resume of the Periphuseos of Epicurus—which was to serve Pythocles as material to memorize and as an aid to meditation.12

The letters of Seneca show an activity of direction, from an aged man who was already retired, aimed at another who still occupied an important public office. But in these letters, Seneca does not only inquire about Lucilius and his progress. He is not satisfied with giving him advice and giving him a commentary on some great principles of conduct. Through these written lessons, Seneca continues to exert himself according to two principles that he frequently invokes: that it is necessary to train oneself all one’s life and that one always needs the help of others in the development of the soul in itself. The advice that he gives in letter 7 constitutes a description of his own relationship with Lucilius. He there characterizes well the way he spends his retirement in the dual labor that he performs simultaneously on his correspondent and on himself: withdrawing into himself as much as possible; becoming attached to those who are capable of having a beneficial effect on him; opening the door to those that one hopes oneself to make better; these are “the reciprocal duties. Whoever teaches, educates himself.”13

The letter that one sends to help one’s correspondent—to counsel him, exhort him, admonish him, console him—constitutes for the writer a manner of training. A little like soldiers in peacetime training through drills at arms, the advice that one gives others in the urgency of their situation is one way of preparing oneself for a similar eventuality. Thus, letter 99 to Lucilius. It is itself the copy of another letter that Seneca had sent to Marullus, whose son had died sometime previously.14 The text comes from the genre of “the consolation”; it offers the correspondent logical weapons with which to fight against sorrow. The intervention comes late, since Marullus, “stunned by the blow,” had a moment of weakness and was “beside” himself. In this the letter therefore plays an admonishing role. But for Lucilius, to whom it is also sent, and for Seneca, who writes it, it plays the role of a principle of reactivation: reactivation of all the reasons that permit one to overcome mourning, to persuade oneself that death is not a misfortune (neither that of others nor one’s own). And, thanks to what is reading for one, writing for the other, Lucilius and Seneca will thus have reinforced their preparation for the case in which an event of that kind would happen to them. The consolatio that was supposed to aid and correct Marullus is at the same time a useful praemeditatio for Lucilius and Seneca. Writing that aids the addressee arms the writer—and perhaps third persons who read it.

But it also happens that the spiritual service rendered by the writer to his correspondent is returned in the form of “advice in return”; to the extent that the one who is addressed progresses, he becomes more able in his turn to give advice, exhortations, and consolation to the one who had undertaken to help him. The correspondence does not move in one direction for long. It serves as a framework for exchanges that help it become more egalitarian. Letter 34 already signals this movement from a situation in which Seneca nonetheless could say to his correspondent “I, I claim you, you are my work”; “I have exhorted, goaded you well and, impatient with all slowness, I have pushed you relentlessly. I have remained faithful to the method, but today I exhort someone who has already clearly departed and who exhorts me in his turn.”15 And begin­ning with the next letter, he evokes the reward of perfect friendship, in which each of the two will be permanent help to the other, the inexhaustible aid that will be the subject of letter 109: “The fitness of the fighter is maintained by sparring; an accompanist stimulates the play of the musician. The wise man similarly needs to keep his virtues alive; thus, a stimu­lant himself, he also receives stimulus from another wise man.”16

However, and despite all these points in common, correspondence must not be considered as the simple extension of the practice of hupomnemata. It is something more than the training of the self by writing, through the advice and opinions that one gives to the other. It also represents a certain manner of expressing oneself to others. A letter renders the writer present to the one to whom it is addressed. And present not simply through the information that it gives him about his life, activities, successes, and failures, his luck and misfortunes; present in an immediate and quasi-physical presence.

You often write me and I am grateful to you for it, because you thus show yourself to me through the only means at your disposal. Each time that your letter arrives, we are immediately together. If we are happy to have the portraits of our absent friends, how much more does a letter delight us, since it bears the living marks of the absent one, the authentic imprint of his person. The trace of a friend’s hand, imprinted on the pages, assures that which is the most sweet about presence: rediscovery.17

To write is thus to “show oneself,” make oneself seen, make one’s face appear before the other. And, by that, it must be understood that the letter is at once a gaze that one focuses on the addressee (through the missive that he receives, he feels looked at) and a way of giving oneself over to his gaze, through what one tells him of oneself. The letter in a certain way sets up an encounter. And Demetrius, moreover, revealing in De elocutione what epistolary style should be, underscored that it could only be a “simple” style,18 free in the composition, sparing in its choice of words, because each must reveal his soul there. The reciprocity that correspondence establishes is not simply that of advice and aid; it is also that of looking and testing. The letter that, as an exercise, works at the subjectification of true discourse, at its assimilation, at its elaboration as “one’s own property,” represents as well and at the same time an objectification of the soul. It is noteworthy that Seneca begins a letter in which he must reveal his everyday life to Lucilius by recalling the moral maxim that “we must regulate our lives as though the whole world were looking at them,” and the philosophical principle that nothing of ourselves is con­cealed from God, who is ceaselessly present in our souls.19

Through the missive, one opens oneself to the gaze of others and one puts the other in the place of an internal god. It is a way of giving ourselves over to this gaze that we must tell ourselves that it is plunging to the bottom of our hearts [in pectus intimum introspicerej at the moment that we think.

The work that the letter does on the addressee, but that is also per­formed on the writer through the very letter that he sends, thus involves “introspection”; but this must be understood less as a deciphering of the self by the self than as an opening onto the self that one gives to the other. It remains nevertheless that one has here a phenomenon that can appear a bit surprising but that is charged with meaning for whoever would like to write the history of the culture of the self. The first historical developments of the narrative of the self are not to be found among the “personal notebooks,” the hupomnemata, whose role is to permit the construction of the self through the collection of the discourse of others. One can find them, on the other hand, among the correspondence with others and the exchange of spiritual service. And it is a fact that in the correspondence of Seneca with Lucilius, of Marcus Aurelius with Fronto, and in certain letters of Pliny, one sees develop a narrative of the self very different from what can in general be found in the letters of Cicero to his friends. In the latter, it was a question of the narrative of the self as subject of action (or deliberating a possible action) in relation to his friends and his enemies, of happy and unhappy events. In the writing of Seneca and Marcus Aurelius, sometimes also in the writing of Pliny, the narrative of the self is the narrative of the relation to the self; and there one sees two elements stand out, two strategic points that are going subsequently to become privileged objects of what one could call the writing of the relation to the self: intrusions of the soul and the body (impressions rather than actions), and lei­sure activities (rather than external events)—the body and days.

1) News about one’s health is traditionally part of correspondence. But it gradually takes on the amplitude of a detailed description of corporal sensations, of feelings of malaise, of the various troubles that one can experience. Sometimes, one seeks only to introject advice about diet that one considers useful for one’s correspondent.20

Sometimes it is a matter of recalling the effects of the body on the soul, the action of the latter in return, or the healing of the former by the care taken of the latter. Thus the long and important letter 78 to Lucilius. It is in large part devoted to the problem of the “good use” of illnesses and suffering; but it opens with the memory of a serious childhood illness from which Seneca suffered and that was accompanied by a moral crisis. The “catarrh,” the “small bouts of fever” of which Lucilius complains, Seneca recounts that he, too, experienced, many years before.

At first I wasn’t worried about them; my youth still had the strength to resist the attacks and to bravely keep its head under various forms of malady. Subsequently I succumbed to the point that my whole person was melted away by the catarrh, and I was reduced to ex­treme thinness. Many times I abruptly made up my mind to make an end of my existence, but one consideration held me back: the great age of my father.

And what healed him were remedies of the soul. Among these the most important were “the friends that encouraged him, watched over him, spoke with him and thus brought him comfort.”21 It also happens that the letters reproduce the movement that led from a subjective impression to an exercise of thought. Witness this excursion-meditation recounted by Seneca:

It was indispensable to me to shake up the organism, whether, if bile were caught in my throat, to make it recede, or whether, if by some means the air was too dense [in my lungs], to rarefy it by a knocking about that restored me. It was thus that I prolonged an outing to which the shore itself invited me. Between Cumae and the villa of Servilius Vatia it curved, and the sea to one side and the lake to the other hugged it like a narrow shoe. A recent tempest had strength­ened the shore. . . . However, according to my habit, I started to look at the surroundings if I could not find something from which to ben­efit, and my eyes fixed on the house that had formerly been Vatia’s.

And Seneca relates to Lucilius his meditations on retirement, solitude, and friendship.22

2) The letter is also a means of presenting oneself to one’s correspon­dent in the course of one’s everyday life. Recounting his day—not be­cause of the importance of events that could have marked it, but precisely when nothing has happened to distinguish it from all others, thus testi­fying not to the importance of an activity but to the quality of a mode of being—is a part of epistolary practice. Lucilius finds it natural to ask Seneca to “give him an account of each of my days, and hour by hour”; and Seneca accepts that obligation all the more willingly in that it commits him to live under the gaze of others without concealing anything. “I will thus do what you require: the nature, the order of my occupations, I will willingly communicate all this to you. I will examine myself from this very instant and, according to one of the most salutary practices, I will make the review of my day.” In effect, Seneca evokes the precise day that has just passed and that is at the same time the most common of all. Its value stems precisely from the fact that nothing happened that could have diverted him from the only thing that was important to him: to attend to himself. “This day is wholly mine; no one robbed me of anything.” A bit of physical training, racing with a young slave, a bath in barely tepid water, a simple meal of bread, a very brief nap. But the essential part of the day— and it is that which occupies the longest part of the letter—had been devoted to meditation on a theme suggested by a sophisticated syllogism of Zeno apropos of drunkenness.23

When the missive makes itself a narrative of an ordinary day, of one day in itself, one sees that it comes close to a practice to which Seneca elsewhere makes a discrete allusion, at the beginning of letter 83. There he evokes the very useful habit of “reviewing his day.” It is the examination of consciousness whose form he had described in a passage of Deira.24 This practice—it was customary in different philosophical move­ments: Pythagorean, Epicurean, Stoic—seems to have been above all a mental exercise tied to memorization. It was a matter both of constituting oneself as an “inspector of oneself” and thus of gauging common faults, and of reactivating the rules of behavior that must always be present to the mind. Nothing indicates that this “review of the day” took the form of a written text. It thus seems that it was in the epistolary relationship— and consequently in order to put oneself beneath the gaze of the other— that the examination of consciousness was formulated as a written narra­tive of the self: narrative of daily banality; narrative of actions, correct or not; of diet followed; of mental or physical exercises that one has engaged in. Of this conjunction of epistolary practice with the examination of the self, one can find a remarkable example in a letter from Marcus Aurelius to Fronto. It was written in the course of one of those sojourns in the country that were strongly recommended as moments of detachment in comparison with public activities, as cures of health and as moments to take care of oneself. One finds joined in this text the two themes of peas­ant life, healthy because natural, and of the life of leisure dedicated to conversation, reading, and meditation. At the same time, an entire set of notations kept on the body, health, physical sensations, diet, and feelings show the extreme vigilance of an attention that is intensely focused on oneself.

I am feeling well. I slept little because of a slight tremor, which ap­pears to have been calmed, however. I thus spent the time, from the early hours of the evening until three in the morning, in part reading Cato’s Agriculture and in part writing successfully, but to tell the truth, less than yesterday. Then, after having greeted my father, I took some honeyed water in my throat, and in spitting it out I soothed my throat more than if I had “gargled,” for I can use that word, following Novius and others. My throat restored, I went to my father and joined him at his sacrifice. Then we went to eat. On what do you think I dined? On a bit of bread, while I watched many others devouring oysters, onions, and very fat sardines. Afterwards, we set ourselves to harvesting the grapes; we sweated a lot, shouted a lot. At six o’clock we came back to the house. I studied some, without results; then I conversed a long time with my little mother, who was seated on the bed. ... As we spoke that way, and as we argued about which of the two one of us loved best . . . the gong sounded and it was announced that my father had gone to bathe. Thus we had sup­per after we had bathed in the wine press; not that we bathed in the wine press, but after we bathed, we had supper and heard with plea­sure the joyous talk of the villagers. Having returned home, before turning on my side to sleep, I go through my task [meumpensum explico], I make an account of my day to my sweetest of masters [diei rationem meo suavissimo magistro reddoj], whom, were I to be consumed by it, I would love still more.25

The last lines of the letter show well how it is articulated with the practice of the examination of consciousness. The day ends, just before sleep, with a kind of reading of the day gone by. There one unfurls in thought the roll on which the activities of the day are inscribed, and it is this imaginary book of memory that is reproduced the next day in the letter addressed to the one who is at the same time master and friend. The letter to Fronto in a way transcribes the examination performed the evening before through the reading of the mental book of consciousness.

It is clear that one is still very far from that book of spiritual combat to which Athanasius, in his Vita Antonii, alludes some two centuries later. But one may also measure how much this process of the narration of the self in the dailiness of life, with very meticulous attention to what happens in the body and in the soul, is different from Ciceronian correspondence as well as from the practice of the hupomnemata, a collection of things read and heard, and a prop for exercises of thought. In this case—that of the hupomnemata—it is a matter of constituting oneself as the subject of ratio­nal action through the appropriation, unification, and subjectification of a fragmentary and carefully chosen already said. In the case of monastic notation of spiritual experiences, it will be a matter of flushing out from the interior of the soul the most hidden movements so as to be able to free oneself from them. In the case of the epistolary narrative of oneself, it is a matter of coincidentally summoning the gaze of the other and that which one trains on oneself when one measures one’s daily actions ac­cording to the rules of a technique of living.


Michel Foucault's Writing the Self, published here, is excerpted from Foucault and His Interlocutors, ed. Arnold I. Davidson (University of Chicago Press Journals, 1997).


1 Seneca, lettre 84, Lettresa Lucilius, trans. Henri Noblot, ed. Francois Prechac, 5 vols. in 4 (Paris, 1945-62), 3:121; hereafter abbreviated LL.

2  Epictetus, Entretiens, trans. and ed. Joseph Souilhe, 4 vols. (Paris, 1963), 3:23, 109.

3  See Plutarch, De la tranquillite de fame, trans. Jean Dumortier and Jean Defradas, Oeuvres morales, 7 vols. (Paris, 1975), 1. 464, 7:98.

4  See ibid., 1. 465, 7:98.

5  Seneca, lettre 2, LL, 1:6.

6  See Seneca, lettre 52, LL, 2:41-42.

7  Epictetus, Entretiens, 2:65.

8  See Seneca, letters 2, 3, 4, 7, 8, LL, 1:6, 9, 12, 21-22, 24.

9   Seneca, lettre 2, LL, 1:6.

10 Seneca, lettre 84, LL, 3:123, 121-22, 123.

11  See ibid., 3:124.

12 See “Lettre a Pythocles,” in Lucretius, De rerum natum, trans. Alfred Ernout, ed. Ernout and Leon Robin, 3 vols. (Paris, 1925-28), Llxxxvii.

13  Seneca, lettre 7, LL, 1:21.

14 See Seneca, lettre 99, LL, 4:125-34.

15 Seneca, lettre 34, LL, 1:148.

16  Seneca, lettre 109, LL, 4:190.

17 Seneca, lettre 40, LL, 1:161.

18 See Demetrius of Phalerum, De I’elocution, trans. Edouard Durassier (Paris, 1875), pp. 95-99.

19  Seneca, lettre 83, LL, 3:110.

20 See Pliny the Younger, lettre 1, Lettres, trans. and ed. Anne-Marie Guillemin, 4 vols. (Paris, 1927), 1:97-100.

21  Seneca, lettre 78, LL, 3:71-72.

22  Seneca, lettre 55, LL, 2:56-57. See letter 57 as well, LL, 2:67.

23  Seneca, lettre 83, LL, 3:110-11.

24 Seneca, De la colere, in Dialogues, trans. Abel Bourgery, 4 vols. {Paris, 1922-27), 1:102-3.

25 Marcus Aurelius, lettre 6, in Leitres inedites de Marc Aurele et de Fronton, trans. Andre Cassan, 2 vols. (Paris, 1830), 2:249-51.













The Montréal Review © All rights reserved. ISSN 1920-2911