MICHEL FOUCAULT, holder of a chair in "the history of systems of thought" at the College de France, died last year just after the publication of the second and third volumes of this Histoire de la sexualite; volume four is to be published posthumously. The Use of Pleasure is a translation of volume two; its subject is the "problematization" of sexual behavior in the Greek city- state culture of the fourth century B.C. "Problematization" is a term Foucault explains by asking questions: "How, why and in what forms was sexuality constituted as a moral domain? Why this ethical concern that was so persistent despite its varying form and intensity?"
Foucault made his name with a book on madness (Histoire de la folie, 1961, translated as Madness and Civilization, 1971) which examined the definitions of insanity current in modern Europe and the varying attitudes of society towards it; it is a deeply disturbing book since its evidence justifies doubt about the validity of those definitions and seems to buttress Foucault's contention that they were a system of classification for deviants which served the interests of the ruling powers. Subsequent books raised similar questions about medicine (The Birth of the Clinic) and the administration of justice (Discipline and Punish). It should therefore be no occasion for surprise that a book which sets out to discuss "the manner in which sexual activity was problematized by philosophers and doctors in classical Greek culture of the fourth century B.C." should concern itself with what the Greeks called "economics" -- the management of the family household -- and politics, since such management served as "training for anyone who aimed to fulfill his civic obligations, establish his public authority and assume leadership functions."
Foucault's approach has always been relativistic; here too he breaks with a "common conception," the idea that sexuality "is a constant," that where it has been "manifested in historically singular forms" this has been the work of "various mechanisms of repression." He finds in the "prescriptive discourses" by which the Greeks of the fourth century "attempted to reflect on and regulate their sexual conduct" an emphasis on moderation and restraint that may seem to resemble "the forms of austerity that will be found later, in the Western, Christian societies." But this cannot, he maintains, be taken as evidence for a continuity of sexual morality from paganism to Christianity, still less as the product of "the timeless operation of prohibition or the permanent form of law." For the Greek ideal of moderation and control did not derive from religious feelings nor was it conceived of as a code to be universally imposed; it was an individual choice of a life of self-mastery, one of the "arts of existence," a formula Foucault explains as "those intentional and voluntary actions by which men not only set themselves rules of conduct, but also seek to transform themselves . . . and to make their life into an oeuvre that carries certain aesthetic values and meets certain stylistic criteria."
THE ANCIENT Greek practice of these "arts of existence" these "techniques of the self," Foucault explores at length in the writings of Plato, Xenophon, Aristotle and the Hippocratic physicians, documenting their operation in the areas of sexual pleasure, diet and physical exercise, relations between husband and wife and lastly of "erotics," the love of older men for adolescent youths, which is the form of sexual passion discussed in the Platonic dialogues Phaedrus and Symposium. It is in these two dialogues that the ideal of total abstention from carnal enjoyment is proposed, an abstention which will enable the lover to enjoy the vision of beauty itself, the "idea" of beauty rather than the beauty of a particular body. All this discussion of course is conducted from an exclusively male viewpoint; women come into it only as inferior partners in marriage, where their duties are the efficient running of the household according to their husband's directions and the production of legitimate children.
The subject of ancient Greek sexuality is one which has in recent years been carefully explored by scholars much better acquainted with the relevant texts than Foucault who was to quote his own words, "neither a Hellenist nor a Latinist"; in all fairness I cannot see that he has added anything new. Except perhaps in that area where modern critical writing has been so prodigiously productive -- the creation of new terminology. Readers who have no previous experience with Foucault will have to puzzle over a variety of semi-mystical expressions such as "games of truth," "ethical work" and "the hermeneutics of the self" as well as sentences like: "The relation to truth was a structural, instrumental and ontological condition for establishing the individual as a moderate subject leading a life of moderation; it was not an epistemological condition enabling the individual to recognize himself in his singularity as a desiring subject and to purify himself of the desire that was thus brought to light." It probably sounds much better in French.
But the book's real flaw is its narrow focus. Why did Foucault restrict the area of his investigation to "prescriptive texts written by doctors and philosophers"? If moral concern about sexual conduct is "problematization" then Greek tragedy certainly qualifies as valid evidence; furthermore, its protagonists are not man and boy but man and woman. Medea, Hippolytus and Women of Trachis, to cite only three titles, explore sexual situations in depth and though not "prescriptive" they are certainly "problematic." Aristophanes' comedies do not "problematize" sex at all, rather they suggest that it is a good thing and every man should get as much of it as he can, a point of view probably shared by the members of his audience. Foucault does at one point speak of his sources as "few in number" and "far removed from social practice and from the actual behavior of individuals" but does not seem to realize that for the "history of thought" (which he claims to be writing) tragedy and for that matter comedy may well be as important as philosophy. And how far Plato's high-flying male erotics were from the social practice and actual behavior of his contemporaries may be gathered from the fact that in none of the plays of Menander, all of them set in fourth-century Athens, is homosexual love even mentioned; they all have a love-intrigue but it is usually concerned with a young man who eventually, despite obstacles, (his father often the main one) succeeds in marrying the girl he loves.