How repressive was Victorian society

Foucault and Christian Sexual MoralsHow the flesh became sin

The French philosopher and psychologist published "The Order of Things", an extensive and difficult work, of which 10,000 copies sold straight away.

A little later, the cartoonist Maurice Henry drew him as a member of the "déjeuner structuraliste", a campfire group to which the structuralist chiefs Jacques Lacan, Claude Lévi-Strauss and Roland Barthes appeared in neat loincloths.

Even today, 35 years after Foucault's death, enthusiasm for his writings is by no means waning. It is remembered that Foucault worked on a four-volume edition on "Sexuality and Truth" until shortly before his death. The first three volumes came out during Foucault's lifetime, only the fourth volume, a book on "Sexuality and Early Christianity", which he edited while he was still in bed, could never be published.

Finally, after decades of waiting, the volume entitled "The Confessions of the Flesh" has now been released. 'How did Christianity deal with sexuality?' - Foucault dealt with this as early as the 1970s. At that time he confessed:

"I have always wondered how it came about that people in the West had such illusions about themselves. We assume that we have a very tolerant civilization, that we tolerate every possible wrongdoing in sexuality To get to know non-Western cultures, however, we silenced them. Apparently we waited until puritanism had spread in the 19th century, in order to then silence sexuality better - and finally get to know it in psychology and psychopathology. "

In the family everything revolves around sexuality

The concealment of sexuality, which Foucault speaks of, was attacked in the 1970s by a rebellious generation of young people and students. At that time one studied the psychoanalysis of Sigmund Freud and amalgamated his ideas with the revolutionary theory of Karl Marx. Sexuality should have a liberating effect, it should be part of a social revolution.

That was the time when Michel Foucault also began to deal with sexuality. However, his interests differed from that of the revolting youth in Paris, Berlin or Frankfurt. Rather, Foucault was interested in how sexuality became a place of control - first in the family, then in medicine and psychiatry, and finally in educational institutions.

In 1978, Michel Foucault returned to Christian sexual morality in an interview. He does not describe how it is tamed by repressive controls. Instead, he analyzes how everything in the family revolves around sexuality:

"The child's sexuality should be made so powerful and aroused that everyone was forced to deal with it. The mother should constantly watch over the child, observe what he is doing, what his behavior is, what happens at night. The father supervises." The family. The doctor and the educator revolved around the family. In all institutions they had the pyramids of overseers, teachers, directors and prefects. All around the child's body, around his dangerous sexuality. This sexuality - I would not say that it had been repressed - it was fueled to justify a whole web of power structures. The European family has literally been sexualized by concern for sexuality. It has not ceased to be imposed on the family since then End of the 18th century. The family is by no means the place of repression of sexuality. It is the place of exercise of sexuality. I don't think that one can say that the rationality of the European type is irrational. And I don't think that one can say that its main function is repression, the censorship of instincts. "

Repression versus emancipation - a wrong contrast

So sexuality becomes a place of general interest, not oppression. Foucault emphasized this again and again in the volumes on Sexuality and Truth. He formulated his theory as the opposite of a Freudo-Marxism schooled in Herbert Marcuse, whose books were eagerly absorbed by rebellious students in the 1970s. Lothar Müller, culture editor at the "Süddeutsche Zeitung", comments:

"This repression hypothesis, which gave rise to great hopes for emancipation, that if you relax the repression, a liberated world will emerge. That was the living environment of the sixties and seventies, in which Foucault himself lived and taught. He actually had his own milieu read the riot act by rejecting the repressive hypothesis right in the first volume. Instead of drawing that further and saying what it was like in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries, when bourgeois society came up and prudish arose and the Victorian era, he has completely receded. He has made a real break. He also says that he has come to a new approach. This new approach was a historical return to the early evidence of antiquity and early Christianity. He says: This is my attempt to develop a completely new approach and positively show what should take the place of the repression hypothesis. "

Michel Foucault didn't just think about things that were interesting during his lifetime. (Imago / Mario Dondero Leemage)

Michel Foucault sees his research as genealogical, regardless of whether he writes about our relationship to madness, to education, to prison sentences or to sexuality.

And that means: He is not so much interested in criticizing current institutions, instead he would like to show how certain power relationships could arise in the first place. When Foucault reads the ancient philosophers and historians, the early Christian theologians and church fathers, he wants to uncover the roots of our present-day understanding of sexuality.

Sexuality, self-control and sin

Christoph Markschies, Professor of Ancient Christianity at Berlin's Humboldt University, wonders why Foucault used the texts of the late ancient Christians:

"If you ask yourself why Foucault occupied himself with Christianity - and that at the end of his life - you have to say: Because he studied the history of sexuality and - I think - was rightly convinced that our attitude towards today Sexuality Christianity has absolutely central importance. That is why he has analyzed it very thoroughly, very very carefully. "

Markschies sums up the starting point of Foucault's Confessions of the Meat:

"Religion is - he is absolutely right - at least in the Judeo-Christian tradition a central factor for an individual's attitude towards sexuality."

The Berlin religious scholar warns against reading Foucault's book based too much on today's common notions of sexuality. Rather, he is interested in how a discourse on sexuality could develop in Christian late antiquity - a discourse that did not exist among the Greco-Roman thinkers:

"The starting point is sexuality, whereby you have to be clear that when he says sexuality, he does not understand practices or position wars, so to speak, but understands sexuality as a collective term for the attitude to the gender relationship - to sexuality rather than a question of the mental attitude of the - as he says - self-relation. "

In Confessions of the Flesh, Michel Foucault discovers that the self-relationship and will control that emerged among early Christian authors led to new practices in sexual relationships: penance, self-embarrassment, virginity and permanent self-control are among the forms of an evolving subjectivity. When Foucault speaks of the Christian sexuality dispositive, he is talking about techniques of self-control that shape the new experience of sexuality.

The Christians in the third, fourth and fifth centuries were troubled by the following questions: What image of myself, what truth do I seek in my sexual desire? These are the main themes in the fourth volume of Sexuality and Truth, in which Foucault analyzes the church fathers Clement of Alexandria and Augustine in addition to the non-Christian philosophers. He makes it clear that the ancient authors and the early Christian theologians had a completely different view of sexuality. The ancient Greeks spoke of aphrodisia, whereas theologians like Augustine spoke of "libido".

Rule over lusts

In an interview that Foucault gave to the Dutch philosophy magazine "Krisis" in 1981, he made it clear that the use of these terms presupposed very different worlds:

"In the Greek culture, where aphrodisia prevailed, it was unthinkable that someone could be given a homosexual identity. There were people who practiced aphrodisia according to prevailing habits and others who did not. People a specific sexual identity Granting identity did not occur to the Greeks. That changed completely when the sexuality dispositive emerged and replaced previous behavior: sexuality was reshaped by an ensemble of practices, institutions and knowledge that made it one clearly defined and fundamental area. The individual asked himself, 'Which sexual being am I? "

The book title "Confessions of the Flesh" leads right into the spiritual world of the Church Father Augustine: Man has to confess his sins because his flesh has become weak. After revolting against the divine order, he was cast out of paradise. Since then, man has been tainted with sin: driven by carnal desires and the desire to be master of himself.

Sculpture of Saint Augustine at the Protestant Augustinian monastery in Erfurt in Thuringia (dpa / picture alliance / Rainer Oettel)

Augustine castigates excess and excess because they stand for turning away from an orderly life. The same applies to Clement of Alexandria. For moderation, he recommended the following rule of life to Christians:

"To rule over lusts and to be in control of the belly and what is under the belly".

"The monk distrusts himself"

The early Christian authors drafted a code of moderation, a code that shows how to lead a Christian life through shame, respect and sexual restraint. Michel Foucault describes in his posthumous publication that the Christian ideal of modesty was exemplified by the monks: penitential discipline and monastic asceticism suddenly became models.

Christoph Markschies says: "If you look at the subtitle of the book, you notice that Foucault described something wonderful and very precise - confessions of the flesh. This means that a central element of worship, both of monks and lay people Every worship service has the confession of sin. If you think of Catholic confession, it is more than the ritual formula used in Protestant worship. That means that before the sacrament there is a view of one's own sins and their public confession. "

Indeed, Michel Foucault makes the "confessions of the flesh" a characteristic that clearly distinguishes Christians from pagan antiquity. This is the core thesis that he clarified to the Dutch interviewees in 1981:

"I would like to emphasize that the confession already existed in antiquity. Seneca describes the examination of conscience, but as an obligation to a spiritual guide to confess the mistakes made during the day. Seneca is more of a memory exercise that The examination of conscience is therefore by no means about a truth hidden in the ego. It was the monks who radically changed the situation and thereby transformed the means of confession, because they made it an instrument of self-questioning and - control. ... They not only enforce that one confesses the mistakes committed, no, one must confess everything, down to the innermost coils of the thoughts. It is important to speak out everything. The monk does not only mistrust the flesh, he mistrusts it own I. The leadership of the monk by the spiritual leader remains permanent and proves to be authoritarian insofar as it is I distinguish from personal development towards a certain goal, which a spiritual guide shows him "(Foucault, Dits et écrits, IV., P.659).

Michel Foucault has dealt most extensively with Bishop Augustine, who describes man as a subject of desire, as a sinful being who cannot give up his sexual desire. Augustine, who taught far away from the theological centers of Rome and Milan in the province of North Africa, was deeply convinced of the deficiency and sinfulness of man, which even the legal status of marriage can only little compensate for.

Marriage as an antidote to debauchery

Clement of Alexandria, a Greek theologian, is different. He was much more influenced by the Hellenistic worldview and believed that a Christian marriage is the best remedy against excess and excess. Clemens was convinced that the spouses should follow an ethic of measure called for by the Greek philosophers. Understood as an ethic that conforms to the law of the divine Logos, a Logos that reveals itself in all of nature.

In the late phase of the Roman Empire, the doctrines of the ancient philosophers still have a great influence. Foucault is also aware that the influence on Augustine, who was born later, has already decreased significantly:

"Clement's Christianity is still heavily influenced by Hellenism and the Stoa, it is characterized by adopting the ethics of sexual relations. Augustine develops a stricter, more pessimistic Christianity that human nature only thinks about the Fall and sexual relationships consequently given a negative sign (Foucault, Confessions of the Flesh, pp.74-5).

For centuries, Augustine's influence was significant. Even Luther belonged to the Augustinian order before he founded the Reformation. Augustine's fame has remained to this day. But the question remains whether Foucault did not greatly overestimate his influence on the Christians of his time. Markschies would like to point out:

"Christian majority theology is not shaped by Augustine. It is shaped by figures like Clemens von Alexandrien, who comes from an ancient educational metropolis. The Christians want to have a say in the educational institutions, who want to sit among the philosophers. And so it is not surprising, that they take over the attitude of non-Christians to sexuality much more strongly. "

Social behavior more important than self-control

The cultural metropolis of Alexandria, at the time the seat of the world's largest library, was an ancient 'melting pot': different religions and ethnic groups came together here. And the theological teachings preached here had a great influence on the early Christian communities. But they were less influenced by Augustine, they did not proclaim any monastic asceticism, no permanent self-control. They did not preach "confessions of the flesh", but instructed believers to avoid social misconduct: not to give false interest and not to sacrifice to the pagan gods.

And yet: It remains Foucault's decisive insight that techniques for systematic self-control of sexuality developed in early Christianity. Of course, Aristotle already spoke of the "tremors of the soul". But it was only in Christian antiquity that forms of controlling these tremors were developed. In this way, the new Christian sexual morality slowly asserted itself against the pagan traditions of thought. It was to have a profound impact on the Western understanding of sexuality in the centuries that followed.