The precept of the “care of the self” [souci de soi] was, for the Greeks, one of the main principles of cities, one of the main rules for social and personal conduct and for the art of life. For us now, this notion is rather obscure and faded. When one is asked “What is the most important moral principle in ancient philosophy?” the immediate answer is not “Take care of oneself” but the Delphic principal, gnōthi seauton (“Know yourself”).
Without doubt, our philosophical tradition has overemphasized the latter and forgotten the former. The Delphic principal was not an abstract one concerning life; it was technical advice, a rule to be observed for the consultation of the oracle. “Know yourself” meant “Do not suppose yourself to be a god.” Other commentators suggest that it meant “Be aware of what you really ask when you come to consult the oracle.” (226)
There are several reasons why "Know yourself" has obscured "Take care of yourself." First, there has been a profound transformation in the moral principles of Western society. We find it difficult to base rigorous morality and austere principles on the precept that we should give more care of ourselves than to anything else in the world. We are more inclined to see taking care of ourselves as an immortality, as a means of escape from all possible rules. We inherit the tradition of Christian morality which makes self-renunciation the condition for salvation. To know oneself was, paradoxically, a means of self-renunciation.
We also inherit a secular tradition that sees in external law the basis for morality. How then can respect for the self be the basis for morality? We are the inheritors of a social morality that seeks the rules for acceptable behavior in relations with others. Since the sixteenth century, criticism of established morality has been undertaken in the name of the importance of recognizing and knowing the self. Therefore, it is difficult to see the care of the self as compatible with morality. “Know thyself” has obscured “Take care of yourself” because our morality, a morality of asceticism, insists that the self is that which one can reject.
The second reason is that, in theoretical philosophy from Descartes to Husserl, knowledge of the self (the thinking subject) takes on an ever-increasing importance as the first step in the theory of knowledge.
To summarize: There has been an inversion in the hierarchy of the two principles of antiquity, “Take care of yourself” and “Know yourself.” In Greco-Roman culture, knowledge of oneself appeared as the consequence of the care of the self. In the modern world, knowledge of oneself constitutes the fundamental principle. (228)
Foucault, Michel. Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth. Ed. Paul Rabinow. The New Press, 1994.
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Tags: Michel Foucault