ACCORDING TO FOUCAULT it may well be that many of the sexual issues of Christian culture can be found in various pagan texts, including a fear of masturbation and of excessive sexual activity, a demand for self-restraint, a valuation of heterosexual monogamy, and a negative representation of homosexuality; however, what is lacking in ancient culture is the pervasive, rigid, and enforced "codification" of sexual behavior that is common from approximately the eighteenth century on, a codification and enforcement that is made possible because of various new strategies of social control: science and its principles of rational organization, the contemporary penal system, the medicalization of the subject's private and public acts, the interiorization of disciplinary rules. According to Foucault, "moral conceptions in Greek and Greco-Roman antiquity," by contrast, "were much more oriented toward practices of the self and the question of askesis than toward codifications of conducts and the strict definition of what is permitted and what is forbidden" (2.30). Instead of emphasizing the moral rules enforced by hegemonic institutions, "The accent was placed on the relationship with the self that enabled a person to keep from being carried away by the appetites and pleasures, to maintain a mastery and superiority over them, to keep his senses in a state of tranquillity, to remain free from interior bondage to the passions, and to achieve a mode of being that could be defined by the full enjoyment of oneself, or the perfect supremacy of oneself over oneself" (2.31). The goal in ancient Greece was "a strategy of moderation and timing, of quantity and opportunity; and this strategy aimed at an exact self-mastery—as its culmination and consummation—whereby the subject would be 'stronger than himself' even in the power that he exercised over others" (2.250). This self-discipline "was not presented in the form of a universal law, which each and every individual would have to obey, but rather as a principle of stylization of conduct for those who wished to give their existence the most graceful and accomplished form possible" (2.250-51).

For this reason, according Foucault, our very idea of sexuality does not exist in ancient Greece, at least not as a single, monolithic entity applicable to all. He instead refers to the rather loosely defined Greek term, aphrodisia, and to multiple forms and aesthetic uses of pleasure. The ancient Greeks were not concerned with a "hermeneutics of desire," with our tendency to want to interpret and discuss sexuality; to codify proper sexual behavior; and to define certain acts as perverse. Instead the key was moderation and self-control, with less concern on the specific sexual acts one engaged in. In contrast to our contemporary "hermeneutics of desire," Foucault terms this approach to sexuality the "aesthetics of existence," by which he means "a way of life whose moral value did not depend either on one's being in conformity with a code of behavior, or on an effort of purification, but on certain formal principles in the use of pleasures, in the way one distributed them, in the limits one observed, in the hierarchy one respected" (2.89).

In general, and as a result of such differences, Foucault accepts that the Greeks treated the subject of sexuality differently than people in post-Christian eras: "One can grant the familiar proposition that the Greeks of that epoch accepted certain sexual behaviors much more readily than the Christians of the Middle Ages or the Europeans of the modern period; one can also grant that laxity and misconduct in this regard provoked less scandal back then and made one liable to less recrimination, especially as there was no institution—whether pastoral or medical—that claimed the right to determine what was permitted or forbidden, normal or abnormal, in this area; one can also grant that the Greeks attributed much less importance to all these questions than we do" (2.36).


Proper Citation of this Page:

Felluga, Dino. "Modules on Foucault: On Gender and Sex." Introductory Guide to Critical Theory. Date of last update, which you can find on the home page. Purdue U. Date you accessed the site. <>.



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