by Gordon Hull
In their critique of Foucault that accompanies their translation of his writings on Iran, Janet Afary and Kevin Anderson accuse Foucault of a certain Orientalism: “indeed, similar to a passionate Romantic, Foucault may have exoticized and admired the East from afar, while remaining a Westerner in his own life” (17). Evidence for this charge is not too hard to find; the most striking may be his assertion in History of Sexuality I that non-Western societies practiced an ars erotica but not a scientia sexualis. In the context of Iran, Foucault’s self-qualification that he’s read “three books” on Shi’ism doesn’t inspire confidence in the person who claims that genealogy requires a “relentless erudition.”
But then there’s this: “in an unusual turn, however, Foucault’s ‘orient’ seems to include the Greco-Roman world as well as the modern Eastern one, since the contrast he draws is primarily between tradition and modernity rather than East and West as such” (Afary and Anderson,18).
I think it’s worth dwelling on Foucault’s apparent inclusion of the Greco-Roman world in the Orient. Let’s assume this is deliberate (and the easiest evidence is in his books, not the lecture courses, so it’s not a matter of a hypothesis he was testing for the lecture): one implication is that Plato and Aristotle (and ancient Greek philosophy more generally) are non-Western. Several years ago, I taught an upper division class where we read some non-standard parts of Plato’s Republic (the stuff about regime changes, the Myth of Er, the discussion of Homeric poets – but no divided line or cave), and I found myself telling my students that if they did not find parts of the Plato profoundly foreign and disorienting, they weren’t reading carefully enough.
So for contingent reasons, I’m predisposed to take this hypothesis seriously That said, this idea that Ancient Greek thought is non-Western of course flies in the face of nearly everything we’ve been taught, but let me make a prima facie case that Foucault has not totally taken leave of his senses.
The first thing to notice is that Foucault does in fact, very carefully, describe the “erotic art” of ancient Greece in The Uses of Pleasure. So if having an erotic art is a measure of being “Oriental,” then that’s pretty much what the Greeks were. We (as a discipline) also know, or should know, that a lot of the recuperation of Greek thought was via medieval Jewish and Islamicate philosophy, to the point that the Venice edition of Aristotle (printed in 1472) typically included not just a rendering of Aristotle’s text, but also commentary by Averroës and other "non-Western" thinkers. And, as the Church condemnations of 1215 (which basically tried to excise a lot of Aristotle from official Church-sanctioned philosophy) suggest, the fit between Christianity and Greek philosophy is a tricky one. We also know (or should know) that the seventeenth-century rejection of Aristotle and Greek thought as a failed version of the sorts of inquiry the early moderns were working on was based on a (deliberately) misleading caricature of Aristotle in particular. In short, there’s a decent basis for the thesis that Foucault is entirely correct to treat Islamic thought more like Greek thought, and less like modern Western thought (I am not saying he understood Shi’ism. I’m saying he may have got the categories right in a way that’s instructive).
So what is Foucault doing? We can get a clue from parts of his 1979-80 lectures (On the Government of the Living), where he draws a contrast between the Greco-Roman world and the Christian one:
"The Greco-Roman world is a world of the transgression: it is a world of transgression, responsibility, and guilt. In a sense, it is nothing but a question of this from Greek tragedy to Roman law. And Greek philosophy, Hellenistic philosophy, is a philosophy of the fault, of transgression, of responsibility, of the subject’s relationship to his transgressions” (GL, 185).
The difference is introduced by Christianity:
“Christianity did not pose the question of Greek philosophy, namely: what type of observation of the law will lead us to perfection? Nor did it seek to know, like the Gnostics, what might remain of the law once one became perfect …. [The Christian problem is] what to do with those who have gone back on the metanoia that they manifested, authenticated, and professed in baptism. In other words, Christianity was forced to think the problem of relapse, and of those who fell after having arrived at the truth and the light” (GL, 184).
Thus Christianity develops confession as a constitutive component of proper subjectivity. On this reading, Foucault’s “Orientalist” sin seems less sinful, because of course insofar as the question is of proper observation of the law (halakha, sharia), the Greek question is also fundamental to medieval Jewish and Islamic thought.
The other thing to ponder is that the Foucauldian reading is completely opposed to a traditional (Western) way of putting matters, as found in the “Athens versus Jerusalem” debates, where Athens is said to prioritize thought and abstraction and Jerusalem to prioritize blind obedience. One of the ways to resolve this apparent difficulty is to assert, with thinkers like Maimonides and Averroës, that the law is itself rational, but sacred texts were written exoterically so that the vulgar could understand them, too. This Straussian thesis has fallen on hard times, but there is very explicit evidence in its support in some texts. Again, Averroës: having documented that sharia urges rational reflection, reflection on philosophy becomes obligatory: “from this it has become evident that reflection upon the books of the Ancients is obligatory according to the Law, for their aim and intention in their books is the very intention to which the Law urges us” (Decisive Treatise, sec. 10).
However, many people are, of course, incapable of understanding interpretation or re-readings of texts according to demonstrative principles, so those people are to understand the apparent/superficial meaning of the texts. Those people (that’s most people) should be discouraged from thinking too hard about questions like where heaven is; like in the song, a belief in God’s “heaven airplane” is fine for some people, because they are unable to think without using their imagination. But God made them that way, so it has to be ok for them to believe only on the basis of imagination (sec. 30).
There is a rich tradition, in short, of rational reflection in Jewish and Islamic philosophy, at least in some time periods. On the Foucauldian reading of the Greeks, the Athens-Jerusalem division accordingly makes little sense, because Athens and Jerusalem were much more like each other than they were opposed. The opposition comes first from Christianity, and then Western modernity (perhaps still confessional, even in its post-religious phase). And if all that is the case, then the standard Western reading of the Greeks is a massive effort to colonize a very different way of thinking. Such colonization is alien to the texts in question, undertaken to prove the supposedly deep origins of “the West.”
In other words, if Foucault’s apparent taxonomy is legitimate, it would mean most of the West has been involved in an inverse orientalism, failing to recognize moments of alterity in its own history. That Athens, the Western one, to put matters polemically, may be a nineteenth-century German invention.