The Cynics With and Without Foucault


In the last three years of his life, Michel Foucault made a sudden and unexpected turn to the ancient Cynics. In lectures from 1982 to 1984, and most notably in his final Collège de France lectures from 1984 (The Courage of the Truth: The Government of Self and Others II), he sought to recover from the Cynics a potential for critique, militant revolution, and a courageous means of speaking truth to power. Foucault's engaged scholarship is inspiring, but in many respects, it is indistinguishable from conventional scholarly approaches to ancient Cynicism. In both cases, the Cynics are thought to comprise a philosophical movement that is founded on a core of principled commitments, for instance to virtuous self-restraint, ascetic training, the pursuit of freedom from externalities of all kinds, rationalism, self-mastery, self-sufficiency, individualism, and cosmopolitanism. To reassess Foucault's analysis, I first examine the pitfalls of this picture, which rests on a largely Stoic retrojection. I then offer an alternative reading of the early Cynics, Diogenes first and foremost, that shows them in a different light. In the final part of the article, I return to Foucault to see how he fares once a different framework for understanding the Cynics is put in place. Foucault's effort to view Cynicism as a bridge to early Christian practices is only the most extreme and most questionable upshot of his final legacy.

Publication date: 
August 1, 2023
Publication type: 
Journal Article