This article offers a political-theoretical exploration of the concept of askesis, understood in its broadest, etymological acceptation as training, practice, or exercise. I argue that asceticism, a concept primarily of interest in religious studies or in the history of ethical systems, can productively be incorporated into analyses of politics. It is of particular use in thinking through questions of inequality, domination, and resistance to these latter. Building on theorists such as Nietzsche, Foucault, and Sloterdijk, as well as various sources from Greek antiquity, I first theorize practices of the self – or askeseis – as central in a broad range of human projects of self-fulfillment (eudaimonia) and as dynamogenic, that is, productive of (political and ethical) capacities. In the Greek polis, for example, askesis was a fundamental pre-condition for the ability to perform and be recognized as a full, powerful citizen. From this perspective, it is all the more striking that women, slaves, and the poor were excluded from the various domains of self-training. I argue that this exclusion served to reinforce existing power hierarchies. But askesis can always also be used to resist existing hierarchies: it is a fundamentally ambivalent, politically unstable, and hence strategically important force. There exists a real political stake in taking control of what I call ‘the means of training,’ viz., the social spaces of self-fashioning, self-maximizing, dynamogenesis. I conclude with some reflections on the significance of this framework for understanding our current neoliberal ethical-political reality.
This essay seeks to make both a methodological and substantive contribution to debates regarding neoliberalism, selfhood, and politics. First, I review recent insights from the anthropology of ethics that can help political theorists rethink the political dimensions of what I call, building from thinkers like Michel Foucault and James Faubion, ‘ethical configurations’. ‘Ethical configurations’ (of which neoliberal entrepreneurship of the self can be read as one) are modes of subjectivity defined by types of practices, their teleology, and the part of the self on which they work. Next, I argue that political theorists, though they often provide astute diagnoses of neoliberalism and its political dangers, tend to under-theorize the ethical dimension of neoliberalism, and overemphasize the de-politicization involved in neoliberal subjectivity. Subsequently, I argue that a combination of methods from these two domains can help us rethink the possibilities both for (1) producing fulfilling ways of life within and against our neoliberal world and (2) creating political projects founded on, rather than in opposition to, the recent cultural turn towards self-development.
This paper addresses the question as to why Socrates stays to die in prison through a novel reading of the Crito oriented by the Foucaultian notion of care (epimeleia). It argues that the Laws do not speak for Socrates (the reasons they offer for staying in prison are not reasons he could have accepted). It then reconstructs the logos that did compel Socrates to stay, through a close reading attentive to the principles of philosophical judgment suggested but never fully elaborated in the Crito. Crito’s ethical and philosophical laxity prevent Socrates from fully converting him to the philosophical life via argument, so he adopts the authoritarian voice of the Laws to prevent Crito from making a dangerous judgement. This is a compromise but nonetheless an act of care: preserving his own commitment to philosophy despite pending death, Socrates also leaves intact for Crito a model of an intrinsically good life.