Literature Study GuidesHistory Of SexualityVolume 3 The Care Of The Self Summary

History of Sexuality | Study Guide

Michel Foucault

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History of Sexuality | Volume 3: The Care of the Self | Summary



Part 1: Dreaming of One's Pleasures

In this volume, Foucault discusses the way sex and sexual ethics were viewed in Greece and Rome during the first two centuries CE. To establish the basic attitudes toward sex in that period, he begins by analyzing a text whose connection to the subject is less direct: a dream interpretation manual by 2nd-century practitioner Artemidorus (fl. c. 101–200 CE). This manual, called the Oneirokritikon (The Interpretation of Dreams), is one of several such documents produced during this era. Foucault proposes to use it to understand how different sexual scenarios and behaviors were viewed when they arose in the context of a dream.

Artemidorus describes a wide range of acts in his four chapters on sexual dreams. A common principle is that the meaning of a sexual dream depends on the relative status of the parties involved and on the dreamer's situation in real life. If the dreamer is having sex with his wife or mistress (the book is addressed primarily to men), this is a good sign. These women have a "recognized and legitimate" connection to the dreamer, so intercourse with them foretells prosperity. Likewise, to dream of having sex with one's slave, whether male or female, is an auspicious sign—as long as the dreamer is the active or penetrative partner. If one dreams instead of being sexually "possessed" by one's slave, it signifies rebellion and an upending of the household order. Whether the act would be acceptable in real life matters less: even dreams of incest can be a good sign under some circumstances.

Foucault deduces a few basic propositions from Artemidorus's treatment of sex. For one thing, he says, males in this culture enjoyed considerable sexual freedom. Marriage was considered "the best possible framework for sexual pleasures," but a married man could still "avail himself" of mistresses, servants, and prostitutes. The penetrative or "masculine" role in sexual situations was for Artemidorus the corollary of a dominant or leading role in social relationships—hence his grim predictions for dreams in which this role was reversed. Artemidorus's work does not suggest the existence of a moral code dividing sex acts into "permitted" and "prohibited," or even into "natural" and "unnatural." Instead, everything depends on one's social status and household circumstances. In all, Artemidorus's perspective on sexual conduct seems very close to that of the Golden Age Greeks cited in Volume 2.

Part 2: The Cultivation of the Self

In other sources, however, Foucault finds evidence of a more "severe" and "rigorous" approach to sexual behavior—one in which pleasure was "mistrusted" and marriage was increasingly celebrated as more than a mere politico-economic union. There was still, Foucault observes, no widespread attempt to impose sexual austerity through the force of law: sexual conduct, by and large, remained a matter for doctors and moral philosophers rather than legislators. Calls for restraint and moderation in sexual practice were, he suggests, part of a broader cultural emphasis on "cultivation of the self." The idea that one must "take care of oneself," mentally and spiritually as well as physically, was widespread in the Golden Age (the subject of Volume 2), but it was embraced even more fully in the imperial era. Regimens of self-cultivation, even more detailed and precise than those of Golden Age Athens, sprang up under the recommendations of moral and medical authorities. Exercises of self-denial, including sexual abstinence, were a common part of such recommendations.

Part 3: Self and Others

Importantly, self-cultivation was urged not only for philosophers but for those active in civic and commercial life as well. Foucault identifies two main reasons for this broad imperial-era "turn" toward cultivating and developing the self. One reason, he says, lies in a cultural shift concerning the meaning of marriage. In the Greek Golden Age, marriage was viewed as a private, largely economic affair. Gradually, however, marriage was integrated into public life: weddings became ritualized, civic affairs, and marriages themselves were subject to a growing body of laws. At the same time, marital relationships became less about economic gain and family alliances and more about personal affinity. Couples came to be treated as social units, and the bonds of love and affection between husband and wife came to be valorized. The role of husband now entailed being a partner as well as a master.

Another reason lies in the politics of the era, which increasingly revolved around large empires rather than smaller, autonomous nation-states. Administration of these empires involved complicated chains of command, and the position of any citizen within that command structure could be precarious. With their place in society less certain, elite males in the Roman Empire sought a philosophy that could immunize them against sudden changes in fortune.

Part 4: The Body

Medicine enjoyed greater prestige in the imperial era than during the Greek Golden Age and was one focal area for the "cultivation of the self." A comprehensive "health practice" developed, encompassing such elements as food and drink, rest and exercise, and the environment in which one lived. Sex was an element of this practice, contemplated in detail by writers who sought to understand the secrets of procreation. The famous Greek physician Galen (c. 129–216 CE), like earlier Athenian writers, developed a complicated theory regarding the way in which sex generated new life. He also followed classical Greek writers in identifying many disorders as the cause of excessive, insufficient, or poorly timed sexual activity. Sex was viewed as dangerous because it involved involuntary "convulsions" as well as the "exhausting expenditure" of sperm, which Galen and others considered to harbor a powerful life force.

To a much greater extent than the Golden Age philosophers, Galen and his contemporaries confronted the problem of this "expenditure" by advising abstention from sex when possible. This, they suggested, would allow one to conserve the spermatic life force and avoid dissipating one's energies. Thus, sex was not seen as evil but as physiologically taxing. Medical texts upheld an ideal—though not a norm or rule—in which one would engage in sex only to procreate or to "purge" oneself of dangerous excesses. Yet, Foucault reminds the reader, this advice is still a long way from the Christian view of sex as an occasion of sin.

Part 5: The Wife

Shifting views of marriage also played their part in shaping the sexual ethics of the era. Marriage came to be seen not only as socially desirable but also as a "natural" state—so natural, in fact, that philosophers sometimes took it as a prerequisite for a fully lived life. Procreation, the great concern of marriage in the Golden Age, was joined by a relatively new marital goal: the building of "a life to share." The mutual comfort and support derived from marriage were deemed almost as important as "begetting offspring."

As the personal relationship between husband and wife became more important, sexual ethics came to be concerned with reciprocity. In Golden Age thought, a husband was enjoined to practice sexual moderation because an indiscreet affair could jeopardize his social status. Now, husbands were counseled to aim for sexual exclusivity because this would best nurture their marital relationships. "Love, affection, understanding, and mutual sympathy" would all be nourished by the decision to keep sex within the bounds of marriage. Wives, in turn, were urged to be understanding if their husbands occasionally indulged in extramarital sex. Even within marriage, pleasure itself was not the goal: rather, sex was a means of producing heirs and deepening conjugal affection.

Part 6: Boys

Meanwhile, Foucault says, there was a shift in the discourse surrounding pederasty—intergenerational male/male relationships between a lover (erastes) and a beloved (eromenos). In the Golden Age, pederasty had been accepted and even idealized as a way for adult citizens to enjoy the beauty of adolescent males while training them in the virtues required for citizenship. Now, however, these idealizing arguments became suspect, and heterosexual relations came to be seen as decidedly more natural. A "new erotics" emerged in which heterosexual couples were idealized, and this erotics extended beyond philosophical works to appear in early romance-novel-like narratives and poems. In several of these works, the idea of a man or woman preserving their virginity was seen in high regard.


In all these changes, Foucault says, it is tempting to see "the lineaments of ... the ethics that one will find in Christianity." Yet there is still a substantial difference between the sexual ethics of imperial Rome and those of medieval Christendom. In the former, Foucault points out, there is still no concept of sexual sin, or of the Fall, or of a divine will whose demands must be enacted in universal human laws: "In itself and substantially, [sex] is not an evil." Christianity would borrow concepts from Roman sexual practices, but it would do so in the context of a "profoundly altered ethics" that emphasized obedience and self-denial, not moderation and self-mastery.


At first glance, it can seem that Foucault's work in Volumes 2 and 3 takes him far afield from Volume 1. All three volumes have to do with sexuality and sexual ethics, but beyond that it can be hard to see the precise connection between the Victorians of Volume 1 and the Greeks and Romans of Volumes 2 and 3, respectively. There are, however, many parallels between the "modern" first volume and the "ancient" later volumes. The similarities are so abundant, in fact, that Foucault repeatedly cautions against reading too much into the resemblances. The Romans of the 2nd century and the English of the 19th may both have embraced an ethic of marital exclusivity, for instance, but they did so for different reasons.

Oneirocriticism / Dream Interpretation

Foucault's decision to open with an analysis of a dream interpretation guide may also seem strange. But this somewhat eccentric text actually provides another "through line" between ancient and modern sexual ethics. As Foucault points out, Artemidorus was just one of a great many dream interpreters active in his day. Several other writers left behind their own advice on oneirocriticism (the technical term for this discipline), and thousands more practiced in stalls and shops on the streets of major cities.

In the Christian era, broadly speaking, dreams came to be treated ambivalently: sometimes upheld as miraculous visions, but more often dismissed as superstition. The medieval and early modern examinations of conscience Foucault cites in Volume 1 were often intensely interested in the thoughts and urges revealed by a penitent's dreams. These dreams, like those cited by Artemidorus, often depicted sexual scenarios. From the Christian viewpoint, however, what counted was not the prophetic value of the dream, but its insights into the desires of the dreamer.

The idea of dreams as a key to desire was also picked up by Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis. Freud's monograph on the subject—The Interpretation of Dreams, written in 1899—was in some ways an attempt to synthesize the classical and Christian traditions with insights from the then rapidly growing field of psychology. In his preface to the 1911 edition, Freud called for psychoanalysts who interpreted dreams to "seek a closer union with the rich material of poetry, myth, and popular idiom," even if their goal was to unlock the hidden desires and obsessions rather than to tell the future. He goes on to cite Artemidorus and other ancient authors, not just to criticize them as superstitious, but to show how the mind goes about making sense of dreams.


The concept of training oneself—developing skills, disciplining mind and body—was not something that suddenly emerged in the 1st century CE. Foucault's point here is that, compared to the Greeks of Plato's era, the Greeks and Romans under imperial rule were more intensely, even obsessively interested in self-cultivation. Moreover, to a greater extent than the Golden Age Greeks, the authors cited in this volume treat self-cultivation as an end in itself. They see it not just as a way of advancing one's political career or ensuring harmony in the household and the city, but as something that can be taken as an alternative—at least temporarily—to the unpredictable demands of the outside world.

A Diverse Philosophical Arena

In Volume 2, Foucault drew most of his examples of philosophical writing from what he calls the Platonic-Socratic tradition: the lineage of philosophical thought begun by Socrates in the 5th century BCE and continued in the writings of his student Plato. Foucault relies on Platonic-Socratic writings partly because of their extraordinary influence on later Western thought and partly because these writings are relatively well attested compared to those of other philosophical schools.

Volume 3, by comparison, makes use of a relatively diverse set of philosophical writings. Philosophical discourse throughout the imperial era was organized into distinct, recognizable schools of thought. Two of the most famous such schools were the Stoics and the Epicureans. The word stoic today means "unemotional; unmoved by pain or pleasure," and this gives a rough but not inaccurate idea of what the original Stoics stood for. Tracing their heritage back to the Athenian philosopher Zeno of Citium (fl. c. 300 BCE), the Roman Stoics believed that living one's best life involved apatheia (freedom from emotional disturbances) and ataraxia (tranquility of mind). Famous Stoics cited in Volume 3 include the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (121–80 CE) and the Greek philosopher Epictetus (55–135 CE). Aurelius's Meditations, still valued today as great literature, are a guidebook to Stoicism as understood from a ruler's perspective. Their ideas, in turn, can largely be traced to Epictetus's writings, as captured in his Discourses and the shorter Handbook. Both philosophers emphasize the need to live according to reason and to maintain a healthy contempt for earthly pains and pleasures. That latter part—disdain for and even distrust of pleasure—is a major component of Stoic sexual ethics.

The modern word epicurean gives an even more limited sense of what Epicurean philosophy actually taught. Today, a person might be called an "epicure" if they indulge in material pleasures, especially fine food and drink. Ancient Epicureans, however, were not simply happy-go-lucky "anti-Stoics" who cruised down the buffet line of life, sampling whatever pleasures they could. Instead, the followers of Epicurus (341–271 BCE) held that the greatest pleasure consisted in ataraxia, the very same tranquility of mind sought by the Stoics. Epicurus himself, as Foucault relates, would sometimes pare his life down to the very essentials of survival precisely so that he could see how little his happiness depended on sensual pleasures.

Greek biographer Plutarch (c. 45–120 CE), whom Foucault cites as a source of ancient opinions on everything from marriage to medicine, was a harsh critic of both Stoic and Epicurean schools of thought. He wrote several essays aimed at adherents to each tradition and argued that both schools relied on false premises about human nature. In other tracts, Plutarch aimed to show the superiority of the Platonic tradition—discussed at length in Volume 2—and the relevance of its supernatural ideas. Taken together, even the small cross-section of writings Foucault cites in this volume is suggestive of a thriving philosophical "marketplace," in which several different traditions were represented. Despite this diversity, there are some identifiable convergences in the area of sexual ethics. These, by and large, form the subject of Volume 3.

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