Practices of the Self and Spiritual Practices
Michel Foucault and the Eastern Christian Discourse
- ISBN: 9780802872265
- Published By: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
- Published: March 2015
The volume under review is the last chapter of a much larger book called Diogenes’ Lantern, which engages with the final stage of Michel Foucault’s thought, on the practices of the self. The author, Sergei Sergeevich Horujy, is a remarkable man, standing in a tradition of Russian thought that goes back through Aleksei Losev to the formidable thinkers of the so-called Russian Religious Renaissance at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries, including Vladimir Solov′ev and Father Pavel Florensky. Horujy shares their predilection for large tomes. Brought up in the Soviet regime, like many others Horujy took refuge from the stifling categories of Soviet ideology by studying mathematics and physics, subjects more or less impervious to Marxist-Leninism, and spent most of his professional life as a professor of mathematical physics. In his spare time, however, he read deeply in Russian philosophy, and began to develop his own philosophical method which he calls “synergic anthropology.” Drawing on some of the conclusions of modern physics, such as the “uncertainty principle,” according to which the observer cannot be detached from that which he is observing, as well as the principles of participatory knowledge implicit in the practice of prayer found in the Orthodox Byzantine tradition (often called hesychastic prayer, from the Greek hesychia, quiet, stillness), he has developed an epistemology that takes full account of the extent to which participatory knowledge demands a radical transformation in the one who comes to know.
For Horujy, knowledge is not some kind of information, but the result of developing in oneself a capacity for participating in God’s active presence in the created order. As his thought developed and he encountered some of the reactions to the tradition of the Russian Religious Renaissance, he found his philosophical career “moving away from the ‘methodological sloppiness’ of the pre-revolutionary religious philosophers to the theological rigour of the Neo-Patristic theologians, which he then sought to translate into his personal philosophical language of synergic anthropology,” as Kristina Stoeckl puts it in her lucid introduction, quoting Horujy himself (vii–viii). In this final section of Diogenes’ Lantern, Horujy seems to be seeking to express his ideas by dialogue with the late Foucault. Over half of the book is concerned with an exposition and analysis of Foucault. This is done with great learning, drawing not only on the History of Sexuality, especially the last volume on le souci de soi (which is now, and has been for some time, available in English, though this is not noted in the bibliography), but also on Foucault’s voluminous Dits et écrits.
Although born of immense learning, it is not at all clear what is achieved by Horujy’s engagement with Foucault. Horujy is struck by Foucault’s grasp of the way in which in late antiquity, both among Christians and pagans, there was a conviction that the kind of knowledge that mattered demanded of those in pursuit of it something like an ascetic program. He laments that Foucault, having seen this, occupies himself with little more than Cassian, ignoring the tradition to which he belonged, and which continued into the Byzantine period, reaching, as Horujy sees it, its climax in the hesychasm of the fourteenth-century Athonite monks, defended by Gregory Palamas. It seems to me that Horujy would have done better to engage with Pierre Hadot, on whom Foucault depends a good deal, and with whom Horujy often agrees against Foucault.
The last part of the book makes the move from Foucauldian “practices of the self” to “spiritual practices” as found in the Byzantine monastic tradition of hesychasm. Here he finds something much more rigorous than Foucault, and something that challenges modern perceptions more incisively. Although Horujy is given to writing extensively, much is taken for granted, and much of that seems to me questionable. He has, for instance, an unreflective understanding of the place of asceticism in the Christian tradition, seeing it as emerging in the rise of monasticism in the fourth century. It is a long time now since the affinities noted between the Dead Sea Scrolls and the New Testament have made it clear that asceticism is as old as Christianity, and indeed older. Recent research on what is called the “rise of monasticism” is ignored.
To point this out is not nit-picking, as some of Horujy’s criticisms of Foucault depend on this outdated understanding of early Christianity. Furthermore, Horujy works with a starkly over-simplified opposition between the “West” and the “East” that seems to me no longer tenable, popular as it still is with far too many Orthodox thinkers and theologians. Much that Horujy has to say—for example his notion of “thinking beyond the subject”—seems to me to make more sense as a criticism of such a division, rather than resting upon it. There is frequently something very exhilarating about Horujy’s thought, and the way in which he attempts to create a synthesis of a wide range of approaches to what it is to be human, embracing both the insights of Foucault (hugely modified as they seem to be) and some of the best strands in twentieth-century Orthodox theology, but it stands in need of a considerable dose of self-criticism.
Andrew Louth is Emeritus Professor of Patristic and Byzantine Studies in the Department of Theology and Religion at Durham University, UK.Andrew LouthDate Of Review:May 25, 2016