It is ironic that Foucault had to go all the way to ancient Greece to grapple with contemporary political problems. footnote1 Only at that distance, it seems, could he see clearly, like the farsighted reader who holds the page at arm’s length to focus. Arguably, Greek thought provided not only a temporal remove from the present but also a disciplinary separation from politics: what could be more iconic of scholarly seriousness than a return to the classics? Yet perhaps he also needed the safety of ancient Greece to experiment with dangerous ideas.

Foucault’s reputation as an innovative theorist of power was firmly established by Discipline and Punish and The History of Sexuality, Volume I, published in French in 1975 and 1976, respectively. His thought takes on a more experimental and, to my mind, more clearly political character, though, in his annual lecture courses at the Collège de France, particularly the two final courses in 1983 and 1984, which together form one extended investigation of the role of parrhesia—truth-telling or free, frank speech—in ancient Greece. Here he seeks not only to challenge traditional modes of political thought and action but to explore alternatives, even to the point of proposing a form of philosophical and political militancy. On my reading, these last lectures cast a new light on the political significance of Foucault’s work as a whole and revise our understanding of his project’s trajectory.

Before discussing the lectures, though, it is useful briefly to situate them in the arc of Foucault’s career and, specifically, in relation to his theories of power. Two of the most original propositions of Discipline and Punish and The History of Sexuality, Volume I, led many critics to deplore what they considered his all-encompassing notion of power. The first proposition is that in modern society there is no locus of power that dictates social order; rather, power functions in capillary form through decentred networks of institutions and apparatuses. Second, there is no ‘outside’ to power, such that the subjects over which it rules are constituted by the functioning of power itself. Accepting the first proposition, that there is no centre of power, clearly undermines traditional forms of political thought and action, particularly those aimed at social change. How can we identify the enemy and where can we direct our political campaigns? Revolution can no longer be thought in terms of storming the Winter Palace and toppling the locus of oppressive power. Accepting the second proposition, however, that there is no outside to power, creates an even more disorienting situation. If we ourselves—our knowledge, desires and goals—are produced in the arrangements and application of power, then we must stop thinking of politics in terms of repressed subjects struggling for emancipation from the state, oppressive institutions, or even the social norms of heterosexuality. How can we struggle for a different society when we ourselves are constituted by power? Who is the subject we are striving to emancipate? Many readers who pose such questions come to the conclusion that Foucault would render transformative political thought and action impossible.

These critiques, which have characterized a large portion of the reception of Foucault’s studies of power, might be dismissed as merely a defensive reaction by those his theories are meant most strongly to attack. Indeed some of the loudest criticisms have come from proponents of the orthodox forms of Marxism and party-based politics that Foucault sought directly to challenge. His analysis of power, one might respond, makes politics a problem for them but not for him. Foucault did, in fact, continue in these books to write, often beautifully, of constellations of resistance that challenge the ruling power. Furthermore, in this period his own political activity as a public intellectual did not wane but if anything increased. He became one of the most prominent and visible French intellectuals, defending the rights of prisoners, the poor and the oppressed, in France and abroad, including Vietnamese boat people, dissidents in Eastern Europe and revolutionaries in Iran.

Nonetheless, in my view Foucault’s studies of power did run into a conceptual dead-end and posed a political problem for him as well; a rather different one than that deplored by his critics, no doubt, but not any less serious. In his biography of Foucault, Didier Eribon recounts that after the 1976 publication of The History of Sexuality, Volume I Foucault was intellectually fragile and unusually sensitive to criticism. For the next eight years he published no books, an enormous gap given his previous productivity. What accounts for this long interruption? I would speculate that the studies of power left him in a state of intellectual crisis or, at least, with a need to reorient his project. He had successfully articulated an extraordinary critique of power and traditional forms of politics, but was not able to advocate a new politics or propose the adequate means to struggle for a new society. Just before his death in 1984 he completed the manuscripts for the next two volumes of the history of sexuality, The Use of Pleasure and The Care of the Self, which focus on the modes of subjectification, especially the formation of ethical subjects, in the ancient Greek and Roman worlds. These final books, although startlingly original, rich and fascinating in many regards, seem to retreat from the analysis of power and problems of collective action, substituting for them ethical issues, such as the care of the self. The trajectory of Foucault’s work thus appears to turn away from unresolved issues of political praxis.