The Care of the Self
The phrase “care of the self” was coined by the French philosopher and historian Michel Foucault to designate what he saw as a long and coherent tradition in the history of morality. Indeed, care of the self—le souci de soi-même—is the defining concept of his later work, a period that saw the publication of two books, the delivery of five major lecture series (posthumously published), and roughly a dozen essays and interviews.1 Given that this concept underpins my interpretation of Mary Wollstonecraft’s theory of human rights, I will begin by briefly setting out Foucault’s understanding of it.
A useful place to begin is with his introduction to The Use of Pleasure: The History of Sexuality, volume 2.2 This short text is a gateway to Foucault’s later period and serves as an introduction to this book and also to its companion volume, The Care of the Self: The History of Sexuality, volume 3. Here he states his reasons for undertaking a two-volume study of ancient Greco-Roman culture, and in particular of its sexual practices. In brief, he believes that the classical world emphasizes a valuable dimension of morality that today has faded from sight: the care of the self. To reach this claim, however, Foucault begins by setting out a broad schema of what he takes to be the nature of morality; from there, he considers the role of the care of the self within morality.