Mary Wollstonecraft, Human Rights, and the Care of the Self

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.

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