Review: Foucault’s Confessions of the Flesh

Michel Foucault, Histoire de la sexualité 4: Les aveux de la chair, edited by Frédéric Gros, Paris: Gallimard, 2018, ISBN 9-782072-700347

Reviewed by Stuart Elden, University of Warwick



Almost thirty-four years after his death, the book Foucault was working on even in hospital is finally published. Histoire de la sexualité 4: Les aveux de la chair, edited by Frédéric Gros, appeared on 8 February 2018 with Gallimard, in the Bibliothèque des Histoires series in which the first three volumes had appeared. The back cover simply has the line of René Char that also appeared on volumes II and III. “The history of men is the long succession of synonyms of the same term [vocable]. To contradict them is a duty”. Can we read this book in straight-forward continuity with those other volumes, completing the sequence of studies? How finished a book was it, and should it have been published despite Foucault’s stipulation of ‘no posthumous publications’? What does the book contain, and how does it help resolve previously unanswered questions about Foucault’s work? How might it be received and discussed? I will try to address these questions in this essay.

In December 1976 Foucault published the first volume of the History of Sexuality, originally translated into English as ‘An Introduction’, but whose title La volonté de savoir, is either ‘The Will to Know’ or ‘The Will to Knowledge’. In it, Foucault makes a number of bold claims which he explains will be treated in a sequence of volumes to follow. Some of planned content of these were discussed in the first volume, and the back-cover of the book’s original edition gave the titles of five. Four were to treat the constituent subjects of sexuality – the perverse man, the hysterical woman, the masturbating child and the married couple. These volumes would be preceded by one on Christianity and confession, under the title of La chair et le corps [The Flesh and the Body]. This would treat confession in the Catholic Church from the late Middle Ages, especially the fourth Lateran council of 1215, through to the Counter-Reformation, with a focus on the Council of Trent, concupiscence and the direction of conscience. One other book, on power and truth, was promised in the first volume, another on hermaphrodites was later planned and mentioned in his introduction to the Herculine Barbin memoir. Notoriously, Foucault published none of these books.

It has been long known that Foucault wrote parts of them, though it was reported that what drafts there were had been completely destroyed. We now know that is not the case, at least not entirely, and partial drafts of La chair et le corps and the volume on children, La croisade des enfants [The Children’s Crusade], are held in the collection of Foucault’s papers at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (see Gros, ‘Avertissement’, p. i). Foucault used some of the material he was drafting for his Collège de France lectures, especially in the Abnormals course of 1974-75. This already gives a sense that the books were being written out of sequence – Foucault had drafted parts of the later volumes before completing the first in August 1976. But it seems that after the first volume was published he returned to the volume on Christianity, and this is where things began to change.

There are many indications that Foucault’s focus was shifting from the later Middle Ages to much earlier historical material. Foucault’s partner, Daniel Defert, recalls that in August 1977 Foucault was reading the Church Fathers. Some glimpses of this material can be seen in Foucault’s Collège de France lecture courses, especially the 1977-78 course Security, Territory, Population with its analysis of the Christian pastorate. Some of this was used in his Tanner lectures ‘Omnes et singulatim’ in Stanford in October 1979. A lecture given in 1978 in Japan, “Sexuality and Power”, is important as an insight into Foucault’s thinking at this time. Here, much more than in contemporaneous Paris lectures, Foucault explicitly relates his themes to the sexuality inquiry, linking the work on governmentality and the pastorate to issues of morality and power. Defert again stresses Foucault’s reading of the Fathers from the second to fifth centuries, including John Cassian, Augustine and Tertullian in January 1979. The most detailed discussion of this material available before now was in On the Government of the Living, the Collège de France course from 1979-80. That course, crucial though it is, rarely relates this material explicitly to the project on sexuality. Foucault also discussed early Christianity in some other teaching in October and November 1980 – the lectures delivered in Dartmouth and Berkeley, which are published as About the Beginning of the Hermeneutic of the Self, and in seminars in New York, of which only the ‘Sexuality and Solitude’ lecture is so far published (see Gros, pp. iv-v).

By the early 1980s, Foucault was very close to a publishable book. By now this manuscript had the title Les aveux de la chair [Confessions (or Avowals) of the Flesh]. Defert dates the change of title to 1979, though it might have been even earlier; Gros suggests the text was completed between 1981 and 1982 (p. v). Foucault gave the manuscript to Gallimard in October 1982, but told them it was not to be published immediately (Gros, p. vii). Foucault would later recall that the book’s introduction made some comments about pagan antiquity, but that he had come to realise that this traded on ‘clichés’ from the secondary literature, and that he wanted to explore that material himself. His 1980-81 Paris course Subjectivity and Truth, recently translated, explored these themes in detail. His initial plan was for one book on that earlier period, L’usage des plaisirs [The Use of Pleasures]. The extant draft material available in Paris shows how this volume would have covered the entirety of his work on the period. The Christianity volume would then be the third volume, and when Foucault took a chapter from it for a collection on Western Sexuality edited by Philippe Ariès, he described it in this way. But in late 1983 he split the material in the massive manuscript on Greece and Rome in two, and gave the second part the title Le souci de soi [The Care of the Self]. (Confusingly, in one interview Foucault had said a book of that title would have quite different material, and sit outside the sexuality series. That seems to have become the planned project under the title of Le gouvernement de soi et des autres, for which Foucault wrote some material and planned to publish with Seuil.) This split meant that volumes II and III were on the earlier period, and the Christianity volume would now, finally, be volume IV.

In early 1984, Foucault took back the manuscript of Les aveux de la chair from Gallimard, and began making final edits to it. French publishing timetables, at least for Foucault, were rapid, and he said to friends that the fourth volume would appear in October. The second and third were published in May and June 1984 – he received copies of the third while he was in hospital just days before his death on 25 June 1984. Foucault did not complete his final work on what was now the fourth volume. The typescript, with his corrections, the manuscript of the text, and some other preparatory material was left behind.

‘No Posthumous Publications’

Foucault died without a formal will, but eighteen months before his death he had left a note that made his views on a few things clear. His apartment, and all it contained, was left to Defert, and he expressed a wish not to be kept alive artificially. Most significantly for Foucault’s readers, he said that he wanted ‘no posthumous publications’. Initially his family – his brother and sister – and Defert honoured that wish. Defert removed some of the most important manuscripts, including that of this book, from the apartment, and they were locked in a bank vault for almost thirty years. When the collection of his shorter writings Dits et écrits appeared on the tenth anniversary of his death, in 1994, it included only works published with his authorisation. Still, it stretched to four volumes of 800-900 pages each in its first edition, and then became two massive volumes when reprinted in the Quarto series. With the Collège de France lecture courses, the initial interpretation was that these were making material more widely available, since the first few courses were published as transcriptions of recordings already in the public domain. This was partly to edit the material to the highest standards – unauthorised versions were already being published in Italian, and various tapes and transcripts were in circulation. As the series progressed, the interpretation became more lenient, with the course manuscripts used to fill in gaps in recordings, or undelivered passages provided as notes. Defert supported this editorial work by allowing the editors to consult appropriate papers of Foucault’s.

With the earliest courses, there were greater challenges. The recording of the third course, The Punitive Society, was lost, although fortunately a transcription had been made in Foucault’s lifetime which he had himself part-corrected. With the first and second courses there were no known recordings. Defert himself edited the first on the basis of Foucault’s manuscript. This volume also contained a previously-unpublished text on Oedipus as an annexe. Various other volumes of material have appeared in the last several years, including courses and lectures from elsewhere, radio programmes, interviews, and essays. Much but not all of this work has been translated into English. In 2013 Defert sold all of Foucault’s manuscripts to the Bibliothèque Nationale, and these materials have become available to researchers over the past few years. There are over 100 boxes of material, estimated to be 37,000 pages of material. This includes Foucault’s lecture materials, his reading notes, and manuscripts – both of published books, earlier drafts and unpublished texts. Among them all are the relevant materials for Les aveux de la chair.

The progressive erosion of the restriction on posthumous publications led to this book’s editing. Did it begin with Dits et écrits, which retranslated into French some texts which had been previously only available in English, Portuguese, Japanese or other languages, or silently included extant French originals? Was it with the lecture courses, and their use of manuscript material to supplement transcriptions? Or with the unrecorded courses, or related manuscripts to other courses? Foucault’s nephew Henri-Paul Fruchaud is now involved in the publication work, and it is clear that he and Defert have thought long and hard about this particular book, with its crucial position in the History of Sexuality series. It is also worth noting that Foucault’s major works, from History of Madness to the three volumes of the History of Sexuality were recently published as Oeuvres in the prestigious Bibliothèque de la Pléaide, under the general editorship of Gros. This entry into the canon of great French works set some parameters about Foucault’s work. There are only some shorter works, no collaborative writings, and it follows Foucault’s wish to erase his first book Maladie mentale et personnalité and its later revision as Maladie mentale et psychologie. If that is, largely, the work Foucault intended as his canon, there are many volumes outside it.

Reading Les aveux de la chair

Even for those who know Foucault’s late work well, Les aveux de la chair is a formidable study. In style it is much closer to Volumes II and III than Foucault’s other works. While unsurprising, it shows that his move to a more austere style of textual analysis, without the kind of rhetorical flourishes that characterise some of his other work, did not just happen in just the last couple of years of his life.

The book is in three main parts, labelled here as chapters. The first is about 140 pages, the second and third about 100 each. Each are subdivided into three or four sections .These parts are entitled ‘The formation of a new experience’, ‘Being a virgin’ and ‘Being married’. Only ‘Being married’ is Foucault’s title, and just three of the ten section headings are his. Most are additions by Gros, a point to which I return below. The three part structure is significant, and I will work through each in turn. Foucault tracks the transition in attitudes from pagan antiquity to Christianity, and explores this new attitude in detail in the first part, and then the next two parts examine the two key subjects for the Church fathers – essentially the monk and the married man.

While Foucault does discuss some of the Greek fathers, his focus is largely on the figures that shaped the Western Church. He draws some schematic lines between this period and the later Western Church, and the originally planned historical period. For understandable reasons he does not try to link his analysis to what happened in the Orthodox church following the eleventh century schism. Nonetheless, his range is extensive, covering a wide range of figures from Justin Martyr in the second century CE to Saint Augustine and John Cassian in the fifth century, including Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Basil of Ancyra, Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa, Saint Ambrose, John Chrysostom and Saint Jerome. In the flyer inserted in early copies of Volumes II and III, Les aveux de la chair is described as a book that “will treat the experience of the flesh in the first centuries of Christianity, and the role played by hermeneutics and the purifying decipherment of desire”. Foucault certainly makes good on that promise here.

Aphrodisia and the Flesh

In the first volume of the History of Sexuality Foucault outlined what he called “the dispositif of sexuality”. One of his key arguments in the second and third volumes is that ‘sexuality’ is not a notion that makes sense in earlier periods. For the classical Greeks, through to the Hellenistic and Roman periods, Foucault suggests that the key notion is aphrodisia, which we might understand as the link between bodies and pleasures. At root it is a notion of the relation of self to others, concerned with acts rather than identity, and the title of the published second volume derives from it: khrēsis aphrodisiōn, the use of pleasures. From some comments in those volumes, and especially in his lecture courses, Foucault suggests that the notion of aphrodisia was supplanted by the Christian notion of the flesh. These three modes or techniques – aphrodisia, flesh, sexuality – tell us something about what we now call sex, but also about subjectivity and truth. We should remember that Foucault’s initial title for this sequence of books, and used for their German translation, was Sex and Truth. Foucault’s late discussions of the hermeneutic of the subject, of parrēsia, and the government of self and others all relate to these analyses, even if he planned to publish work on technologies of the self and government largely outside the sexuality series.

This volume provides a detailed discussion of this notion of the flesh, but it is much more detailed on how that was a transition from the ancient notion of aphrodisia than it is on how flesh, in turn, was replaced with our modern notion of sexuality. The main discussion of the transition from aphrodisia comes in part one of the book. He quickly summarises the notion of aphrodisia (p. 9), though of course intends the discussion to flow from the previous volumes. Foucault does not provide a simple definition of the flesh, but it is clear that it not simply the physical body. Foucault’s original title for a book on Christianity – La chair et le corps, The flesh and the body – already points to the contrast with the corporeal nature of the human body. In Western culture the flesh is, at times, simply the sex. When Shylock asks Antonio to sign a contract with a pound of flesh as his bond in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, the assumption is that taking that pound would mean castration. The surprise is that he actually claims a part in the breast, near the heart, which would surely kill him. But the use of flesh in the Christian tradition is broader than just the genital, and is essentially the body consumed by concupiscence. Concupiscence is close to the term lust, strong desire, often but not exclusively sexual. Yet the term ‘flesh’ designates something wider too:

The ‘flesh’ is to be understood as a mode of experience, that is as a mode of knowledge [connaissance] and transformation of the self to the self, as a function of a certain relation between the cancellation of evil [mal] and manifestation of the truth (pp. 50-51).

Tertullian is seen as the originator of the concept of the flesh, as the elaborator of the idea of original sin and as crucial to the articulation of the notions of economy of truth and metanoia – a transition in life as a result of penitence. But this is not penitence as a single act, metanoia is a process, conversion rather than admission. For Tertullian, and some of the other early Church Fathers (pp. 78-79), this is especially accomplished through baptism. In Tertullian’s striking phrase, penitence is accomplished through publicatio sui – the making public of oneself (p. 95; De paenitentia, X, 1).

One of the most important themes of this opening part of the book is the contrast between two Greek terms that might be understood in relation to our notion of confession. Exomologēsis is penance, a specific act, a single event, which later became a sacrament. Exagoreusis is a broader ascetic and spiritual practice, often but not exclusively located in monastic communities. Exagoreusis is putting oneself into discourse, a permanent self-examination – a way of life (p. 133), ultimately a renunciation of the self (p. 145). This contrast is first developed in the closing part of the On the Government of the Living course. Foucault had discussed exomologēsis in earlier lectures, but the contrast with exagoreusis only appears towards the course’s end. In his retrospective course summary Foucault would highlight the importance of the distinction, which has shaped some of its reception. It was made much more explicit in his lectures ‘About the Beginning of the Hermeneutic of the Self’ in the USA later that year. But seeing it emerge only late in the course is important in terms of the development of these ideas in Foucault’s reading. These acts of truth – exomologēsis and exagoresis – are both highly significant, but it is the latter which is key to the “formation of the new experience” and the development of the relation of the subject, the truth in the notion of the flesh. Exagoresis is a central development in Christian monasticism, as an “uninterrupted examination of the self linked to an unceasing avowal [aveu] to the other” (p. 143). Monasticism is therefore linked in complicated ways to obedience and obligation (p. 144).

A key theme which comes through time and again in this course is the relation between wrong-doing and truth-telling, and the importance of telling the truth about oneself (i.e. pp. 72, 145, Annexe 2 p. 375). These are the titles of Foucault’s lecture courses in Louvain in 1981 and Toronto in 1982, both of which have now been published. The Louvain course is a broad synthesis of many of the themes of Foucault’s Collège de France lectures from the previous decade, including material on medieval judicial practices, torture and the inquiry, Oedipus and governmentality. There is much use made of individual cases from his work on sexuality in the 1970s and the related projects on ‘infamous men’ and the ‘dangerous individual’. There are definite connections to the material in this book, especially in relation to the discussions of monasticism and the distinction between exagoreusis and exomologēsis. But the Toronto course – delivered in English but not yet published in that language – is much more focused on pagan antiquity, and its closest parallel to a text in English is the Vermont seminar on Technologies of the Self from later that same year. Even though those courses treat largely distinct material, they show the connections between many different themes in Foucault’s work and the concerns of this volume. The essential final composition of this manuscript in 1981-82 would naturally make the treatment concurrent.


Foucault notes that there are a large number of texts on virginity around the fourth century, both in Greek and Latin. But he cautions against seeing these as the appearance of a new sanction against sexual relations, and suggests that many of them refer back to St Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians (pp. 149-50). But he suggests, in contrast to a moral code, that we do see something emerge at this time, and it is practice of virginity (p. 153), a tekhnē of virginity (p. 178). The discussions are largely focused on the man, but there are some texts which discuss this in relation to women (pp. 157, 293-94). It is, of course, not a choice that individuals make in isolation. While the art of the self is clearly individual, it needs to be seen within the wider context of the salvation of the human race. Some heretical sects such as the Encratites had promoted it for everyone, but the Church Fathers saw it as a good which was only for a select few (pp. 151-53). As Saint Ambrose said in De virginibus, “virginity is for some”, while “marriage is for all” (I, 7, 35, quoted p. 186).

Crucially it is in these monastic environments that Foucault sees a technology of the self developing, with men who have isolated themselves from a wider society. But their relation to a director of conscience is essential, and obedience to them crucial. While the master-disciple relation can be found in antiquity, in Christianity it is organised and restricted in new ways (p. 121). Virginity is therefore a relation to the self, not just in terms of the body, but the relation of the body to the soul, and most crucially the work of the soul on itself (p. 175). It is clear to Foucault in these texts that “the valorisation of virginity is therefore something quite different and much more than the disqualification or prohibition pure and simple of sexual relations” (p. 201). As well as a self-relation, it can also be a “relation of power to another” (p. 215). It is worth noting that Foucault employs the vocabulary of power only rarely in this text, and that he sometimes uses the term puissance, force, as well as pouvoir. At one point he suggests that both words capture the sense of the Greek pleonexia as a surplus of power or, more broadly greed, avarice or insatiable desire (p. 275).

The struggle or battle for chastity, where John Cassian is a key figure, was explored in the essay Foucault excerpted for publication in 1982. The themes of that essay can now, of course, be situated within the wider project Foucault was pursuing. Yet Foucault stresses that Cassian is more of a witness to this approach than an innovator (p. 244). Much of the focus is on monasticism, and the organisation of monastic orders. Yet there are concerns about virginity not just for monks, but also the laic. The techniques of the self that he is discussing cross from Christian asceticism to more everyday practice (pp. 243-44). As Foucault suggests, “in this asceticism of chastity, we can perhaps recognise a process of ‘subjectification’ which marginalises a sexual ethics centred on the economy of acts” (pp. 244-45). This subjectification implies two further things. First, it comes with an obligation for self-analysis, with the requirement to tell the truth about oneself, a continual process of examination and reflection. Second, it puts the self in relation to others – the one to whom one confesses, the ones that advise or tempt (p. 245). Foucault does not want to suggest Christianity lies simply in the radical insistence on virginity, but rather to emphasise the transformation in terms of confession and ongoing practices of truth-telling, all of which help to shape a specific understanding of subjectivity.

Yet even with all this, Foucault contends that we are still some distance from the medieval codification of sexual sins (p. 236). There are some hints of these questions earlier, in relation to the issue of penitential discipline (p. 50), or codes around incest (p. 49 n. 2). The key theme here is less about the prohibition of specific acts, which comes in a later period of Christianity, but a deeper and deeper self-examination. This is an important distinction between the period he covers in this volume and most of the comments he makes about the Church in Volume I, and the period he intended to discuss in La chair et le corps.


Compared to the large number of texts about virginity which have survived, Foucault suggests that ancient Christianity did not write so much about the concentration of sexual relations in marriage. He suggests that it is hard to find texts with a discussion of an art or “tekhnē of the matrimonial life” (p. 249). This does not mean that there are no discussions of marriage of course, but that they are more concerned with its “legitimacy or acceptability” than with the elaboration of a technique of the self or way of life (p. 249). Foucault also recognises that marriage was highly valued in pagan antiquity, though not for the same reasons. There, marriage was valued for its isomorphism, where social and sexual relations took the same form and recognised social hierarchies. But there were other sexual acts seen as legitimate in that period, including relations with boys or slaves, both of whom were social inferiors to the free man. For the Christian fathers the sexual relation had to be either stopped entirely or exclusively situated in marriage. Marriage is more than just something tolerated however, with marriage seen as minor version of the relation Christ has to the church, though with all the gendered hierarchies that implies (p. 259). It is notable that the book Disorderly Families, which Foucault worked on with Arlette Farge, also came out in 1982. There Foucault asked Farge to present the Bastille letters which looked at the relation of married couples, while he took the lead on those concerned with children. Foucault does not display the same reticence here, and there is a discussion about marriage from the perspective of both man and woman (i.e. pp. 293-95).

Foucault explains that “there exists in effect a traditional trilogy of sins of the flesh: adultery, fornication (which translates the Greek word porneia and designates sexual relations outside marriage) and the corruption of children” (p. 235). Fornication is therefore a broader term than the more specific adultery, which is the breaking of the obligation of fidelity in marriage. Fornication is when neither of the partners are married; adultery when at least one is (p. 355). Some of these themes lead to a discussion of the idea of coveting, with commandments against this, and the way this can lead to fornication (pp. 235-6). There is also a discussion of prohibitions against incest as a sin against our own flesh (pp. 257-58).

For the Christian figures Foucault is discussing, “virginity is superior to marriage, without marriage being bad [mal] or virginity an obligation” (p. 283). This leads him to a sustained discussion of Saint Augustine, with the question of desire as a major theme. Although Foucault discussed Augustine in the 1980 New York lecture ‘Sexuality and Solitude’, he had been largely absent from On the Government of the Living. Here Foucault treats him in great detail, especially his text On the Goods of Marriage. Augustine’s text was an intervention into debates between other Fathers. Jerome’s critique of marriage and praise of virginity had been criticised by other figures, and Augustine was responding to these debates. Augustine’s ‘On the Goods of Marriage was a middle way. Marriage for Augustine is good because it binds society together. Children and fidelity are two of the goods of marriage, but the third good of marriage for Augustine is a sacrament (p. 306, 314-316

Marriage is not just for procreation, but is also a way of controlling concupiscence, for those unable to commit to virginity. Indeed Foucault, following John Chrysostom, notes that Saint Paul puts the avoidance of fornication above making children as the reason for marriage (p. 268). It follows from this that “concupiscence is the common object of the rules of the state of marriage and to the tekhnē of the profession of virginity” (p. 273). The two have though a different attitude to legal questions. Virginity is advice rather than an instruction, but marriage is “an obligation for all those who cannot attain the perfection of the virgin state” (p. 273). Yet even here, Foucault stresses that marriage, while a union of two, is concerned with a relation to oneself first and foremost. It is a means of dealing with one’s own concupiscence: “And the domestic law of marital sex [la droit interne du sexe conjugal] is first organised as a manner of managing through the other this fundamental relationship of self to self” (p. 282).

Augustine is less a radical break than a summation of previous Church Fathers, at the end of a long tradition. The last figure of antiquity rather than the first of the Middle Ages, but nonetheless crucial for how Christianity in that later period develops. This is in large part because he praises both marriage and virginity, morality and asceticism, without seeing marriage as equal or preferable (p. 287). Foucault sees the comparison of the “virgin and spouses, the continent and the conjoined”, while largely elaborated before Augustine, as coming together in a new way. Foucault seems to see here the source of the subject of desire. This subject is not “a third person” in relation to the virgin or the married person, “nor a composite figure, but the fundamental element in relation to the two others” (p. 288). Augustine situates marriage within “the general economy of salvation” through the nature of the conjugal bond and “on the principle of regulation of sexual relations between spouses” (p. 307).

Following his discussion of Augustine on marriage, Foucault says that this requires a theorisation of the libido (p. 324). While today that term is associated with drive, in a sense here is it closer to the notion of desire. He therefore spends some time discussing what he calls the “libidinisation of the sexual act” (p. 339). There are a whole set of issues concerning the involuntary nature of sexual desire, and the movement of the sexual organs without explicit intention (pp. 339-40). Libido becomes, in Augustine’s phrase, sui juris, its own right, a law unto itself. Here, as elsewhere, there are a set of issues concerning the animality of human lust (i.e. p. 344). Temptation to sin, rather than sin in itself, is a crucial factor. This is part of the reason that erection, rather than penetration, becomes such a key concern, which is another link to Foucault’s planned book La croisade des enfants. The crusade, discussed in some detail in Foucault’s lecture course The Abnormals, is a campaign against masturbation.

Subject of Desire, Subject of Law

In the closing section of the book, still through Augustine, Foucault begins to link the question of the subject of desire more explicitly to the subject of law (pp. 351-61). Part of this concerns the government of souls. There are some crucial issues raised here, one of which concerns the relation between use and consent – the Latin usus and consensus (p. 352) – and how a focus on consent begins to look at the object of sexual desire rather than just its subject (pp. 354-55). It is through this focus that the “subject of concupiscence becomes a subject of law”. The juridification of sexual acts is a crucial development, largely located here in Augustine, which paves the way for the codification of the Middle Ages (p. 355). This leads to the statement that the institution of marriage conditions “the relations between spouses”, both making “legitimate an act which would be condemnable outside of it and because this act consists in the exercise of a right [droit] thus acquired over the body of the other” (pp. 355-56). He continues that what is here called “the use of marriage” works in “both an institutional and corporeal sense, juridico-physical: a right is used in using a body [on se servait d’un droit en se servant d’un corps]” (p. 356). This is, it must be remembered, a characterisation of Augustine’s arguments, not Foucault’s own. It has some potentially violent aspects, but Foucault stresses that “usus is therefore a certain modality of interplay [jeu] between consent and non-consent” (p. 356), “a modality of the physical act” (p. 357) that is inscribed within juridical and religious restrictions. Pagan antiquity’s use of pleasures becomes the “use of concupiscence, which Augustine inserts in the analysis of the sexual act between the justified use of marriage and the natural use of the body”. The individual, that is each of the two people joined together in marriage, becomes a “unique subject of desire and law” (p. 358). The remarks here are dense and perhaps too limited, even if immensely suggestive in terms of Foucault’s overall project. (The second annexe, discussed below, says much more about this more political aspect, even if it develops its analysis in a different register.)

There is not a formal conclusion to the book. The last few pages, continuing without distinction from the Augustine material, largely comprise an all-too-brief discussion of the break that medieval Christianity from the thirteenth century on creates with antiquity. This is a period which he suggests is “without doubt the first form of civilisation which will develop such elaborate [prolixes] prescriptions around sexual relations between spouses” (p. 359). Along this it instituted the practice of confession, for the people as a whole: “Sex in marriage then became object of jurisdiction and veridiction” (p. 360). This provides a clear link to the originally conceived History of Sexuality. What follows is also significant for his wider project:

The problematisation of sexual conducts – whether they know what they are in truth or define what they should be – becomes the problem of the subject. Subject of desire, whose truth can only be discovered by himself and from himself. Subject of law, whose attributable actions are defined and distributed as good or bad according to the relations he has to himself (p. 360).

In antiquity the sexual act was thought as a “paroxysmal block or unit [bloc]”, where bodies and pleasure came together in a single, sudden, event, which Foucault wants to merely situate within “a general economy of pleasures and forces” (pp. 360-1). That is dissociated in Christianity, “by rules of life, arts of self-conduct and conduct of others, techniques of examination or procedures of confession [aveu], by a general doctrine of desire, the fall, fault, etc.” (p. 361). When the relation is put back together, “the unity, however, is recomposed, no longer around pleasure and relation, but of desire and the subject” (p. 361). Its relations concern both the self and their relation to others, and are not simply recommendations but obligations. In sum, the period analysed in this book is seen as one of transition.

A recomposition thus took place around what might be called, in contrast to the economy of paroxysmal pleasure, the analytic of the subject of concupiscence. It is there that sex, truth and law are linked, by ties that our culture has tightened rather than relaxed (p. 361).

These powerful final lines do suggest how the analysis in this volume links to the first volume and Foucault’s own present moment. But frustratingly there is little here that talks about how the Christian notion of the flesh came to be replaced with the modern dispositif of sexuality, which would help to show how this volume closes the circle. There are some helpful indications in Foucault’s lecture courses, and in some of his interviews, but these have to be reconstructed without a definitive statement from Foucault himself. In a sense what these lines do best is set up the need for a future study on the medieval and post-Reformation church.

In a late interview Foucault talks of having “more than a draft of a book about sexual ethics in the sixteenth century, in which also the problem of the techniques of the self, self-examination, the cure of souls, is very important, both in the Protestant and Catholic churches”. The text he is referring to is likely La chair et le corps, though how Foucault would have completed it, and where it would sit in relation to the four volumes is unclear. Gros indicates that a draft Introduction, and a plan for such a text, were found alongside the manuscript of Les aveux de la chair, but indicates that this “clearly corresponds” to the project of La chair et le corps. He wonders, not without reason, if Foucault might have found a way to follow this fourth volume with an analysis of that later period. A comment by Foucault in the published text, which anticipates a “future study”, certainly seems to support this way of seeing the relation (p. 254; Gros, p. ix-x n. 6). There is surely a temptation now to see La chair et le corps as the missing fifth volume, but if it dates from 1978, as seems likely, then it may well have needed extensive revision before being commensurate with his later analyses of the earlier historical periods. We know that a manuscript exists, though it is incomplete and certainly not as polished as this text.


The main text finishes with the lines quoted above from p. 361, which already makes it a longer text than either volume II or III. There follow about forty pages of ‘Annexes’, and then twenty of works cited. The Annexes are material found alongside the manuscript in Foucault’s working folders, but where it was not clear if or where they should fit in the text. Gros has therefore included them in the volume but without disrupting the main body of the text. Three of these are brief texts of one, three or seven pages, but Annexe 2 is an extensive manuscript of thirty printed pages. Annexe 1 is a point-based outline of the argument in this work, perhaps for an introduction or lecture, or even for Foucault’s own reference. The first point, however, shows clearly the argument of this book in relation to volumes II and III.

There exists a relatively consistent prescriptive core [noyau] in Christianity. This core is ancient. And it is formed prior to Christianity. It is clearly documented in the pagan authors of the Hellenistic and Roman period (p. 365).

This does not mean, of course, that there are no changes, and the volume here explores them in detail. But it is another point of caution to the idea that Christianity was a fundamental break, either in terms of sexuality or the relations between subjectivity and truth. Annexe 3 is a discussion of John Chrysostom and the question of sin, fault and confession in some biblical figures, among them Cain, Eve and King David. While stylistically and in terms of content it could fit into the book itself, it is perhaps most interesting for the recognition that in thinking about truth in relation to Christianity he is largely putting faith to one side, with a focus instead on truth-telling – dire-vrai or véridiction – and its relation to “an economy of fault and of salvation” (p. 402). It is here that one of the crucial developments can be found. Christianity puts an obligation on all its faithful to tell the truth about themselves, and this in a way “infinitely more compelling [impérieuse] in form and more demanding [exigeante] in content” (pp. 402-3). As he concludes this annexe: “It is through these new rules of ‘veridiction’ that we must try to understand what is said in Christianity concerning the flesh” (p. 403).

Annexe 4 is a brief text on Augustine and original sin, with reference to the forbidden fruit story in Genesis. But it is Annexe 2 which is likely to get the most attention. Crucially this substantial essay treats the pastorate in some detail, much more than the main text of the book, and shows ever more clearly how the projects on governmentality and sexuality were mutually constitutive. There are discussions of material presented in the Security, Territory, Population course, and the related ‘Omnes et singulatim’ lectures. The government of souls, long known as a key theme in Foucault’s broader understanding of government, is crucial to the relation of the director of conscience to the Christian subject. As Gregory the Great suggested, following Gregory of Nazianus, “the art of guiding [conduire] souls is the art of arts, the science of sciences” (Discourse II, 16, quoted on p. 379). Interestingly, this text uses the vocabulary of power relations more frequently than the main body of the volume, which might suggest an earlier composition, perhaps in parallel to the governmentality lectures or when the material on Christianity was still intended for La chair et le corps. Yet the regular invocation of the distinction between exomologēsis and exagoreusis, which first appears in Foucault’s public pronouncements only in the later lectures of On the Government of the Living, do indicate it was indeed concurrent to the main manuscript (see, i.e. p. 380). It offers an intriguing, and much more explicitly political, reading of Christianity.

The Edition

It is hard to think of a better person than Frédéric Gros to have edited this book. Gros has edited the final four Collège de France courses by Foucault, and so knows the period and its concerns better than anyone. While he clearly did an enormous amount of work, Defert and Fruchaud are thanked for their “patient and helpful rereading of the text” (p. ix). Gros also consulted Michel Senellart, who edited the three ‘governmentality’ courses, including On the Government of the Living, which shares the most thematic continuity with this course, and Philippe Chevalier, author of the important study Michel Foucault et le Christianisme. Gros worked with both the typescript and Foucault’s manuscript to establish the text. He notes how Foucault’s regular typist was unavailable, and that the replacement made many mistakes in their transcription. There were gaps as well as errors in the typescript, and some of those were filled in or corrected by Foucault himself. Foucault’s handwriting is difficult, he abbreviates some words, and employs an idiosyncratic shorthand. For Greek and Latin terms, and some of the technical vocabulary, there were serious difficulties for the typist, and sympathy seems appropriate. Gros says that he always privileged the manuscript in marginal cases. For the reading of John Cassian which Foucault gave to Ariès for his collection Gros has taken the published version as a guide for editing the material here (pp. vii-viii).

The text we have here is not quite finished, despite appearances. There are a few missing notes, a few break off incomplete, and as mentioned most of the headings and subheadings are provided by Gros. His emendations are in square brackets: we are scrupulously aware of those additions and his editorial hand. Foucault made mistakes with references, whether to do with haste or illness, which have been checked and corrected (see p. viii and notes). There are some editorial notes where Gros tells us that Foucault struck through a passage, or wrote new material onto the typescript, usually provided in the note. Most of these are in the first part of the book, suggesting that Foucault might have done more. At the conclusion of one chapter, Foucault makes three points, the third of which is very brief. Foucault’s handwritten notes indicate he intended to expand this (p. 77 and n.). We simply cannot know what Foucault would have done with the text had he lived to complete the work and return it to Gallimard himself.

We do know that the version published here is shorn of the introduction it had at one point: there is no material here which still trades on the ‘clichés’ about pagan antiquity. Indeed the book begins rather abruptly: there is no Introduction at all. Yet this is just like the beginning of Volume III. The introduction to Volume II, which went through multiple drafts and which is available in different published versions, serves as the introduction to volumes II, III and IV. Indeed, Foucault considered various forms of publication: not only were volumes II and III at one point a single manuscript, he even considered publishing all three of these volumes together. Accordingly Gros’s model for the editing of this text has been volumes II and III, and stylistically it does appear the same. Gros underlines that Foucault’s notes only refer to a fraction of the material he consulted in its preparation, especially in terms of his reading of and engagement with secondary literature (p. ix). Foucault’s reading notes, preserved at the Bibliothèque Nationale, attest to the depth of his engagement, even as his interests broadened. He worked with the French series ‘Sources chrétiennes’ and directly with the multi-volume Patrologia Latina and Patrologia Graeca edited by Jacques-Paul Migne in the nineteenth century (Gros, p. ix n. 1, p. 408 n. 1). His engagements with people like Paul Veyne and Peter Brown are largely obscured in the text. Only Veyne’s Bread and Circuses is referred to in Annexe 2, and then only as the source of a quotation (p. 383). We know that Foucault and Brown were in dialogue in this period. But Gros has rightly, unlike the notes to the lecture courses, not filled in extra detail here beyond what was indicated in Foucault’s manuscript. This was in accord with the wishes of the rights holders, and, as he modestly puts it, his work “was limited to establishing the text” (p. ix).


Foucault’s History of Sexuality underwent a number of changes over the years he was working on it. With the complete sequence of his Collège de France courses now available – with one final one to appear in English translation – we can track Foucault’s changing preoccupations and source material in the 1970s and 1980s in great detail. The multi-volume series changed in form from six thematic volumes to four, the final three of which were much more historical. It changed historical period, as Foucault went further and further back in tracing the genealogy of the subject of desire. It also changed from a project begun when his focus was the interrelation of power and knowledge to one where truth and subjectivity were to the fore, with new ideas about technologies of the self. Les aveux de la chair is the crucial, previously missing, piece in this sequence. There is much new material, and even what appears familiar is set in a new context. Placed fourth in the series, but written second, the book’s changing form and placement is a measure of those transformations.

One of the reasons that Foucault seemed reluctant to have posthumous publications was his wish to engage in dialogue about his work. There are various reports of his mocking those who thought they were writing for posterity. He would doubtless have been astonished by the enduring interest in his work, and the multiple and often bewildering applications of his ideas and practices. Not having Foucault to discuss Les aveux de la chair is, of course, a significant loss. Foucault, to a degree uncommon at the time and rarely matched since, made interviews an integral part of his practice, and they have become a central part of his work. Even if the differences in genre between a book, article, lecture and interview are not respected as much as they should be in the ways he is read, interviews provide much insight into his thinking. Not least, they are often the place where Foucault would connect his careful historical books with more contemporary concerns. While some of the initial media reception of this book tried to link its themes, especially concerning consent, to our present, Foucault cautioned against too easy elision of different contexts. Those looking for an immediately applicable connection between Les aveux de la chair and our time may be frustrated, but that is perhaps more to do with the absence of its author in its reception, than with the text itself.

There are some moments where the analysis we might want made explicit is rather understated. In 2018, I am of course reading this course in the light of the Collège de France courses and many other posthumously-published materials. Some of those were lectures delivered outside of France, so at the time even the most avid Paris-based Foucault acolyte would not have had access to them. There are many moments in this book when I was grateful for insights from the courses in make sense of the material. There were other times when I went back to courses, especially On the Government of the Living and Subjectivity and Truth, to check details. It is impossible, at least for me, to read this volume merely as a simple continuation of the work in volumes II and III. Perhaps the key things lacking are the connections and comparisons between the different historical periods. Subjectivity and Truth, for example, really helps with the comparison between early Christianity and pagan antiquity, and even hints at the links to the medieval work he had discussed in La chair et le corps.

With the publication of Les aveux de la chair we are entering a new period of Foucault’s posthumous reception. A new team of editors has been working on a number of volumes of lectures from the 1950s and 1960s, when Foucault taught in Lille, Clermont-Ferrand, Tunisia and Vincennes. These are likely to add much to our understanding of Foucault’s work in those decades, even if the documentary record is less complete – only some of his courses are preserved, and there are no recordings to supplement the written word. The Vrin series ‘Philosophie du present/Foucault inédit’, edited by Fruchaud and Daniele Lorenzini continues to present new material. It began with critical French editions of texts already available in various forms in English, but is now moving to lectures, courses and other materials which had not previously been published at all. These include Foucault’s lectures in Toronto, Dire vrai sur soi-même, and courses from Brazil, New York and elsewhere are in process. It is possible that La chair et le corps, and other material on sexuality from the mid-late 1970s, might be published in some form. A still earlier text, Foucault’s master’s thesis on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, long thought lost, has recently been discovered and is available to researchers in Paris. Now Les aveux de la chair has been published, it seems yet more texts might be edited for publication.

It is clear everyone involved in the edition of Les aveux de la chair has long grappled with the issue of Foucault’s expressed wish against posthumous publications. If this wish is to be broken, as it has been for so many authors, then the texts need to be edited with sensitivity, care and to the highest scholarly standards. Gros has certainly done that. It is to be hoped that readers will show the same care in their use of it. This is not a finished book by Foucault, but it is exceptionally close. Those expecting another Discipline and Punish, or thinking it will be like the first volume of the History of Sexuality, will be disappointed. But for those who approach it as a continuation of the work of the second and third volumes, there is much to value, consider and digest here. There is so much in the book that I have not had space to discuss here, and much that will doubtless become clearer over time, especially if readers take the time to follow some of his references and situate his work in relation to wider debates on these questions. This essay has tried to situate this book’s ideas in relation to Foucault’s wider work, and to outline something of what it means for those that approach his work. Its reception by those who have spent their careers on its subject matter is likely to be less appreciative. Hopefully though, that engagement will be with a sense of what Foucault was trying to achieve, of how it fits within his wider project, and a recognition of the depth of his engagement with the material. One can only speculate on how this book might have been received if, as Foucault planned, it had been published in October 1984, with its author there to take part in the conversation about its merits, possibilities and limitations.