I first encountered Paul Allen Miller’s writings during my graduate years, when I read (and became engrossed with) his Subjecting Verses: Latin Love Elegy and the Emergence of the Real
That book changed the way I thought of Roman elegy, at a time when studies of this short-lived genre by a new generation of younger Latin poets seemed dominated by the question of whether it was Augustan or anti-Augustan. Miller instead presented a new paradigmatic history of the subject, contending that elegiac poetry came to existence following an underlying split in the nature of subjectivity at Rome in the late first century BCE—a split that was symptomatic of the historical changes taking place at the time. Nearly fifteen years later, when I became general editor of Bloomsbury’s Classical Receptions in Twentieth-Century Writing
series, my first commission was Miller on antiquity and Foucault. Subjecting Verses
already brought Foucault in dialogue with Lacan, offering a theoretical framework that synthesized Foucault’s historicism and Lacan’s ideas about the Imaginary, Symbolic, and Real. Yet it is in Foucault’s Seminars on Antiquity
that Miller places Foucault at the theoretical center of his study of the Western subject as a speaker of truth. In this outstanding book, Miller offers a distinctive reading of how the classics, and especially the figure of Socrates, inform Foucault’s ongoing preoccupation with the question of truth—its ontology, its relation to power, the ways we come to speak about it, and, ultimately, how we come to know our own. This line of questioning makes up the structure of Miller’s five chapters, in which he closely examines the contents of Foucault’s lectures delivered at the Collège de France between 1980 and 1984, when he was also completing volumes 2 and 3 of The History of Sexuality
. Miller concentrates on four central topics in Foucault’s classically-informed lectures: (i) his neologism alèthurgies
, or “acts of truth,” in which truth is presented as an activity rather than a property of things; (ii) “the truth of the self,” which Foucault interprets as the product of technologies forming a subject’s own sense of what truth is; (iii) spiritual practices, in which the ability to know the truth relates to how subjects act and exercise that truth; and (iv) parrhēsia
, which Miller defines as “the courage to speak the truth whether to the assembled citizens, the prince, or oneself” (15). In tracking these themes, Miller draws strategic attention to how Foucault selects a wide range of classical authors, texts and philosophies (from Sophocles, Plato, Aristotle, and Xenophon to Plutarch, the Stoics and Cynics, Cicero, Galen, and Dio Cassius, amongst others) both to substantiate his thinking about the “modalities through which power constitutes itself in relation to truth” (8) and trace a genealogy of the Western subject as a speaker of truth. Here, Miller sheds light on an important aspect of Foucault’s rethinking of the classical tradition. For Foucault, the classics do not serve as a fundamental, unquestionable source of wisdom for Western modernity. Instead, he plots them as parallel histories of truth and ontologies of the self, as he addresses conflicts between competing conceptions or regimes of truth in, for instance, Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus
or the socio-political powers that construct the false truths leading to Socrates’ death. From this perspective, Foucault’s antiquity becomes yet another layer in the formulation of the Western subject as a speaker of truth, as well as how this truth is recurrently compromised and renegotiated through shifting forms of power, discourses and levels of authority. Equally perceptive is Miller’s application of Foucault’s arguments about truth-telling to the academe’s own reception of Foucault, especially in North America. In the closing pages of his study, he sheds intimate light on aspects of the late Foucault that gain the status of legendary truth in American humanities during the 1980s and 90s, including some quarters of the discipline of classics, which has likewise produced and reproduced its own distinct truth-telling about Foucault, his engagement with antiquity and the history of sexuality. Miller’s lucid exploration of late Foucault thus becomes timely when considering Classics and its epistemic systems in our new millennium. Whether our endeavours to speak the truth prompt us to resist or enact dramatic changes in the field and beyond it, it may be worthwhile to recall Foucault’s—and Socrates’—warning that the truth is never an objective property one possesses. Instead, it is a discursive event, an ‘act’ framed by our own circumstances, ambitions, and perceptions of reality. Foucault’s late thought on the classics and their tradition across his twentieth-century modernity is also, necessarily, an instantiation of this phenomenon.
Following the success of Foucault’s Seminars on Antiquity since its publication in 2021, Richard Armstrong, who co-edits with Miller the OSUP series Classical Memories/ Modern Identities, made the excellent suggestion that I organise a Syndicate Network Symposium on the book. For the event, we have invited five respondents with specializations in antiquity and critical and political theory: Mario Telò (UC Berkeley); Sara Brill (Fairfield University); Kirk Ormand (Oberlin College); Jill Frank (Cornell University); and Zahi Zalloua (Whitman College), in order of appearance. We are enormously thankful for their engagement with the book and their intelligent treatments in their responses. Each of them brings a new light to Miller’s thesis. Mario Telò uses Miller’s timely intervention to reflect upon the uses of Foucault in the field of classics and, in particular, upon his role in the theoretical transformation of the study of antiquity that developed after his death. Miller’s book urges us to reconsider the legacy and the enduring validity of the postmodernist thinker who has probably exerted the strongest influence on classicists. Sara Brill then turns to Plato’s myth of Er in order to better understand Foucault’s alignment of philosophy with an aesthetics of truth and with the formulation of novel forms of life. When we turn to the Platonic depiction of the choosing of one’s life offered in the myth of Er, Brill argues, what we seem to encounter is less an account of the invention of new lives than an effort to adhere to already determined types of life. Brill is interested in exploring, with Miller, the extent to which the philosophical life falls under this same set of types, and if so, whether this challenges the continuity Foucault posits, in his development of the practice of parrhēsia, between the Socratic examination of life and Christian practices of confession. The third response by Kirk Ormand explores the different power dynamics inherent in the act of confession (as defined by M. Foucault in his History of Sexuality) and in the act of “moral parrhēsia” (as defined by Foucault in his last lectures.) Ormand contends that the latter, because it is not attempting to uncover a secret truth, a truth held by the subject from him- or herself, takes on a different structure than the act of medical confession that led to the forms of subjectivity defined by sexuality. Treating Diogenes’ “radically and paradoxically other” life as a touchstone for Foucault’s understanding of parrhesia, Jill Frank next interrogates the capacities for such alterity in the multiple and sometimes conflicting Platos and Socrateses who populate Foucault’s seminars on antiquity and Foucault’s Seminars on Antiquity. Frank concentrates, on the one hand, on tensions between the metaphysical Plato Foucault and Miller take up from Heidegger, and Plato the parrhesiast, whom Foucault and Miller equally endorse, and, on the other, between the “pure” Socrates of the elenchus and Socrates the Typho, figured in Plato’s Phaedrus. For the final response, Zahi Zalloua takes up three converging points of interest in his response to Foucault’s Seminars on Antiquity: Learning to Speak the Truth. The first is Foucault’s relation to ancient philosophy’s traumatophobic character; the second concerns the unexpected resonance between Foucault’s discussion of Christianity’s account of the “radically alien” within and Slavoj Žižek’s return to the (real) neighbor of scripture; and the third deals with Miller’s recasting of Foucault as a kind of philosopher of the universal (albeit a universal that undergoes its own mutation via the call of parrhēsia).
As an ensemble, these five responses to Foucault’s Seminars on Antiquity bear witness to the thematic richness of Miller’s knowledge and ideas, as well his timely contribution to the study subjective truth from antiquity to our Western modernity. For me, it has been a pleasure to convene this conversation, which is also warmly open to readers of the symposium in the next few weeks.