Thursday, May 10, 2012

Foucault on the Contrast between Greek and Hebrew Thought



Michel Foucault's lectures at the College de France in 1977 and 1978 have been transcribed and translated into English as Security, Territory, Population.   This work seems to be Foucault's closest approach to a philosophy of politics.  The following extracts are taken from pages 123 through 125:

" . . . . I do not think that the idea that one could govern men, or that one did govern men, was a Greek idea. . . . generally speaking, I think we can say that the origin of the idea of a government of men should be sought in the East, in a pre-Christian East first of all, and then in the Christian East, and in two forms: first in the idea and organization of a pastoral type of power,  and second, in the practice of a spiritual direction, the direction of souls. . . . there is something in this that is fundamental, and probably specific, to the Mediterranean East, and which is very different from what is found in the Greeks.  You never find the Greeks having the idea that the gods lead men like a pastor, a shepherd, leads his flock.  Whatever the intimacy between the Greek gods and their city, and it is not necessarily very great, it is never that kind of relationship.  The Greek god founds the city, he or she indicates its site, helps in the construction of walls, guarantees its soundness, gives his or her name to the town, and issues oracles through which he or she gives advice.  The god is consulted; he or she protects and intervenes; he or she is sometimes angry, and then makes peace; but the Greek god never leads the men of the city like a shepherd leads his sheep.

"  What is it, then, that characterizes this power of the shepherd, which we can see is foreign to Greek thought, but present and intense in the Mediterranean East, especially in the Hebrews?  What are its specific features?  I think we can summarize them in the following way.  The shepherd's power is not exercised over a territory but, by definition, over a flock, and more exactly, over the flock in its movement from one place to another.  The shepherd's power is essentially exercised over a multiplicity in movement.  The Greek god is a territorial goda god  intra muros with his privileged place, his town or temple.  The Hebrew God, on the other hand, is the god moving from place to place, the God who wanders.  The presence of the Hebrew God is never more intense and visible than when his people are on the move, and when, in his people's wanderings, in the movement that takes them from the town, the prairies, and pastures, he goes ahead and shows his people the direction they must follow.  The Greek god, rather, appears on the walls to defend his town. . . . "

Foucault elsewhere stresses the "dimorphism" between priesthood and laity in the pastorate.  The passages quoted above from Foucault's lectures remind me of Thorleif Boman's little work  Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek .    Boman avers that the Hebrews live through time while the Greeks live in space.   Boman's work, the work of a Norwegian theologian, originally written in German, is, indeed, worth reading again.  

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