Article by: Dr. Angela Franks
Angela Franks is Professor of Theology at St. John's Seminary in Boston. Her specialties include the theology of the body, the new evangelization, and the thought of Hans Urs von Balthasar. This article was originally published in First Things in March 2021.
In the late 1960s, a sociologist described French theorist Michel Foucault (1926–1984) as “a sort of frail, gnarled samurai who was dry and hieratic, who had the eyebrows of an albino and a somewhat sulfurous charm, and whose avid and affable curiosity intrigued everyone.” Claude Mauriac, son of the Catholic novelist François Mauriac and a close friend, displayed some ambivalence about Foucault when he called his smile “carnivorous.” For his part, Mauriac père complained that Foucault’s thesis of the death of man made the secular Sartre look like a brother.
These comments were made in the 1960s, around the time when Foucault, in his forties, had begun to shave his head, adding to his immediately recognizable radical chic. He was then a few years past the publication of his best-selling book, The Order of Things, and at the cusp of becoming the most celebrated and often reviled philosopher of France. By the first decade of this century, he would be the most-cited author in the humanities.
Like most of his French colleagues, Foucault was not a believer, in part because of his homosexual lifestyle. At the elite École Normale Supérieure, which Foucault attended in the late 1940s, students who went to Mass were unusual enough to bear a scornful nickname, “talas,” from the middle sounds of the phrase “ceux qui vont à la messe” (“those who go to Mass”).
Foucault, however, was never militant about his rejection of faith. At the very end of his life, he researched almost exclusively in the library of the Dominican school Saulchoir. His longtime companion, Daniel Defert, learned only after Foucault’s death of the handsome donations he had made to Saulchoir in gratitude. And Foucault left Christians another legacy, an intellectual one. It’s a vexed inheritance. On the one hand, Foucault’s philosophy is shot through with assumptions that we cannot accept. On the other, he provides us with insights that are invaluable to understanding the culture of death.
The key concept in Foucault’s thought is power. His work can be read as an elaboration of Friedrich Nietzsche’s statement: “This world is the Will to Power—and nothing else! And even you yourselves are this will to power—and nothing besides!” He agreed with Nietzsche that “the omnipresence of power” does not imply some deity-like personage running the show. We are not controlled by a puppet master. Rather, we live in a vast network of demands, commandments, inducements, sorting mechanisms, disciplines, and more. “Power” has no center. It is the aggregate of multiple, shifting relationships.