Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Asceticism and Sexuality

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Asceticism and Sexuality

Article excerpt

ASCETICISM AND SEXUALITY

THE "TRUMPERY OF NATURE" IN BERGSON'S THE TWO SOURCES OF MORALITY AND RELIGION

"Asceticism and Sexuality" is a strange, perhaps even jarring title if you know anything about Bergson's works. Yet I think that Bergson's 1932 The Two Sources of Morality and Religion his last and only work entirely devoted to ethics, revolves around this duality or this doubling: asceticism and sexuality.1 Obviously, such a title makes us think not of Bergson but of Foucault, and indeed my reflections on The Two Sources are partly inspired by Foucault. In the Introduction to his second volume of The History of Sexuality called The Use of Pleasure Foucault says, "it is philosophical discourse's right to explore what might be changed in its own thought through the practice [l'exercise] of a knowledge that is foreign to it. The 'essay' [in the sense of une epreuve, a test] . . . is the living body of philosophy, at least if we assume that philosophy is still what it was in times past, i.e., an askesis an exercise of oneself in thought." 2 At a minimum, this comment means that Foucault is defining thought as a kind of exercise. But there is more. As the title to the series indicates, Foucault is implying that exercises concerning sensing-pleasure-generate thought, that is, these exercises in sense generate new forms of thought or new forms of subjectivities. If Foucault is right that thought itself consists in a kind of asceticism of pleasure, then it seems necessary to investigate the discourses on asceticism. Like Foucault-and especially if our most general project consists in the renewal of thinking-we can ask: what kinds of practices are still available that can be used to generate new forms of thinking? Obviously, with Foucault in mind, one thinks of Nietzsche.3 But one can also go to a less well-known source and that is Bergson, as I said, his 1932 The Two Sources of Morality and Religion,

In the scholarship on Bergson much has been written on the well-known themes of The Two Sources: the distinction between the open morality and the closed morality; the distinction between static religion and dynamic religion; dynamic religion being defined by mysticism; the "return to simplicity" of "The Final Remarks."4 Yet, I am going to present a thesis that is not found in the scholarship, at least with the scholarship with which I am acquainted.5 Repeatedly, Bergson qualifies his investigation of the two sources of morality and religion with the word "today" (TSMR 1219/286, for example). Therefore, I am going to claim that The Two Sources is a book about "today," about the then contemporary political and moral problems. As I said, this book first appeared in 1932, and that means it appeared between the two world wars of the Twentieth Century. Thus what Bergson was concerned with, so to speak, "yesterday," is the problem of war. But war never seems to be a thing of the past; it is always, as we know all too painfully, a problem of today. For Bergson, war, that is, what he calls "essential war," is generated out of need, the most obvious of which is the need for food. The need for food, but this is true of all material needs, increases with population. Thus for Bergson war is generated by over-population. But, as we can see already, if war is ultimately caused by overpopulation, and if the contemporary problem with The Two Sources is concerned is war, then The Two Sources really concerns sexuality. Asceticism, therefore, comes on the scene for Bergson as a kind of "counterweight" for what he calls the "aphrodisical" nature of our entire civilization.6 As we are going to see, the aphrodisical nature of any culture does not consist in what we commonly call perverse sexual practices, but rather in a practice of repetition. But, more importantly, as we shall also see, the very counter-weight of asceticism also consists in the exact same repetition. This role of repetition means that the two sources of morality and religion, the two practices of asceticism and sexuality, are really one. …

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