I am reading “Technologies of the Self,” a lecture by Michel Foucault given at the University of Vermont in 1982. It is surprisingly interesting. What Foucault is talking about is how we have understood the ways we ought to have a relationship with ourselves. He goes back to the Greek and Roman philosophers to explain what they told us. What is interesting about this explanation is the distinction between “Knowing oneself,” and “Caring for oneself.” Foucault shows that originally the advice was to care for ourselves and in order to do that we have to know ourselves, but then this advice was reduced to “Know yourself.” And we lost the “caring for oneself” part, which was the point of it all.
By caring for oneself, the ancient philosophers meant seeking “wisdom, truth, and the perfection of the soul.” Embedded in the philosophical tradition is the assumption that taking care of oneself is part of a contribution to the larger community. The traditional notion of self care has been reduced in modern life to taking a day off, getting a massage, or buying something. But what was meant was caring for the deeper parts of ourselves: our larger commitments, goals, and our sense of meaning and purpose. Caring for oneself meant refining ourselves by seeking a more clear resonance with our most important ideals.
Over a lifetime we are perfecting ourselves in one way or another. If we have a reflective awareness of what matters to us, it is easier to make choices that match our values or ideals, which leads to a deeper sense of life satisfaction. That is where “Know yourself,” comes in. First we have to figure out what exactly are our ideals. But that intimate relationship with ourselves is just step one. After that it is the self compassion, self regulation, and self aspiration that form the quality of our seeking. It is the choices we make and the actions we take that create ourselves as we go.
When we can step back and see that much of our worry and busy-ness and distress represents a dissociation from what matters to us internally, we can attain a kind of inner freedom. Of course we will be impacted by and react to the vicissitudes of life, but what is important is not controlling the outside world but choosing where we put our resources of time and attention and how we choose to respond to what life throws at us. Our most intimate relationships are with ourselves. Are we satisfied with the choices of thought, feeling, and action that we are making? Even though we are social animals and we learn so much in our outside relationships, all of our subjective experience is filtered through our internal relationships with ourselves. And that relationship can be built and polished.