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Philosophies of Self-Formation: Technologies of Self for the 21st Century

Lecturer: Matthew Dennis

Originally Taught: Summer School 2017

Recently moral philosophers have suggested that the parameters of their discipline are overly narrow, and that we would do better returning to the Socratic question of ‘how one should live’. To understand what the good life consists, these philosophers contend, we must broaden the scope of our enquiry to ask what else flourishing requires, aside from – or even instead of – ceaseless moral rectitude. While many such complaints have arisen from the virtue ethical tradition (Anscombe, Husthouse, Foot), they have also been expressed by non-card-carrying virtue ethicists, including by Harry Frankfurt and Bernard Williams. Both these thinkers argue that a fully-fledged account of the good life – an account of a life that is truly choiceworthy – cannot be given in terms of our adherence to any of the theories of the good life that moral philosophy currently offers, and they propose that to truly flourish we must allow our lives to be directed by non-moral considerations.

This five-week course asks whether thinkers in the European tradition can provide the resources to furnish us with a contemporary answer to the question ‘how one should live’. We will begin by examining the practices and virtues of self-cultivation of the Hellenistic tradition, including Pierre Hadot’s account of the ‘spiritual exercises’ [exercices spirituels] of the Stoics and the Epicureans (Hadot 1987, 2011).

Next we will examine Michel Foucault’s account of ethical self-cultivation and aesthetic self-creation, especially his claim that Hellenistic ‘practices of the self’ [pratiques de soi] offer a contemporary answer to the question of ‘how one should live’ (Foucault 1982, 1984). Foucault’s interest in aesthetic self-creation will lead to our study of Nietzsche in the penultimate week.

Nietzsche’s ideal of self-creation and self-cultivation – what he terms ‘becoming what one is’ – captures something that both Frankfurt and Williams identify as missing in moral philosophy: the importance of cultivating one’s individuality in living well. In the final week we will explore whether we can offer a contemporary and technologically-updated answer to the question ‘how one should live’ in terms of the theories of self-cultivation we have examined. 

Lecture 1: Returning to the Question of ‘How Should One Live’

The first week explores the course’s research questions i) by examining Harry Frankfurt’s and Bernard Williams’ complaint that the parameters of moral philosophy are too narrow, and ii) by asking why both thinkers propose returning to the Socratic question of ‘how one should live’. Both thinkers follow Elizabeth Anscombe’s pioneering article, ‘Modern Moral Philosophy’ (1958), which argues that moral considerations are not the only ones that bear on the question of ‘how to live’, and that, under certain (albeit rare) conditions, these considerations can be surpassed by ideals of a ‘creative and cultural kind’ (Williams 1985: 46) or ‘aesthetic, cultural, or religious ideals’ (Frankfurt 2004: 8). We will finish the session by exploring the importance of the question of ‘how should one live’, and asking why it improves upon a conception of the good life understood in terms of our moral duties and obligations.


  • Frankfurt, H. (2004). ‘The Question: How Should We Live’, The Reasons of Love.Princeton University Press, pp. 1–33.


  • Anscombe, G. E. M. (1958). ‘Modern Moral Philosophy’, Philosophy, 33.124, pp. 1–19.
  • Nehamas, A. (1998). The Art of Living: Socratic Reflections from Plato to Foucault. University of California Press.
  • Williams, B. (1985). ‘Chapter 1: Socrates’ Question’, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy. Harvard University Press, pp. 1–21.
  • Williams, B. (2006). ‘The Legacy of Greek Philosophy’, The Sense of the Past: Essays in the History of Philosophy. Princeton University Press, pp. 3–49.

Lecture 2: Self-Cultivation in the Hellenistic World (Hadot)

The second week examines the role of self-cultivation in moral philosophy of the Hellenistic schools of the Stoics and the Epicureans. We will begin by examining the ethical ideals of schools (Epicurean ataraxia, Stoic apatheia), moving to the practices through which the Stoics and the Epicureans proposed attaining these states, focusing on the twentieth-century French philosopher Pierre Hadot’s account of these practices. Hadot’s ground-breaking work, Philosophy as a Way of Life, claims that contemporary moral philosophy has much to gain from engaging with the wide variety of virtues and practices relating to self-cultivation that were central to the ethics of the Hellenistic world. Only by reappraising the virtues and practices of self-cultivation that were prioritised in the Hellenistic era, Hadot argues, can modern moral philosophy once again regain a suitably rich and nuanced conception of the good life.


  • Annas, J. (1993). The Morality of Happiness. Oxford University Press, ch. 1–2.
  • Hadot, P. (1995) [1987]. Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault, trans. M. Chase. Blackwell, Introduction and ch. 1.


  • Nussbaum, M. (1994). The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics. Princeton University Press.
  • Hadot, P. (2011). The Present Alone is Our Happiness. Conversations with Jeannie Carlier and Arnold I. Davidson, translated by M. Djaballah and M. Chase. Stanford University Press.

Lecture 3: Aesthetic Self-Creation and Ethical Self-Cultivation (Foucault)

The third week will examine Foucault’s account of aesthetic self-creation in his late interviews and lectures, and will trace its precursors to i) Baudelaire’s conception of dandyism and ii) Nietzsche’s account of stylising one’s character, as well as the Stoic sources that Foucault examines in History of Sexuality (vols. II–III). Following Hadot, Foucault claims that self-cultivation has the resources to reinvigorate contemporary moral philosophy, although his account emphases aesthetic self-creation and presupposes a quintessentially modern conception of subjectivity. Foucault’s account of aesthetic self-creation will provide an important contemporary dimension to answering the question of ‘how one should live’, one which emphasises the importance of what Foucault calls ‘technologies of self’. We will explore how the rise of new technologies have the potential to increase ways in which the self can be cultivated, paying especial attention to how such new technologies can both increase our freedom but also limit it. 


  • Foucault, M. (1994) [1997]. ‘Technologies of the Self’ in P. Rabinow (ed.) Ethics, translated by R. Hurley and others. Penguin Books, pp. 223–251.
  • Foucault, M. (1988). ‘An Aesthetics of Existence’ in Kritzman, L. (ed.) Philosophy, Politics, Culture: Interviews 1977–1984. Routledge, pp. 47–53.


  • Baudelaire, C. (1995) [1863]. ‘The Painter of Modern Life’, in The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays, trans. J. Mayne. Phaidon Press.
  • Foucault, M. (1984/1985). History of Sexuality: The Use of Pleasure, trans. by R. Hurley. Penguin Books.
  • Foucault, M. (1984) [1986]. History of Sexuality: The Care of the Self, trans. by R. Hurley, Penguin Books.

Lecture 4: On How One Becomes What One Is (Nietzsche)

Nietzsche tells us that the expression of one’s individuality – epitomised by his ethical ideal of ‘becoming what one is’ – is an essential part of the fully flourishing life. While Nietzsche’s account of achieving individuality comes from the practices of self-cultivation in the Hellenistic tradition, his emphasis on individuality is strikingly original, especially as it rejects the claim that all individuals should aspire to the same moral goals. The fourth week will investigate i) how ‘becoming what one is’ could provide a contemporary answer to the question of ‘how should one live’, and ii) how this ideal has more in common with Foucault’s emphasis on ‘technologies of the self’ than Hellenistic practices of self-cultivation. Understanding the importance of self-cultivation for developing one’s individuality will provide the platform to examine the prospects for an ethics of self-cultivation in the final week. 


  • Nietzsche, F. (2005) [1888–89]. The Anti-Christ, Ecce Homo, Twilight of the Idols, The Case of Wagner, Nietzsche Contra Wagner, trans. J. Norman. Cambridge University Press.
  • Nietzsche, F. (1974) [1882]. The Gay Science, trans. W. Kaufmann. Vintage.
  • Nietzsche, F. (1966) [1886]. Beyond Good and Evil, trans. W. Kaufmann. Vintage. 


  • Ansell-Pearson, K. (2014). ‘Heroic-Idyllic Philosophizing: Nietzsche and the Epicurean Tradition’, Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement, 74, pp. 237-263.
  • Ure, M. (2013). ‘Nietzsche’s “View from Above”’, in Hutter, H. and Friedland, E. (eds.), Nietzsche’s Therapeutic Teaching For Individuals and Culture. Bloomsbury.

  • Nehamas, A. (1985), Nietzsche: Life as Literature. Harvard University Press.

Lecture 5: Prospects for an Ethics of Self-Cultivation 

The fifth week will evaluate the potential of self-cultivation to contribute to new modes of living, as well as contemporary debates in moral philosophy. We will return to our the guiding research question of ‘how one should live’, showing that, in Frankfurt’s and Williams’ terms, the combined resources of Hadot, Foucault, and Nietzsche can contribute many valuable insights to answering this question. We will close by returning to Foucault’s emphasis on ‘technologies of the self’, and will scrutinise the potential of online-based platforms and other contemporary media to contribute to emancipatory and empowering modes of self-cultivation for twenty-first century life. 


  • Foucault, M. (1994) [1997]. ‘Technologies of the Self’ in P. Rabinow (ed.) Ethics, translated by R. Hurley and others. Penguin Books, pp. 223–251.
  • Frankfurt, H. (2004). The Reasons of Love. Princeton University Press, ch. 2–3.


  • McGushkin, E. (2007). Foucault's Askesis. An Introduction to the Philosophical Life. Northwestern University Press.
  • O’Leary, T. (2002). Foucault the Art of Ethics. Continuum.