Why Do Intellectuals Venerate This Sado-Masochistic, Suicidal Drug Addict?

French philosopher Michel Foucault in Paris, France in February 1977.

By Richard Weikart Published on September 13, 2016

If Michel Foucault had been a brilliant physicist whose theories revolutionized our views about nature, then perhaps it would be irrelevant — and even churlish — to question his status as an intellectual icon by calling attention to his moral character. But Foucault was probably the most influential philosopher of the late twentieth century, and what many intellectuals today find so exhilarating about his philosophy is that it provides moral guidance.

As I demonstrate in my new book, The Death of Humanity: And the Case for Life, Foucault was one of many prophets of the death of humanity. Indeed, he argued forthrightly that Nietzsche’s declaration of the death of God — in which he gloried — entailed the death of humanity. He wrote, “Was not the death of God, in fact, revealed in a doubly murderous act that, at the same time that it put an end to the absolute, assassinated man himself? Because man, in his finitude, is inseparable from the infinite, which he both negates and heralds. The death of God is accomplished through the death of man.”

Pathology and Philosophy

So, why would anyone look to a death-obsessed, sado-masochistic, suicidal, drug addict for moral guidance? Foucault’s most radical disciples may have such deadened consciences that they see nothing wrong with the French philosopher’s  lifestyle. Indeed, they may exult in the free-wheeling, anything-goes, in-your-face amorality that Foucault epitomized. But surely not all of Foucault’s admirers are comfortable with his penchant for death, sado-masochism, suicide and drug addiction. So why would they pay him homage?

Some might object that Foucault’s moral failings have nothing to do with his philosophy. This is the same approach some disciples of the famous German philosopher Martin Heidegger have taken toward his enthusiasm for Hitler and Nazism. They argue that Heidegger’s political commitments were completely independent of his philosophy. In Foucault’s case, however, this doesn’t wash, because his philosophy was a way of coming to terms with his moral choices. Besides, he often discussed sado-masochism, suicide and drug use. They were not deep, dark, hidden secrets that plagued him and that he struggled against. He gloried in them, and they informed his philosophy.

These issues were not tangential, either. One of Foucault’s biographers, James Miller, argues that Foucault “had long placed death — and the preparation for suicide — at the heart of his concerns.” Not only did Foucault attempt suicide several times as a young man, but he discussed suicide in many of his writings, always glamorizing it. Near the close of his life he stated that we must “teach people that there is not a piece of conduct more beautiful or, consequently, more worthy of careful thought than suicide. One should work on one’s suicide throughout one’s life.”

In a 1979 essay he proposed holding “suicide-festivals” and “suicide-orgies,” and another time he told an interviewer that if he won a huge lottery, he would set up an institution for anyone (not just the terminally ill) to come commit suicide, perhaps after seeking pleasure in drug use.

If suicide and death profoundly shaped his thinking, so did his sado-masochism. Foucault was a zealous disciple of the Marquis de Sade (from whom the word “sadism” derived), scorning anyone who was not conversant with Sade’s brutal perspective. Sade was so important to Foucault’s philosophy that Miller calls Foucault’s worldview “Sado-Nietzschean.” In search of intense pleasure, Foucault exulted in sado-masochistic sexual encounters.

Foucault admitted that his goal in life was to seek extreme pleasure, and he hoped that he would die from an especially intense episode of euphoria. In search of this pleasure, he regularly used mind-altering drugs, such as pot, hashish, opium, LSD and cocaine. He described his first LSD trip in 1975 as the greatest experience of his life. In 1983 he stated, “Some drugs are really important for me because they are the mediation to those incredibly intense joys that I am looking for.”

Foucault’s claim that truth, including moral truth, is created, not discovered, was an attempt to make his own transgressions appear normal. His insistence that knowledge, such as what constitutes insanity, was socially constructed and fluid, justified his use of mind-altering drugs and his infatuation with suicide. (Alas, he found out too late that AIDS was not socially constructed.) He defined his own psychological problems as non-problems, even turning the tables by accusing those who defended present social and moral norms as being power-hungry elitists bent on dominating everyone else.

Yet ironically, it was Foucault who promoted domination and violence, as long as it was directed against the hated status quo. When the progressive intellectual Noam Chomsky debated Foucault in 1971, Chomsky was shocked, stating afterward, “I felt like I was talking to someone who didn’t inhabit the same moral universe.” In that interview Foucault agreed with Chomsky about the necessity for revolutionary violence, but he went much further than Chomsky, stating, “When the proletariat takes power, it may be quite possible that the proletariat will exert towards the classes over which it has just triumphed, a violent, dictatorial and even bloody power. I can’t see what objection one could make to this.” On the contrary, most of us can think of many reasons to reject violence, dictatorship and bloodshed.

This was not just a slip of the tongue, either, for when debating disciples of the brutal Chinese dictator Mao Tse Tung, whom he thought were not radical enough, Foucault objected to their desire for revolutionary tribunals, because he did not want anything restraining the violence of the mob. When the Ayatollah Khomeini revolted against the shah of Iran, Foucault was excited. He met with Khomeini, travelled to Iran, and enthusiastically supported the Iranian Revolution (until it became the oppressor).

How to Understand Michel Foucault

The key to understanding Foucault, I think, is that he was motivated more by hatred for bourgeois society and its norms than by love for the oppressed. Gary Gutting, editor of The Cambridge Companion to Foucault, claims that Foucault’s hatred for Middle Class society “gives power and intensity to his prose,” but also leads him to serious misunderstandings about its institutions.

However, it seems likely that Foucault himself is badly misunderstood by some of his supporters who don’t exult in mob violence, dictatorship, sado-masochism, suicide and drug addiction. At the end of his biography, Miller claims that many academics mistakenly view Foucault as the patron saint of their progressive political and moral views. Many American progressives, however, want a society committed to compassion, and this is not what Foucault preached.

Miller concludes, “Unfortunately, Foucault’s lifework, as I have come to understand it, is far more unconventional — and far more discomfiting — than some of his ‘progressive’ admirers seem ready to admit. Unless I am badly mistaken, Foucault issued a brave and basic challenge to nearly everything that passes for ‘right’ in Western culture — including nearly everything that passes for ‘right’ among a great many of America’s left-wing academics.”

Surely many progressives delight in Foucault because he is an ally in their rejection of Judeo-Christian sexual mores, in their hatred for authority, and in their opposition to the political and economic elites. But how many of them would want their children to become sado-masochistic, suicidal drug addicts?

 

Richard Weikart is professor of history at California State University, Stanislaus, and author of The Death of Humanity: And the Case for Life; and a forthcoming book, Hitler’s Religion.

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  • Dean Bruckner

    Like a cancer cell, the guilty conscience is a factory of evil deeds. – J. Budziszewski, in the essay “The Revenge of Conscience,” available on the First Things website.

    Thank you Dr. Weikart, well written!

  • honeybadger

    Thank you, Richard. I had heard of this leftist psychopath, but never know his “teachings.”

    But this fits in with the Religion of Atheism which worships death.

  • Wayne Cook

    “The key to understanding Foucault, I think, is that he was motivated more by hatred for bourgeois society and its norms than by love for the oppressed.”

    Just another masochistic idealist. Use society and when you’re done, kill as many people as you and yourself. Orgies are such fun when you are able to stack the bodies.

    Too bad deadly minds don’t self-immolate.

  • Tom King

    I can see where many progressives would admire him. As the author states he had a hatred of authority. Progressives like to believe they hate authority, but in truth they only hate authority that is not their own.

    • Sonnys_Mom

      Excellent observation.

    • LenStanley

      “Progressives like to believe they hate authority, but in truth they only hate authority that is not their own.”
      This is true. But it is true of most people, not just progressives.
      Isn’t that why any nation, when attacked, will defend itself?

  • selahgreene

    How to understand a twisted, demented, arrogant, sensualist sadist like Michel Foucault? The first question that comes to mind is why should we bother? But I do believe it is beneficial to have an understanding of what extremes the ungodly will be driven to in their insane quest to replace God. The Humanist elevation of self is never more evident than in the infantile declaration that ‘God is dead’. That declaration is quickly supplanted by ‘Long Live the Man-God; the Self’. And the evil that is the fruit from that poisoned tree is difficult to comprehend. I am looking forward to Professor Weikart’s book on the religion of Hitler.

    • Sonnys_Mom

      This is why we must pray– for our country, for conversions, so that the Name of God will never be forgotten, and God will always be with us.

    • LenStanley

      “”These men blaspheme in matters they do not understand. They are like
      dumb animals, creatures of instinct, born only to be caught and
      destroyed, and like beasts they too will perish.” 2 Peter 2:12″
      Wow!! Is this the same Peter, the disciple of Jesus?? What a hate filled individual! Jesus would have pitied those blasphemers and tried to show them the folly of their ways.

  • Iksz Kraksz

    This Foucault being was another proof that Devil does exist.

  • Gabby Johnson

    could it be that he was just not that into us?

    or, that he was yet another bored narcissist with a mean streak?

    or, that stupid people always try to find meaning in the banal?

    • DanlBoone

      Yes, yes it could well be that.

    • LenStanley

      “or, that stupid people always try to find meaning in the banal?”
      Points 1 and 2 certainly are plausible. But this point 3 is problematic. Is what i think is banal really banal? Or do I just not get it? And is that person stupid or am I too stupid to understand what he is saying?
      [ and it might just be that it is easier to find the really meaningful in some insightful truth than in something banal. To find that in something banal would take somebody truly wise.]

      • Gabby Johnson

        Good points.

  • emer83

    Because he assured them that discipline, tradition, scholarship were unnecessary in the world giving them license for all indulgences regardless how perverse. Nothing was a taboo, no standards bore any superiority. If I say it means something, it does since all culture and all language was a sexist, racist construct by the ruling class: white Christian men, oppressors all. Absurd as this sounds, this is the prevailing belief among most college English departments. If nothing is inherently good, then the prevailing voices determine the standards. Yuck!

  • Gadiel Rios

    Thanks for this article!

  • Randall Ward

    I have read his book (Weikart) about Germany in WWII and the connection to Darwinism. Good book. He is in the movie, “expelled” also.

  • William J. Walsh

    Foucault was popular about thirty years ago I would say. I would dispute Weikart’s statement that Foucault was “the most influential philosopher of the late 20th century” if by that he means that Foucault truly had a lot of influence. People used to own his books to decorate their apartments. Of course, I read one to find out why, which was foolish in retrospect. It was about the panopticon prison, and I concluded that Foucault was a show off who wanted to obtain celebrity by saying shocking things. I have great respect for French culture, but they produce many intellectuals of this type, just as American culture produces entertainers who are like that. I was amused by the anecdote about Chomsky. Foucault would have made it his business to offend Chomsky’s pieties, it was, after all, his stock in trade to do so. He was a wretch, and his philosophy has nothing in it that will sustain interest over time. As this article points out, it points only to the dead end of self destruction by self indulgence.

  • MarciaX

    One would be hard-pressed to think of any progressive intellectual, especially one still active today, for whom Foucault is a “patron saint … of their political and moral views” (tellingly, this article doesn’t name even one such person). He is best regarded as a marginal figure within philosophy who made a small but insightful contribution to understanding the nature of power while tittilating a generation or two of freshmen with his gratuitously transgressive (but irrelevant and forgettable) provocations. Generally speaking, it’s conservatives like Weikart who tend to take Foucault seriously as a leftist icon. He is nothing of the sort.

  • WakeUp

    In the university community of my home area a primary leading edge of much fresh academic thinking is infusion of contemplative practices into the academic life, research on how contemplative practice may be deployed to benefit learning and teaching, etc … which are altogether a welcoming of spiritual life into the academic community! And there is across many schools that we know of similar welcoming of aspects of spiritual life into academic community, academic research, and academic work. And we’ve seen plenty of research – including from writers here in The Stream – showing that the Millennial generation desires a culture infused with values of ‘awareness of diversity’, ‘sensitivity to difference’, and ‘compassionate inclusion” … which are antithetical to the writer’s description of the content of Foucault’s thought. One supposes that it helps to sell his book to prop up a ‘straw man’ in the way that the writer does?

  • windship

    Hitler was the penultimate death-obsessed, sado-masochistic, suicidal drug addict, and yet look at how many thick-headed worshippers he still has. Perhaps this just shows that intellectuals are not immune to their own delusions either.

    • LenStanley

      “Perhaps this just shows that intellectuals are
      not immune to their own delusions either.”

      You made one really stupid and common mistake:
      that when one person has bad qualities, everyone else of that stereotype is the
      same. It reveals a hatred of that group.

      It is like someone saying that because a few
      Trumpists are racist fascists, all his followers must be racist fascists.

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