For Work / Against Work
Debates on the centrality of work

History of Madness

by Foucault, Michel (2013)


When it was first published in France in 1961 as Folie et Déraison: Histoire de la Folie à l'âge Classique, few had heard of a thirty-four year old philosopher by the name of Michel Foucault. By the time an abridged English edition was published in 1967 as Madness and Civilization, Michel Foucault had shaken the intellectual world. This translation is the first English edition of the complete French texts of the first and second edition, including all prefaces and appendices, some of them unavailable in the existing French edition. History of Madness begins in the Middle Ages with vivid descriptions of the exclusion and confinement of lepers. Why, Foucault asks, when the leper houses were emptied at the end of the Middle Ages, were they turned into places of confinement for the mad? Why, within the space of several months in 1656, was one out of every hundred people in Paris confined? Shifting brilliantly from Descartes and early Enlightenment thought to the founding of the Hôpital Général in Paris and the work of early psychiatrists Philippe Pinel and Samuel Tuke, Foucault focuses throughout, not only on scientific and medical analyses of madness, but also on the philosophical and cultural values attached to the mad. He also urges us to recognize the creative and liberating forces that madness represents, brilliantly drawing on examples from Goya, Nietzsche, Van Gogh and Artaud. The History of Madness is an inspiring and classic work that challenges us to understand madness, reason and power and the forces that shape them.

Key Passage

What  to  modern  eyes  appears  as  a  clumsy dialectic between prices and production took its real significance from an ethical  consciousness  of  work,  where  the  complexities  of  economic mechanisms were less important than the assertion of a value.In this first take-off period of industrialisation, labour did not appear to be linked to problems it might cause. On the contrary, it is seen rather as a general  remedy,  an  infallible  panacea  that  solves  all  forms  of  poverty. Labour and poverty face each other in a simple opposition, and the domain of the one is in inverse proportion to that of the other. In classical thought,the power that labour was believed to possess to make poverty disappear came not from its productive capacity but from a sort of moral enchantment.  The  effectiveness  of  labour  was  perceived  as  deriving  from  its ethical transcendence. Since the Fall, the punishment of work had the force of penance, and was a means of redemption. What forced man to work was not a law of nature, but the consequences of a curse. The earth was not to blame for that sterility into which it would fall if man remained idle: "the earth has not sinned, and if she is cursed, it is on account of the fallen men who work to render her plentiful: the earth gives no useful fruit, even the most necessary, other than through the continual arduous efforts of man".The obligation to work is not linked to any confidence in nature, and it was not even through any obscure faithfulness to man that the earth was to reward man’s  labours. That  theme comes  back  constantly  in  the thought of both Catholics and Protestants, showing that labour itself does not of  necessity  bear  fruit.  The  harvest,  and  the  wealth  that  it  entailed,were not the result of a dialectic of work and nature. Calvin’s admonition was  as  follows:  ‘Let  us  not  then  thinke,  that  man’s  care  &  skill,  or  histravell and endevour can make the ground fertile: but that the blessing of GOD ruleth all.’ The danger that man might toil in vain if God failed to intervene  in  his  bounty  was  a  possibility  that  Bossuet  recognised  in  his turn: ‘The expected harvest, the fruit of our labours, may come to nought,for  we  are  constantly  at  the  mercy  of  the  unpredictable  heavens,  whichmay open to drown the tender shoots at any moment.’ This precarious enterprise, to which nature was never obliged to respond other than upon a  specific  will  of  God,  was  nonetheless  obligatory,  not  on  the  level  of any natural synthesis, but on the level of a moral one. The poor man who, refusing  to  ‘torment’  the  soil,  expected  God  to  come  to  his  aid  on  the grounds that He had promised to feed the birds of the air, was disobeying one of the fundamental laws of scripture –‘Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy  God’.  The  man  who  desired  not  to  work,  said  Calvin,  ‘trieth  God’s power  too  far’.  It  was  tantamount  to  demanding  a  miracle,  while  the real  miracle  was  that  man  was  recompensed  freely  for  his  labours  on  a daily basis. Toil was not a law of nature, but it was contained in the state of man since the fall. For that reason idleness was an act of rebellion, and in some senses the worst of all possible revolts: expecting nature to be as bountiful as she had been when man lived in a state of innocence was a denial  of  Adam’s  fault.  Pride  had  been  man’s  sin  before  the  fall,  but idleness was the ultimate form of pride for fallen man, the derisory pride born out of poverty, and in this world where only weeds and briars grow wild of their own accord, it was the fault par excellence. (p.69)


Foucault, Madness, Civilization, Foucauldian, Postmodern, Poststructuralism, Idleness, Religious Views On Work, Punishment


History of Madness

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