Foucault And LauTzu A Comparison Essay Research

Foucault And Lau-Tzu A Comparison Essay, Research Paper The philosopher Michel Foucault and the ancient chinese sage Lao Tzu are separated by some twenty centuries. This seems to be of minor consequence, however, when it comes to the essence of their ideas. Both figures deal with concepts that explore the relationship between society and power.

Foucault And Lau-Tzu A Comparison Essay, Research Paper

The philosopher Michel Foucault and the ancient chinese sage Lao Tzu are separated by some twenty centuries. This seems to be of minor consequence, however, when it comes to the essence of their ideas. Both figures deal with concepts that explore the relationship between society and power. Specifically, the ways in which social bodies gain or lose power. In this paper, I will use their ideas to support my theory that equality is impossible in social interactions. These interactions may range in significance from a blind date to a political dictatorship. I will deal mainly with the more common, every day, interactions in order to support my stance that equality on any social level is impossible.

The concept of equality is rendered impracticable because of utilization’s of power which I call ?exchanges?. I refer to these utilization’s of power as exchanges because one social body offers subservience while the other offers control. I feel that there exists two classes of these power exchanges, the voluntary and the involuntary. An example of the voluntary power exchange is war; one social body is intentionally attempting to control another. The involuntary power exchange is more difficult to categorize. I would, however, venture to offer a social commune as an example. In this fictional commune, all inhabitants are ?equal?. Decisions within the commune are made through voting. It would seem that all bodies are equal and therefore an autonomous vote can be cast by all. However, I feel that there would be individuals within such a community that posses a stronger inclination towards dominance than others. These dominant personalities would hence, however unintentional, influence and thereby control the the personalities more inclined towards subservience. Such involuntary power exchanges occur in every social interaction, therefore equality can not exist.

I have structured my argument around a story involving a set of twins, Jill and Jane. I use twins as my example in order to argue against the existence of ?equality?. As twins, the girls are the same age, the same build, and, probably, about the same intelligence. They are, for all practical purposes, ?equal?. Yet, Jill is able to use power to control Jane. Even in the case of twins, a dominant personality will garner control over the less aggressive one. the first power exchange I will discuss is the voluntary, as this to me is the more obvious and therefore the less significant of the two.

A teenaged girl, Jill, and her twin sister, Jane, are on a train traveling East. They are going to their fathers house in downtown Chicago. It is a Tuesday, the slowest business day of the week for the train, so the girls happen to have the entire car to themselves. Jill hatches a wicked plan. “I have a great idea!” says Jill to her sister.

“What is it?” asks Jane.

“Well, I was thinking that, instead of meeting daddy downtown,

we could get off in the suburbs and visit my friend Johnny.”

“But daddy will be waiting for us at the train station. He told us

to go straight there to meet him and not to get off anywhere else.”

“That’s o.k., we can call him on his cell phone from Johnny’s and

tell him that we accidentally got off at the wrong stop.”

“I don?t know, that sounds wrong to me.”

“Oh, don’t be such a goody-goody, Jane. We’ll have a lot of fun.”

“All right, Jill, I guess I’m in.”

So Jane, not wanting to be a goody-goody, agrees to disobey her


Here, Jill and jane experience a ?voluntary? or ?intentional? power exchange. By calling Jane a ?goody-goody?, Jill is able to gain control over Jane. Voluntary power exchanges can vary greatly in there severity. To the lesser extreme can be a situation such as we have Jill and Jane engaged in. This could be classified as nothing more than a verbal manipulation with no threat of physical pain. A greater extreme could be spouse abuse. Spouse abuse involves, among other factors, verbal and physical manipulation. Both extremes, however, are working from the same concept of control. This control is normally achieved through fear. In the example with Jill and Jane, the use of fear is subtle but present. Jane is scared, to an extent, to be a goody-goody. She associates socially conditioned negativity with the concept ?goody-goody?, and therefore fears to be a ?goody-goody?. In the greater extreme of spouse abuse, physical violence and verbal intimidation are combined to gain power over another body. The physical violence of course causes pain. People fear pain. This is one way in which power is accessed. In his book Discipline and Punish Foucault makes the argument that our society is based on control through fear.1 Those who control an individuals fear, control the individual. This not only includes the fear of pain but also of death. Chapter 74 of Lao Tzu?s Tao Te Ching reads, ?when normal descent people don?t fear death, how can you use death to frighten them??2 . Here we have Lau Tzu stating quite bluntly that, in order for people to be subject to power, they must fear death.

Control of truth is another way social bodies can intentionally access power. On this idea, Foucault comments,

?…when i talk about power relations and games of truth, I am absolutely not saying that games of truth are just concealed power relations- that would be a horrible exaggeration. My problem, as I have already said, is in understanding how truth games are set up and how they are connected with power relations. One can show, for example, that the medicalization of madness , in other words, the organization of medical knowledge around individuals designated as mad, was connected with a whole series of social and economic processes at a given time, but also with institutions and practices of power.?3

Here Foucault suggests that truth is born out of the creation of knowledge and is then utilized as a point of control over others. Control is easily achieved by the creators of truth in that those who decide what truth is have more access to power than those who receive truth. Lao Tzu offers a similar idea in chapter 81 of the Tao Te Ching, ?True words aren?t charming, charming words aren?t true.?4 This indicates Lao Tzu?s recognition of such truth power relationships.

Little argument is needed to expose the relationship between fear and power. There is the other side of the coin to consider however. I am referring to my argument that the majority of power exchanges go unnoticed and unrecognized. These I call involuntary power exchanges. I will rely on the story for an example.

Upon arriving at the downtown train station, the girls notice their father is not alone; he has with him a tall brunette female, probably in her late thirties. “Girls, I’d like you to meet Julie,” he says to Jill and Jane. She is my new girlfriend”

“Hello girls. It certainly is nice to finally meet the both of you.”

Says Julie. ?Your father tells me that you both like Chinese food. I figure that if you like Chinese, you’ll love Thai; so we’re all going to my favorite Thai restaurant for dinner!”

“That sounds nice” replies Jane.

“Yes, I’ve always wanted to try Thai food.” adds Jill.

Before leaving the train station, Jill and Jane take a walk together. They are both thinking the same thing. “I hate Thai food. It is so gross.” says Jill to Jane.

“I think so as well. But what can we do? I don’t want Julie to think

we’re not cool. I like her.” says Jane to Jill.

“I like her as well, Jane. I suppose we can handle one dinner of Thai


In the “power relationship” above, Jill and Jane are intimidated into eating Thai food when it is actually Chinese that they prefer. The girls, in an effort to appear “cool,” are willing to make such a sacrifice to gain the favor of their father’s new girlfriend. This is an example of what I would refer to as an involuntary power exchange. Julie, without even trying, has used her age and confidence to take control of this particular social interaction. Julie, although she is not aware of it, possesses the “power” and exercises it over Jill and Jane. Almost every social interaction can ultimately be broken down into a series of these involuntary power exchanges (I say “almost”

because many social interactions, of course, involve voluntary power exchanges). Although Foucault never uses the word “involuntary” (or voluntary) himself when describing power exchanges, it is clear that his ideas support their existence. In a 1984 interview Foucault

states, ?…wphen one speaks of power, people immediately think of a political structure, a government, a dominant social class, the master the slave, and so on. I am not thinking of this at all when I speak of relations of power. I mean that in human relationships, whether they involve verbal communication such as we are engaged in at this moment, or amorous, institutional, or economic relationships, power is always present.?5

Foucault recognizes here that power is not always a matter of one person or group being forcefully dominated by another person or group. He stresses that power is in fact formed in even the most mundane relationships. This is the sort of power exchange that I am referring to when I talk about involuntary power exchanges. Power can be expressed and exercised without taking the form of direct domination. For Foucault, this does not mean that no one is ever free: “…if there are relations of power in every social field, this is because there is freedom everywhere.”6 In no way does this ?universal right to freedom? imply that all people are in any sense equal. The philosopher Voltaire disagrees. He believes that such a ?universal right to freedom? does indeed imply equality in the sense that people are equal because of there shared inherent right to freedom. He writes, “…equality is at once the most natural and the most chimerical thing in the world: natural when it is limited to rights, unnatural when it attempts to level goods and powers. Not all citizens can be equally strong; but they can all be equally free.”7 . Voltaire seems to suggest that all people have equal access to freedom. Foucault’s argument does not suggest this. In fact, my interpretation of Foucault implies the opposite: not every one has equal access to freedom nor to power. Social forces impinge on people in such ways that people who occupy certain positions will, for the time they occupy those positions, have access to more freedom.

Although it is true that one social body may have more access and therefore more freedom than another social body, it is still necessary that both bodies posses freedom to a degree. Foucault adds, “…power relations are possible only insofar as the subjects are free. If one of them were completely at the others disposal and became his thing, an object on which he could wreak boundless and limitless violence, there wouldn’t be any relations of power. Thus, in order for power relations to come into play, there must be a certain degree freedom on both sides.”8 . The power exchange, being as it is involuntary, implies that the possessor of the power is not consciously subjecting the receiver of the power to the power, and therefore the power in question could just as easily be coming from it?s subject. It is this freedom that allows the power exchange to occur in the first place. This is because, although it is true that Jill and Jane are subject to Julie’s power via their intimidation, it is the intimidation that grants Julie her power. This means that Julie does not posses some inherent power, but is empowered by the exchange itself. Thus it is necessary that Jill and Jane have a degree of freedom in order for Julie to have any power over them. If they did not have freedom, there would exist no power relation, and therefore no opportunity for Julie to posses power. A body possessing freedom requires no power to control a body which has no freedom. Therefore, both bodies must posses a certain degree of freedom in order for power to be necessary.

Alec Mchoul and Wendy Grace support such a view in their book A Foucault Primer- Discourse, Power, and the Subject, “…states of power are continually engendered or incited on account of the potential counter-powers which coexist with them.”9 . These “counter-powers” require the “freedom on both sides” that Foucault mentions. This freedom creates a two way highway for power. Foucault, addressing an interviewer in 1984, states,

?…these power relations are mobile, they can be modified, they are not fixed once and for all. For example, the fact that I may be older than you, and that you may have initially been intimidated, may be turned around during the course of our conversation, and I may end up being intimidated before someone precisely because he is younger than I am. These power relationships are thus mobile, reversible, and unstable.?10

I will now return to the story to exemplify such reversals of power.

Later that week, over their fifth consecutive dinner of Thai food, Jill and Jane have a conversation with Julie. “My gosh Julie, daddy sure is lucky to have you. He must be able to eat all of the Thai food that he

wants.” says Jane.

“Your father certainly does get his fill of Thai food,” replies


“Yeah, daddy is a real fortunate fella. Thai food is such a treat.”

comments Jill with a subtle roll of her eyes.

Julie, sensing Jill’s sarcasm, decides it might be best to stop serving Thai food to the girls. Julie is disappointed at this development, however, because Thai food is her favorite. Nevertheless, she knows how important it is for Jill and Jane to approve of her in order to gain favor with their father.

Julie?s power shifted to Jill and Jane when Jill unintentionally alerts Julie to her dislike of Thai food. Julie is still in control of herself to the extent that she makes the decision to stop serving Thai food but she is led to make this decision by the indirect pressure of Jill’s disdain and her own need to gain Jill’s approval. Jill may have no intention of controlling Julie’s actions but both Julie’s and the girls’ desire for approval gives Jill’s involuntary or unintentional actions the power to influence Julie. In his Tao Te Ching Lao Tzu comments on unintentional power. Ursula LeGuin translates the last stanza of chapter 51 as,

To have without possessing,

do without claiming,

lead without controlling:

This is mysterious power.11

Leading without controlling is similar to involuntary power exchange because one is leading another person without taking (bodily) control of them. Lao-Tzu implies that giving another person power is a form of power itself. If one can give up one’s freedom to the extent of giving someone else power over oneself, then one has exercised the power to empower others. Foucault and Lao-Tzu are working with very similar concepts of freedom and power. Where Lao-Tzu uses the assumption that everyone has a certain amount of freedom that can be given up temporarily to prove that everyone can exercise power at some point, Foucault uses this idea of “mobile” power to show that everyone must have some freedom to begin with.

The very idea behind the ?involuntary power exchange? is that a person can have power over other people without intending to do so. This parallels Lao Tzu?s wu-wei. Wu-wei is the art of non action. Lao Tzu implies that power is achieved through being bendable and soft rather than dominant and forceful. A good example of this can be found in chapter 63 0f the Tao-te-ching,

Act without action,

Do without doing,

taste without tasting…

Repay injury with virtue.

prepare for what is difficult while it is still easy,

deal with what is big while it is still small?

great projects always deal with what is small.

Thus the sage never strives for the great,

and so the great is achieved.12

This chapter implies that power is achievable on an involuntary level, and that it is completely natural to do so. In fact, to me this says that power is so natural that a social body need do nothing to access it. Historian and Political Scientist Benjamin Shwartz comments on the naturalness of wu-wei in his essay ?The Thought of the Tao Te Ching?. He writes, ?All the instinctive, ?autonomous? aspects of mans biological life operate within the realm of non action, and one may say that human life on its simplest, vegetative ?programmed? level unites the human to the Tao and may be considered good.? This passage also suggests that, because of the naturalness of non action, those who are unnatural by taking action disrupt such a natural flow of power. Lao Tzu would appear to agree. In chapter 23 of the Tao Te Ching he writes, ?People who work with power belong to power.?13, and in chapter 38 he states, ?Great power not clinging to power has true power.?14, and again in chapter 30 Lao Tzu says, ?A Taoist wouldn?t advise a ruler to use force of arms for conquest; that tactic backfires.?. For me, these passages mean that, not only is no direct action required to obtain power, but those who do take action ultimately end up receiving less power. This to me is the essence of the Tao te ching. Author Ursula Leguin agrees. She writes,

?Over and over Lao Tzu says wu wei: Do not do. Doing not Doing. To act without acting. Action by inaction. you do nothing yet it gets done…

It?s not a statement susceptible to logical interpretation, or even to a syntactical translation into English; but it?s a concept that transforms thought radically, that changes minds. The whole book is both an explanation and a demonstration of it.?15

The essence Leguin and I refer to can be stated, ?achievement through no intention to achieve?. This is also the essence of the ?involuntary power exchange?.


Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison .NY: Pantheon,1997

Foucault, Michel. Ethics Subjectivity and Truth. NY: The New Press, 1994.

McHoul, Alec, and Wendy Grace. A Foucault Primer- Discourse, power and the Subject. NY: New York University Press, 1997.

LeGuin, Ursula. Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching. Boston: Shambala Publications, INC., 1997.

Livia Kohn and Micheal LaFargue (editors). Lao-Tzu and the Tao Te Ching. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998.

Durant, Will. The Story of Philosophy . NY: Simon and Schuster, 1953.

Grosz,Elizabeth. Volatile Bodies: Toward A Corporeal Feminism. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1994.

Sources Cited

1. Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. NY: Pantheon, 1977. P.27

2. LeGuin, Ursula. Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching. Boston: Shambala Publications, INC., 1997. P.94

3. Foucault, Michel. Ethics Subjectivity and Truth. NY: The New Press, 1994. P. 89

4. LeGuin, Ursula. Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching. Boston: Shambala Publications, INC., 1997. P.102

5. Foucault. Ethics Subjectivity and Truth. NY: The New Press, 1994. P. 292

6. Foucault. Ethics Subjectivity and Truth. NY: The New Press, 1994. P. 291

7. Foucault. Ethics Subjectivity and Truth. NY: The New Press, 1994. P. 291

8. Durant, Will. The Story of Philosophy . NY: Simon and Schuster, 1953. P. 186

9. Foucault.Ethics Subjectivity and Truth. p.292

10. McHoul, Alec, and Wendy Grace. A Foucault Primer- Discourse, power and the Subject. NY: New York University Press, 1997. P.84

11. Foucault. Ethics Subjectivity and Truth. P. 292

12. Leguin. P.66

13. Livia Kohn and Micheal LaFargue (editors). Lao-Tzu and the Tao Te Ching. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998. P.220

14. LeGuin. P.32

15. LeGuin. P.52

16. LeGuiin. P.6