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Foucault and the Funeral Games: Ancient Roots for a Modern Problematic of Power

Charles Stocking

Western University

In several lecture series, Michel Foucault analyzed the Funeral Games of Patroclus in Homer’s Iliad as a starting point in accounting for the history of “avowal” and the “will to truth” in the Western tradition (see Leonard 2005; Foucault 2000, 2013, 2014). Classical scholars have often considered the Funeral Games to be a somewhat minor and overall happy event compared to the rest of the poem (see most recently Elmer 2013; Kyle 2015, B.K.M Brown 2016; for a contrary view see Kelly 2017). According to Foucault, however, the Games represent “a vast interplay of the relations of force, manifestations of truth, and the settlement of litigation” (Foucault 2014: 31). This paper takes up Foucault’s reading of the Funeral Games as a starting point for reconsidering the role of “force” in the Iliad as a whole, while further demonstrating how Foucault’s observations on Homer served as the basis for his own theory of power.

            As Foucault himself notes, it is generally assumed that the agōn in early Greek history served as an embodied mode for determining and demonstrating social hierarchies. Yet Foucault’s reading of the chariot race in the Funeral Games of Patroclus shows how physical contests and their results may not only reflect such hierarchies or “regimes of truth,” but they can just as easily undermine them. Building on Foucault’s observations, I further demonstrate that the results of the other individual events in the funerary agōn not only run contrary to the expected outcomes and presupposed hierarchies within Iliad 23, but the results actually contradict the authoritative hierarchy of force and status pronounced by the muse-inspired narrator (Iliad 2.760-770). In this regard, we can observe in the Homeric agōn of the Iliad an inherent contingency in relations of force and regimes of truth that extends well beyond the contest proper.

            For Foucault, most importantly, the contingencies of force are regulated not merely through physical acts but also through the verbal performance of “avowal” (Foucault 2014: 17). As this paper makes clear, Foucault’s definition of avowal and its application to the Funeral Games presents a near exact parallel with his later definition of “power” and its relationship to the subject more broadly construed (cf. Foucault 2014: 17; Foucault 1982: 212).

            Ultimately, therefore, reading the Funeral Games of Patroclus in dialogue with Foucault on the history of truth allows us to question the true value of physical force as an expression of power. In both ancient and modern contexts, it seems truly impossible to separate force from discourse.

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Foucault and Antiquity Beyond Sexuality

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