Cultural Genealogies (I): The Care of the Self

The last two decades have witnessed a significant rise of interest in the topic and vocabulary of ‘self-care’ which–alongside cognates such as ‘self-love’ or ‘self-help’–has become an ever-present buzzword in contemporary British and American culture, particularly within the virtual sphere. The concern with and practice of ‘self-care’ have also been brought to the foreground in the context of the public and collective navigation of various cultural and political crises of recent times: the public outrage over the 2016 election of Donald Trump, the #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo movements, the Covid-19 pandemic, and, most recently, the war in Ukraine. Yet self-care has a much longer history going back to ancient conceptions of philosophy as a way of life or art of living and the ‘spiritual exercises’ developed within the various Hellenistic schools towards the philosophical transformation of the entire self, famously discussed by Pierre Hadot and Michel Foucault. Throughout its history, ‘the care of the self’ has emerged as a privileged focal point where various historical, philosophical, cultural, social, and political concerns meet and interact in significant ways: conceptions and representations of selfhood and individual subjectivity; ideas about human nature and the mind-body problem; moral-ethical thought and approaches to the good life; religious or spiritual views and practices; the relationship between self and other; configurations of the private, public, and virtual spheres; the question of cultural identity and the representation of marginal selves; the tension between acts of privilege and acts of radical political emancipation; performativity and authenticity; the psychologisation of everyday discourse; neoliberal discourses on the self and its resilience vs. vulnerability; commercialisation and commodification in the beauty, leisure, and entertainment industries; social media and celebrity culture; the therapeutic dimension of the arts and sciences; the rise and division of health disciplines; embodied practices and the material culture surrounding self-care; views and practices around health, disease, and death;

The course explores these issues and more by looking at a selection of key contexts in Western–and particularly British–history and contemporary culture that share a heightened concern with the care of the self. Students will trace various articulations of the notion and practice of self-care throughout history, learn how to reconstruct the specific notions of human nature and identity that these articulations reveal (together with corresponding conceptions of happiness and the good life), investigate the ways in which historical ideas, discourses, and vocabularies change, interact, and shape contemporary discussions around self-care, and explore the politics of self-care and the problems of cultural representation that it poses, whether with regard to age, gender, sexuality, race, or ethnicity. This course aims to foster a sense of historicity, an understanding of historical change, sensitivity to cultural, social, and political context, as well as the ability to understand and produce informed and nuanced critiques of contemporary cultural and digital phenomena.

Instructor: Dr Alexandra Bacalu


Week 1: Introduction#Self-Care as Buzzword Today

Week 2: The Philosophical Heritage: The Care of the Self in Ancient Hellenistic Philosophy

Readings: Hadot, Pierre, Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault, Arnold I. Davidson ed., Oxford UP, 1999 (Ch. 2 Spiritual Exercises & Ch. 4 Themes) and/or Foucault, Michel, The History of Sexuality, Volume III: The Care of the Self, Pantheon Books, 1986 (Ch. 2 The Cultivation of the Self & Ch. 3 Self and Others)

Week 3: The Patristic Heritage: The Care of the Soul in the Writings of the Early Church Fathers

Readings: Knuuttila, Simo, Emotions in Ancient and Medieval Philosophy, Oxford UP, 2004 (Ch. 2 Emotions and the Ancient Pursuit of Christian Perfection); Schmidt, Jeremy, Melancholy and the Care of the Soul, Ashgate, 2007 (Ch. 1 Therapeutic Languages: Ancient Moral Philosophy and Patristic Christianity)

Week 4: Focus on ‘Spiritual Exercises’ and ‘Technologies of the Self’

  • Selections from Epicurus’ Letter to Menoeceus, Epictetus’ Discourses, Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations and/or St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises, Richard Challoner’s The Garden of the Soul, or A Manual of Spiritual Exercises 

Week 5: Early Modern Cures for the Passions

  • Thomas Wright’s The Passions of the Minde in Generall (1601, 1604) (selections)

Readings: Jackson, Stanley, Care of the Psyche: A History of Psychological Healing, Yale UP, 1999 (Ch. 9 The Use of the Passions); Corneanu, Sorana, Regimens of the Mind, Chicago UP, 2012 (Ch. 2 Cultura and Medicina Animi: An Early Modern Tradition)

Week 6: Puritan Self-Examination and the Government of Thoughts

  • William Perkins’ A Treatise of Mans Imaginations (1607) (selections)
  • John Angel’s The Right Government of Thoughts (1659) (selections)

Readings: Ryrie, Alec, Being Protestant in Reformation Britain, Oxford UP, 2013 (Ch. 1 Cultivating the Affections)

Week 7: Enlightenment Ideas of Happiness

  • Benjamin Franklin’s Of True Happiness (1785)
  • Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790) (selections)

Readings: McMahon, Darrin M. ‘The Pursuit of Happiness in History’, in Susan A. David, Ilona B. Oniwell, and Amanda Conley Ayers eds., The Oxford Handbook of Happiness, Oxford UP, 2013;  Lefebvre Alexander, Human Rights and the Care of the Self, Duke University Press, 2018 (Ch. 1 The Care of the Self)

Week 8: Poetry and Art as Ways of Life

  • Lord Shaftesbury’s ‘Soliloquy, or Advice to an Author’, in Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times (1711)

Readings: Trop, Gabriel, Poetry as a Way of Life: Aesthetics and Askesis in the German Eighteenth Century, Northwestern UP, 2015, (Introduction); Sellars, John, ‘Shaftesbury, Stoicism, and Philosophy as a Way of Life’, Sophia 55 (3): 395-408 (2016)

Week 9: Psychoanalysis and the Rise of Psychologisation

Readings: Rieff, Philip, The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith after Freud, Harper Torchbooks, 1966 (Ch. 1 The Analytic Attitude: Freud’s Legacy and its Inheritors); Illouz, Eva, Saving the Modern Soul: Therapy, Emotions, and the Culture of Self-Help 2008, (Ch. 2 Freud: A Cultural Innovator)

Week 10: Post-War Therapeutic Culture

Readings: Frank, Furedi, ‘The Silent Ascendency of Therapeutic Culture in Britain’, in Jonathan B. Imber ed., Therapeutic Culture: Triumph and Defeat, Routledge, 2017; Madsen, Ole Jacob, ‘Therapeutic Cultures: Historical Perspectives’, in Daniel Nehring et al eds., The Routledge International Handbook of Global Therapeutic Cultures, Routledge, 2020

Week 11: Intersectional Identity and Self-Care as ‘Political Warfare’

  • Audre Lorde’s A Burst of Light (1988) (selections)
  • Oludara Adeeyo’s Self-Care for Black Women (2022)

Readings: Gorman, Sarah, Women in Performance: Repurposing Failure, Routledge, 2020 (Ch. 3 Self-Care and Radical Softness: Refusing Neoliberal Resilience)

Week 12: The Rise of the Self-Help Industry: Interweaving Traditions

  • Ryan Holiday’s The Obstacle Is the Way (2014) and/or The Daily Stoic (2016) (selections)

Readings: Rimke, Heidi, ‘Self-Help, Therapeutic Industries, and Neoliberalism’, in Daniel Nehring et al eds., The Routledge International Handbook of Global Therapeutic Cultures, Routledge, 2020

Week 13: Feminism, Body Positivity, and Self-Care

Readings: Orgad, Shani ad Rosalind Gill, Confidence Culture, Duke Up, 2021 (Introduction: The Confidence Imperative and/or Ch. 1 Body Confidence); Orbach, Susie. Bodies. London: Profile Books, 2019. (Ch. 2 Shaping the Body)

Week 14: Self-Care on Social Media

  • Tanya Burr, ‘My Quick & Easy Morning Routine’, (YouTube, 10 July 2018)
  • Valeria Lipovetsky, ‘10 HAPPINESS Hacks You Can Do Today That Actually WORK’ (YouTube, 5 February 2020) & ‘Stop Romanticizing Self-Care’ (YouTube, 17 February 2021)

Readings:  Michalik Gratch, Lyndsay and Ariel Gratch, Digital Performance in Everyday Life, Routledge, 2022 (Ch. 2 Digital Performances of Self-Identity)


  • A minimum of 50% attendance
  • Participation in class discussions (25% of the final mark)
  • An end-of-term written essay or oral presentation (75% of the final mark)

Further Reading (optional)

Aubury, Timothy and Trysh Travis eds. ‘Introduction’, in Rethinking Therapeutic Culture, University of Chicago Press, 2015.

Becker, Dana, ‘Where Has All the Context Gone? Feminism within Therapeutic Culture’, in Daniel Nehring et al eds., The Routledge International Handbook of Global Therapeutic Cultures, Routledge, 2020.

De Vos, Jan, Psychologization and the Subject of Late Modernity 2013. (Ch. 5 Psychoanalysis and Its Doubles: Towards a Hauntology of Psychologization)

Evans, Stephanie Y., Black Women’s Yoga History: Memoirs of Inner Peace, State University of New York Press, 2021. (Introduction: Mental Health, Healing, and Wellness: An Intellectual History of Self-Care)

James, ‘New Age Healers and the Therapeutic Culture’, in Jonathan B. Imber ed., Therapeutic Culture: Triumph and Defeat, Routledge, 2017.

Madsen, Ole Jacob, Tucker, Optimizing the Self: Social Representations of Self-Help, Routledge, 2015. (Introduction & Ch. 3 Mindfulness)

Niederer Saxon, Deborah, The Care of the Self in Early Christian Texts, Palgrave Macmillan, 2017. (Ch. 2 The Importance of the Care of the Self in the History of the Early Christ Movements)

Rivett, Sarah, The Science of the Soul in Colonial New England, University of North Carolina Press, 2013. (Introduction & Ch. 1 Evidence of Grace)

Schmitter, Amy M., ‘Passions and Affections’, in Peter Anstey ed., The Oxford Handbook of British Philosophy in the Seventeenth Century, Oxford UP, 2013.

Trottier, Daniel, ‘Caring for the Virtual Self on Social Media: Managing Visibility on Facebook’, in Irma van der Ploeg and Jason Pridmore eds., Digitizing Identities: Doing Identity in a Networked World, Routledge, 2016.

Withington, Phil, ‘The Invention of Happiness’, in Michael J. Braddick and Joanna Innes eds., Suffering and Happiness in England 1550-1850, Oxford UP, 2017.

Wu Song, Felicia, ‘Online Communities in a Therapeutic Age’, in Jonathan B. Imber ed., Therapeutic Culture: Triumph and Defeat, Routledge, 2017.