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Interdisciplinary Barthes$
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Diana Knight

Print publication date: 2020

Print ISBN-13: 9780197266670

Published to British Academy Scholarship Online: September 2020

DOI: 10.5871/bacad/9780197266670.001.0001

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Barthes and the Lessons of Ancient Philosophy

Barthes and the Lessons of Ancient Philosophy

(p.137) 9 Barthes and the Lessons of Ancient Philosophy
Interdisciplinary Barthes

Lucy O’Meara

British Academy

Roland Barthes was a classicist by training; his work frequently alludes to the classical literary canon and the ancient art of rhetoric. This chapter argues that ancient Greco-Roman philosophy permits insights into Barthes’s very late work, particularly when we understand ancient philosophy not as an academic discipline, but as a mode of thought which prioritises an art of living. This chapter will focus on Barthes’s posthumously published Collège de France lecture notes (1977–80) and on other posthumous diary material, arguing that this work can be seen as part of a tradition of thought which has its roots in the ethics and care of the self proposed by ancient Greco-Roman philosophical thought. The chapter uses the work of the historian of ancient philosophy, Pierre Hadot, to set Barthes’s teaching in dialogue with Stoic and Epicurean thought, and subsequently refers to Stanley Cavell’s work on ‘moral perfectionism’ to demonstrate how Barthes’s final lecture courses, and the associated Vita Nova project, can be seen as efforts by Barthes to transform his ‘intelligibility’. Barthes’s late moral perfectionism, and the individualism of his teaching, corresponds to the ancient philosophical ethical imperative to think one’s way of life differently and thereby to transform one’s self.

Keywords:   Roland Barthes, Pierre Hadot, Stanley Cavell, ancient Greco-Roman philosophy, art of living, moral perfectionism, Collège de France, vita nova

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