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Philosophy as a Way of Life

Hadot1,063 words

Spanish translation here

Pierre Hadot
Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault
Ed. Arnold I. Davidson, trans. Michael Chase
Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 1995

Pierre Hadot’s topic is sweeping. He presents a new understanding of the nature of ancient philosophy and how we should read it. Along the way, he illuminates such figures as Socrates, Marcus Aurelius, Goethe, and Foucault (whose high praise for Hadot is not reciprocated).

This is the second volume of Hadot’s writings to appear in English. It consists of eleven essays and one interview along with a rather lengthy introduction by Arnold I. Davidson. This volume demonstrates why Hadot is increasingly recognized as one of the most important interpreters of ancient philosophy in the world today.

Hadot argues that most modern scholars misunderstand the nature of ancient philosophy from Socrates to the rise of Christianity. Since the collapse of classical civilization, our primary access to ancient philosophy has been the written word: either the writings of the philosophers themselves or the reports of others about their lives and teachings. This has led to a tendency to interpret ancient philosophies as primarily theoretical in aim. Ancient philosophers, like the great speculative philosophers of the middle ages and the modern period, were supposedly concerned to elaborate comprehensive and consistent “systems” of ideas. And, like them, the ancients supposedly wrote to communicate these systems of ideas to the larger “republic of letters.”

Hadot, by contrast, argues that ancient philosophy was primarily practical in its aims, not theoretical. Wisdom was not identified with knowledge of the whole, but with happiness or well-being, which was to be attained by bringing about the proper internal ordering of the soul. Any and all accounts of the cosmos were subordinated to this goal. One did not have to be an original theorist in order to be a philosopher. Nor did one have to be current on the opinions of various theorists. Instead, one had only to adopt a particular way of life: a life centered on the pursuit of wisdom. Thus, one can be an original theorist or an erudite scholar, but not a philosopher in the classical sense. Just as professors who teach novels do not thereby call themselves novelists, so professors who teach philosophy should not thereby call themselves philosophers. Being a philosopher was not a matter of education or vocation, but a new way of being in the world arising from an internal spiritual conversion.

Hadot also stresses that ancient philosophers did not address themselves to a broad “republic of letters.” Instead, they organized themselves into insular schools. The founders of these schools were much more interested in cultivating relationships with their present and future students than with their “colleagues” (i.e., the founders of other schools). The primary mode of instruction in the ancient schools was oral, not written. Written texts were so inessential to the ancient schools that their leaders, such as Epictetus, sometimes wrote nothing at all. When the founder of a school died, his teachings were primarily passed on through an oral tradition. When and if texts were produced, they were always interpreted in light of the oral tradition. When these oral traditions died out, posterity was merely bequeathed texts without contexts. This has proved a formidable barrier to understanding the texts. (Hadot’s point here brings to mind the Catholic critique of Protestant fundamentalism: that tradition has priority over written texts, i.e., the Bible cannot be the foundation of a church, for the Bible was created by the Church and its meaning can be understood only within the context of its oral and institutional tradition.)

He also argues, based upon his vast knowledge of ancient pagan philosophers as well as patristic and medieval Christian writers, that the ancient pagan schools were not merely concerned with instruction, whether oral or written. They were also concerned with philosophical “practices,” what Hadot calls “spiritual exercises.” The goal of these spiritual exercises was to put the precepts of the schools into practice, to attain the proper inner ordering of the soul that constituted wisdom, virtue, and happiness. Most of these ancient spiritual exercises have not survived, although Hadot suggests that some of them may have survived, suitably transformed, in the practices of Christian monastic orders.

The best-documented spiritual exercises are those of the Stoics. Two lists of Stoic spiritual exercises are reported by Philo of Alexandria. Furthermore, Hadot argues that the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius are best understood as written spiritual exercises. These spiritual exercises include self-monitoring, particularly of one’s value judgments, meditations on the precepts of the school, praemeditatio malorum (anticipation of evils) and other techniques for detaching oneself, and reminding oneself when one resolves upon a goal that its fruition depends upon fortune as well as upon one’s own efforts.

Hadot suggests that we interpret ancient philosophical texts not as presentations of doctrinal systems, but exercises in psychagogy (the art of leading souls). He demonstrates this exegetical method in two magisterial works: Plotinus, or: The Simplicity of Vision, trans. Michael Chase (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993) and The Inner Citadel: The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, trans. Michael Chase (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998).

Hadot, however, has not as yet used this approach to interpret the Platonic dialogues. The dialogues certainly invite such an interpretive approach. Plato, after all, is careful to provide the reader with clues as to the spiritual natures and needs of Socrates’ interlocutors. Socrates’ speeches, moreover, are portrayed as carefully accommodated to the characters of his interlocutors and directed toward their spiritual edification. Furthermore, such dialogues as the Symposium, Phaedrus, Republic, and Laws actually speak of the psychagogical character of Socrates’ speeches (and, by extension, the dialogues in which Plato presents them). The Platonic commentaries of Eric Voegelin, Leo Strauss and his students, and Kenneth Sayre are unusually attentive to the psychagogical dimensions of the dialogues and provide valuable starting points for reading them as spiritual exercises.

In sum, I cannot recommend this book highly enough. (I would, however, recommend that one skip the introduction until one has read the book.) Hadot has revolutionized my understanding of how and why to read ancient philosophy. He rescues the ancients from the embalming rooms of academia and breathes new life into them. His writing, moreover, is lucid, elegant, and above all accessible. Philosophy deserves such a good book, and such a good book deserves the widest possible audience.


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  1. Remnant
    Posted June 11, 2015 at 2:57 am | Permalink

    I think it was in one of David Lodge’s novels where one of the characters mocks a philosophy professor’s pretentions to originality and importance by calling him a “philo-philosopher”, somewho who loves philosophy (but is not actually a philosopher). That moniker probably fits most academics in departments of philosophy.

  2. Proofreader
    Posted June 10, 2015 at 7:40 am | Permalink

    There seems to be no “Related” links with this article. I think there should be a link to Dominique Venner’s article, “Living in Accordance with Our Tradition,” which ties in quite neatly with this article.

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