Many philosophers have pointed out (Anscombe, Williams, etc.) that there’s a considerable disparity between ancient and modern works on ethics. Our modern conception of morality, as a system of obligatory interpersonal norms, is entirely foreign to ancient texts. For the ancient philosophers, morality held an intimate connection with one’s entire way of living and vision of human existence as part of the cosmos, the holistic entity of all things.
Enter Pierre Hadot’s wonderful collection of essays, Philosophy as a Way of Life. Throughout this collection of eleven essays and an interview transcript, Hadot significantly deepens our understanding and appreciation of ancient western philosophy. He presents the study of philosophy not only as a tool for conceptual analysis (if that can even be applied here), but as a call to a profoundly transformed style of living. I enjoyed this book immensely and highly recommend it to anyone looking for an introduction to ancient philosophy, especially the Hellenistic schools. Though I do feel that reading Hadot will most benefit those who are currently burned out from modern philosophy or find themselves questioning the contemporary relevance of the subject.
Since this is my first post, and since I found Hadot’s essays to touch on many topics that I would like to explore in future posts, consider this to be both an exposition of the book and a general theme-setter for this blog.
Right at the beginning, Hadot admits that we might feel a sense of disconnection when reading works like the Republic or Aristotle’s Ethics. While there is the recognition that many of the questions ancient authors struggled with are still with us today, there’s also the feeling that their image of the philosopher as a sagacious vagabond is simply outdated. Sure, a philosopher is etymologically a “lover of wisdom,” but wisdom has lost fashionable currency. We can’t really talk about wisdom without having a hidden suspicion that we’re being a bit pretentious, and maybe a bit preachy. Yet to properly appreciate ancient texts we must keep in mind the indispensable role of wisdom in both the practical, lived experience of philosophy and philosophical discourse.
Let’s go through both: what can be called philosophy proper and philosophical discourse. According to Hadot, ancient philosophical discourse, highly theoretical work centering around metaphysical and epistemological inquiry, is rooted in a living praxis of philosophy proper. Now, a living praxis is defined as a certain style of living, a form of life that not only describes one’s more abstract ontological beliefs, but is the shape of one’s entire existential attitude and response to the human condition. It is in this sense that philosophy, properly understood, is fundamentally a way of life instead of a discourse about life.
So, what is a properly philosophical existential outlook? For starters, philosophy consists precisely in raising the question of one’s existential outlook. Consider how Socrates was deemed “unclassifiable” or “out of place” (atopos). People around Socrates weren’t entirely sure how to respond to him. Here’s this badgering, comically ugly wanderer challenging everyone in shouting distance to produce a logically coherent definition of knowledge or justice. What was Socrates’ point in all of this? Ultimately, he was inviting those around him to examine their consciousness: “I set myself to do to you—each one of you, individually and in private—what I hold to be the greatest possible `service. I tried to persuade each one of you to concern himself less with what he has than with what he is, so as to render himself as excellent and as rational as possible.” (Plato, Apology, 36b4-c6)
All the ancient schools (the Neoplatonists, Aristotelians, Stoics, Epicureans, Skeptics, and Pythagoreans) are rooted in a challenge to live according to the norm of wisdom, to live the fully examined life. To put it more grandiosely, the life of the transcendent sage. As evident by its transcendental character, the life of the sage is almost entirely out of our grasp. The philosopher, as one who can reflect on the nature of wisdom, strives for the life of wisdom while simultaneously acknowledging that it is almost unattainable. This leads to a rupture with what the skeptics call a bios, or daily life, and accounts for the unique appearance of the philosopher: one who is neither asleep to wisdom nor fully awake. The philosopher finds himself stuck in the middle ground between unreflective habit and profound transcendence, determined to never endingly progress toward the life of the sage. This comprehensive effort to seek wisdom marks the philosophical life—explaining the ancient image of philosophers as that strange breed of people who seem not to care about those things most of us concern ourselves with. As the emperor Antonius Pious noted in his regulations on salaries, if a philosopher haggles over his possessions, then he is clearly no philosopher.
If philosophy was broadly understood to be a way of life defined by the ideal of wisdom, then the ancient schools represented different forms this life could take. Each school corresponded to a fundamental existential attitude and vision of the world. In addition, all the schools utilized an intimate connection between the exegesis of essential texts and their pedagogical method. Inside a specific school, truth was contained within the founding texts and it was the pupil’s job to express philosophical discourse in exegetical terms. So, when reading an ancient text, one must always situate both the philosophical problem and solution in terms of the master’s written works. Each school supported its own dogmas and methodological principles to guide one in their journey. These dogmas were not up to debate, to philosophize was to choose a school and convert to its way of life. We cannot therefore read ancient authors as we would modern writers, for all the ancient philosophers were working within the rules of discourse appropriate to their own philosophical tradition.
All this to say, we must pay heed to the existential attitude underlying the dogmatic edifices of each ancient school. I will reference some of the other essays in this collection in later posts, like “Ancient Spiritual Exercises and ‘Christian Philosophy,’” wherein Hadot provides a compelling account of the development of Christian monasticism and the factors that led to the subordination of philosophy to theology. But for now, I want to focus on Hadot’s reference to our existential outlook and ancient spiritual exercises.
You may wonder why the exercises are “spiritual”. According to Hadot, no other word quite captures the existential value of these practices—their depth and significance to the life of the individual. The purpose of philosophical reflection is to re-place oneself within the perspective of the whole, leading to a metamorphosis of personality. ‘Spiritual’ is apt to fill the role and speaks to a level of the human being that isn’t simply our temperament or personal inclinations. In this line, Hadot wants us to consider askesis, typically understood to be strict ascetic discipline, to be the practice of spiritual exercises.
Above all, spiritual exercises are designed to render one’s inner discourse coherent. Despite their differences, all the schools agreed that the principal cause of suffering and disorder in humans were the passions. Hadot argues that each school considered the passions to be inauthentic expressions of the self contrary to reason. Passionate individuality guided by egoistic concerns results in alienation from one’s true self. To rectify this disunity, spiritual exercises were directed at liberating the self from a state of alienation. According to the ancient schools, our true self is our moral personhood. The capacity for moral choice and rational action is our defining feature as human beings. Given our faculty for moral personhood, each school recognized that the human self has the power to liberate itself from that which is alien to it, to reclaim one’s moral person through extensive self-examination. The unexamined life is the less authentic life.
This framework of authentic presence to the self is also applied to our presence with others and manifested in our dialogue. The Socratic dialogues are therefore principally concerned with forming the reader. Through dialectical investigation, Socrates leads his interlocutor to a place of mutual self-recognition with the reader. The Socratic opponent (be it Gorgias, Protagoras, etc.) is slowly brought to the same epistemic position of Socrates: ignorance. The reader, witnessing this progression from feigned knowledge to ignorance, is pushed along the same path. Upon reaching a point of crisis when the Socratic interlocutor and attending reader become aware of their own ignorance, Socrates interjects and reveals a new path toward true knowledge. Dialectical inquiry therefore concludes with a transformation of the interlocutor which, as a projection of the reader, results in the reader’s own metamorphosis. Yes, texts are also clearly directed at informing a reading of doctrinal content. Yet, as mentioned above, doctrinal content has purpose only insofar as it supports, and is ultimately a product of, spiritual progress.
If this is all true, then philosophy is therapeutics of the passions. Spiritual exercises are accordingly the principle practice through which we enter into a profound transformation. Though different schools will support different approaches, all of them consider spiritual exercises to center around both self-control and meditation.
Self-control is fundamentally attention to oneself and an effort of will to control the passions. It is the cultivation of an “acute moral consciousness” through the practice of thoroughly examining the contents of one’s own conscience.
Meditation consists in reflecting on the distinction between what does and does not depend on oneself and the memorization of the fundamental dogmas of the school one is a student of. The dogmas must be “ready to hand” to the disciple and capable of efficient guidance in any situation. They are thus translated into quick aphorisms capable of easy memorization. For example, the Stoics emphasized an unrelaxed vigilance and attention on the present instant to become fully aware of our moral personhood. The Epicureans taught that we must relax and abandon desires that are not necessary for basic human life, taking unending delight in the sheer fact of existence. Yet both schools stressed the importance of avoiding fixation on things out of our control, aspects of the world that are directed by the law of nature and not our moral personhood.
In addition, each school placed immense importance on the meditation on death. This is especially evident in Socrates’ claim that “the one aim of those who practice philosophy in the proper manner is to practice for dying and death.” (Phaedo 64a) Although reflection on death is an incredibly interesting topic, I’ll dive into this specific area of philosophy in another post.
So, to summarize, all the ancient philosophical schools were grounded on a fundamental existential attitude and vision of the world shaped by the norm of wisdom. To fully attain this form of life is to become a sage, an essentially unattainable ideal. The philosopher, recognizing this difficulty, committed himself to living as best he could according to wisdom. Despite their differences, each school agreed that wisdom consisted in quelling our passions and each utilized the practice of spiritual exercises. These exercises focused primarily on the relationship of the self to the self: “to know oneself qua non-sage: not as a Sophos, but as a Philo-Sophos, someone on the way towards wisdom.” (Hadot 91) We, in our modern armchairs, must recognize that the extension of the concept ‘philosopher’ in ancient times consisted in a certain practices and activities that were defined by spiritual exercises. The philosophical act was not located only at the cognitive level, it engaged one’s entire mode of being and called on the self to inspect itself and cultivate spiritual awareness. When Antisthenes (pupil of Socrates and founder of Cynicism) was asked what he had learned from philosophy, he replied: “The ability to converse with myself.”
Hadot’s keen observations are capable of sparking or rekindling anyone’s love of philosophy. For a subject that is grounded in reflection, there seems to be a worrying lack of self-understanding. Certainly Hadot is not the first to remark on the contrast between the professionalized method of philosophy and the ancient conception. Schopenhauer once observed that “university philosophy is mere fencing in front of a mirror.” Yet Hadot’s work captures an appreciation of ancient philosophy I haven’t come across before. He taps into the underlying inkling of suspicion that first drew me into studying philosophy. The suspicion that the human condition is deeply puzzling, and that one finds oneself unsure of how to live and sincerely desires to know what it means to be a human being. I felt these, dare I say, existential questions when I was younger and found ancient philosophy to be incredibly comforting. It concerned the questions, questions that no other subject inquired into, and questions that have been studied and wrestled with for millennia.
And yet, over time, my more existential concerns quietly receded. Ancient philosophy was interesting but archaic; and those existential questions were really to be found in the literature department. I came to believe that modern analytic philosophy is simply not the place to raise concerns over one’s spiritual development. One should go check out those more feely, less precise, perhaps purposefully obscure authors who are under the peculiar label “continental” for those sorts of concerns.
But, through the readings of philosophers like Bernard Williams, Thomas Nagel, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, and Hadot I slowly reawakened to the deeper, fundamental questions of philosophy. I came to see that analytic rigor can be applied to existential questions and that the division between traditions only leads to further obscuration. Philosophy is undoubtedly a large subject with many different subfields, but it would be an immense loss to forget the importance of questions concerning one’s way of life. The ancient philosophers recognized this, they appreciated that philosophy must speak to our deepest longings and spiritual needs. As Hadot puts it, the ancient philosophers were acutely attuned to “the feeling for the seriousness and grandeur of existence.” I see no loss, and only great gain, through partaking in philosophical reflection on the current shape of one’s spiritual formation and striving to locate one’s authentic self.
You might note (or won’t care) that there is a conspicuous lack of reference to any religious authors or texts in relation to my philosophical development. Or, really, in relation to this entire post. I have a strong interest in philosophy of religion and religious life more generally, and many authors like C.S. Lewis and Etienne Gilson have affected me as well. But for the purposes, and simplicity, of this post I wanted to avoid that territory—for another time!
The Moral and The Good
Emphasis on developing one’s spiritual health and investing in a new form of living raises a troubling and unavoidable question. A question I believe is at the heart of the philosophical life. How do we reconcile the clash between our desire to live well and our duty to justice?
There is an excellent chapter in Nagel’s book, The View From Nowhere, outlining this challenge. In “Living Right and Living Well” Nagel observes the conflict between morality and the good life. Thousands go without basic nourishment every day, and we privileged few, who stand to lose hardly anything compared to those in great need, satisfy ourselves with intermittent donations (if we even get that far). Just think of your desire to live a good life and the time that requires; all the time needed to fulfill your personal projects, go to graduate school, fall in love, raise a family, attend local government meetings, and partake in home gardening. This time could instead be spent helping those who suffer great injustices. A conflict, at least prima facie, thus exists between your desire to live a full and enriching life and your moral obligation to justice.
Nagel outlines multiple responses to this conflict. The first is to deny that it is real and to hold that there is an internal relation between the good life and the moral life. This is the route taken by Plato and Aristotle, who argue that there is a conceptual relation between the two. Plato defines the good life in terms of the moral life and Aristotle defines the moral life in terms of the good life. More on this in a second.
If we reject the internal relation, then we admit the possibility of conflict. And if the conflict is real, then we must resolve it through rational choice. So, to frame the question, if there is a conflict between the moral life and the good life, which decision or life path is supported by rationality? When one faces the conflict, does the good life or the moral life outweigh the other? We can take one of three positions: the good life rationally outweighs the moral life; the moral life rationally outweighs the good life; or there is no systematic outweighing on either side. Nagel outlines the responses by multiple philosophers according to these categories, from Bentham to Kant to Nietzsche.
Nagel ultimately argues against the ancient conception of the relation, supporting a real conflict between the moral life and the good life. Plato’s attempt in the Republic to reconcile both, though indeed showing that moral virtue is an ingredient in the good life, misses the fact that doing the right thing is still only a part of living well. Aristotle’s contention that the moral life is identical with the good life fails to appreciate that moral requirements have their claims in other persons. Our ethics must include a significant condition of impartiality.
It’s outside the scope of this post to fully address Nagel’s position. I’m also not going to pretend like I have a simple solution to the issues raised. Rather, I want to direct attention to the valuable insights Hadot offers in relation to the moral life and the good life.
First, the ancient schools could never be charged with relying on too shallow of a conception of morality, one sterilely rooted in interpersonal norms of obligation. The ancients were not only concerned with ethics but focused on the human being as a whole. Insofar as a modern ethical system like consequentialism, deontology, or even virtue ethics forgets the spiritual-existential growth of the self, it forgets an essential aspect of our humanity. Second, the ancient schools offer old truths revealing the complicated and divided nature of human life. As Hadot puts it, these truths are never exhausted by any generation; they must be lived in the individual. Consider the example of school dogmas, Stoicism and Epicureanism “correspond to two opposite but inseparable poles of our inner life: tension and relaxation, duty and serenity, moral conscience and the joy of existence.” In terms of the conflict between the moral and good life, I believe one could reject the internal relation while still benefiting immensely from studying the ancients. Hadot observes that we sit in a privileged position to experiment with the multiple schools. In fact, it is precisely the plurality of the schools that is precious to our modern lives, speaking to the different aspects of our moral conscience and longing to live well.
Finally, one can utilize the ancients to support the unity of moral virtue and the good life. While I am inclined to side with Nagel, and I tentatively support the notion of truly tragic moral choice, I do believe that enriching one’s spiritual life has an intimate connection with developing one’s moral awareness. Hadot, as any philosophical historian ought to be, is particularly perceptive of our desire to reconcile the concerns for justice and spiritual effort. He references a quote by George Friedmann twice throughout Philosophy as a Way of Life and it is fitting to end with it here:
“Take flight each day! At least for a moment, however brief, as long as it is intense. Every day a ‘spiritual exercise,’ alone or in the company of a man who also wishes to better himself…leave ordinary time behind. Make an effort to rid yourself of your own passions…Become eternal by surpassing yourself. This inner effort is necessary, this ambition, just. Many are those who are entirely absorbed in militant politics, in the preparation for the social revolution. Rare, very rare, are those who, in order to prepare for the revolution, wish to become worthy of it.” (Georges Friedmann, La Puissance de la sagesse, Paris 1970, p. 359.)