Nov. 29 Recap

This week hasn’t been that busy, it should’ve been busy but I put too much stuff off (including this blog).

My recaps will have a common theme for a few weeks as I’m listening to an audible series of lectures on the Conservative tradition. I’m just going to summarize what I’ve learned from the series these past two weeks (I only listened last week!) and give some brief reflections. A lot of this is just a copy paste of notes I take on my phone while I listen, so don’t expect too much analysis…

The Conservative Tradition

Patrick Allitt believes that the conservative temperament is more concerned with patience than perfection. He finds this underlying temperament acts as a guiding principle for many broadly conservative feelings. Allitt lists a few quintessential conservative beliefs that be classified into a few rough and ready categories.

Societal planning: Well, there really isn’t such a thing as perfect societal planning. We can’t build society from scratch and our attempts to do so inevitably result in coercion. We just cannot plan society around the inescapable reality of human variability.

Human nature: We are all broken people and are born with original sin. As such, human imperfection is unavoidable and integral to our very nature. War is an offspring of our nature. Thus, if our nature is inescapable, and war is entailed by our nature, then war is inescapable.

Note that this concept of original sin isn’t strictly religious. One can accept a purely secular account of human psychological hedonism or egoism adhering to a similar outcome as the theologically rooted concept of original sin. This is a position just as strongly grounded in a religious or secular account: we’re extremely fixated on ourselves and the well-being of those immediately around us or within or social in-group. Human psychology is shaped by evolutionary impulses to survive and propagate; it doesn’t surprise me that we have a difficult time taking into consideration the well-being of people wholly removed from our daily lives.

History: Tying in with human nature, we are essentially the same as past generations. People just don’t change all that radically. Moral and cultural mores may shift, but deep human desires to live well are just as strong as they were two millennia ago. There’s also a historical nostalgia at work in the conservative mind, and I experience this myself. One commonly hears people bash the psychological deception of nostalgia, as if it’s a form of childish forgetfulness or idealism. It’s encouraging to hear Roger Scruton praise the value of nostalgia from time to time. I think I’ll write about this later.

This is all super broad and general, but I think it’s a nice quick look at some of the broad conservative ideas that compel American conservative skepticism about pop liberals’ hopes for a safe and fully accommodating society.

Bolded History

I like Allitt’s reflection on history’s immovable differentness from us and our own world. He notes from the offset that history is alien to us and that we won’t be satisfied as we would expect. That’s a good thing to keep in mind while I briefly (real briefly) dive into some of the history he covers.

First, there was the Glorious Revolution of 1688. King James II abdicated and fled to France, prompting parliament to invite William of Orange to come over and help out. However, from now on parliament held supreme power. Through these stable (no bloodshed), yet revolutionary events, the Tories and Whigs emerged. Sweet.

Figures

Richard Hooker: who is sometimes considered the originator of Anglicanism, used the phrase via media, “the middle way” or “middle road”, as a maxim for life and political involvement. It affirms the value of moderation in life and has its roots in Aristotle’s lessons on the mean of virtue between two extremes.

George Halifax: first secular conservative according to Allitt.

Edmund Burke :I like Burke and started, but never finished, a book about Burke and Paine. Burke is incredibly important to conservative political thinking so this won’t be the only time I mention him. Here’s a few of his key insights and ideas:

-Society is bound by our pre-judgments, otherwise known as our prejudices. These prejudices are not inimical to the healthy functioning of society as we may think today. Rather, they form the basis of our pre-reflective familiarity and functioning with those around us. In other words, Burke’s idea of prejudice falls more in line with ways-of-going-on or forms of life instead of our current notion of affective biases.

-We ought not to tear down the veil of convention and strip government of its desire to hide its ugly side. I thought this was an odd idea in the segment on Burke and I’ll have to read more of his work to fully appreciate what he means by it. Allitt mentions Burke’s emphasis on manners to help flesh out this idea but I still don’t fully see the connection. I strongly desire more transparency in government so I can’t quite see why we would want the government to purport to be something it is not. If we assume the conservative commitment to original sin and the tendency of human nature towards destruction why would we want to mask it instead of fundamentally improving it? Additionally, where’s the line between snobbery and refined tradition?

-Burke, along with most thinkers in his period, accepted human inequality and did not suppose that everyone was equally endowed to succeed or function to the same degree.

-Society is an organism and not a mechanism. I really like this idea in Burke and have always felt drawn to a more “communitarian” concept of the state and human relations over a liberal individualism. Burke’s notion of a spiritual unity spreading across generations is also highly appealing even though it brushes against a form of romanticism or even naivety and is clearly informed by historical nostalgia. I do find his emphasis on our identity as a people or nation bound up in our sense of ancestry and posterity linked together. This is something that has been attacked recently I feel. There’s a strong incentive to undermine the historical value of what may be called “traditional western history”. A friend of mine currently in a PhD program recently told me that a fellow student lambasted their study of American history because these stories “weren’t worth telling” unless they focused on oppressed people groups. That’s a massive topic for another day.

-Burke wants us to cultivate particular and local loyalties instead of relying on grand abstractions. He’s clearly and vocally against contractarian political philosophy and views the idea of a state of nature as fundamentally misguided. He believes that we, as humans, have never existed as single selves amidst other individuals. The basic unit of human society is the family, “the little platoon.” There is neither a nasty Hobbesian state of nature nor a rights filled Lockean state of nature; the family is our first entry into society and it is only in society that we have rights.

-It wouldn’t be conservative if there wasn’t a deep pessimism about human nature lurking underneath. Burke believe that society is fragile and vulnerable. To keep our societal norms and bonds strong, we must live according to the accumulated wisdom of our tradition.

I like Burke and will try and read more of him throughout the coming year. It’d be nice to get through his Reflections on the Revolution in France and his work on aesthetics. He does undeniably engage in snobbery from time to time, and I found his brief section, a eulogy for deference, to be a bit dishonest.

William Pitt: If Burke is a powerhouse in the conservative political philosophy tradition (maybe ideology or belief system would be better?), then William Pitt is the political actor equivalent.

-Pitt didn’t like democracy very much. It’s fair to say that he support a government for the people but certainly not by the people.

Development of Conservatism

Allitt’s comment that conservatism is a post-industrial revolution phenomenon is illuminating. He notes that conservatism can and has encompassed individuals on both sides of social and fiscal background. For example, in the late eighteenth century, the new industrialists were as much a threat as a support to the conservatives.

During the American Revolution, the revolutioanries and founding fathers were appealing to a British tradition of liberty under limited government. They were not as radical as Americans commonly believe. In fact, many of the American leaders saw themselves as restorationists more than revolutionaries; they venerated the Glorious Revolution and argued for their rights as Englishmen. They were not radical democrats.

No one seems to include the loyalists in the study of the revolution and that makes Allitt sad.

Finally, a lot of the American leaders looked to Cato as a heroic model. Washington allegedly had the play Cato, A Tragedy performed for the Continental Army when they were in Valley Forge. The Stoics weasel their way into more things the more I read about them…

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Objectively Living

Well I’ve changed my reading plan. The anthology simply didn’t resonate with me at this point, I read the introduction and felt that it was a bit sterile. So I decided to re-read a chapter of Nagel’s The View From Nowhere I came across last year. I really enjoyed reading it again and would like to provide a little write up about why it resonates with me.

This specific chapter, the concluding one of the book, is titled Birth, Death, and the Meaning of Life. Sounds easy.

Standpoints on Standpoints

Nagel starts off with his distinction on the two perspectives we, as humans, find ourselves inhabiting. I am a particular individual absorbed in my specific day-to-day engagements—obligations and responsibilities that present themselves to me immediately and with immense importance. I need to get this paper in today, I need call my dad, I’ve got dinner tonight with a friend, shit I forget to respond to an email, and I really want to watch more mindhunter. Yet despite the natural urgency I attach to all my daily affairs, I can at any moment detach myself from my particularity. I can enter into reflection on myself moving through the world and engaging with others who view themselves with the same subjective immediacy and naturalness I view myself. Going further, I can see myself from an objective view, and from this perspective I am an inconsequential, biological contingency. This objective view is a form of understanding that comes into conflict with my subjective view of my life.For after I move into the objective view, I find myself struggling to regain the same sense of importance that was so natural in my pre-reflective state. Nagel locates the problems of birth, death, and meaning in this uneasy relation between perspectives. More specifically, the sense of detachment that results from one’s entering into the objective perspective. This is a peculiar sense of detachment, since it undermines my commitments without destroying them. As Nagel puts it, I feel subjectively committed while simultaneously detached, and this detachment can lead to a jarring displacement of one’s subjective involvement in the world.

I’ve read Nagel’s article on the absurd before and this chapter hits similar intuitive notions. His emphasis on the phenomenological character of feeling trapped in my individuality, in my objective self being dragged along by my subjective seriousness, and the deep discomforts that result from being a particular person. All this is familiar territory in a certain sense, and something I believe is important to cultivate in one’s life. So I want to talk about it in relation to something I haven’t found mentioned very much: the absurd and living well.

Meaning, Growth, and Absurdity

I think a question naturally arises, why would anyone want to find life absurd? The vast majority of humans live their lives without entering into a reflective stance calling into question the seriousness with which they take themselves. Or, if people do have moments of disengagement, they typically feel that the more “existential” reflections on one’s ongoings are misplaced and pretentiously high-minded. I don’t want to engage with this feeling that existential detachment, or the philosophical process that leads to it, are misplaced and/or the result of too much schooling. I want to assume that these are legitimate processes of reflection that, granted that one follow the chain of reasoning, result in the conclusion that life is absurd. The objection then arises, “sure, life is absurd, but why would I want to know that?” Or, as one of my friends put it, “I feel like that’s a conclusion [absurdity] that my sixteen-year-old self would find super deep, but now it just feels like, ok, so what?”

I think this is an important point to address, because my first inclination is to retreat into my own phenomenological experience of existential detachment: “it’s just unavoidable to have these feeling, why haven’t you felt this way yet!” But in reality, people might just have different temperaments, and mine may include an imbalance of over-reflectivity and too much time to myself. But I think this is a cop-out and doesn’t appreciate the importance of philosophical reflection in living a human life, and I’m going to rely on some insight from the Stoics to develop my point.

Attention and Objectivity

For the Stoics, we fall into anguish when we forget the distinction between those actions and events which do and do not depend on one’s self. This distinction is the Stoic rule of life, and the Stoic concept of prosoche allows us to mediate on the rule: it is an attentive vigilance and continuous presence of the mind to the current moment. Prosoche is a deep form of mindfulness allowing a stoic philosopher to remember that he or she is only in control of a very limited set of actions, leaving the rest of the causal mechanisms and happenings of the world outside of one’s control and to the domain of nature. In other words, a stoic philosopher orientates his life only around those actions within his power and recognizes that the vast majority of events occurring in nature are entirely outside of his causal control. This allows him to be fully aware of what he does at each instance and fully live in the present. The philosopher also realizes that only those events and reactions within his causal influence are morally relevant. So, for example, one might lose a loved one to an illness and proclaim it as a moral travesty; but a Stoic philosopher will utilize prosoche and remember that only those events within one’s causal influence are morally relevant. The death of the loved one wasn’t wrong, it was simply a natural event (I find this aspect of Stoicism misguided but this isn’t the place).

This attentive vigilance characterized by prosoche can be called a “cosmic consciousness.” Pierre Hadot, a French historian of philosophy, says that it occurs when one’s attention is directed to the infinite value of each present moment. One learns to “accept each moment of existence from the viewpoint of the universal law of the cosmos.” Marcus Aurelius sums up this active process aptly when he exclaims:

Everywhere and at all times, it is up to you to rejoice piously at what is occurring at the present moment, to conduct yourself with justice towards the people who are present here and now, and to apply rules of discernment to your present representations, so that nothing slips in that is not objective.

This was a real quick and dirty summary of a few ideas in Stoicism, but it will work for my purposes. In the remainder of this post, I want to explore the idea of prosoche and the Stoic rule of life in the context of Nagel’s subjective and objective view. My main question is the follow:

what’s the conceptual relation between attentive vigilance on the present, specifically focusing one’s attention on what does and doesn’t depend on one’s self, and the subjective and objective view?

My first aim is to establish a conceptual link between prosoche and the objective view. My second aim is to show that insofar as prosoche enriches one’s life and entails a capacity for the objective view, the objective view is an essential component of living a good life. And since the objective view leads one to recognize the absurdity of life, the absurdity of life is therefore worth living with.

I recognize the contradiction in my strategy. My reliance on a normative account of absurdity is an appeal to the subjective view: it is good for you to live with absurdity. Yet, one could argue, if the objective view strives for transcendence from a particular point of view, then from the objective standpoint it won’t matter that its good for you to live with the objective standpoint. My appeal to the value of the objective view would therefore undermine itself.

This is undeniably true to an extent and I won’t be able to avoid it. I am simply hoping to show that one process we can undertake to live good lives, the method of prosoche and directed attention, implicitly relies on our capacity for the objective view. I am offering one way of potentially fleshing out what Nagel means when he says that “the objective standpoint, even at its limit, is too essential a part of us to be suppressed without dishonesty.” If I can show that entering into the objective standpoint allows us to live better lives as individuals, then I believe I have shown that absurdity is worth living with.

Quick disclaimer: I am not relying on any textual evidence from the Stoics to support my claim and I’m basically ignoring the Stoics’ views on the cosmos and rationality. I’m also conflating the Stoic rule of life (recognizing the difference between things that depend on you and those that don’t) with prosoche (attentive vigilance that includes recognition of the rule of life) here and there. I do this for simplicity’s sake and because I want to avoid any pretense of offering a historical analysis of Stoic cosmology or logic. I am sticking to a relatively intuitive and simple conceptual analysis.

Attention and Transcendence 

“The capacity for transcendence bring with it a liability to alienation.” –The View from Nowhere, 214

First aim: discovery of the objective view through prosoche. I think there are two ways this can be done:

(1) through the method of attention

(2) through the results of attention

Now (2) seems relatively straightforward to me. When I say result I’m imagining that you have a dialed in consciousness of the present moment (a dialed in subjective view). From there you could say, “only I can control X (while Y and Z are outside of my causal influence), therefore from my perspective X is all that matters” Ah, but doesn’t this show that the recognition of what does and does not depend on you relates to your knowledge of perspectival viewpoints? And doesn’t the recognition of limited perspectival viewpoints require the ability to transcend your viewpoint and enter into the objective standpoint? Thus, having in a dialed consciousness on the present and recognizing the Stoic rule of life would require the objective view.

I should note that my leap from “only I can control X” to “X is all that matters from my perspective” only works if I assume that I am not the locus of all meaning. I don’t find this to be difficult as long as one isn’t tempted by solipsism. Surely it isn’t challenging to recognize that I am the locus of attention, in the sense that my own capacity for causal influence is the only thing worth focusing on, without concluding that I am the source of all meaning (and the Stoic certainly wouldn’t accept that).

So that’s one, somewhat boring, way of doing it. Now I want to try the method of attention. I find this a bit more conceptually interesting.

First, observe that the reason for prosoche emerges from one’s misguide habit of overextending the self. We misjudge our causal influence on the world and vice-versa. I have the tendency to extend my potential for control way past what I’m actually capable of influencing, and I allow events outside of my control to dictate my life while overlooking my ability to choose how I respond. This shows that we tend to merge ourselves with our surroundings. It is so natural for me mix myself in with my social and physical environment. I get anxious about global events and happenings entirely outside of my control. I worry about accidents happening to my loved ones without having any ability to prevent or even affect the possibility of those accidents occurring. All of this neglects my incredibly limited causal capacities, and the work of prosoche and the Stoic rule of life is to develop my consciousness of this fact.

I believe this recognition of misguided concern is rooted in the objective view precisely because it is a recognition of the limits of human agency. In other words, misguided concern results from an overextended subjective view of one’s self. The subjective view has a natural inclination to overextend itself into the world and the Stoic rule of life works to correct this inclination. The Stoic’s emphasis on attention to what does and doesn’t depend on one is rooted in a recognition of one’s limited particularity, resulting in a motivational calibration. This calibration is shaped by the objective view: I, as an astonishingly small creature in this world, have a very limited set of events I can actually influence despite my inclinations to the contrary. Thus, the properly aligned subjective view of one’s life is only made possible through the process of entering into the objective standpoint and viewing one from afar. Insofar as it is worthwhile to properly align one’s life, it is worthwhile to handle the entailments (absurdity) of entering into the objective view.

An objection: what I’m saying is different from the objective view. The objective standpoint doesn’t view my attention as misguided, it views it as ungrounded. If I understand myself entirely removed from myself and from a position outside of all human concerns, then surely living as an individual who only cares about what is within his control is just as absurd as living as someone who thinks he can control the moon with his mind. Or, to put it differently, living an imbalanced life of strife is just as absurd as living a flourishing life. Once you have viewed oneself as a creature within the world removed from your particularity, it becomes very difficult to ever engage those concerns with the same prior attachment of particularity.

Additionally, it seems like the method of prosoche is a sharpening of subjective understanding while the objective view is a wholly different form of objective understanding. How would entering into the objective view lead to a more properly aligned subjective view when they are fundamentally incomensurable?

This is a powerful objection. All I can say in response is that I find it very difficult to imagine myself sharpening my consciousness, or even having a concept of perspectival consciousness, without having the objective view. I can’t imagine a race of conscious being who find themselves with misguided concerns, a deep desire to live better lives, and an intense focus and meditation on how they can live better as individuals without having the capacity to recognize their limited individuality. One could argue that recognizing that one is living a strife-filled life and having the desire to live better could both occur within the subjective view. I agree, there are many people who devote themselves to living better without ever considering that their lives and pursuits might be ultimately be absurd. But I cannot accept that one could utilize the Stoic’s method of living a better life, as a tension of consciousness and acute focus on one’s living a particular life in this particular moment of presentness, could be accomplished without the capacity for transcendence.

Conclusion

I can’t quite put my finger on it, but I feel that there is some deep connection between Nagel’s idea of the objective view and Stoicism. This has been a quick attempt to flesh out those two in relation to one another. Looking back, I think I may have misconstrued some aspects of Nagel’s idea of the objective view as a style of understanding. But, hopefully, this post has been a fruitful wrestling with his ideas and will lead me to better appreciate the intricacies of his project. I cannot shake the feeling that recognizing the duality of perspectives we sometimes find ourselves inhabiting is an enriching and worthwhile project for each of us to engage in. Admittedly, it might only be the product of having a certain philosophical temperament, but I won’t accept that until I’ve tried my best to capture why I feel that it is so important.

Posted in Philosophy, Spirituality, Stoicism, Thomas Nagel | Leave a comment

Nov. 5 Recap

So this is a bit embarrassing, but I’ve hardly read anything outside of school this past week. Of course, there’s a news article here and there, but I really haven’t done a good job of utilizing my free time when I have it. I’m working on changing that, and hopefully will have a long(ish) post up here in the next day or so. Here’s all I’ve got concerning what I’ve learned/found interesting this week:

I really enjoy the movies, so I started watching this series of lectures on film from MIT. I’ve only made it through the first one though, but Thornburn’s enthusiasm has hooked me. Here’s to hoping I can make my way through the series in the next two months.

I got around to reading a nice article in The New Yorker on Derek Parfit. I’ve read a bit of Parfit, mainly his work on the repugnant conclusion and the non-identity problem, but I had never read much about his life or background. The article doesn’t go very deep into his work, which isn’t surprising, but it does do a nice job of presenting the man’s more eccentric views and lifestyle. I’ve been told to read Reasons and Persons by a few people, so lemme just throw that onto the massive list of books I’ve still yet to get through. But, fingers crossed, I’ll be able to read more of Parfit and start to engage with his work on a deeper level in the future (I do love Nagel and Williams so here’s to another hoping).

This doesn’t really count, but I finally read the post on Slate Star Codex, “I Can Tolerate Anything Except The Outgroup”. I won’t post my readings of other blogs often, since it’s nothing impressive and Scott reads a ridiculous amount of articles per week (I hope he’s really a collection of ten people) but this was an especially nice read this week so I thought I’d live dangerously.

Finally, I listened to the In Our Time Episode on Aristotle’s Poetics. I really enjoyed this episode since I’ve hardly read anything from Aristotle outside of his works on ethics and metaphysics (and even within those domains I haven’t read as extensively as I would like). I especially liked Aristotle’s observation that reversal and recognition express the limits of human agency. The main takeaway from the episode: “at the heart of the poetics is a theory of human agents moving through the world.”

Till next time.

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Oct. 29 Update and Site Organization

Well, this is a bit overdue.

In an effort to make myself stay up to date with this blog and develop posting habits, I’ve decided to set down some ground rules.

On the weekends, I’m going to give a quick recap of some of the things I’ve learned/read/heard/studied. I’m doing this for two reasons. First, it will help me remember the the structure of my week and, hopefully, not to forget the things I have learned in the past 7ish days. Second, it will signal to whoever reads this my interests and the sorts of things you can expect me to post about.

Aside from my little recaps, I’ll do my best to post once (or twice) per week regarding a topic that I feel is worth writing just a bit more about. Now, I’ve recently decided to jump into this anthology, Exploring the Meaning of Life, because law school is eating up most of my time and this offers nice little nuggets I can read and post about relatively quickly. I think at least. I bought the anthology because I was originally going to write my Master’s dissertation on the role of modern analytic philosophy in discovering human meaning but decided (rightfully) that that project would be incredibly difficult (impossible). So I’m going to work my way through each article and write a little blurb about my reaction to it. There’s 29 articles, and I’ve yet to decide whether I should dedicate a whole post to each one. We’ll see as I go.

Now, here’s a brief recap of this past week, which ended up being much busier than I had hoped. I really only listened to podcasts, and not that many of them, so it’s short I know.

-I listened to the Very Bad Wizard’s podcast on Galen Strawson’s article. Which I found interesting since I’m drawn to Macintyre’s notion of the narrative self. I got into this podcast at the beginning of the summer and have really enjoyed listening to these two.

-Also listened to theVery Bad Wizard’s podcast on the absurd. As I’ve said, I like this podcast. Although this episode was not their best. I found the beginning discussion, though funny, to be a bit sporadic and completely unrelated to their actual topic. This isn’t a review though, maybe that’ll come later.

-Listened to the In Our Time podcast on The Anatomy of Melancholy, which was wonderful. In Our Time is probably my favorite podcast, just because of the style and content of the discussions, so I’ll regularly have posts regarding this podcast.

-Finally, I listened to the In Our Time podcast on David Hume, which was nice but not terribly engaging. I really don’t have a strong grip on Hume yet, the ring of “Humean” isn’t quite as recognizable as I would like, so I listened to this just to hopefully get an overview. I now appreciate the background of Hume’s emphasis on the motivational efficacy of the sentiments and the insufficiency of God and reason. Additionally, I didn’t know that Hume had distinguished between two forms of knowledge: matters of fact and relations of ideas. On reflection, I actually know hardly anything about Hume.

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Philosophy as a Way of Life

book coverMany 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.

Ancient Philosophy

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.

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.”

Philosophy’s Self-Understanding

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.)

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