does focusing philosophy on how to live broaden or narrow it?

Pierre Hadot (1922-2010) built a quietly devoted following and influenced many others indirectly, via Michel Foucault. A classicist, Hadot interpreted the Hellenistic philosophical schools (Stoicism, Epicureanism, Skepticism, and Neoplatonism) as communities of people devoted to improving themselves by employing a range of mental techniques. Argumentation was just one of their exercises, along with meditation, introspection, confession, renunciation and so on. These schools were similar to classical Indian and Chinese movements, but unlike (say) Kantianism or British empiricism, which are mainly structures of arguments.

Hadot thought that the Hellenistic tradition of “philosophy as a way of life” still echoed in the work of certain post-medieval thinkers: Montaigne, Spinoza, Goethe, Nietzsche, and Wittgenstein, among others. But it had become marginal by the 20th century, because philosophy had turned into an academic discipline, dispassionate and purely intellectual.

Hadot blamed that situation on Christianity, which–he argued–had divided the heritage of Hellenistic thought into two distinct parts. The arts of the self (meditation, confession, and the like) had been assigned to the monasteries, while abstract argumentation went to the universities. Hadot had first trained as a priest and was a learned student of early Christianity, but perhaps he had the critical bias of an ex-believer. None of Hadot’s major positive examples were Christian thinkers.

In any case, Hadot suggested a choice. “Philosophy” can mean argumentation united with mental discipline to produce communities devoted to moral improvement; or it can mean the dispassionate and often individual pursuit of truth. One can see these alternatives oscillate over time. The grand theoretical edifices of Plato and Aristotle give way to the Hellenistic Schools and their focus on self-improvement. Medieval scholasticism yields to humanistic writers like Montaigne and Erasmus, who are more concerned with particular inner lives. German idealism fades in favor of Nietzsche, Emerson, and other practitioners of philosophy as a way of life.

That is a provocative framework, but not the only available one. In The Rise of Western Christendom, Peter Brown describes how a generation of great converts to Christianity–Jerome, Augustine, and their contemporaries–debated the relevance of classical thought and “often took up extreme poses against the pagan classics.” But

such a narrowing down of culture (drastic as it was) [was not] an altogether unique event in the long history of the ancient world. It did not necessarily betray a moment of irreparable breakdown. Rather, the history of Greek and Roman civilization had always been marked by a characteristic pendulum swing. Moments of exuberant creativity were repeatedly followed by long periods of retrenchment. And this pendulum swing was marked by constant alternation between periods of creativity in literature and in speculative philosophy followed by long periods of single-minded preoccupation with ethical problems. How educated persons should groom themselves; how they should conquer their weaknesses; how they should overcome pain and console themselves in moments of grief; how they should stand in relation to their fellows and to the gods: these were issues pursued  by ancient philosophers, for centuries on end, with remarkable singlemindedness. [A footnote to Hadot follows a paragraph later.]

In Brown’s framework, moments when abstract thinkers predominate–like 5th century Athens and perhaps Vedic India, 12th century Paris, or 18th century Germany–are exuberantly creative and expansive, but they are followed “by long periods of retrenchment” in which the focus narrows to how to live, including such trivial matters as “how educated persons should groom themselves.” In Hadot’s framework, periods of disconnected, abstract, “academic” thought alternate with times when rigorous argument unites with spiritual practices to produce people who can live “in the service of the human community.”

They could both the right, because intellectual history is vast and complicated. I am left with a sense that there are two risks for any kind of thinking that we call “philosophy.” It can degenerate into mental hygiene, focused on how to live everyday life to the exclusion of challenging questions about nature and reality. Or it can turn strictly theoretical, disconnected from questions about how to live (or–worse–influenced by unexamined assumptions about the good life).

See also on philosophy as a way of lifemy notes on Pierre Hadot; and Hannah Arendt and philosophy as a way of life

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.