Philosophy as a Way of Life (on Pierre Hadot)

Pierre Hadot (1922-2010) was a careful empirical scholar of ancient thought and a clear and modest writer, yet he defended a conception of philosophy that was exciting enough to attract the enthusiastic support of Michel Foucault. I’m becoming directly acquainted with Hadot for the first time via a collection entitled Philosophy as a Way of Life, edited by Arnold Davidson (1995). These are some of Hadot’s most important points:

In the Greco-Roman world, a philosopher was someone who lived the good life. What made a life fully good was a matter for debate, but it was widely understood to involve equanimity-in-community (borrowing a phrase from Owen Flanagan): that is, inner peace or control over one’s own emotions combined with active and ethical engagement with other people. Another essential element of the good life was freedom from error. That didn’t mean full understanding, which was impossible, but the avoidance of logical, scientific, and moral mistakes.

A philosopher need not develop or hold original views or arguments. Socrates was the model sage of all the ancient schools, and he didn’t even write anything, let alone teach positive doctrines of his own. His life–including his dialogic relationships with other Athenians, and the equanimity he displayed on the point of death–was what made him a philosopher.

All the ancient schools developed spiritual exercises designed to train the practitioner to be more philosophical. These exercises included, for instance, describing emotionally fraught situations from the dispassionate perspective of nature or science, and learning to focus on the living present, because it is all that really exists, while the past and future are  sources of irrational emotions. Debating abstract issues with other people was yet another spiritual exercise. While participating in an argument, one took the propositional content seriously, but the point of the dialogue was to improve the participants’ personalities and their relationships.

The philosophical writing that comes down to us, then, wasn’t what the ancients called “philosophy.” It was just the offshoot of one of their philosophical exercises: abstract disputation. Writing was not a satisfactory substitute for actual dialogue, which must involve real people who were friends as well as debating partners. All the schools disparaged as “sophistic” the view that a text could suffice. Nevertheless, the philosophical writing that survives is excellent, especially if one reads it with proper attention to genre, purpose, and form. For example, Marcus Aurelius didn’t report his actual mental states or try to advance true and original propositions. Instead, he recorded standard Stoic moral exercises, beginning with his daily thanks to each of his moral teachers (book 1), and ending with a reminder that all famous men end as “smoke and ash and a tale” (book 12). He listed his own teachers and the exemplary men by name because he would actually visualize each of these people in turn. Those were just two spiritual exercises for which the Meditations was a notebook.

Hadot argues that the ancient conception of philosophy as an integrated way of life shifted, during the Middle Ages, into philosophy as argumentative writing about abstract topics. Early Christians fully understood the ancient ideal, but they split it into two parts. Monks borrowed, developed, codified, taught, and described the spiritual exercises of the ancient schools. The life of a hermit, monk, or friar became “philosophical,” in the ancient sense. Meanwhile, the task of reasoning about logic, metaphysics, and ethics was assigned to universities and understood as a tool for improving theology, supplying “the latter with the conceptual, logical, physical, and metaphysical materials it needed.” Hadot observes,

One of the characteristics of the university is that it is made up of professors who train professors, or professionals who train professionals. Education was thus no longer directed toward people who were to become educated with a view to becoming fully developed human beings, but to specialists, in order that they might train other specialists. … In modern university philosophy, philosophy is obviously no longer a away of life or form of life unless it be the form of life of a professor of philosophy [pp. 270-1].

Although Hadot admires the ancient conception of philosophy and argues that it has been forgotten in the Continental European university, he is not given to pessimism and cultural nostalgia. Matthew Sharpe writes,

Unlike many of his European contemporaries, Hadot’s work is characterized by lucid, restrained prose; clarity of argument; the near-complete absence of recondite jargon; and a gentle, if sometimes self-depreciating, humor. While Hadot was an admirer of Nietzsche and Heidegger, and committed to a kind of philosophical recasting of the history of Western ideas, Hadot’s work lacks any eschatological sense of the end of philosophy, humanism, or the West. Late in life, Hadot would report that this was because he was animated by the sense that philosophy, as conceived and practiced in the ancient schools, remains possible for men and women of his era: “from 1970 on, I have felt very strongly that it was Epicureanism and Stoicism which could nourish the spiritual life of men and women of our times, as well as my own.”

Hadot argues that the ancient tradition of philosophy has lingered among influential writers deeply schooled in Hellenistic thought: Montaigne, Spinoza, Goethe, the young Marx, Nietzsche, Bergson, and Wittgenstein, among others. And it has the potential to flourish again today.

I don’t know whether Hadot addressed the vexing questions that arise for me in reading his work on the ancients: Should philosophy be a way of life? How that would be practiced? By whom would it be taught? And what it would mean for the evidently fruitful and impressive enterprise of modern academic philosophy?

I would be most excited by a revival if it took seriously all three parts of the ancient ideal: equanimity or inner peace; avoidance of error; and ethical political participation. The last is easiest to overlook in an era of psychotherapy, when the “self-help” section of the bookstore is full of ancient philosophical works and modern popularizations, but we don’t seriously study how to improve the world. Hadot ends,

This concern for living in the service of the human community , and for acting in accordance with justice, is an essential element of every philosophical life. In other words, the philosophical life normally entails a communitary [sic] engagement. This last is probably the hardest part of carry out. The trick is to maintain oneself on the level of reason, and not allow oneself to be blinded by political passions, anger, resentments, or prejudices. To be sure, there is an equilibrium–almost impossible to achieve–between the inner peace brought about by wisdom, and the passions to which the sight of the injustices, sufferings, and misery of mankind cannot help by give rise. Wisdom, however, consists in precisely such an equilibrium, and inner peace is indispensable for efficacious action [p. 274].

Cf. some of my own thoughts: “happiness and injustice are different problems“; “If you achieved justice, would you be happy?“; “three truths and a question about happiness” (inspired by Buddhism rather than stoicism); “Must you be good to be happy?” (exploring some relevant psychological evidence); and “the importance of the inner life to moral philosophy” (arguing that the main schools of modern ethics neglect equanimity).

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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.