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Philosophy As Way Of Life

August 18, 2002

Looking to the Ancients, Pierre Hadot Says Philosophy Should Be a Way of Life


Pierre Hadot deserves to be better known to English-language readers -- and not just because he was a favorite of Michel Foucault's and is the man largely responsible for introducing Wittgenstein to the French. Hadot is a historian of ancient philosophy, a professor emeritus at the prestigious College de France. But it is more accurate to say that he is a philosopher who makes use of the ancients for his own ideas. His great essays on Socrates and Marcus Aurelius -- available in a collection entitled ''Philosophy as a Way of Life'' -- show how these two figures speak in modern voices: Socrates as a precursor of existentialism, an inspiration for Kierkegaard and Nietzsche; Marcus as a statesman who has appealed across the ages because he enables us to observe someone struggling in the privacy of his personal meditations to do ''what we are all trying to do,'' to ''give a meaning to our life.''

Through the last 40 years or so, the 80-year-old Hadot has returned again and again to particular themes -- that philosophy is a lived experience, not a set of doctrines; that philosophers consequently should be judged by how they live their lives, what they do, not what they say; that philosophy is best pursued orally, in dialogue and community, not through written texts and lectures; that philosophy as it is taught in universities today is for the most part a distortion of its original, therapeutic impulse. In ''What Is Ancient Philosophy?'' Hadot brings all his concerns together in a small volume of extraordinary erudition and surprising -- for a French intellectual -- clarity of prose (as translated by Michael Chase). It is the summa of a distinguished career.

Hadot explains that it was Socrates who defined the image of the philosopher for antiquity, effecting what Hadot calls ''a revolution in the concept of knowledge.'' In opposition to the Sophists, Socrates taught that knowledge was not a collection of propositions to be passed on from teacher to pupil, but a manner of being, communicated through dialogue. Famously, Socrates declared that he did not know anything; and in his exchanges with his interlocutors, he brought them to a state of befuddlement by showing that they did not know anything either. Once, when challenged to quit his annoying irony and offer his own definition of justice, he replied: ''I never stop showing what I think is just. If not in words, I show it by my actions.'' At the heart of what Socrates meant by knowledge, Hadot says, is a way of life, ''a love of the good.'' That love comes from within the individual, and after it is awakened it must be renewed through self-questioning, self-examination, a personal commitment to a life of philosophy.

Socrates' impact on the ancient world was inestimable, not least because of his leading student, Plato, who established the Socratic tradition of instruction in his school, the Academy. ''What characterized Socrates' pedagogy,'' Hadot says, ''was the fact that it attributed capital importance to living contact between human beings; and here Plato agreed.'' But if Plato played down the written word in favor of an ''ethics of dialogue,'' why, then, did he write so much? Hadot's explanation is beguiling. He points out that Plato, unlike so many of his contemporaries, did not write in the first person, instead employing fictional characters in fictional situations, and anyone searching the works for a philosophical system is bound to be frustrated. Individual dialogues preach a doctrine appropriate to the problem under discussion, but together the dialogues do not necessarily cohere into a larger whole. Plato wrote, Hadot suggests, ''because he wanted above all to address not only the members of his school, but also absent people and strangers. . . . His dialogues can be considered as works of propaganda, decked out with all the prestige of literary art but intended to convert people to philosophy.''

Hadot is an expert guide to the major schools that emerged after Socrates, though it must be said that some of these, for all their seriousness of purpose, take on the aspect of an intellectual freak show. The Cynics, who believed that the state of nature was superior to social conventions, tried to out-Socrates the barefoot, bohemian Socrates. They did not bathe, they survived by begging, they fornicated and masturbated in public. The Skeptics were almost as odd. Their way of life consisted of an attitude of indifference. They made no distinction between what was dangerous and what was not, between suffering and pleasure, between life and death. Hadot tells the story of how Pyrrho, a leading Skeptic, saw his master, Anaxarchus, fall into a swamp one day, but ignored him and continued walking. Anaxarchus survived and later congratulated Pyrrho for his indifference and insensitivity.

Among Hadot's genuine virtues is his ability to describe even this sideshow with a degree of sympathy, getting inside the heads of these figures to understand how they saw the world. When his subjects are more mainstream, he practically convinces a reader that first one and then another school had discovered the correct approach to life. Turning the pages, one becomes an Aristotelian, then an Epicurean, then a Stoic. Hadot is especially good on the scientific theories of the various schools, a topic that easily lends itself to ridicule by modern minds. He explains that the ancients refused to divorce science from ethics, and that the ethics came first. For Plato, mathematics was a way of purifying the spirit; the Epicureans developed the idea of an endless universe, composed of an infinite number of atoms, as a means of overcoming the fear of death. Sometimes, however, Hadot can get bogged down. He is an expert on Plotinus and Porphyry, but a reader would have to be really, really interested in late Roman Neoplatonism to want to wade through the dense discussion of these two thinkers. Similarly, the pages devoted to the Greeks and shamanism are eminently skippable. In these sections, the learned Hadot has succumbed to a common author's curse: forgetting that a lot of knowledge is a dangerous thing.

Where Hadot truly takes flight is in his closing chapters. Here he addresses the questions that haunt the entire book: when and how did philosophy change course and become the academic discipline we know today? Already in the Roman world the various schools had lost touch with their founders' intentions and become more text-oriented, giving rise to what Hadot terms ''the Age of the Professors,'' a phrase that this professor of ancient philosophy does not use with approbation. He quotes Seneca on teachers who talked the talk but did not walk the walk: ''They turn love of wisdom into love of words.'' Still, even in this period, philosophy retained its ethical dimension -- one that the early Christians were able to incorporate into what they called ''the sole and eternal philosophy.'' Monasticism in particular was seen as a way of living a life of ''Christian philosophy.''

It was not until the Middle Ages, with the growth of universities and the emergence of Aristotle to a position of intellectual dominance, that philosophy lost its connection to lived experience and became entirely an abstract, interpretive enterprise. Our modern universities, Hadot says, are the heirs of this tradition. He writes: ''The idea of a philosophy reduced to its conceptual content has survived to our own time. We encounter it every day in our university courses and in textbooks at every level; one could say that it is the classical, scholastic, university conception of philosophy.'' Continuing in this vein: ''The goal is no longer, as it was in antiquity, to train people for careers as human beings, but to train them for careers as clerks or professors -- that is to say, as specialists, theoreticians and retainers of specific items of more or less esoteric knowledge.''

Hadot does point to a countertradition, mainly but not wholly outside the university, that continues to uphold the ancient ideal, and it is clear that the names he names constitute his own syllabus for modern philosophy. Among those names are Erasmus, Montaigne (''My trade and my art is living''), the Descartes of the ''Meditations,'' Kant (''The idea of wisdom must be the foundation of philosophy''), Emerson, Marx, Nietzsche, William James, Wittgenstein, Jaspers. Rising to his full polemical height, Hadot speaks at the end about ''an urgent need to rediscover the ancient notion of the 'philosopher,' '' and at this point one recalls that he once considered writing his student thesis on Rilke. For the last, sermonlike pages of ''What Is Ancient Philosophy?'' sound very much like an elaborated version of the admonition that closes Rilke's poem ''Archaic Torso of Apollo'': ''You must change your life.''

Barry Gewen is an editor at the Book Review.

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