on 27 February 2009
Pierre Hadot is the influential scholar who discovered that many ancient classics of philosophy were not, as they seemed, badly written systematic treatises, full of non sequiturs. They were a different type of literature: notes for 'spiritual exercises', designed for the practical task of making their author a better and more effective person. This finding is spelled out in 'Philosophy as a Way of Life' and in 'The Inner Citadel' his masterly study of Marcus Aurelius. Hadot is also illuminating on what happened when Greek Philosophy and Christianity met and how each deeply changed the other.
The present book is a fascinating autobiography through interview. It tells of his 'fanatical' Roman Catholic mother who wanted all her sons to be priests. She got her way in Pierre's case. His intellectual and spiritual development however showed a good deal of his father's 'detachment from the Church'. He was closer to Romain Rolland's 'oceanic sentiment' than to the ethos of pre-Vatican II Catholic devotion. The Church's condemnation of Teilhard de Chardin, the Pope's proclamation of the dogma of the Assumption alienated him - and falling in love led to a final break in 1952: 'I felt I did not have the right, as so many of my colleagues did, to live a double life'. Hadot's main grievance against the Church is its 'supernaturalism' - 'Pray and God wlll set you right!' This is disastrous.
Hadot continued a career in philosophical research - he was an early champion of Wittgenstein.
His work on philosophy as spiritual exercise has aroused much interest. Taking an imaginative 'view from above' helps people get life in perspective. Knowing 'the importance of the instant' saves us both from actually living in the past or, in pointless worrying, in the future. And so on...through many other helpful exercises. Hadot realises, somewhat to his surprise, that his work, drawing on ancient practice, has provided many people with a viable alternative to religion.
Maybe we don't need to know about a philosopher's life. Learning that someone was a good man might overinfluence us and make us accept bad ideas from him. Hadot's qualities, however, sparkle through all his work. It is just interesting to have them confirmed - e.g. the exercise of philosophy as the calm consideration of death has been worked out by Hadot in the context of several heart attacks. 'With difficulty' he endearingly tells us!
The dialogue form enables us to follow Hadot's journey. We also learn who his favourite philosophers are and there are many casually-strewn philosophical nuggets.