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What is Ancient Philosophy? Hardcover – 5 Jun 2002
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"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. But it is more accurate to say that he is a philosopher who makes use of the ancients for his own ideas... In What Is Ancient Philosophy? Hadot brings all his concerns together in a small volume of extraordinary erudition and surprising... clarity of prose... It is the summa of a distinguished career." - Barry Gewen, New York Times Book Review"
About the Author
Pierre Hadot is Professeur Honoraire, College de France. He is the author of The Inner Citadel from Harvard University Press.
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Hadot stresses the importance of philosophy ("the devoted pursuit of wisdom") as a way of life, not just as an abstract system of thought. His book starts with Plato's Symposium, with Socrates pursuing a discourse and way of life that tends towards wisdom without ever achieving it. For the ancients, the wise person was someone who knew how to live in happiness, and applied that knowledge.
The author goes on to consider the schools that followed Socrates in viewing philosophy as a way of life. These include the schools of Antisthenes the Cynic, Epicurus, Plato, Aristotle and Zeno the Stoic. He considers in some depth the spiritual exercises that each school adopted to bring positive changes to the lives of their followers.
The adoption, and perversion, of the practices of the Ancient schools by Christianity is briefly considered before Hadot takes on the more fruitful theme of seeing how these practices were taken up by modern philosophers like Montaigne, Descartes, Spinoza, Nietzsche, and Foucault. Finally, Hadot gives the reader some level-headed advice on how he or she can adopt and adapt the exercises to the conditions of modern life.
The book is very well written, showing none of the opacity of writing encountered in writers like Derrida or Heidegger. Hadot has been widely acclaimed by leaders in the field, and most of his works can be recommended to the general reader as well as the student of philosophy. I've never read a better book on ancient philosophy, or on philosophy in general. Not only is it a great read, and a work of the highest scholarship, it's life changing.
Hadot writes in plain language and the result is very readable. It's the kind of book I wish I had read long ago, and it should be first item on the reading list for anyone embarking on a study of ancient philosophy or the history of philosophy.
As does Royce, Hadot sees philosophy arising from the human experience as individuals reflect to find meaning in their lives. Hadot calls this situation "existential". But Hadot distinguishes far more than does Royce between a philosophical life and philosophical doctrine. Hadot understands philosophy as a way of life first with varied doctrinal teachings playing a secondary role.
As does Royce's book, Hadot's "What is Ancient Philosophy" shows great erudition but is written to be understood by non-specialists. Hadot examines briefly the growth of philosophy during the time before Socrates and then focuses on Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. He distinguishes between knowledge of things and the possession of wisdom. Hadot offers a reading of Plato's "Symposium" to show the philosopher as the seeker of wisdom rather than its possessor. Philosophy is shown as a search rather than as a system of doctrines. Plato and Aristotle each established a long-lasting school which aimed to form the lives of its teachers and students more than to teach particular doctrines.
Hadot emphasizes that ancients understood the purpose of philosophy as the shaping and transformation of life rather than the teaching of doctrine as he examines stoicism, epicureanism, skepticism, cynicism and Neo-Platonism. He describes doctrinal differences but shows that the schools taught substantially similar ways of living. Philosophical living for the ancients focused on making the most of life and its treasures in the present while not losing oneself in worrying about the past or in fearing for the future. A philosophical life also involved taking a broad non-egotistical view. The philosopher would understand the breadth and scope of reality and not see his or her own affairs only from a limited personal perspective. The core of Hadot's book is the discussion of a system of spiritual practices or, in Greek, "askesis" that philosophical practitioners taught. These exercises crossed the doctrinal boundaries of the schools.
Hadot argues that the understanding of philosophy as a way of life has persisted even through modern thought which tends to see philosophy more as a teaching of competing doctrines. He believes the ancients more properly understood the nature and value of philosophy. He shows how the ancient understanding of philosophy persisted in the work of Kant and Wittgenstein and draws parallels between ancient philosophy, Buddhism, and early Christianity.
Hadot writes in his deeply inspiring concluding chapter:
"Yet, what does it mean to live life as a philosopher? What is the practice of philosophy? In this book I have tried to show , among other things, that philosophical practice is relatively independent from philosophical discourse. The same spiritual exercise can be justified after the fact by widely differing philosophical discourses in order to describe and justify experiences whose existential density ultimately escapes all attempts at theoreticizing and systematizing."
"Seen in this way the practice of philosophy transcends the oppositions of particular philosophies. It is essentially an effort to become aware of ourselves, our being-in-the-world, and our being with others. It is also, as Maurice Merleau-Ponty used to say, an effort to 'relearn how to see the world' and attain a universal vision, thanks to which we can put ourselves in the place of others and transcend our own partiality."
Importantly, Hadot also stresses the importance to philosophy, ancient and modern, of reflection and reasoned thought and argument. He writes: "[t]he philosophical way of life must be justified in rational motivated discourse, and such discourse is inseparable from the way of life. Nevertheless, we have to reflect critically on the ancient, modern and oriental discourses which justify a given way of life. We must try to render explicit the reasons we act in such-and-such a way, and reflect on our experience and that of others. Without such reflection, the philosophical life risks sinking into vapid banality, 'respectable' feelings, or deviance." Hadot's discussion of the importance of both experience and critical reflection to the philosophical life has parallels in Royce's "Spirit of Modern Philosophy."
In my own narrow case, Hadot's book helped me think about Royce's "Spirit of Modern Philosophy" to find differences and similarities. But of course the book is much broader. Hadot's work will help readers understand philosophy as a way of life rather than, as it is too often viewed and practiced, as a dry academic exercise. The book reminded me of why I fell in love with philosophy many years ago.
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His thesis is fairly simple. Ancient philosophy begins in an existential choice. That choice is based on a vision of the world and a way of life based on that vision. It results in both a philosophical practice and a philosophical discourse. The practice has become largely ignored in favor of focusing on the discourse and this has resulted in a fairly complete misunderstanding of ancient philosophy.
I am not claiming that Hadot's presentation of ancient philosophy is completely correct. I think there are some problems with his formulation but before I get into that, I want to broadly outline his thesis.
First, when Hadot say ancient philosophy he means Greek and Roman philosophy- in spite of some other reviewers he is very cautious about comparisons to other traditions, such as Buddhism, Judaism or Taoism.
He sees that tradition of philosophy as largely composed of the Platonic Academy, Aristotle's school, Epicureanism and Stoicism. He also talks about the Cynics and the Pythagoreans although not in as much detail.
At the end of the book (p.278) he suggest that these schools represent fundamental alternatives toward human existence. All cultures can probably be shown to exhibit some variant of these alternatives.
Each of these schools posits an ethics, a physics and a theology. These three components were mutually supportive and served to explain the role of humanity in the cosmos and the role of the individual in the city, with their family and in the development of their own soul. The expression of these three components made up the philosophers discourse.
But that discourse was just empty words without the philosophers practice.
This practice took many forms some of which were specific to one school but many of which were common to all the schools. There was frequently a social component which might be the dedication to philosophical dialogue (as exemplified in Plato and some of the writings of Cicero), or to living together as a group following rules and regulations (which likely heavily influenced the monastic orders that Christianity developed). There were spiritual exercises that served to distance the individual philosopher from her everyday point of view. For example, she might be encouraged to develope the "view from above" which tried to see all of her life as if from a great almost cosmic distance. From this perspective, all her hopes, disappointments, stivings as well of those of others seemed equally petty and small. All events and all things seemed of equal value. She became detached from her everyday human ties to these things.
Or she might be encouraged to be mindful of the omnipresence of the possibility of her death. From this perspective, each moment became incredibly precious, an unfolding experience that she must give herself over to with all her being.
I want to throw in a personal aside here. I studied philosophy at Sir George Williams University in Montreal, Quebec in the '70s. I do not want to diminish in any way what I learned there. I took a year long seminar in Kant's Critique of Pure Reason from Prof. Vladimir Zeman that changed my life and taught me what little I know about being a scholar.
But the sort of exercises that Hadot describes as being the core of the daily life of the ancient philosopher were completely unheard of in what I was taught. Or, I suspect, in what most of our universities teach. Hadot dissects the meaning of the word philosophy as the lover of wisdom- not she who is wise but she who persues wisdom.
As Hadot points out, that lack of focus on philosophical practice distorts that history. By focusing on theoretical discourse and its most coherent expression, we lose sight of the possibility that these things were not what was most valued in ancient philosophy. Ancient philosophers were trying to work with their friends, their associates, their families and their communities to effect changes in their souls. Their written material was teaching material designed to be used by different types of students. Consistancy is not to be expected (p. 274) Aporiai happen.
So what are the flaws in this account? Let me suggest two. First, Hadot like many others, sees the ancients as too much of a piece for my taste.
Read Part Two of his book carefully. He had wonderful sections devoted to each school- to their fundamental outlook, their ethics, physics, theology and their spiritual exercises. Read the section on Aristotle and his school. They were a little different. They come across in Hadot's narrative almost like a research program a là Lakatos (I am showing my philosophical age). In other words, they do not come across as particularly spiritual. They read more like a bunch of secular humanist scientists out to destroy Christmas. More seriously, they don't sound interested in spiritual practices. Their practice was to accumulate knowledge. I think Hadot tries a little too hard to force them into his framework.
Which segues into my second issue with Hadot. He sees philosophy as necessarily a rational enterprise. It seems to me in my investigations into spiritual practice that at some point one is brought face to face with the ineffable. Not the irrational but the ineffable. One is brought into contact with that which cannot be spoken, let alone put into a propositional logic. To the extent that ancient philosophy is grounded in rationality is the extent to which it cannot deal with this.
But I think that some of the spiritual exercises Hadot discusses are designed to bring our friend the philsopher face to face with just that. If I am reading Hadot correctly, I believe that he gets this aspect of the history wrong.
These are minor complaints about what is a magnificent work. I have been strongly influenced by my readings in Strauss of late. There are many similarities (the insistence on philosophy as a way of life) and many differences to explore between these two. More universally, Hadot is a challenge to almost everyone's approach to ancient philosophy. His work simply has to be faced and learned from.
Anyone who reads the Greek and Roman philosophers and who tries to learn from them has much to gain from this book. It is one thing to read Cicero or Seneca or Plato. It is another to try to live one's life based on such reading. Hadot just might inspire you to try.