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on 31 July 2010
What is Ancient Philosophy? The answer Hadot gives is the title of another of his books: Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault. Both books cover the same ground, but complement each other very well, so both are worth reading. "What is Ancient Philosophy?" is a broad overview of the area, while "Philosophy as a Way of Life" focuses on specific topics in greater depth.

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.
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...with the other assessments here. I had picked this up having previously read Hadot's The Inner Citadel: The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius and also having seen this other work of his recommended. To be honest at first, on reading the first section, I thought that this was going to be fairly shallow and not offering much new (especially given my other previous reading on ancient philosophy), but it does begin to pick up. The main theme is about how the ancient schools' philosophies were to be lived out at all times and not merely theorised about or only spoken about in the lecture hall. Modern studies of these schools tend to rather forget this.

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.
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on 17 December 2004
This book is a revelation. The author makes each ancient school come alive as a way of real human thinking, and not just a collection of disembodied ideas. This book shows the thinking process behind the different philosophies. I think this book will take the reader to a new level of appreciation. Thank you.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 26 February 2017
For some time, I have been studying the American philosopher Josiah Royce's 1892 book "The Spirit of Modern Philosophy" which discusses the nature and value of philosophy and the role in philosophical thinking of the history of philosophy. Royce engagingly describes the history of "modern" philosophy from Spinoza through the theory of evolution and Herbert Spencer. In the course of the work, Royce develops his own philosophy of absolute idealism based on his reflections on philosophy's history and purpose. Few thinkers today will follow Royce in this direction. I turned to Pierre Hadot's book, "What is Ancient Philosophy" to reflect further on the issues Royce considered. Hadot was a French scholar who published widely on ancient philosophy. His 1995 book post-dates Royce's by more than a century while it considers philosophers from a millennium earlier.

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.

Robin Friedman.
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