Hadot: Philosophy as a way of life

By Alan Brill

Pierre Hadot (1922–April 24, 2010) just died.

Hadot taught all of us, or at least reminded us, that for ancients philosophy was a way of life, a way for self-perfection and eternity and not an abstract knowledge. To understand why the monotheists Plato, Aristotle, and Zeno the Stoic were important for Maimonides or for that matter any medieval Jewish thinker, then one should read Hadot. Everyone from Idel to Boyarin is dependent on Hadot’s work.

Hadot’s Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault (Blackwell, 1995). Organized more on ideas.

Hadot, Pierre. What is Ancient Philosophy? (Harvard University Press, 2002) Organized more on history.

Here are some paragraphs from an online book review to get a sense.

Hadot identified and analyzed the “spiritual exercises” used in ancient philosophy.

By “spiritual exercises” Hadot means “practices… intended to effect a modification and a transformation in the subject who practice them. The philosophy teacher’s discourse could be presented in such a way that the disciple, as auditor, reader, or interlocutor, could make spiritual progress and transform himself within.

For Hadot, the fundamental distinction lies between “philosophy” and “philosophical discourse.” For example, after surveying the schools of Plato and Aristotle and their successors in the Hellenistic and late antique worlds, he explains, “Throughout this investigation, we have recognized the existence of a philosophical life–more precisely, a way of life–which can be characterized as philosophical and which is radically opposed to the way of life of nonphilosophers.

How then did the philosophical life (as opposed to philosophical discourse) die, or appear to die? Hadot draws attention to the movement under the Roman Empire away from philosophy as dialogue or research and towards philosophy as commentary on the “great books” of the past (see 149–157). As the 2nd century AD Platonist Taurus complained, “There are even some [students] who want to read Plato–not in order to make their lives better, but in order to adorn their language and their style; not in order to become more temperate, but in order to acquire more charm” (150).

And from here.

What is ancient philosophy? Pierre Hadot makes very clear what he thinks it is not: it is not the deposit of philosophical concepts, theories and systems to be found in the surviving texts of Graeco-Roman antiquity, the subject matter of courses of study in the curricula of modern universities.

In the author’s own words, “Philosophical discourse… originates in a choice of life and an existential option—not vice-versa…. This existential option, in turn, implies a certain vision of the world, and the task of philosophical discourse will therefore be to reveal and rationally to justify this existential option, as well as this representation of the world” (p. 3). Moreover, philosophy both as a way of life and as its justifying discourse is not the attainment and deployment of wisdom, but “merely a preparatory exercise for wisdom” which “tend[s] toward wisdom without ever achieving it” (p. 4). It is the primary purpose of this book to establish these

“Plato and the Academy” (chapter 5). According to Hadot, Plato’s goal in founding the Academy was the creation of “an intellectual and spiritual community whose job it would be to train new human beings….” (p. 59). The program of training and research in the Academy from the various branches of mathematics to dialectic had primarily an ethical aim, which was to purify the mind and to “learn to live in a philosophical way… to ensure… a good life and thereby the ’salvation’ of the soul” (p. 65). To achieve this aim various “spiritual exercises” mentioned in several Platonic dialogues including, notably, the practice of death in the Phaedo (64a) and the (practice of?) transcendence over all that is mundane described in the Theaetetus (173d–175e) would have been instituted in the Academy. All these exercises have as their aim the transformation of the self.

“Aristotle and His School” (chapter 6). Aristotle, according to Hadot’s account, founded the Lyceum on the model of the Academy—at least with the same ethical goal in mind, if not the same intellectual practices.

The Hellenistic Schools (chapter 7). Hadot’s general thesis is most easily demonstrated in the cases of the various Hellenistic schools which arose in the late fourth century BCE. The idea that Epicurus and Zeno (respectively the founders of Epicureanism and Stoicism) established their schools to create communities which pursued some shared way of life to attain a shared spiritual goal is not new, and Hadot demonstrates very effectively how the physical and epistemological theories of these schools were intended to support their spiritual goals. This is true not only of the “dogmatists” (Epicureans and Stoics as well as Platonists and Aristotelians, all of whom affirmed positive doctrines) but also of their opponents, the “skeptics,” who recommended the suspension of belief as the proper path to their spiritual goal. In addition, Hadot shows convincingly that these various spiritual goals, differently described in the different schools—for example, for the Epicureans it was a life of stable pleasure achieved by the limitations of one’s appetites while for the Stoics it was a life of self-coherence, lived in conformity to Nature or Reason—all involved the goal of self-transformation. Each school had its own set of spiritual exercises designed to lead its adherents to the achievement of its particular version of that goal.

“Schools in the Imperial Period” (chapter 8). The development of philosophy in the age of the Roman Empire is characterized by two outstanding phenomena. The first is a change in pedagogy. Philosophy classes began to be devoted to the reading and exegesis of the texts by the school’s founders, and instructors began in increasing measure to write commentaries on those texts to assist comprehension among their students. The second is the eventual decline of Epicureanism and Stoicism and the ascendancy and development of Platonism (synthesized with Aristotelianism in the Neoplatonism of Plotinus) as the dominant philosophy of late antiquity.

The final part of the book (“Interruption and Continuity: The Middle Ages and Modern Times”) may be summarized more briefly. Hadot credits the rise of Christianity with the decline of philosophy practiced as a way of life. Christianity positioned itself as a “philosophy” (in Hadot’s sense) with its own regimen of spiritual exercises and spiritual goals, and as this religion came to eclipse the various pagan philosophies, it usurped their spiritual function.

From The Book of Doctrines and Opinions

The original text of the article may be found here.


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