The Chronicle Review

Lived Philosophy

December 06, 2015

Olivier Roller
Pierre Hadot
Several years ago, I chaired a search committee for a humanities postdoctoral position at my university. Inevitably, this involved chauffeuring the candidates to and from the airport, blathering about the advantages of life at our university and in our city, all the while carefully skirting anything at all about the candidate’s own life.

With all but one applicant, that is. When I met Michael at the gate, he reached out to shake my hand. Both of us realized, with a laugh, that he was still holding a book with his. Expecting to see a monograph on the Carolingian Church — his field — I instead glimpsed the name of an author and work I’d never seen before. It was a well-worn, dog-eared copy of Pierre Hadot’s Qu’est-ce que la philosophie antique? (What Is Ancient Philosophy?)

While Michael’s curriculum vitae had already suggested a number of professional bruises, I later learned that those paled in comparison with the bang-ups he had known in his private life. This, it happened, was why he was reading Hadot. Not only had the French scholar changed Michael’s understanding of the ancient schools of philosophy, but Hadot had also changed, well, his life. Through Hadot’s discussion of the Epicureans and Stoics, Platonists and Aristotelians, Michael had found a framework to better understand his past and shape his future.

As we mark the 20th anniversary of the book’s publication, I can’t help recalling that moment. "This book changed my life": This is not only the sort of remark one doesn’t make at a job interview, but it is the sort of remark one doesn’t make about scholarly works in general. Scholarship can change lives in fairly straightforward ways. It makes (or unmakes) reputations, it wins (or loses) university posts, and can even revise (or revolutionize) one’s field. But it’s not supposed to change our very lives.

In my own field, the history of modern France, scholars like Robert Paxton turned the historiography of Vichy France upside down, while others, like François Furet, turned inside out our perspective on revolutionary France. But neither of them turned my life inside out or upside down. No doubt Paxton and Furet, after they wrote their great works, remained pretty much who they were before they had ever set pen to paper.

But when it comes to those who specialize in Kant or Aristotle, Spinoza or Plato, shouldn’t our expectations differ? Or is that the sort of question only a nonphilosopher could ask? It’s certainly a question that strikes most professional philosophers as either naïve or obtuse. Yet many of us who work outside philosophy departments — or, for that matter, outside universities — still carry the confused yet persistent idea that philosophy is a discipline apart. That philosophy is nothing if not a close articulation between one’s work and one’s life.

Scholarship doesn't usually change our lives -- but why shouldn't it?
In part, Hadot’s work was revolutionary because he gave lay readers solid textual and historical reasons to insist upon that deep expectation for the discipline. His audience was hungry for that — the book’s commercial success, in fact, led Hadot’s publisher, Gallimard, to launch a series of "what is?" books devoted to other fields in philosophy.

Elected in 1982 to the prestigious Collège de France — which has welcomed many an intellectual maverick — Hadot had already made his name as a pioneering scholar of Hellenistic philosophy. Atopy is the out-of-placeness usually ascribed to Socrates, as when he was found standing trancelike at the start of Plato’s dialogue The Symposium. In his first lecture as a member of the Collège, Hadot noted how the quality of atopy extended to the very nature of philosophizing. So much so, Hadot observed, that in antiquity "the rupture between philosophy and the practice of everyday life was deeply felt by nonphilosophers."

A similar sort of rupture exists between Hadot’s approach to philosophy and that of most other professional philosophers. His thesis is deceptively simple. In ancient Greece and Rome, philosophical schools were not what they since became: schools that engaged in theoretical exercises aimed at constructing systems of abstract or logical claims about the world. Instead, they offered various practices — "spiritual exercises," to be precise — meant to change the way in which one saw the world, and thus change one’s self. By joining a school of philosophy — Epicurean, Stoic, Skeptic, Platonist, Aristotelian — the novice did not seek to master its physics or metaphysics, ethics or logic, but sought instead to remaster his or her character.

For Hadot, in brief, the decision to join a particular school was more than an intellectual choice; it was, he argues, existential. How could it be otherwise when, he observed, the goal of ancient philosophy was not to inform but instead to form the individual? Philosophy, having passed through Hadot’s pellucid prose, thus rediscovers its original purpose. It is a discipline, or spiritual exercise, that trains your character to mesh with a set of moral principles. As one climbs the ladder of these exercises, which vary from school to school, the distance between words and acts shrinks and, at the last rung, they meet in the person of a true sage.

From this perspective, the ancient works assume a radically new character. Rather than texts meant to fill the student’s head, they are tools meant to sculpt his or her self. For Hadot, the most striking and misunderstood piece of evidence in this regard is the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. What appears as a slapdash collection of sayings by the emperor is actually a sustained effort in which he "sought to reawaken within himself the Stoic rules that should have governed his life, but which were losing over time their persuasive force." Even the writings of Plato and Aristotle are transformed by Hadot’s interpretation. Rather than works of pure theory, they become the means — that ladder — to raise ourselves from merely empirical observations or simple reasoning to "pure thought and love of the truth."

Despite, or perhaps because of, Hadot’s iconoclastic interpretation and limpid language, his influence has been greater on those working outside his field than on those within. This odd state of affairs was brought home to me when I began to ask those who specialize in ancient philosophy about Hadot. Gradually I started to feel like a private eye in a noir detective tale pursuing a case where there are no witnesses, and no body, either.

An Aristotelian scholar, who told me she had never read Hadot, referred me to a second specialist whose "broad interests" might include Hadot. It turned out that this individual had, in fact, read Hadot — but only his early philological study of Marius Victorinus, a fourth-century neo-Platonist. This specialist was kind enough, however, to suggest that I contact another colleague, one who had recently written a book on the ancient schools of philosophy, but that scholar never replied to my query.

It seemed Hadot was as atopos in the profession as Socrates was in the agora.

Given the man’s career path, perhaps this state of affairs is not surprising. In his published conversations with Arnold Davidson and Jeannie Carlier, La Philosophie comme manière de vivre (Philosophy as a Way of Life), Hadot reflects on those moments when, as a child, he experienced the sensation of being like "a wave in an endless ocean, part of an infinite and mysterious universe." He hesitated to call those moments "mystical," comparing them to Romain Rolland’s "oceanic feeling" (the very same feeling Freud tries to explain away in The Future of an Illusion) and insisting that all children have such experiences.

Hadot is no less careful to insist that his experiences had nothing in common with those described by Christian mystics, even though he was much taken as a seminary student by the writings of John of the Cross and Teresa of Ávila. Ordained as a priest shortly after France’s liberation, in 1944, Hadot liberated himself a decade later from the narrow intellectual confines of the church, eventually marrying Ilsetraut Hadot, his second wife and fellow scholar. Influenced by postwar existentialism, in particular the works of Martin Heidegger, Gabriel Marcel, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Hadot found a position at France’s National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), where he shifted his attention from philology to philosophy.

In his early book on the neo-Platonic thinker Plotinus, Hadot asked: "Might it not be the case that the greatest lesson which the philosophers of antiquity have to teach us is that philosophy is not the complicated, pretentious, and artificial construction of an academic system of discourse, but instead the transformation of perception and of life, which lends inexhaustible meaning to the formula — seemingly so banal — of the love of the Good?" The work of philosophers today tends to revolve around activities like parsing the writings of key thinkers, exploring various issues of moral or ethical theory, or dissecting specific uses of language. It is a guild like any other, with its meetings and societies, its protocols for promotion, its criteria for reputation. One does philosophy as one does history — or, for that matter, accounting, lawyering, or hair waxing — as a 9-to-5 occupation.

Yet, for Hadot, to philosophize meant something very different. As Iris Murdoch, one of the rare philosophers who shared his concerns, insisted, a moral philosophy needs to be inhabited. Does the gap between academic philosophy and the lived philosophy signal that something is wrong? And isn’t there something odd about Hadot’s failure to affect philosophy? Was my own largely futile effort to track down the traces left by Hadot on his colleagues an anomaly? Or was it symptomatic of a general unease with his interpretation and its consequences?

In a long telephone conversation, I posed those questions to Arnold Davidson. A distinguished philosopher at the University of Chicago who has written widely on topics ranging from Michel Foucault to jazz improvisation, Davidson almost single-handedly brought Hadot to the attention of the English-speaking world.

"Scholars now feel they need to respond to Hadot," he said. Whether it is Hadot’s commentaries on Marcus Aurelius or Plotinus, or his more general works on ancient philosophy, "scholars must take on the textual authority" that he brought to those works. Nor can they ignore, Davidson said, the fact that along with his "philological rigor," Hadot also conveyed a "philosophical vision" that has struck a deep and lasting chord among those outside the profession. (As far outside as jazz: Davidson mentioned that one of Hadot’s admirers, the composer, trombonist, and scholar George Lewis, recorded a piece titled Les exercices spirituels.)

The university has long been the place where we live for examinations, not where we examine our lives.
Of course, the transformation of philosophy from an existential choice to a professional career is not recent. Hadot argued that one strand of this transformation dates from early Christianity, when faith replaced reason as key to the good life, while the ends of life were no longer defined by our mortal span but were located instead in our immortal souls. Philosophy became the handmaiden of theology, and the church outsourced the training of its clerks to the universities. Over the centuries, Scholastics slowly morphed into scholars, while philosophy hardened into an austerely technical enterprise, or one devoted to studying its own history.

This explains, in part, Hadot’s reluctance to use the term "spiritual exercises" to describe the kind of philosophy done by the ancients. The phrase is not, he observed, bon ton in academic circles. It carries the odor of unwashed hair shirts and damp monastic cells. Yet the other terms to identify the practice, from "moral exercises" to "intellectual exercises," are even more misleading. They miss the essence of what the ancient Stoics, Platonists, Epicureans, and others were about: that philosophy is a form of askesis, the conscious and continuous effort to transform the self. As Hadot declared: "The historian of philosophy must cede her place to the philosopher — the philosopher who must always remain alive within the historian of philosophy. This final task will consist in asking oneself, with unflinching candor, the decisive question: ‘What is it to philosophize?’ "

Such questions did not endear him to the academy, but Hadot didn’t mind. Having found homes in the CNRS and the Collège de France, he was fond of taking pokes at academic philosophers. He often quoted Thoreau: "There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers." Tellingly, he also had a particular fondness — somewhat rare in France — for the novels of David Lodge, another insider/outsider casting an amused and skeptical eye on his academic peers.

In 2007, in what turned out to be their final interview, several years before Hadot’s death, Davidson asked him whether spiritual exercises could ever have a place in the academy. Hadot thought this prospect extremely unlikely. The university has long been the place where we live for examinations, not where we examine our lives. While he insisted on the importance of teaching and studying the great texts of Western thought, he gave an idiosyncratic twist even to that concession. The striving for objectivity, in teaching as well as reading a text, can itself become a spiritual exercise. "You must free yourself of prejudices and personal considerations," he argued. By changing your point of view, you could "lift yourself to a universal perspective."

The notion of universalism is perhaps the most important element of Hadot’s thought. It sets his work apart from that of, say, Foucault’s on "care of the self." (Inspired by Hadot’s writings, Foucault sponsored his election to the Collège de France. Not only did Hadot not hesitate to emphasize their philosophical differences, but he confided to Davidson that when Foucault first contacted him, he had never studied the celebrated intellectual’s work.) And universalism sets Hadot even further apart from the packaged and pale exercises found in commercial venues like Alain de Botton’s School of Life.

While we understand the notion of therapy as self-centered, Hadot took pains to emphasize that askesis is aimed at opening the self to the world and others. Simone Weil’s notion of attention, one that Murdoch adopted in her own philosophical works, reflects this same concern: retraining the self to see the world and others fully and simply. Without the effacement or forgetting of the self, Hadot insisted, there can be no true concern for others.

One of his students, the classicist Philippe Hoffmann, recalls a seminar given by Hadot on Marcus Aurelius, from which Hoffmann took the realization that a course could offer the most rigorous textual analysis and study and at the same time provide a means for personal transformation: "I can testify that this commentary and collective reading of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations was a true spiritual exercise which we practiced together under a master’s direction."

It may well be that such courses still take place and such moments are still experienced by students and teachers. Yet Hadot, in Exercices spirituels, challenges us to find such epiphanies in solitary study and contemplation, too: "We spend our lives reading but we no longer know how to read — that’s to say, pause and free ourselves from our concerns, return to ourselves, leave aside our search for subtlety and originality, to meditate calmly, ruminate, and allow the texts to speak on their own."

Maybe that perspective was the result of Hadot’s own askesis. As Davidson observed, Hadot "had reached the height of French academic life, but he always sought to engage others." Whether to ancient texts or contemporary students, "he knew how to listen."

Philosophy had changed Hadot’s life, a gift he passed along to readers like that job candidate, Michael. Does that make Hadot a role model? Perhaps, even if he politely refused such a description. Does his work prompt us to examine our academic purpose? Definitely.

Robert Zaretsky is a professor of world cultures and literatures in the department of modern and classical languages and the Honors College at the University of Houston. His latest book is Boswell’s Enlightenment (Harvard University Press, 2015).