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Pierre Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault, Edited with an introduction by Arnold I. Davidson, Translated by Michael Chase, [with very good select bibliography and outstanding index of subjects and names, ]UK Oxford / USA Malden MA (Blackwell) 1998-5th printing, 309 pp.

This book is incomparably rich in contents. It not only abundantly illustrates that theological and philosophical reasoning (as every theoretical discourse) is deeply embedded within the practical life of its subjects or agents, including the problems and goals of this life and its need for orientation, it also illustrates this – giving much invaluable insight and information – at the most central figures in Western philosophy and theology, like Socrates, the Epicureans, Stoicism (for Dutch readers I refer to some Dutch translations of works of Epictetus here), Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, Plotinus, Augustine, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Wittgenstein, to name but a few. For to them thinking was an expression of and had its goal in a life practice. It was a spiritual exercise. Indeed it is possible to explain many theories (for example in Marcus Aurelius and in Augustine) from their deeper motives, the “rationale” behind them, seen within a much wider context of life and culture, be it personal, be it even the changes – congruences and discontinuities – between historical periods as for example the Classical Age and The Christian Age, the unavoidability of those continuities and discongruences etcetera. And he shares not only that but what is more important still, he gives us means to acquire insight into ourselves, and to practice living in our times in a conscious way ourselves. To illustrate this here as short as possible I would like to cite from the pages 279-285 of the biographical interview with the author – a famous and very high regarded French historian of philosophy and philosopher – at the end of the book:

“… I have always believed that philosophy was a concrete act, which changed our perception of the world, and our life: not the construction of a system. It is a life, not a discourse.

To sum up my inner evolution, I would say the following: in 1946, I naively believed that I, too, could relive the Plotinian mystical experience. But I later realized that this was an illusion. The conclusion of my book Plotinus already hinted that the idea of the “purely spiritual” is untenable. It is true that there is something ineffable in human existence, but this ineffable is within our very perception of the world, in the mystery of our existence and that of the cosmos. Still, it can lead to an experience which coul be qualified as mystical.

I have tried to define what philosophy was for a person in antiquity. In my view, the essential characteristic of the phenomenon “philosophy” in antiquity was that at that time a philosopher was, above all, someone who lived in a philosophical way. In other words, the philosopher was someone whose life was guided by his or her reason, and who was a practitioner of the moral virtues. …We can … observe it in Xenophon, where Hippias asks Socrates for a definition of justice. Socrates replies: “Instead of talking about it, I make it appear through my actions.” (See the interesting context and also another very important book, viz. A. Nehamas, The Art of Living: Socratic Reflections from Plato to Foucault).
Spiritual exercises do not correspond to [are not only strictly causally dependent on, BK] specific social structures or material conditions. They have been, and continue to be, practiced in every age, in the most widely diverse milieus, and in widely different latitudes: China, Japan, India; among the Christians, Muslims, and Jews.

The Stoics were saying exactly the same thing as Einstein, when he denounced the optical illusion af a person who imagines himself to be a separate entity, while he is really a part of that whole which we call the universe. Einstein also declared that it is our duty to open our hearts to all living beings, and to all of nature in her magnificance.’

The problem is not so much to repress such-and-such a passion, as it is to learn to see things “from above,” in the grandiose perspective of universal nature and of humanity, compared to which many passions may appear ridiculously insignificant. It is then that rational knowledge [being a function of this higher view, possibly as well as of the realization of the person, BK] may become force and will, and thereby become extremely efficacious.

Everything which is “technical” in the broad sense of the term, …, is perfectly able to be communicated by teaching or by conversation. But everything that touches the domain of the existential – which is whst is most important for human beings – for instance, our feeling or existence, our impressions when face by death our perception of nature, our sensations, and a fortiori the mystical experience, is not directly communicable. The phrases we use to describe them are conventional and banal; we realize this when we try to console someone over the loss of a loved one. That’s why it often happens that a poem or a biography are more philosophical than a philosophical treatise, simply because they allow us to glimpse this unsayable in an indirect way. Here again, we find the kind of mysticism evoked in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus: “There is indeed the inexpressible. This shows itself; it is the mystical.” “

Until yet I have not had the opportunity to read all parts of the book myself. Nevertheless it seems to me indispensable for everyone interested in the history of (at least Western) spirituality. The introduction into the thought and methods (ways of coming to his results) of Hadot by Davidson is very elucidating. The contents seem in any regard very reliable historically as well as “spiritually”. At which point I prefer to stop using words, just pointing to this moon of insight and even wisdom.

Gepubliceerd door

Boudewijn K. ⃝

--- Deze site bevat enkele overblijfselen van afgesloten publieke activiteiten. --- In 1947 werd ik geboren in Sint Laurens op Walcheren. Ik woonde en werkte verder in Middelburg, Goes en plaatsen in de provincies Noord- en Zuid-Holland en Utrecht. --- Mijn oudste persoonlijke vermelding in het telefoonboek was (Onder)zoeker: "van de wegen van het hart"; op dit moment zou ik schrijven: "van de verbondenheid - zonder en met woorden - van alle verschijnselen inclusief u en mij".