What Is Ancient Philosophy?
by Pierre Hadot
translated by Michael Chase
Harvard Univ. Press, 2002
362 pp.; $29.95
I think there is no one who has rendered worse service to the human race than those who have learned philosophy as a mercenary trade." With this quotation from Seneca, Pierre Hadot begins his indictment of academic philosophy. When put in such stark terms, it is hard not to be sympathetic with his project.
Hadot is a prominent French scholar of ancient philosophy, in particular of Stoicism, and his work is receiving more attention in American scholarly circles as it is translated into English.1 Much of his life has been devoted to criticizing the sort of academic culture that prevails in most philosophy departments of Western—especially Anglo-American—universities. By his account, the professionalization of philosophy has reduced it to a frivolous and self-important play of theories and arguments, divorced from, and even subversive of, a more holistic concept of education. Hadot accuses the academy of severing living from thinking, and therefore virtue from metaphysics and epistemology. In his view, "philosophical discourse … originates in a choice of life and an existential option—not vice versa. The task of philosophical discourse will therefore be to reveal and rationally justify this existential option."
Hadot's diagnosis of a problematic trend is surely right on the mark. But we will have to ask whether he succeeds in laying out a remedy, or whether he merely replaces one limited view of the philosophical project with another.
In What is Ancient Philosophy?, newly translated for Harvard University Press, Hadot tries to resurrect an ancient conception of philosophy that does not divorce theory from practice. While most of the book focuses on the ancient schools, this is in fact a foundation for Hadot's attempt to locate this concept in early modern continental thinkers. He is not trying to find a uniform understanding of the nature of philosophy throughout history, but instead he extracts emphases and texts that best support his thesis that philosophy has always been, in some sense, most appropriately conceived of as a "way of life."
On an epistemological level, Hadot is simply pointing out that knowledge includes the will, and is therefore not abstract, disembodied or free from the obligations of place, community and affection. Unfortunately, he never actually says in what relation the will and the intellect stand one to another. The greater part of his discussion of ancient philosophical method centers on Socrates as a literary figure, whom Hadot devolops mainly with reference to the action of the Symposium.
Socrates, he argues, is trying to bring his interlocutors to a moment of personal crisis, in which the issue is no longer of "knowing this or that, but of being this or that way." This is the demand of the examined life. Socrates is committed to the dialogic method because it is the nature of dialogue to be unfinished, says Hadot. Wisdom is never truly possessed, nor can it be communicated in a series of propositions. Instead, Socrates, by his way of living and comporting himself, is an example of the lover of wisdom. He humbly accepts the unattainable nature of wisdom, and in his philosophical "exercises," he shames those who would think otherwise. Socrates is foremost an example of a way of living. He is not a man with a doctrine, according to Hadot, but rather one with a mission.
A substantial portion of the book is devoted to the Hellenistic period—the three centuries preceding the birth of Christ, roughly—and the early Roman Imperial period. Hadot is clearly in his element here. It is customary for scholars to see this as a time in which philosophical stagnation is linked to the rise of imperialism, cosmopolitan decadence, and the demise of democracy. Hadot takes a more positive view, and this is certainly refreshing. He points out the paucity of sources documenting intellectual activity during this period. He also wryly observes that the democratic regime of the Greek city-state was hardly more favorable to philosophical instruction: hence the condemnation of Socrates for civic impiety. Hadot also argues that philosophical figures did in fact continue to play an active role in political life.
It is nevertheless true that the prevailing trend in the schools of the Cynics, Epicureans, and Stoics was away from public life. For them, philosophy was largely therapeutic and individualistic. To see the world rightly, that is, with the proper philosophical assumptions in place, was to have peace of mind, a disinterested detachment, and a calm inwardness. What other scholars see as philosophical stagnation, however, Hadot hails as a "stability" founded on a communal agreement about principles for a way of living.
It is the Stoics, in particular, that Hadot sees as the true followers of Socrates and the best example of what Hadot will advocate in the end as a healthy model for the philosophical life. He sees a plausible continuity between Plato and Aristotle's central regard for the "love of the good" and that of the Stoics. But Hadot's interpretation of Plato and Aristotle thus far has prepared us for his glossing over several important facts.
The Stoics rejected the teachings of the schools of the Platonists and the Peripatetics, chiefly in that they rejected the possibility of metaphysics altogether. For the Stoics, "good" and "evil" are moral, ethical categories, nothing more. A Stoic could not possibly affirm the reality of either Plato's forms or Aristotle's supraphysical, first moving principle. This would necessarily follow from materialist assumptions about the nature of reality, and rationalist assumptions about the purpose of philosophical discourse. The "good," as understood by the Stoics, is wholly available to human reason; it is scientifically knowable, as are the principles of nature. The principles of all things are immanent in the physical, natural world (as is the "divine"), and this transparency renders human freedom meaningless in the face of the necessary character of the workings of nature.
Of greater significance, Hadot sees in the Stoics a philosophical school existing for the sake of a particular lifestyle, and whose rhetoric "justifies" the same. Historically speaking, Hadot sees the praxis-driven culture of the Hellenistic period as being lost in the Roman and Christian periods. He blames this on an increased preoccupation—especially among Christians and contemporary pagans—with authority, textual commentary, and dogmatic instruction. He calls this the onset of the era of "scholasticism," and if Christianity is not the chief cause, it is the worst perpetrator of this intellectual trend.
Hadot's criticism of Christianity in particular has several aspects. He allows that it is in some obvious sense a way of life, but it is nonetheless fatally bound up with concerns about authority, whether of revelation in general, or of texts in particular. This preoccupation runs contrary to the necessary conditions for intellectual flourishing, says Hadot.
Linked to this charge is Hadot's critique of what he sees as the "irrationalism" of religious (especially sacramental) practice. He makes the common scholarly error of conflating Christian sacramentalism and the magical, theurgic practices of later Neoplatonists. Hadot is right, however, that sacramentalism is founded on an acceptance of mystery, of the ineffable working of the divine through the earthly. Presumably, the "irrationalism" of mystery compromises the philosophical ideals of intellectual independence, impartiality, and enlightenment that he sees exemplified in Stoic practices.
Hadot's further criticisms are historiographical in nature. He sees much Christian theological speculation as based upon the allegorical interpretation of scriptural texts; he asserts the untenable and indefensible thesis that such interpretation is always a "deliberate effort" to misunderstand the author's intent, in order to find "whatever one wants" in the meaning of a text.
Furthermore, he sees all Christian speculation as a bastardization of Stoicism on at least two levels. Philosophically speaking, he sees the development of a theology of the logos as a mere imposition of Stoic and Neoplatonic ideas upon scriptural terminology. Practically speaking, his analysis reduces the experience of Christians in the first four centuries of the Church to a narrow conception of monasticism. He argues that Christianity was "assimilated" to a (largely Stoic) philosophy, and that as a result, "spiritual exercises" began to occur. These "exercises," he argues, took the form of a Stoic attitude of detachment from the world, and "attention to one's self." This, he says, is monasticism, and it was the only "way of life" available to the early Church.
There is truth in Hadot's position that Stoicism—but surely, even more, Platonism and Neoplatonism—deeply influenced the theological activity of the early Church, its debates about Christology, the theology of the Trinity, the nature of ascetic spirituality in the face of martyrdom and persecution, and so on. But his analysis of aspects of continuity and discontinuity is specious and deeply selective in its use of sources, both philosophical and Patristic. What exactly is his concern? Why is he so disgruntled by examples of continuity between Christianity and ancient culture? In response, he poses these rhetorical questions: "was this process [of assimilation] legitimate?" "Did such an evolution correspond to the original spirit of Christianity?" Hadot clearly responds in the negative, but he never develops or defends this judgment.
The tortured and artificial conception of history presupposed by this way of speaking resurrects the shade of Adolf von Harnack and his famous criticism of the "Hellenization" of Christianity. For Harnack, a pure and undogmatic early community of Christians was subsequently corrupted by the theoreticizing tendencies of Greek culture, The result was an obscuring of the spirit and theology of the apostolic age. The process of the development of Christian theology in the face of heresy is not seen as the building up of a repository of faith and understanding but rather as a recurring and deliberate misunderstanding. Hadot follows the variation on this thesis shared by Heidegger at the end of his career, in which Christianity is not a victim corrupted by a foreign, Greek culture but rather the dogmatic aggressor against a pure, philosophically intentioned way of living.
Perhaps we can make better sense of Hadot's approach if we see the extent to which he is committed to his own Enlightenment prejudices. While deeply critical of Hegel, Hadot is more Hegelian than he would allow. He sees philosophy, in some sense, as being in the process of evolving over time into a sort of undifferentiated, universal community of enlightened rationalism. He brings Descartes onboard this project, and Montaigne, Wittgenstein, Dante, and Meister Eckhart as his unlikely fellows. But in the end, Hadot's preferred model is Kant, who successfully subsumes religion under a "cosmic" or "cosmopolitan" philosophy of human experience. It is only the philosophy of the eighteenth century, according to Hadot, that "reunites philosophical discourse and way of life." This philosophy puts forward the primacy of practical reason, being concerned chiefly with questions such as "What should I do?" and "What can I know?" Kant, it would seem, is the true heir of Socrates and Marcus Aurelius.
The historiographical paths that Hadot must traverse in order to arrive at Kant as his solution unfortunately leave him with little epistemological ground on which to stand. Kant's "transcendental ethics" sought to purify ethics from all aesthetics and feeling, and thus from the consequences of our historical and embodied natures. Hadot does not see that an insight into the historicity of human consciousness does not necessarily commit us to a Hegelian, evolutionary philosophy of world history, as Hans-Georg Gadamer pointed out. Morever, even as the Enlightenment opposed authority and individual reason—never allowing the former to be a source of truth, of course—so also does Hadot reject historical continuity, community, and tradition as having any binding moral or philosophical value. Instead he calls for a community of "pure reason," unfettered by various aspects of "authority."
In the end, then, it is really Hadot who places "theory" over and against practice. This is why Hadot is not able to enunciate clearly a proper relation between what he calls theory and practice. To the last page, Hadot urges us to believe that philosophical discourse is "really important," but he can never quite explain why. Perhaps more important, the implied relativism of his position makes it impossible to say whether one way of life might be better than another, or one mode of philosophical discourse more truthful than another.
The problem that Hadot so correctly diagnoses is perhaps ill-conceived as a battle between theory and practice. Philosophy as a discipline fails when it is removed from its larger educational context. The failure of the professional philosopher, then, does not consist in the neglect of an existential commitment, but rather in that he has conceived his craft merely as a way of life, a mode of career, or, in St. Augustine's words, an admission to a "community of praise and dispraise." The lover of truth and wisdom must accept the natural part that authority, tradition, and history have to play in human epistemology, in union with the free play of reasoning. And when the philosopher, in all humility, comes to see that his work is meant to serve the glorification of beauty, goodness, and truth, he may then witness the transformation of his practice by his theory.
1. See especially Philosophy as a Way of Life, trans. Michael Chase (Oxford Univ. Press, 1995).
Paige Hochschild is a doctoral candidate in theology at the University of Durham in England.
Copyright © 2003 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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