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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, ...