Pierre Hadot (1922–2010) was a French philosopher and historian of ancient philosophy, especially of Plato, Aristotle, Stoicism, Cynicism, Epicureanism, and Neoplatonism. He was a professor at the Collège de France in Paris where he also wrote and taught on a number of philosophers, including Marcus Aurelius, Plotinus, Descartes, Kant, Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein, and Merleau-Ponty, to name a few. In this essay, I draw from several of his translated works, including What is Ancient Philosophy? the collection of essays found in Philosophy as a Way of Life, his work Plotinus or the Simplicity of Vision, and his text on Marcus Aurelius, The Inner Citadel. The essay serves as an overview and introduction to the thought of Pierre Hadot. However, what follows is not a reconstruction of any particular school of philosophy. Nor does the essay offer a linear reconstruction of the history of these philosophies.
Instead, in this essay I recreate the sense of what Hadot found so crucial to philosophy. Namely, the idea that philosophy is a way of life, a set of practices spiritual in nature. Philosophy for Hadot is a means of integrating questions of ethics, knowledge, being, and aesthetics into the actions and choices of the person. All of these concerns, Hadot often underscores, are developed for the sake of creating an ability to care for ourselves and one another, for developing a more comprehensive understanding of human beings and the world, and for maintaining a political obligation to a community. The assumption I make is that Hadot not only writes about the history of ancient philosophy, but also gives his readers his own approach to philosophical practice through the historical account he offers.
As Jeannie Carlier notes in her introduction to the interviews she conducted with Hadot, “Hadot aimed not to inform but rather to persuade, transform, or produce a ‘formative effect’—in short, to persuade the listener that the ancient treatises are, almost without exception, protreptics . . . [they are] ‘experiences of thought’ or exercises in ‘how to think.’” This essay joins Carlier’s approach to capturing Hadot’s central insights. As she says of her interviews, they are “themes approached from different points of view,” and the same is true of this essay.
The central question of this work is, What does it mean that philosophy is a way of life? The general answer for Hadot is that philosophy, beyond being a merely theoretical activity, involves also the practice of physical exercises, music, dietary regimes, discursive engagements (through dialogue and meditation), and intuitive practices of contemplation. Such exercises were “all intended to effect a modification and a transformation in the subject who practiced them.” Philosophy for Hadot is thus an existential choice in our mode of living. It is a choice of life but also a way of making a life. In this sense, philosophy is a kind of a self-making that issues from our choice of practice. “The philosophical act,” writes Hadot, “is not situated merely on the cognitive level, but on that of the self and of being. It is a conversion which turns our entire life upside down, changing the life of the person who goes through it.”
The remainder of the essay takes up specific answers to this question. By first defining what Hadot means by the term spiritual exercises, I explore the relations Hadot sees among values, aesthetics, and attention, and then among practice, self-transformation, and knowledge, especially as they relate to ethical and epistemic questions. I then turn to the figure of Socrates, one of Hadot’s central examples of a philosophical life well-lived, to explore the importance of self-examination. The final portion of the essay looks more closely at specific examples of philosophical practice. Under the concept of training (askēsis), I explore the askēsis of the “I,” the examination of representations, and the role of dialectics in philosophy. For Hadot, the aim of philosophical practice is to achieve an ethics of care for self and community, so in this spirit, I close the essay with an exploration of Hadot’s writings on care for the self and care for the city.
As I have suggested, Hadot centers a view of philosophy that entangles the philosopher with questions of aesthetics, being, knowledge, and ethics. It is in light of this entanglement that Hadot’s characterization of philosophy as spiritual exercise comes into view. Since the whole complement of human concerns—including those of knowledge, aesthetics, values, feelings, action, ethics, discursive reasoning, the nature of being, and so on—are all involved in philosophical practice, the phrase spiritual exercises is the only term wide enough to capture the full activity of philosophy. Hadot is worth quoting at length on this point:
The expression [spiritual exercises] is a bit disconcerting for the contemporary reader. In the first place, it is no longer quite fashionable these days to use the word “spiritual.” It is nevertheless necessary to use the term, I believe, because none of the other adjectives we could use—“psychic,” “moral,” “ethical,” “intellectual,” “of thought,” “of the soul”—covers all the aspects of the reality we want to describe. Since, in these exercises, it is thought which, as it were, takes itself as its own subject-matter, and seeks to modify itself, it would be possible for us to speak in terms of “thought exercises.” Yet the word “thought” does not indicate clearly enough that imagination and sensibility play a very important role in these exercises. For the same reason, we cannot be satisfied with “intellectual exercises,” although such intellectual factors as definition, division, ratiocination, reading, investigation, and rhetorical amplification play a large role in them. “Ethical exercises” is a rather tempting expression, since, as we shall see, the exercises in question contribute in a powerful way to the therapeutics of the passions, Yet, here again, this would be too limited a view of things . . . The word “spiritual” is quite apt to make us understand that these exercises are the result, not merely of thought, but of the individual’s entire psychism.
The point is that philosophy is not limited to questions of ethics, morality, psychology, knowledge, or intellectual discourse. It contains all of these concerns but goes beyond them.
Philosophy on this view is a lived practice of several virtues, each one organized around an ongoing inquiry. It is a physics organized around the human’s place in the world, an ethics organized around our relation to one another, and a logic, or theory of knowledge, that questions the general rules for reasoning about our ethics and our physics. Philosophy thus includes discursive practices or theoretical instructions, but these practices are organized around the idea of transformation in the direction of the Good. Hadot writes, “Above all, the goal was to become better; and discourse was philosophical only if it was transformed into a way of life.” Philosophy thus aimed for a conjunction between nature (physis) and human convention (nomoi) intersected by a parallel investigation into knowledge, ethics, and care.
Philosophy for Hadot is a spiritual exercise—not because it is committed to supernatural causes or beings, though it may involve questions surrounding both—but because it is a comprehensive approach to training the whole person. “From this perspective,” Hadot writes, “we can define philosophical discourse as a spiritual exercise—in other words, as a practice intended to carry out a radical change in our being,” where a spiritual exercise is defined most generally as any “voluntary, personal practices intended to cause a transformation of the self.”
Whatever else we might say about theory and practice, Hadot argues, philosophy is first and foremost a question of self-transformation, or better, of self-overcoming. And beyond a question of transformation, it is an admission, an admission that we do not know from the beginning who we are or where we are going or how we ought to act. In Hadot’s words, “The philosopher knows nothing, but he is conscious of his ignorance.” Philosophy at the start, then, is a question, not a question of how to recite this or that theoretical position, but of being able to place oneself in question. This is one of Hadot’s central arguments. Philosophy is about attending to and questioning one’s self, values, and beliefs.
Cultivating Access Conditions: Values, Aesthetics, and Attention
Philosophy on this account is a question of values more than the mere transmission of concepts. As Hadot writes, “At the basis of Socratic knowledge is love of the good.” Understanding that knowledge is know-how and that know-how is centered around learning-how-to-do-good links for Hadot the epistemological efforts often emphasized in philosophy with an ethics of care achieved through daily self-examination. “This implies,” says Hadot, “that we must not avoid constantly and rigorously examining the way we live, in order to see if it is always guided and inspired by this will to do good.” Self-care and self-examination have in this context an epistemological weight.
One finds the link between knowing and caring, or between virtuous attitudes and epistemological insights, strongly pronounced in Hadot’s work on the Neoplatonic philosopher Plotinus. For example, Hadot emphasizes the Plotinian practice of gentleness as an ethical virtue, but also as a practice that yields epistemological access and ontological change. In other words, the practice of gentleness generates a metamorphosis in one’s being; it is an activity that allows one to become different. Hadot writes, “Plotinus’ gentleness was a conscious spiritual attitude which presupposed all of his spiritual experience.” Hadot suggests that for Plotinus virtuous practice—gentleness with oneself and others is one of them, but he also discusses the importance of love and solitude in the same spirit—is an act that readies the self for contemplation.
As Hadot notes, the importance of love (Eros) for philosophy is also a central theme in Plato’s Symposium. If philosophy is primarily a practice of questioning oneself, than it is so because it is driven by the desire for a truth, beauty, and goodness currently unavailable. It is a way of approaching the transcendent ontological state implied by the experience of wisdom, a unique configuration of being instantiated in the human body. The act of self-examination is thus driven by love, a love for being better and for self-overcoming. Eros is in this sense the force within which the activity of philosophy is constellated. As Hadot writes of Socrates, “Socrates, or the philosopher, is thus Eros: although deprived of wisdom, beauty, and the good, he desires and loves wisdom, beauty, and the good.”
Philosophy in this way is a practice of attending to oneself. Hadot writes in the context of the Stoics that philosophy requires attention (prosoche), a practice of vigilance, a presence of mind, and a capacity for self consciousness. In Hadot’s words, “Attention to the present moment is, in a sense, the key to spiritual exercises.” Moreover, attention is a kind of vigilance but also a means of increasing our capacity for vigilance. Philosophy is a way of learning how to look at the world of the senses. Stated differently, it is a way of learning to look at sensing. Beyond vigilance, attention, and care, “we must also,” says Hadot, “associate our imagination and affectivity with the training of our thought.” In this way, aesthetics, imagination, and feeling are central to Hadot’s image of philosophy.
For example, Hadot underscores the psychological importance of literary mastery and the transformative power of aesthetics to shift one’s understanding and perception. Aesthetics on this account have an epistemological import and a transformative potential. More generally, Hadot argues for the epistemological function of beauty. Invoking Plotinus again, Hadot sees in the aesthetic, and more precisely in the artistic, a model for the telos of philosophical practice. Hadot writes, “The artist’s work can be a symbol of the quest for our true self.” The philosopher is at work, says Hadot, on something like a statute or a sculpture, a sculpture of self, where this self is, in turn, a perspective, a way of looking. The self is a view on the world.
Practice, Transformation, and Knowledge
Recall that for Hadot philosophy must be understood from the perspective of the way of life of which it is both the expression and the means. Both the expression and the means, both theory and practice conjoined. This is the key to entering Hadot’s reading of philosophy, and perhaps to entering the philosophical life for one’s own self. Along these lines, Hadot describes the link between a choice of life and a choice of discourse as having a reciprocal relationship. That is, philosophy is both a theoretical justification for our choice of living and a means of acting upon oneself, of creating a relationship between theory and life. Hadot writes, “[Discourse] is always intended to produce an effect, to create a habitus within the soul, or to provoke a transformation of the self.” The point of Hadot’s account is thus to foreground the relation between, on the one hand, one’s habitus, or the sum total of one’s daily practices, and, on the other, one’s aptitude for reasoning, understanding, and perceiving.
The idea of philosophy as a practice and choice of life is central not only to Hadot’s reading of philosophy, but to his reading of knowledge as well. On Hadot’s account, this view of knowledge suggests that knowledge is not the kind of thing one can simply acquire. Knowledge, says Hadot, must be “engendered by the individual.” What does it mean that knowledge must be engendered by the individual? It means that knowledge is not merely the acquisition of information; rather, it involves a transformation in one’s being, a change in who one is and what one can do. Knowledge is a capacity to act, a knowing how to act and when. As Hadot describes it, “Knowledge is not a prefabricated object, or a finished content which can be directly transmitted by writing or just by any discourse.” And further, “Knowledge is not just plain knowing, but knowing-what-ought-to-be-preferred, and hence knowing how to live.”
Hadot’s point is echoed by Edward McGushin, who writes, “One does not merely collect knowledge and store it away; rather, one makes knowledge—discourse, logos—active as one’s very mode of perception of the world, of others, and of oneself; it becomes one corporeal relation to things—the body itself becomes a philosophical corpus, a philosophical oeuvre.” In such a way, logos becomes a part of the person’s perception and capacity to act. The logos must become “ready to hand” in the very physical structure of the individual, becoming part of his or her tacit knowing and doing. It reorganizes the internal structure of one’s body, allowing new capacities for seeing and doing to emerge.
This emphasis on philosophy as transformative practice, as the development of a habitus where knowledge is a mode of transformation, no doubt grounds Hadot’s appreciation for the French philosopher Henri Bergson, for whom philosophy is defined as “a transformation of perception.” The empirical details of this account, Hadot says, will no doubt change as the various special sciences advance their descriptions and explanations of human cognitive and sensory systems, but the central idea—that philosophy is a transformation of perception—will not, and thus this definition serves as a perennial vision of philosophy, where philosophy is a practice of transformation, conversion, or metamorphosis.
One can also look at what Hadot considers a negative account of knowledge to understand how he sees the relations among practice, knowledge, and transformation. Along these lines, Hadot notes how Plato and Aristotle would criticize the Sophists for being “salesman of knowledge, mere retail-whole sale businessmen” who conducted their education “in an artificial environment.” Further, in a specifically Aristotelian context, Hadot appeals to a distinction between the “theoretical” (theōrētikos) life, or the practiced, lived, and active devotion to knowledge as way of life, and the merely “theoretic” life, which divorces abstract speculation from practical or concrete action. Central to Hadot’s positive image of knowledge, then, is a view of knowledge as know-how, and specifically a form of know-how linked to doing good. Hadot writes, “In the last analysis, real knowledge is know-how, and true know-how is knowing how to do good,” and in this mode Hadot sees Socrates as a prime example of the philosophical life.
The Figure of Socrates
One of Hadot’s central examples of the philosopher is the figure Socrates. In his interview with Hadot, Arnold Davidson is careful to draw out Hadot on the various images of Socrates found in history, including the historical Socrates, but also the Socrates that comes down through the texts of Xenophon and Plato. He also speaks of Nietzsche’s Socrates, Kierkegaard’s Socrates, and Montaigne’s Socrates. Each of these figures, says Hadot, “followed the example of Plato and projected all their preoccupations onto Socrates.” Despite these many images of Socrates—images of a complex historical and mythical Socratic personality—Hadot nevertheless maintains that “there is also a certain consistency to one’s idea of what is essential in Socrates’s message.” In other words, for Hadot there is some unity to the figure of the Socrates, despite the many representations of him found in different texts.
One image of Socrates that Hadot dwells on is the Socrates described in a text by Plutarch, “It says that if Socrates was a philosopher, it was in walking with friends, in eating with them, in discussing with them, in going like them to war, and finally in drinking hemlock, and not teaching from the height of a podium.” Philosophy, for Hadot, must occur in the everyday, and that is why this image of Socrates is important to Hadot. He exemplifies the daily practice of self-examination that Hadot sees as a central concern of the philosophical life. The instruction is to maintain a concern with oneself, as opposed to a concern with the acquisition of knowledge or information, perhaps gained only for the sake of rhetorical manipulation. As McGushin notes, “Examination does not just produce knowledge, it produces examining subjects.”
Consider John Cooper’s account in this context. For Socrates, the well being of the soul is the ultimate good, Cooper writes, “because the soul is that with which we live our active lives: our assessments of value, our decisions, our desires, our choices—all these depend upon it.” All other goods—wealth, money, pleasure, relationship—are conditional. “Thus,” Cooper continues, “for Socrates, our power to see and give ourselves reasons for acting is the only psychic source of motivation within us that can actually set us upon the movements that constitute or produce our actions.” People who do not live their lives in an examined way—those who do not cultivate and tend to the well-being of their souls and do not engage in daily discussions and examinations of meaning and values—risk being constantly led astray by the play of appearances arising in front of them.
Socrates here exemplifies a certain kind of freedom and autonomy gained by exploring himself, his motives, and his knowledge. On the shift Hadot sees in Socrates he notes, “by passing from knowledge to himself, [Socrates] will begin to place himself in question.” And that for Socrates “the point was thus not so much to question the apparent knowledge we think we have, as to question ourselves and the values which guide our own lives.” This is a questioning that sets the person at a distance from themselves. As Hadot concludes, “The real problem is therefore not the problem of knowing this or that, but of being in this or that way.”
On the Socratic account advanced by Hadot and Cooper, people are always knowingly or not exercising their understanding of good and bad in their decision making. This is why Hadot, like Bergson before him, suggests that philosophy is a series of exercises engaged in for the transformation of being and perception. Philosophy, Hadot suggests, is more about forming than informing. It is about achieving what he calls a “mutation of vision” or a “conversion of attention,” the insight being that perception—or how we sense, feel, and understand the world—is itself a kind of practice. In other words, on Hadot’s account, attention involves work and effort. It’s a trainable skill, and the various practices of philosophy, to which I turn next, are the means of training these skills.
It is important to understand that Hadot’s point about perception and training is largely literal. For example, Hadot writes, “The notion of philosophical exercises has its roots in the ideal of athleticism and in the habitual practice of physical culture typical of the gymnasia. Just as the athlete gave new strength and form to his body by means of repeated bodily exercises, so the philosopher developed his strength of soul by means of philosophical exercises, and transformed himself.” The philosopher on this view is engaged in something like strength and conditioning or cross-training for the mind. Here is Hadot making the same point again:
Underlying this conviction [that people can modify, transform, and realize themselves] is the parallelism between physical and spiritual exercises: just as, by dint of repeated physical exercises, athletes give new form and strength to their bodies, so the philosopher develops his strength of soul, modifies his inner climate, transforms his vision of the world, and, finally, his entire being. The analogy seems all the more self-evident in that the gymnasium, the place where physical exercises were practiced, was the same place where philosophy lessons were given; in other words, it was also the place for training in spiritual gymnastics.
The philosopher in this sense is an athlete. But an athlete of what, exactly, one might ask? Michel Foucault writes that “the ancient athlete is an athlete of the event,” which is to say an athlete responsive to the unforeseeable conditions of life. Foucault continues, “The good athlete’s training, then, must be training in some elementary moves which are sufficiently general and effective for them to be adapted to every circumstance and—on condition of their being sufficiently simple and well-learned—for one to be able to make immediate use of them when the need arises.” What are these elementary moves? What are these precursors of philosophical ability? I turn now to these questions.
The central concept I want to introduce here is askēsis, a word closely related to the terms ascetic or ascetism, which are connected to notions of abstinence or sometimes to a kind of severe self discipline, but I want to follow Hadot in giving this term a more general definition, before describing a specific kind of askēsis. Askēsis in this context refers to any intentional practice that produces a transformation in the person. This includes practices of diet, sleep, meditation, physical training, study, therapy, and so on.
When it comes to philosophy in particular, though, Hadot identifies a particular kind of practice as central to achieving philosophical insight. One can call this practice an askēsis of the “I”—of the self developing a relation to itself. This relation, likely at the root of the famous dictum “know thyself,” Hadot says, “constitutes the foundation of every spiritual exercise.” Hadot adds the following to his claim, “All these schools [Platonism, Neopythagoreanism, Cynicism, Stoicism, Pyrrhonism, Epicureanism] called for a kind of self-duplication in which the ‘I’ refuses to be conflated with its desires and appetites, takes up a distance from the objects of its desires, and becomes aware of its power to be detached from them.”
As I noted previously, if philosophy is a practice of transformation in perception, then askēsis is the action that underwrites the ontological reconfiguration undergone by the person who practices, a reconfiguration that presupposes an epistemological break or suspension that creates the possibility for understanding the conditions of one’s own thinking, feeling, and perceiving. Hadot continues by stating that these “spiritual exercises almost always correspond to the movement by which the ‘I’ concentrates itself upon itself and discovers that it is not what it had thought. It ceases to be conflated with the objects to which it had become attached.”
Askēsis of the “I”: Sensing That One Senses
In simple terms, this askēsis of the “I” means becoming aware that one is a self—or at least that it seems one is a self moving through the world, with a present, a past, and a future, one full of worries, doubts, expectations, preconceptions, and desires. Askēsis is in this sense a turning of attention onto itself. It is an attention to oneself as a self, a sensing that one senses. In the context of Plotinus and his practices, Hadot emphasizes the effort involved in this kind of attention to one self, noting that this “reorientation of our attention requires an inner transformation, a metamorphosis of our whole being.”
On Hadot’s reading of Plotinus, philosophical practice involves creating a space for movement between representation and sensation. “After all,” Hadot writes, “our consciousness is only an inner sensation: it requires us to split into two, for there must be a temporal distance—however infinitesimal—between that which sees and that which is seen.” Such a practice reveals the deeper layers of conditioning present within consciousness. Hadot writes, “Consciousness is thus more of a memory than a presence. It is inexorably tangled up in time. All it can give us is images, which it tries to fixate by expressing them in language.” The askēsis of the “I” is in this sense a revelation within the self of the tight coupling that converts experience into an encounter not with what is but with one’s own prior conditioning. Without these practices of the “I,” argues Hadot, “we fall back from presence into memory.”
No sooner than we begin to practice and pay attention to this “I,” Hadot says, do we start to exercise the death of this “I.” In this sense, the split of the self to itself suggests that one begins to die the death of this first self—the self who is constantly being pulled in this way and that by desires and appearances and unexamined assumptions about the way things are. First philosophy in this context is thus not metaphysics or aesthetics or ethics or epistemology but practice, a practice of an “I” learning to die. Philosophy is learning to die, as the famous saying goes. But what happens after death? If philosophy is learning to die, it is also about learning to live in the after life. If Plotinus spoke of an inner transformation, a metamorphosis, or a conversion in one’s being as a result of practices of attention, then this is because in some sense a death, or at minimum a turning away from one’s previous life, has occurred.
Here a second, philosophical life emerges in its place, a kind of afterlife. In Hadot’s reading, this “training for death” is linked to contemplating the Whole and to abandoning one’s individuality. Hadot writes, “Here, ‘training for death’ is linked to the contemplation of the Whole and elevation of thought, which rises from individual, passionate subjectivity to the universal perspective.” A death occurs, but it is not the case that when one dies in this philosophical sense that living ceases to happen—the whole of life keeps happening—but these happenings occur in the arena where doing philosophy can finally begin. For example, Hadot writes, “For Plato, training for death is a spiritual exercise which consists in changing one’s point of view,” implying that this kind of death is a death of old perspectives. This feeling for the Whole is essential to Hadot’s writings here. Hadot writes, “In my view, the feeling of belonging to a whole is an essential element: belonging, that is, both to the whole constituted by the human community, and to that constituted by the cosmic whole . . . such a cosmic perspective radically transforms the feeling one has of oneself.” In an important sense, then, death is simply a moment of opening out and relinquishing oneself to the cosmos that already exists.
The emphasis on practice is essential here: This second life does not open up once and for all, but only insofar as our practices allow us to remember the conditions of our existence—or, rather, to remember the conditions of our own conditioning. This second life, I suggest, is the space within which the traditional concerns of philosophy—including the formal expressions of epistemology and metaphysics, for example—really begin to matter and where their expressions can finally begin to take shape. While Hadot is speaking here of a philosophical death as a kind of conversion experience or rite of passage, it is important to understand that this death may also be a literal death, as was the case for Socrates. This is why Hadot writes that “Socrates’ death was the radical event which founded Platonism.”
Death in this sense can be a literal death and a philosophical death, where both kinds of death result in a liberation of the soul. “Philosophy is nothing other than an exercise of death,” as Hadot notes. For Hadot, then, learning to die through philosophy is a spiritual exercise. It is, as Hadot goes on to say, “a tearing away from everyday life. It is a conversion, a total transformation of one’s vision, lifestyle, and behavior.” Philosophy in this sense has a great deal to do with dying and dying well, with training for death, either as the death of perspectives or as the literal death of one’s own life. Foucault is worth quoting on this topic. He writes, “When the day of sorrow comes, of mourning or mishap, when death threatens, when we are sick and suffer, the equipment must come into play to protect the soul, to prevent it being affected, to enable it to preserve its calm.” Philosophy in this sense is preparation for death.
Examining Representations in the Field of Appearances
The idea that philosophy is a spiritual practice—a form of daily self care, examination, and inquiry—does not mean that philosophy’s concerns are exclusively aesthetic or therapeutic or pragmatic at the expense of formal epistemic or metaphysical inquiries. As I suggested at the outset of this essay, philosophy is both a theoretical justification for living life a certain way and a set of practices for transforming the self in the terms of this justification. The point of Hadot’s writings in this area is that philosophical insight and expression have as their precondition various kinds of askēsis.
This is a point of view that Hadot shares with the philosopher Michael McGee, who likewise suggests that a program of askēsis is required before one can perform any analysis into the ordering and construction of thought, experience, or being. McGee argues that prior to philosophical activity there is “a certain quality of receptive attention that needs to be cultivated first” and that this mode of attention generates “the interior conditions upon which doing philosophy may turn out to depend.”
In one sense, then, philosophy requires attention, but in another it requires a suspension of attention. McGee writes, “We need to learn how to suspend thought, and then to see what emerges out of this silence.” And what is it that emerges out of this silence? What emerges on McGee’s account is something like the possibility for understanding the conditions that shape feeling, thought, and experience. McGee writes, “You are not looking in philosophy for correct but unrevealing definitions, but for illumination of the field of sense, increases in understanding, the sight of what was formerly concealed from view. The shape of an expression’s magnetic field shines for a few moments, then disappears again. The task of the philosopher is to trace the pattern that reveals itself only for moments and then slips from sight.”
By illuminating the field of sense and shining a light upon the patterns in perception that were formerly concealed from view, and thereby gaining perspective over the recurrent shapes of one’s own experience, one gains new abilities within perception. On this account, practical actions comport with the epistemic construction of experience, forming in the background the implicit reasons for acting the way one acts. In McGee’s understanding, it is the perceptions and representations of what one takes to be the case that draws behavior in different directions. In his words, “We are moved by facts or what we take to be facts.”
The distinction here is important: It is not the case on this view that behavior is the rationally consistent result of a coherent and unified set of facts about the world, but rather that behavior is moved by what the agent perceives as fact, whether this assessment is later construed as adequately veridical or not. Regardless of the adequacy of a representation, it is through suspension—the askēsis of the “I”—that one achieves a distance from the construction of the present moment, giving one the space to conceive the moment otherwise, to consider it as only one of any number of possible event configurations. Without such a suspension, one is doomed to follow the play of appearances wherever they may lead. McGee’s general view of philosophy as the cultivation of receptivity is here very close to Hadot’s own account of philosophy as a series of exercises engaged in for the sake of transforming perception.
A clear example of this connection is the attention Hadot gives to the Stoic epistemology of Marcus Aurelius, which includes three central components: the desire to accumulate the good (hypolēpsis), the impulse to act (homē), and the judgment on the value of things (orexis). In this philosophy of perception, sensation (aisthēsis), or the corporeal impression of an external object, is combined with an image (phantasia), or the object as modified by the conditions of the soul, which is produced, says this Stoic account, by a guiding element within the soul (hēgemonikon). The process of image-making is guided by the inner discourse of the individual, which is a problem because the soul can combine images in different ways, so there must be an element of reflection (dianoia) over and beyond the soul’s power to combine sensation and image.
According to Hadot, the philosophical practice here involves “analyzing the formation of our representations and how our representations are linked together.” This analysis, according to Hadot’s reading of Stoic philosophy, reveals that sensation in itself is necessarily passive and reactive (so that it can respond quickly and automatically to incoming events), but the judgment and evaluation of representational images is constrained by the constitution of the soul, which when given the opportunity is free to judge an event otherwise. There is thus the image, a combination of sense and idea (phantasia), the judgment of the inner discourse (hypolēpsis), and finally the assent (sunkatathesis), or evaluation that approves or denies the judgment.
The sunkatathesis involves a discrimination within experience about the ways in which that experience is conditioned and formed. Hadot writes, “The discipline of assent consists essentially in refusing to accept within oneself all representations which are other than objective or adequate.” The emphasis on objectivity and adequacy serve as a constraining check on the limitless pluralism of possible representational configurations. It is a conceptual speed limit on the multiplicity that one opens out into once the philosophical work of navigating this second world begins. As Hadot notes of this new possibility space, “This [activity] does not mean that the guiding principle can imagine anything it pleases about reality, but rather that it is free to attribute what value it wishes to the object it encounters.”
The criticism or evaluation of representations is thus an effort to fashion new and better representations. The person who does not know how to evaluate their representations is caught in the play of apparent phenomena, and is pushed and pulled from one event to the next. As McGushin notes, the person who does not engage in the examination of perception “is compelled, dragged down the river, by representations entering his mind from the outside world.” Drawing on Foucault’s work in this area, McGushin picks up on the figure of the stultus, the foolish, unthinking person, perhaps the figurative counterpoint to the image of Socrates, or, better, perhaps Socrates is the one who knows that he, like everyone else, is the stultus. Regardless, the stultus is the figure of the person who does not live an examined life, who does not place themselves in question, and who does not inquire into the nature of being or the quality of their experience. McGushin says of this person:
These representations remain unexamined: the stultus does not know what they represent. Because the stultus receives representations from the outside and pressure from the inside, leaving himself open to their pervasive influence, he lacks the power of discriminatio—the power to discern, to examine, to discriminate, and distinguish the various contents of representations and the influence of passion, desire, ambition, and imagination . . . the exit from stultitia frees the will and in this way is the constitution of an agency where previously there had been dispersion, multiplicity, passivity.
Hadot’s reading of Marcus Aurelius, like his readings of Socrates and Plotinus, places a similar emphasis on the exit from stultitia, from the ignorance of unexamined immediacy, and in this sense the philosopher joins the therapeutic potential of being freed from negative representations with the epistemological capacity to rationally scrutinize in a formal way the creation of and relations among representations as such, as well as their connection to the being they represent.
The emphasis on an individual “I,” on spiritual exercise and training, and on the examination of representations makes it sounds like philosophy is just so much individual, isolated introspection, but this is not the end of the story. This askēsis of the “I” is closely related to, and actually requires, a community of interlocutors, a group of dialogue partners on the path. For example, Platonic dialectics is a dialectics of the self in relation to itself and with another person. Again, this is not merely thought in relation to thought, but a full being relating to itself as a full being. In relating to one self one begins to understand the demands required in relating to another person. Hadot writes, “That is why Platonic dialectics was not purely a logical exercise. Instead, it was a spiritual exercise which demanded that the interlocutors undergo an askēsis, or self-transformation. It was not a matter of combat between two individuals, in which the more skillful person imposed his point of view, but a joint effort on the part of two interlocutors in accord with the rational demands of reasonable discourse, or the logos.”
There is here a dual askēsis—that of the individual with him or herself, and that between two or more individuals. Philosophy requires both practices, the one lending strength to the other in a kind of reciprocal causality. Thus for Plato, for example, philosophy is a dialogue, an inner and outer dialogue where discourse and contemplation share a similar dialectical structure, and where the point of carrying out a conversation is to achieve a certain kind of transcendence over oneself. The dialogue is another exercise of dying before one’s beliefs. As Hadot notes of philosophical texts, “Although every written work is a monologue, the philosophical work is always implicitly a dialogue.” In other words, every text is open to its reader, is in relation to its reader, and forms itself as part of its reader.
In the context of interpersonal dialectics, Hadot goes on to note that the ethics of the dialogue were for Plato the spiritual exercise “par excellence,” where “dialoguing, basic to the Socratic method, is a learned practice within a community, an externalization of the need to inculcate an examination of the self, an inner dialogue and attention to and care of the self—to know oneself as the Delphic maxim has it.” As with the other spiritual practices I’ve described from Hadot’s perspective—the virtues, the epistemological function of aesthetics, askēsis, learning to die—dialogues are built around the ideal of transformation and self-overcoming. As Hadot notes, “Dialogue is thus a mode for the expression and emergence of the self, in dialogue with the teacher, but also with the text itself.”
Far from being an isolated activity, Hadot is clear that the emergence of the self, and the evaluation of one’s values, requires relationship. Hadot writes, “The transmutation of values, however, can only be carried out by means of an operation which is, at the same time, both intellectual and ethical: it consists in examining oneself in a dialogue, a logos, or a process of reasoning which one develops either with someone else or with oneself.” This principle of dialectical relationship is also what binds the philosopher to his or her community, and to the actions the philosopher adopts in relation to that community.
Care for Others and Care for the City
To exemplify these actions, Hadot again turns to the figure of Socrates. For Socrates is set apart not only from his own sense of self—the achievement of self-duplication in the first askēsis—nor only from his interlocutors—the achievement of the dialectic in the second askēsis—but also from his fellow Athenians in general. Socrates lives in a different kind of space, as a different kind of creature. Hadot writes of Socrates, “He is atopos, meaning strange, extravagant, absurd, unclassifiable, disturbing” and that “he is not at home in either the world of senseless people or the world of the sages; neither wholly in the world of men and women, nor wholly in the world of gods.” He is an intermediary and a mediator. Socrates is a daimōn, a “mixture of divinity and humanity.”
Consider the following descriptions Hadot gives of Socrates in this context. “He is simultaneously in the world and outside of it,” and “he transcends both people and things by his moral demands and the engagement they require; yet he is involved with people and with things because the only true philosophy lies in the everyday.” Socrates transcends the world of customs, habits, and laws, and redescends into the city to share his practices, his questions, his askēsis. Socrates the intermediary is both in the city and outside of it, but above all he is concerned for his fellow citizens. As Hadot notes, “Care for the self is thus, indissolubly, care for the city and care for others.”
McGushin echoes the same point when he writes, “To take care of oneself is not a matter of ‘turning’ away from the ‘outside’ world to explore and express one’s ‘inner’ truth. The self of care here is not yet conceived in terms of ‘inwardness,’ as an interior substance to be cultivated. Rather, in this schema the conversion to the self requires the practice of precise modes of knowledge of the natural world.” McGushin goes on to note that neglect of the self is what makes possible manipulation through rhetoric. Today one can see this manipulation in the various media that try to enforce specific narratives not because they are true or good, but because they serve an underlying agenda. Thus, as McGushin says, “It is necessary to care for oneself insofar as one is concerned with political life.” There’s an ethics of self-making on display here that goes beyond self-examination, and that opens the self out into the broader social environment outside the interior life of the individual. Self-making in this sense has a political edge to it. It is about cultivating freedom and autonomy within a social context.
This notion of care of the self, or epimeleia heautou, meaning “care of oneself, attending to oneself, being concerned with oneself,” is a concept that Foucault also takes up in juxtaposition to the Delphic saying “know yourself” (gnōthi seauton) that I explored earlier. Foucault sees the coupling of these concepts—epimeleia heautou and gnōthi seauton—as central to philosophical practice in Greek, Hellenistic, and Roman culture, to the schools of Epicurean, Cynic, and Stoic thought, and in the various spiritual systems of Philo, Plotinus, Pythagoras, Socrates, and Plato, and finally in forms of Christian asceticism. Moreover, Foucault argues that in these traditions knowledge was subordinate to care. Foucault writes, “You must attend to yourself, you must not forget yourself, you must take care of yourself. The rule ‘know yourself’ appears and is formulated within and at the forefront of this care.”
People, on this view, are in a chronic state of forgetting who they are and what they are capable of doing. As McGushin notes, “Care is necessary, as we have seen, because of the neglect and forgetfulness of the self.” Askēsis in this context refers to a set of practices used for strengthening attention, especially attention to oneself, which, as I noted previously, is done for the sake of caring for oneself, but also for increasing one’s capacity to attend to others. “One cares for oneself in order to be able to care for the city” is how McGushin puts it. Practices of attention are in this way a mode of resistance to political power, to social conditioning, and to one’s own psychological history. Philosophy on this view is work (ergon), it “comes into being through the constant work of the self on itself.” It is a kind of training in “athletic concentration.” In this context, simply developing stronger attention may be a politically potent move. Attention can become a form of counter-resistance, a martial art of perception.
It is only after what Foucault calls “the Cartesian moment” that the coupling between knowledge and care is severed and knowledge is repositioned as the dominant aspect of this dyad. At this stage, according to Foucault, “the history of truth enters its modern period” and truth becomes associated with knowledge (connaissance, in the French), rather than with the efforts of a practicing subject. McGushin likewise contextualizes this moment as a shift in definitions of truth understood as practice (askēsis), or as the “return effect” of truth encounters, and towards truth understood as proposition (mathemata). In other words, the askēsis long required of the person who wants to know is on this view replaced with a subject who can merely acquire knowledge without needing to make any effort to transform themselves, either in the direction of the good or in any other way.
Hadot for his part is unconvinced by two aspects of Foucault’s treatment of this period. First, Hadot is skeptical that this “Cartesian moment” really marks the pronounced shift in approaches to truth, knowledge, and subjectivity that Foucault thinks it does. Hadot cites the fact that Descartes’s efforts in the Meditations were just that—descriptions of a series of meditative exercises, issued as a deliberate program of training that would result in an experience of the insights Descartes would set out to defend.
In particular, Hadot sees in Descartes’s meditative program the Stoic principle of assent I discussed earlier. Recall that assent is the method by which perceptual representations are examined for adequacy, and for this reason, Hadot argues, the askēsis involved in ancient philosophy is still alive and well in this modern text. Hadot’s interpretation of Kant and his philosophy is another example of his difference from Foucault. Hadot writes, “The entire technical edifice of critical Kantian philosophy has meaning only from the perspective of the wisdom, or rather from that of the sage . . . Kant situates himself within the tradition of Socrates, who in the Symposium says that the only thing he knows is that he is not a sage and has not yet reached the ideal model of the sage.” Contra Foucault, Hadot sees practice as co-extensive with modern philosophy, especially in central figures like Descartes and Kant.
The second and perhaps more important disagreement between Hadot and Foucault centers on Foucault’s interpretation of the Greek and Roman practices of philosophy as being centered on the self, on an “aesthetics of existence” as he calls it. While Hadot agrees with Foucault that these ancient practices were geared towards a conversion of the self, and that they incorporated a set of further practices designed to free this self from the determinism of external and internal conditions, with the goal of achieving happiness, freedom, and independence, he nevertheless felt that Foucault was missing a sense for how cosmic or universal perspectives are necessarily involved in these practices. The inclusion of the universal, as a lived practice of physics, says Hadot, “implies a radical transformation of perspective, and contains a universalist, cosmic dimension, upon which, it seems to me, M. Foucault did not sufficiently insist. Interiorization is a going beyond oneself; it is universalization.”
Whether or not one agrees with Foucault or Hadot on the history of philosophy, what is clear is that an adequate conception of philosophy, in ancient or modern contexts, must involve training (askēsis), care for the self (epimeleia heautou), and knowledge of the self (gnōthi seauton). Further, and in keeping with the Socratic formulation of philosophy, all three aspects are to be oriented around a concern for others, with some conception of the good and with some inclusion of the world beyond the human. This conception of philosophy is not one that centers an individual person who sits alone, isolated from his or her community, in silent introspection. This a view of philosophy that must take place in the everyday, in community, and moreover, it must include a cosmic dimension, which as Hadot says of Marcus Aurelius, involves “an effort to become aware of our situation as a part of the universe. Such an exercise of wisdom will thus be an attempt to render oneself open to the universal.” Note Hadot’s use of the word attempt here. The philosophical life is an attempt at being open to the universal, rather than a means of asserting it dogmatically or denying its existence altogether.
At stake here is understanding the kind of person a society, and particularly a democratic society, requires. The link between care and knowledge, on the one hand, and the responsibility to society, on the other, suggests that the spiritual exercises of philosophy—including the various kinds of askēsis explored in this essay—form something like the basis for training a person to examine not only the conditions that form their own sense of perception and understanding in their own minds, but also for exploring the conditions that shape the larger communities around them, allowing them from this vantage point to imagine possibilities for living otherwise. As McGushin notes on these points, thinking in this philosophical sense can be thought of as a conversion of possibility into experience. Thinking is what makes possibility concrete. McGushin continues, saying, “Thought reimagines the purposes and possibilities the world offers” and that “thought . . . is what opens up the dimensions of the possible.”
Opening up new dimensions of possibility involves thinking outside of, or at least without limit to, the laws and customs of one’s city or nation. As Foucault notes of philosophical practice, “Askēsis is not and basically never was the effect of obedience to an authority like the law. In reality, askēsis is a practice of truth. Askēsis is not a way of subjecting the subject to the law; it is a way of binding him to the truth.” This askēsis must become a habit, the habit of evaluating the ongoing stream of representations as they arise in experience. It is the work of the dialectic to confront the representation and evaluate its adequacy to the event at hand. This work aims to create new and better representations, and more importantly, to create new possibilities for freedom within experience. Philosophy, then, is a question of taking care of one’s own soul so that one can in turn take care of another and the city.
In this context, Foucault links askēsis with a certain conception of truth, or a practice of truth-saying, known as parrhesia. Parrhēsia is a mode of “free spokeness.” It involves, as Foucault says, “Telling the truth without concealment, reserve, empty manner of speech, or rhetorical ornament which might encode or hide it.” Telling the truth without concealment is a risk, and the philosopher is thus a parrhesiast, a subject who risks themselves to speak the truth. Again, one might think here of Socrates and his hemlock and the Athenians who sentenced him to death for his practices. Foucault continues, “In a way, the parrhesiast always risks undermining that relationship which is the condition of possibility of his discourse.” Or consider McGushin, “In a fundamental sense, parrhēsia stretches the relation between the speaker and listener to its limits. Because of this fact parrhēsia requires courage: the courage to speak the truth. The speaker must have the courage to accept the consequences of speaking and the listener must have the courage to hear the truth, which is painful.”
What does it mean that philosophy is a way of life? For Hadot it means that philosophy is a spiritual exercise. It is not simply psychological, moral, ethical, intellectual, or aesthetic practice, but an activity that goes beyond and combines these concerns; it is a comprehensive set of exercises designed to achieve a radical change in one’s being. Philosophy is a work of self-examination, a physical, artistic, emotional, and theoretical groundwork for contemplative activity, and a dialectical exercise of ontological reconfiguration and epistemic evaluation constellated by the desire for wisdom. It is an effort of developing a sense for the field of sense, an incorporation of logos into one’s being, a way of looking at sensing. Philosophy is a metamorphosis of perception, a training of attention, a formal exercise of reasoning, and a practical enaction of knowledge.
Philosophy is a mode of training for the body, mind, and will, a program of askēsis used for evaluating one’s own constitution in the service of constituting a better self. It is an athletics of possible event configurations. In this sense, it is a kind of self-making but also a method of self-overcoming. Philosophy is not the effort to stabilize or enhance an ideal persona; it is an ongoing process of self dissolution. Philosophy is learning to die, a preparation for death—both as the death of old perspectives and as a way of meeting one’s actual death. It is about living in a new, second world, the other world of this world, in engagement with self, other, and community. It is a desire for the well-being of the whole human community and for the cosmic whole. Philosophy is caring for oneself as a mode of epistemic and metaphysical preparation. It is about resistance and possibility. Philosophy is a commitment to risking the truth. It is a perpetual task.
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