Philosophy and Askēsis

IMG_1253Hadot’s historical work includes treatments of pre-Socratic philosophy, Platonism and Aristotelianism, the Hellenistic and Roman periods, the Middle Ages, and the modern era. I have selected only a handful of examples from these periods in order to give the reader a sense for the varieties of ascetic practice present within each tradition, and to show how these practices tend to transform from one period to another, often adopting a new set of metaphysical commitments in so doing. Where relevant I draw on other philosophers and historians to add detail to Hadot’s account of askēsis and its instantiations.

I start by noting that askēsis is not only a type of philosophical exercise, but is in many ways a precondition for thinking and living philosophically. Hadot for example cites the Stoic Musonius Rufus as one place where askēsis is an explicit, even prerequisite, element for living a philosophical life.[1] Askēsis in this context has a specific relationship to the examination of the representations that govern our actions, and here the notion of exercise applies to body and soul. Ascetic training is in this way linked to athletic training. As I relayed earlier, it’s a kind of exercise engaged in for self-transformation. “Exercises of body and soul thus combined to shape the true person: free, strong, and independent,” is how Hadot puts it.[2] Askēsis is just this kind of repetitive training.

This is a point of emphasis that Hadot shares with Michael McGhee, 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. McGhee argues that prior to philosophical activity there is “a certain quality of receptive attention that needs to be cultivated first”[3] and that this mode of attention generates “the interior conditions upon which doing philosophy may turn out to depend.”[4]

In one sense, then, philosophy requires attention, but in another it requires a suspension of attention. McGhee writes, “We need to learn how to suspend thought, and then to see what emerges out of this silence.”[5] And what is it that emerges out of this silence? What emerges on McGhee’s account is something like the possibility for understanding the conditions that shape feeling, thought, and experience. McGhee 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.[6]

McGhee’s emphasis on suspension calls to mind the epoché (ποχή), common to Greek Skepticism, which referred to a similar “suspension of judgment.”[7] The phenomenologist Edmund Husserl also advocates for this kind of radical suspension in belief. I quote his writing on Descartes to demonstrate the necessity of the epoché as an initial maneuver, as an initial askēsis or entry point, into the philosophical life. Husserl writes,

It is essential that he [Descartes], and anyone who seriously seeks to be a philosopher, begin with a sort of radical skeptical epoché which places in question all his hitherto existing convictions, which forbids in advance any judgmental use of them, forbids taking any position as to their validity or invalidity. Once in his life every philosopher must proceed in this way; if he has not done it, and even already has “his philosophy,” he must still do it. Prior to the epoché “his philosophy” is to be treated like any other prejudice.[8]

Husserl notes in this quote that the philosopher must practice epoché at least “once in his life,” but I think in terms of a philosophical askēsis, one should view epoché as a daily practice, or at least a common one; it’s more an ongoing exercise than a singular event. In any case, Husserl’s critical epoché is the jumping off point for all subsequent philosophizing, and it is following the execution of the epoché—and really I should speak here in the plural, as Husserl lists in the same text many kinds of epoché—where the illumination McGhee speaks of can begin.

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 McGhee’s understanding, it is the perceptions and representations of what one takes to be the case that draws behavior in different directions.[9] In his words, “We are moved by facts or what we take to be facts.”[10] To be sure, the epoché is just one philosophical move—I would even say it’s a precursor to movement more than a move in itself—and Hadot’s work is in many ways a catalogue of these moves.

For example, the notion of askēsis is also linked to Plotinus and to the Neoplatonists, where it is characterized by the “concrete practices and way of life”[11] that accompanies philosophical discourse. As Hadot notes of Plotinus, “life according to the Spirit consisted in a philosophical life—that is, in askēsis and moral and mystical experience.”[12] One forms a picture here of philosophy that is at once discursive (having to do with propositional statements, arguments, and definitions) but also, and perhaps more importantly, as involving types of practice, ways of life, and with experiences best characterized as mystical in nature. Hadot continues, “Plotinus’ philosophical discourse leads solely to an inner askēsis and experience which are true knowledge, and which enable the philosopher to rise toward the supreme reality by progressively attaining levels of self-consciousness that are ever higher and more inward.”[13]

In the case of Platonic philosophy, Hadot links askēsis to the performance of dialectics, or the putting forth of a question or thesis that was then attacked by an interlocutor according to specific rules of engagement. “Training in dialectics was absolutely necessary,” Hadot says, “insofar as Plato’s disciples were destined to play a role in their city. In a civilization where political discourse was central, young people had to be trained to have a perfect mastery of speech and reason.”[14] These rules of engagement were designed to pull the philosopher out of his or her personal point of view and into the larger arena of impersonal reason.

Crucially, Plato aimed not at producing students who could merely defend or attack just any position—this is what sets philosophy apart from rhetoric or sophistry—but more precisely to align his students with a spiritually committed life. Hadot continues, “That is why Platonic dialectics was not a purely logical exercise. Instead, it was a spiritual exercise which demanded that interlocutors undergo an askēsis, or self-transformation.”[15] Platonic dialectics is in this sense a dialogue engaged in for the sake of reaching beyond one’s own point of view, a striving to join the expanded view of the cosmic logos, constellated specifically within the affective space of friendship, a relationship that would encourage transcendence of one’s personal point of view.[16]

Hadot again picks up the theme of Platonic askēsis in reference to Phaedo, where the physical death of Socrates is recounted, and in the Symposium, where Hadot identifies Socrates as engaging in a different practice of death (meleté thanatou), likely preparing Socrates for the mortal death detailed in Phaedo.[17] These death practices are key modes of askēsis in the Platonic tradition. In fact, “The most famous practice is the exercise of death,” Hadot tells us.[18] Clearly, such a practice can take many forms. In Phaedo, it shows itself as the life of practice that readies one for the death of the body; in the Symposium, it shows itself in the scene of Socrates standing in meditation, reflecting on himself, abstaining from food or movement. On this scene Hadot writes, “This exercise was, indissolubly, an askēsis of the body and of thought—a divestment of the passions in order to accede to the purity of intelligence.”[19]

Hadot’s discussion of meleté thanatou continues with examples from the Republic (wherein the soul is described as stretching itself upward to the divine), in the “glance from above” of the philosopher in the Theaetetus, and in the beholding of eternal beauty in the Symposium, of which Hadot writes,

This vision is analogous to that enjoyed by people initiated into the mysteries of Eleusis; it transcends all enunciation and discursivity, but engenders virtue in the soul. Philosophy then becomes the lived experience of a presence. From the experience of the presence of a beloved being, we rise to the experience of a transcendent presence.[20]

The practice of death—as death of the body, divestment of the passions, ascent to the divine, or the beholding of eternal beauty—decenters the individual person in favor of the kind of concentrated or expanded self Hadot argues is central to practices of askēsis as such. Especially interesting here is the notion that a vision—an aesthetic experience—can configure or “engender” a kind of virtue in the soul. (I will return to the idea that aesthetic askēsis can transfigure the self later in the essay.)

These practices are also similar to the ascetic exercises found in the works of the Neoplatonist Porphyry, who argued for the importance of an austere relation to the body, the senses, and the passions. “Such asceticism was intended, above all,” Hadot writes, “to stop the lower part of the soul from diverting toward itself the attention which should be oriented toward the spirit.”[21] This was not an ascetism practiced for its own sake, but a strategy for cultivating and developing attention. This according to Hadot’s account was a value and a discipline shared in various ways by the likes of Aristotle, Plotinus, and the Stoics.

Contemplative attention trained through ascetic practice was a strategy these philosophers used to regain awareness of their true, transcendent selves—selves linked to a divine nature, in this case[22]—but metaphysical commitments side, Hadot also finds a similar structure of practice in for example Kant’s notion of the inner court. Hadot writes, “When the self is its own judge, it splits into an intelligible self (which imposes its own law on itself, viewing itself from a universal perspective) and a sensible, individual self. We thus encounter once again the split implied in askēsis and in becoming aware of one’s self.”[23]

My aim in stringing together these different contemplative practices of self-attention is simply to highlight Hadot’s point that one can have wildly divergent metaphysical understandings of the self’s relationship to itself—Aristotelian, Plotinian, Kantian—whilst acknowledging that the central askēsis is structurally similar across cases. There is a self in each of these examples that takes itself as its own focus of attention and proceeds to direct itself in a direction according to the way of life advocated for by that school. Chase, somewhat provocatively, goes so far as to say that these fundamental exercises, common to many schools across time and place, are what really count. The various metaphysical systems and ideas they espouse or produce are secondary. In an important sense, they are only an effect of exercise.[24]

[1] Ibid., 188–189.

[2] Ibid., 189.

[3] McGhee, Transformations of Mind, 10.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 20.

[6] Ibid., 9.

[7] OED, s.v. “epoché,” accessed on July 31, 2019

[8] Husserl, The Crisis of European Sciences, 76.

[9] Ibid., 29.

[10] Ibid., 33.

[11] Ibid., 170.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., 163.

[14] Ibid., 62.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid., 63.

[17] Ibid., 67

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid., 67.

[20] Ibid., 70.

[21] Ibid., 159.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid., 201.

[24] I take up this theme of an askēsis of the “I” developing a relationship to itself in more detail in chapter 2.


  1. does McGhee spell out what he means by “field of sense” and give some particular exercise that we can try out and has it worked for you?


    • I’ve been thinking this over. In the first place, I think he means something like “gestalt,” some kind of organized whole that connects together all our particulars in a moment of experience. I think what he’s getting at is something like epoché — a standing back from the gestalt to see how and why it’s illuminated in the way it is. I think people do this to a greater or lesser extent all the time. We can describe it in words, but I’m not sure how to bring those internal mental operations into view any more than I already have in the excerpt. If I ask you to add 2+2 in your head, you can reliably do it. But what would that description look like? I’m not sure. I think it’s the same kind of thing here.


      • thanks for the explication I can see what you mean by ” I’m not sure how to bring those internal mental operations into view any more than I already have in the excerpt” but given that I don’t know what this ” a standing back from the gestalt to see how and why it’s illuminated in the way it is a standing back from the gestalt to see how and why it’s illuminated in the way it is” could mean, how it could be done.


      • ps the only ” organized whole that connects together all our particulars in a moment of experience” is just the umweltened human body, “gestalts” aren’t things (not even broadly speaking like say magnetic fields) in the world that we can grasp the term refers to an aspect of our re-collections of embodied experience/perception, to give hopefully a more concrete example of my last comment.
        peace, d


    • Surely the meaning doesn’t escape you here — you’ve had moments of pause, of interrupting your own perspective taking on purpose to try and see things in a different light. I can appreciate that you want these descriptions to be as literal and empirical (and I think materialistic?) as possible, but I feel like the bar you set here sometimes is quite unrealistic, no?


      • hey Adam if we can’t make something explicit ( can’t really “bring those internal mental operations into view”) I don’t see how we can step back and examine it, this is the bind that folks like Heidegger (who rejected the kind of pragmatist instrumentalism you rightly note I embrace) get into when they start talking about “clearings” and the like to avoid talking in terms of object-relations, my sense is that if we are going to examine/grasp something we have to assemble some of its aspects (pace some of yer comrades we can’t grasp “wholes”) into something object-like but don’t have to confuse these assemblages with the Things themselves, just our tooling around (proto-typical psychology not arche-typal psychology), Wittgenstein notes:
        A perspicuous representation produces just that understanding which consists in ‘seeing connexions’. Hence the importance of finding and inventing intermediate cases” .
        I’m not asking that folks be materialists just that their verbiage has some connection to something that actually exists or occurs and that they can give examples of from lived life, grammar can so easily give the appearance of existence to no-things and I know that Whiteheadians who have a very different ontology than I do share concerns about misplaced concreteness.


      • Okay, so I said we can describe these things in words but that I couldn’t really do much more on that front than I already had above and elsewhere (which I think does satisfy some of your criteria). When Heidegger talks about a clearing or Husserl about epoché or when I say we can stand back and examine this or that operation, I have a pretty straight path from these descriptions and metaphors to practices that I can engage in most any time (and that other people can likewise connect with and put into play in their own lives — people tell me it clicks for them all the time). I guess the language here for you is not literal enough or something? Most often in these cases we’re talking about loosening the grip a feeling, vocabulary, perspective, understanding, disposition, reaction, or conception, etc. has upon us, allowing us some space to do otherwise — a sort of creative reappropriation of perception in the direction of some other constellation of experience (“placing things in question”). As for the wholes, it’s all in the approach, I think. (As a side note, I’ve been reading these articles making the rounds lately about visual / nonvisual or verbal / nonverbal or auditory / nonauditory internal monologues — could you and I just be talking across fundamentally different modes of thought? Is there a sense here that we’re both right, from the perspective of our respective brain / body systems? Where does neurodiversity fit into this?)


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