What I’m going to do today is offer you some concepts and ideas that come out of Western traditions of contemplation and philosophy that I think may aid us in navigating the times ahead. So I’ll say a little bit about practice in general, and then I want to talk about a few texts—namely, Plato’s Phaedo and Pierre Hadot’s reading of philosophy as spiritual exercise. I haven’t developed all of these ideas as much as I’d like to, but I’m hoping we can have a little discussion afterwards and maybe unfold these themes a bit further. I’ll also post a list of the texts I’m using if anyone wants to follow up on them later.
As a sort of preamble to the discussion, I was recently reminded of a passage in Thomas Merton’s book Contemplative Prayer, which I think may help orient us before we begin. In this text Merton talks about a charismatic monastic spirit and an institutional one. The institutional spirit is driven by structures, history, rules; it’s more authoritarian, rigid, and ascetic. The charismatic spirit, he says, is rooted in compassion and prayer; it operates outside of monasteries and instructions and is more this-worldly.
Merton tells us that both spirits are important, but that the charismatic type is unusual in that it can flourish in offbeat situations; it’s a spirit that grows out of people who may not have any explicitly monastic connections at all. My point isn’t to undercut institutional monasticism. I more so want to note that we’re living through an offbeat situation, and so an offbeat monasticism seems called for. We might all be offbeat monastics for a little while longer, so this is a kind of offbeat monastic offering.
Now, when I talk about philosophical and contemplative practice, I often use the word askēsis, which just means exercise or training, to describe a process where we undergo a change in our being, and especially a change in our perception.
Askēsis is the root of the word ascetic or ascetisim, and so when you think of ascetic practice you may think of things like fasting, celibacy, physically enduring trials, or maybe living in isolation as a monk, but it also includes meditation, prayer, practices of care and caring, visionary experience, and examinations of conscience.
What connects these practices, though, is that they work on our inner and outer senses and modify them. On one level, they change the physical senses, but on another, even more important one, these practices change our moral sensibilities and intuitions, our intellectual vision, our sense of spirit and the spiritual, and our psychological maturity as people.
When we look at perception from the perspective of practice, we can see that there’s a deep connection between our moral and spiritual lives and our epistemology, or our ability to know things. I’ll come back to this connection a bit later.
But for now I want focus on a particular practice; it’s a practice related to Plato’s text Phaedo, and it has to do with a certain reading of philosophy as a preparation for death. As you may know, Phaedo famously recounts the last hours of Socrates’s life before his own death. Just to set the scene a little bit, he’s been sentenced to death for impiety and for corrupting the youth of Athens, essentially for refusing belief in the gods of the state.
In these last moments, he is surrounded by friends; it’s a very tender scene, and they are discussing the nature of life and death and rebirth, the true aim of philosophy, time and eternity, and much else. I want to start by reading a short excerpt from the dialogue. The scene is of Phaedo re-telling the story of Socrates’s last hours, right before the moment of his death. Phaedo says:
I certainly found being there an astonishing experience. Although I was witnessing the death of one who was my friend, I had no feeling of pity, for the man appeared happy in both manner and words as he died nobly and without fear . . . it struck me that even in going down to the underworld he was going down with the gods’ blessing and that he would fare well when he got there, if anyone does. That is why I had no feeling of pity, such as would seem natural in my sorrow, nor indeed of pleasure, as we engaged in philosophical discussion as we were accustomed to do—for our arguments were of that sort—but I had a strange feeling, an unaccustomed mixture of pleasure and pain at the same time as I reflected that he was about to die. (58e–59a)
So this image of Socrates going to his death nobly, without fear, seemingly unperturbed, almost casual about it is what I want to focus on for a moment. What’s going on here? How did Socrates become this type of person? This question is the theme I want to explore, especially as it relates to practice.
There’s another famous passage in this dialogue where Socrates says,
“I am afraid that other people do not realize that the one aim of those who practice philosophy in the proper manner is to practice for death and dying.” (64a)
And I think we can find our answers here. The simple one is that Socrates approaches his death the way he does because of the way he practices philosophy, and so I think it’s worth putting a bit of a microscope on what, exactly, these practices are. I’m always at pains to add that whenever we talk about practice in words, we’re not talking about the practices themselves but our descriptions and understandings of them, so do keep that in mind. It’s all to easy to replace practice without a discourse about practice.
In any case, this phrase “practices for death and dying” is its own genre of askēsis in philosophy, and it falls within a group of practices known as meleté thanatou. Meleté means to study; to meditate. The modern term “meditation” is a Latin translation of this Greek word melétē. And thanatou means death, or to die, or to be dying, so meleté thanatou means meditations on death. Now, these practices aren’t all as literal as they sound and instead circle different kinds of death, including physical death.
Pierre Hadot notes these meleté thanatou are important in the Platonic tradition. In Phaedo, it shows itself as the life of practice that readies one for the death of the body; You can see it the Republic (wherein the soul is described as stretching itself upward to the divine); it’s in the “glance from above” of the philosopher in the Theaetetus, and in the beholding of eternal beauty in the Symposium.
So we’re circling here some examples of the practice of death—as death of the body, as the divestment of passions, as ascent to the divine, or as the beholding of visionary experience. Each of these practices have in a common a kind of decentering of the individual person—or of what we today might call the ego identity. Death in this sense can be a literal death or a philosophical death, where both kinds of death result in a liberation of the soul. For Hadot, then, learning to die through philosophy is a spiritual exercise it’s “a tearing away from everyday life. It is a conversion, a total transformation of one’s vision, lifestyle, and behavior.”
In our contemporary scene, when we think of philosophy, we often think about concepts and discourse and reason and arguments and logic. In other words, philosophy is often reduced to questions about knowledge or knowing, as in the famous philosophical injunction “know thyself” (gnothi seauton). In another famous dialogue, the Apology, Socrates is said to be wise because he knows he isn’t wise. As he says, “I do not think I know what I do not know.” But in the Phaedo, knowledge isn’t the most important fact about philosophy. It is instead caring (epimeleia heautou). Socrates says those who do not care for their own souls are in “terrible danger” (107d) and that if you neglect yourself—if you do not care for your own soul—you will accomplish nothing (cf. Michel Foucault’s later works.)
In other words, from the perspective of practice, the injunction “know the self” must be met with the equally important “care for thy self,” and this is what I think askēsis, especially when aimed at the question and mystery of death, suggests: Practice is a kind of knowing–caring, or a caring that is also a knowing, or a knowing that is also a caring. And all of this is done in service to death, which when viewed in this light is a moment of falling away, a revealing, and an opportunity for seeing.
I think, then, that the practice of death—as a kind of meditative exercise aimed at conversion, transformation, or preparation—is at bottom a mode of caring attention, a caring and deliberate attention aimed at the self and the other. Our practices are geared towards these moments of catastrophe, transformation, death, rebirth, and falling away. Being ready for these moments is, then, one meaning of practicing philosophy in the proper way. When such events arise, our training comes into play, as philosophical or contemplative athletes, we maintain a sense of care and lucidity even in times of death.