I noted earlier that Platonic askēsis, as seen in the beholding of the vision of beauty described in the Symposium, is a kind of aesthetic askēsis, which is also capable of transfiguring the self in unique ways. This kind of askēsis figures strongly in the work of Gabriel Trop. Trop positions art as a way of life, as an askēsis “that continually modifies, often imperceptibly, the manifold patterns of being—whether they are perceptual, behavioral, or affective of the person who undertakes it.” Art and aesthetics for Trop exist in a dual sense, both in the mode of existing art objects created and released into the world, and in the sense that the artistic act is about refiguring the perception of the artist, and the viewer of the work of art.
The notion that askēsis is as much additive as privative is central to Foucault’s larger discussion of the term. Readers will recognize a connection with Hadot when Foucault writes, “This is a work of the self on the self, an elaboration of the self by the self, a progressive transformation of the self by the self for which one takes responsibility in a long labor of ascesis (askēsis).” Foucault also speaks of askēsis as “converting to oneself” through abstinence, meditations on death, trials of endurance, and self-examination, and as a question that asks, “What working practice is entailed by conversion to the self?”
The definition Hadot gives of philosophy as a spiritual exercise, in addition to the links between Greek philosophy, Christian monastic practice, and aesthetics I’ve just highlighted, makes it clear that askēsis is not bounded by the categories of philosophy, spirituality, art, or religion. In fact, askēsis is in many ways an avenue by which one might unite them, their many possible differences notwithstanding. It’s no surprise, then, that debates over the role of askēsis in philosophical practice emerge in both philosophy and religion. I’m thinking here specifically of John Cottingham’s account of the philosophy of religion, and the important, if not defining, role that askēsis plays within it.
I’ll leave aside for the moment the larger conversation one could develop around Hadot, Foucault, and Sloterdijk, because doing justice to such a dialogue would require a whole new project unto itself. Instead, I’ll just mark simply—and inadequately—that the nexus of this conversation, in many ways precipitated first by Foucault’s picking up in his later works of a few central themes found in Hadot, and then carried forward by Sloterdijk’s discussion of both his predecessors, centers around askēsis and its meaning. Each figure draws us back to practice in his own way.
I’m back to reading John Cooper’s Pursuits of Wisdom to shore up some claims I make in the dissertation, following Pierre Hadot, about the role of practice in philosophy. Cooper’s book is a great secondary resource for ancient philosophy—thorough, readable, organized—but I think he’s just wrong about a claim he makes about philosophy. Namely, that the “essential core” of philosophy is a style of logical, reasoned argument by which one lives life (17).
Conversely, Hadot sees the “core” of philosophy as rooted in an “existential choice” that involves commitment to a set of spiritual exercises that serve as the preconditions (or even the deliverers of) the arguments and reasons Cooper sees as essential to philosophy. Hadot’s view isn’t anti-intellectual, far from it. Reason has an important role to play in his account of philosophy, but philosophy is not limited to reason alone; it also involves askēsis, exercises or practices we could call religious, contemplative, aesthetic, or somatic.
Cooper is pessimistic about religious and spiritual practices, drawing a strong division between them and the reasoned advance of philosophy. Here’s Cooper, “A philosophical way of life is . . . in fundamental ways quite a different thing from any religious way of life” (17). If one assumes that “religious” life is circumscribed by a doctrinal submission to texts, then Cooper is right. But if philosophy and religion are viewed as practices, or as experimental and evolving modes of relating to and bringing forth the world, then his criticism faces problems, especially when we consider that doctrinal submission isn’t a problem unique to religious texts.
Cooper says, “You must understand everything for yourself” (18). Fair enough, but the idea that personal understanding is impossible within the spiritual or religious encounter enabled by practice is unwarranted by the evidence of experience itself. Cooper’s account also raises important questions about the structure of reason. One example he gives is the Stoic instruction to live in accordance with Nature, which in turn will lead to virtue and happiness. The question is this, Is Nature understandable in reason’s terms alone?
Or is reason not a particular structure, a shape of thought, that conditions the objects of its inquiry into its own image? This is the point Kant desperately wants us to understand—reason constructs an image of the world that it can process by means of its resources. There is here an implicit circularity in the belief of reason as the only arbiter of knowledge, of this knowledge as a way to the truth, and of truth as delimited by what reason can count as knowledge. Reason does not process or apprehend the whole of Nature as it is in itself.
The way out of the circle, I’m suggesting, is to see that there are many more ways of getting in touch with the real than this image of reason implies, and that those ways are paved by modes of relating structured by and related to the world we see seek to know. We should think of philosophy as including all these modes (aesthetic, somatic, spiritual, religious, visionary, discursive, conceptual, moral, etc.), as each an important part of the “core” of what philosophy as a way of life really means.