Reason and Spiritual Exercises

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.

On Pierre Hadot – A Draft Much too Long for a Blog Post

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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. Continue reading