Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Pierre Hadot, R.I.P.

I was very sorry to read of the death of Pierre Hadot last April 24.

Hadot's work made available to me a tremendously articulate and documented case for what I had come to suspect from piecing together Strauss' tendentious claims about esotericism, Voegelin's continually re-worked account of the struggle between philosophy and system, and de Santillana's impressionistic reconstruction of the ancient mythic worldview. I doubt he would have agreed with every guess I have made; but his main point about the spirit of ancient philosophy was what moved me.

Socrates did not argue that examined life was in some limited or pragmatic manner an "improvement" over other modes; he claimed that in the absence of examination, life was not worth living: ὁ δὲ ἀνεξέταστος βίος οὐ βιωτὸς ἀνθρώπῳ.Twenty-four centuries later Camus could still write that the only serious philosophical question was suicide. (It is often forgotten that Camus, who wrote a book on the transition between Hellenism and Christianity, was very much engaged with the thought of the ancients.) The continuity between these two claims was the ground of Hadot's concern.

Hadot began his work with a book on Plotinus, and he remained engaged with his thought to the very end. In his final lecture at the College de France, his final words were "In the last analysis, we can scarcely talk about what is most important." Asked about this, Hadot explained:
I was saying that about Plotinus, for whom the most important thing was not his teaching, but the unutterable experience of union with the One. For Plotinus, abstract teaching could allude to this experience but could not lead to it. Only asceticism and a moral life could truly prepare the soul for such a union....
Hadot's career was devoted to making the case that philosophy was "a way of life;" not an academic "subject" to be studied without having an impact on the student, but a discipline that would shape and change one from within, that had consequences upon ones comportment and the very mode in which one experienced the world. The view he challenged was very old:
some...want to read Plato–not in order to make their lives better, but in order to adorn their language and their style; not in order to become more temperate, but in order to acquire more charm.
This was said not by Hadot, but by the Platonist philosopher Taurus in the 2nd century AD. It would seem that even then, cocktail-party, coffee-house intellectuals were plentiful. (Honesty compels me to add that I type these words in a cafe even now). However, philosophy was also not a matter unpacking the meaning of science, or grammar, or showing how these things are possible. Philosophy is neither an explication of science, nor explication du texte. It was deeper. To "study" philosophy because you happen to like arguing or because you are good at logic or because you are ambitious, is from Hadot's point of view to miss the one thing needful, though, he would probably concede, it might provide a way in.

What Hadot means can be illustrated by way of a useful distinction made by Ken Wilber. (And note that Wilber refers specifically to Plotinus.) Some "paths" of knowledge, he says,
can be engaged without a demand for interior transformation (or change in level of consciousness); one merely learns a new translation (within the same level of consciousness). More specifically, most researchers have already, in the process of growing up, transformed to rationality... and no higher transformations are required for empiric-analytic or systems theory investigations.
Other modes of inquiry, however, are into the nature and conditions of experience itself, and they do not allow for such "objectivity." Such paths,
at the point that they begin to go postformal, demand a transformation of consciousness in the researchers themselves. You can master 100 per cent of quantum physics without transforming consciousness; but you cannot in any fashion master Zen without doing so. You do not have to transform to understand Dennett's Consciousness Explained; you merely translate. But you must transform to actually understand Plotinus' Enneads. You are already adequate to Dennett, because you both have already transformed to rationality, and thus the referents of Dennett's sentences can be easily seen by you (whether or not you agree, you can at least see what he is referring to, because his referents exist in the rational worldspace, plain as day). But if you have not transformed to (or at least strongly glimpsed) the causal and nondual realms (transpersonal and postformal), you will not be able to see the referents of most of Plotinus' sentences. They will make no sense to you. You will think Plotinus is 'seeing things' -- and he is, and so could you and I, if we both transform to those postformal worldspaces, whereupon the referents of Plotinus' sentences, referents that exist in the causal and nondual worldspaces, become plain as day. And that transformation is an absolutely unavoidable part of the paradigm (the injunction) of an integral approach to consciousness.
(Here "formal" and "postformal" refer to stages in Wilber's quasi-Piagetian theory of stages of development). We don't have to concur with every aspect of Wilber's approach to make us of his translate/transform distinction; it is likely that Hadot would have wished to differ on some points regarding Plotinus. But Hadot was more than a scholar, concerned with "translating;" it was "transforming" that really interested him, and, he claimed, was more or less the essence for ancient philosophy in general. This was a philosophical practice, bound up with what he called "spiritual exercises" (he seems to have been inspired by his wife, the historian Ilsetraut Marten, here). Such exercises included but were not exhausted by discursive or intellectual drills. These were, he wrote in What is Ancient Philosophy,
practices ... intended to effect a modification and a transformation in the subject who practice them. The philosophy teacher's discourse could be presented in such a way that the disciple, as auditor, reader, or interlocutor, could make spiritual progress and transform himself within.
Such exercises were, however, not merely discursive. Depending upon the context, they included, I fancy, moral reflection, memory work, physical and mental meditation (I am thinking of Indian disciplines like tapas and yoga, for instance), and prayer.

The emphasis upon transformation was not unique to the ancients, though Hadot devoted considerable thought to the question of the comparative eclipse of "philosophical practice" in the modern era. It is not coincidental that Hadot was instrumental in introducing the thought of Wittgenstein to France. Wittgenstein early and late appealed to Hadot, who must have sensed in him the seriousness and struggle of genuine philosophical engagement. The emphasis on practice in the Philosophical Investigations was in this sense of a piece with the famously "mystical" strain in the later passages of the Tractatus; in both cases the emphasis is upon the meaning of philosophy for the conduct and experience of the one doing the philosophy. (Indeed, Stanley Cavell comes close to reading the Investigations as a book of spiritual exercises in itself.) Hadot also gave attention to spiritual exercises in Foucault (who made use of Hadot's researches in his History of Sexuality). One might also think of Gramsci's prison writings, or the work of Camus' teacher Jean Grenier, or Georges Friedmann, whom Hadot more than once cites:
To take flight every day! At least for a moment, which may be brief, as long as it is intense. A “spiritual exercise” every day – either alone, or in the company of someone who also wishes to better himself. ...try to get rid of your passions, vanities, and the itch for talk about your own name, which sometimes burns you like a chronic disease. Avoid backbiting. Get rid of pity and hatred. Love all free human beings. Become eternal by transcending yourself....Lots of people let themselves be wholly absorbed by militant politics and the preparation for social revolution. Rare, much more rare, are they who, in order to prepare for the revolution, are willing to make themselves worthy of it.
But not the least exemplar of the survival of this "ancient" ideal was Hadot himself.

Here is a very moving and extensive tribute in two parts, by Hadot's student and translator Michael Chase; and a review of Hadot's most recent book, of interviews.


  1. And all this from the land of 'explication de texte'. I have made a few remarks on this under the title 'bijas' on my occasional blog. Hadot was unknown to me.

  2. Michael, I hope I didn't imply that I consider such explication an unworthy enterprise.

    I love the way your post weaves together Rabelais, the Zoroastrian chapels, and sanskrit verse treatises on maths.