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Reflecting on Hadot’s “philosophical way of life”


Hadot’s discussion of philosophy as a way of life

Hadot emphasizes that philosophers live in the space between the gods and the unconscious masses. He describes philosophy as a searching and a striving for perfection in thought and deed, for excellence (arête) in living. He asserts that

The gods have no need for philosophy, since they already manifest perfection in their being and are never out of that state.

The masses, being unconscious of the potential or need for improvements  in their thoughts and deeds, exist at an unconscious level, manifesting their unrefined human nature. They also have no need for philosophy.

The philosophers are simultaneously aware of their imperfections, but desiring to know and live virtue and knowledge, are constantly striving yet never (or perhaps rarely, for a moment achieving perfection)

By describing philosophy as “A way of life”, I believe Hadot makes the following points:

1. Because it is “a” way” and not “the” way, he implies there are real and meaningful choices for how to proceed along the “way”. Phil makes this point concerning the real choices available and accessible.

2.  Because it is a “way” of life, it implies a comprehensive pattern of actions, behaviors, motivations, justifications that informs and guides and entire life, and acts as a standard to be measured against. It I not something to be confined to a particular time and place in our lives, but something that ties it all together. Andrew describes this well in his reflection on internal standards, as does Mel in her sicussion of consistency and evaluation.

3. Because it is a way “of life’,  Hadot connects the search for excellence and love of wisdom to the center of our living, both as an action verb (excellent living in action) and a state of being (achievement of a state of excellence as a consequence of action).

Hadot’s discussions of the various ancient schools situate them along various choice points, demonstrating through their tenets and through the exemplars of the lives of their founders and representatives. Phil’s summary again, is useful here in capturing the differences between the goal-oriented school of the Epicureans (seeking pleasure, but not just sensually, but in accord with all elements of the human nature, including the desire to connect with the divine ) and the rigorously distilled, laconic principles of the Stoics, who sought crystallized and perpetual gems of wisdom from which right action could be derived and applied for every situation.

His rich descriptions of Socrates, Zeno, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius demonstrate how these choices and endeavors manifested in the living of their lives.

In his chronicle of the massive undertaking of Aristotle to provide structure for the sum of human knowledge at the time morphed over time into a pursuit of ontology for its own sake, losing sight of the purpose of the study of physics as simply a method whereby a man might apprehend and then conform to natural excellence. Aristotle’s achievement becomes an end in itself as philosophers began to increasingly to look at  knowledge and discourse as an end in and of themselves, and not as an inherent part of the examined and properly lives life.

I am reminded of Weick’s reflections on the intersection of theory and practice: as he developed a useful way to examine the dual nature of reflective living which is that life is lived and experienced going forward in the moment, while it is known and understood looking backwards; as sense-making seeks to make clear what was known as uncertain when it happened.

Hadot concludes that philosophy, as practiced,  has departed from the ancients, into a compartment of wordmakers and ontologists, and out  of the center of spiritual and physical lives.

In my own life, I find a connection with Stoic thought, traced to an exposure to the works of Epictetus (who wrote the philosophy manual of the Roman legions) and Marcus Aurelius, whose reflections from the frontier of the Empire resonated with me when I was serving in the DMZ in Korea.  The personal story of Vice admiral Stockdale, who found strength and solace in the Stoics in his 7 1/2 years in solitary confinement in a Vietnamese POW camp stays with me to this day.

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