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Reflecting on the ancient philosophers and their practice

Hadot’s thesis is that the ancient Greek philosophers understood philosophy to be a love of wisdom, He placed philosophers in a state of conscious striving, between the already realized perfect wisdom of the gods and the masses of unconscious humankind, unaware or unconcerned with arête (excellence). He examined how four schools and two refinements answered the three common elements of philosophical inquiry: physics, ethics and logic. Based on fundamental assumptions, rooted in values, each discipline defined the Good Life for their practitioners. The physics described the nature of reality, cause and effect, and situated man properly within the world. The ethics described the proper treatment of one’s fellow man. The logic provided a discursive structure of context, concepts and rules for dialogue.

Hadot convincingly demonstrates how the six disciplines shared two incommensurable perspectives: (1) that of philosophy-in-action, as a life lived, and (2) the philosophical discourse that critically analyzed the context, concepts and claims of the discipline’s tenets. After tracing how these two perspectives diverged in modern philosophy, Hadot argues that the ancients integrated them to understand and live the Good Life. I argue that this is as valid and important today. I adopt both perspectives to link personal reflections, Moodle discussions and my applications of these insights in my own life as an exercise of the ancient philosophers’ ask?sis (exercise) (Griffin, 2009, p.2).

Reflection: The practice of applied philosophical discourse.

The observation: Hadot says “ a dialogue is possible only if the interlocutors want to dialogue” (p.63). He describes the essential characteristics of a specifically philosophical discourse: neither imposes his truth on the other, but seeks rather to discover and understand himself through disinterested transcendence of personal perspective.

My reflection: the spirit of the philosophical discourse requires values of mutual trust and vulnerability; integrity in representing our position; humility and restraint in order to appreciate your partner’s position; critical thinking skills that deconstruct, analyze and synthesize the essential elements of the argument, and a respect for the nature of inquiry; the maturity to separate your Self from the argument that has been offered for examination.

Our discussion board: I offered a discursive opportunity on the subject of a sage who asserted that Silence is an appropriate technique when encountering critics. I proposed that this was the opposite of wisdom, arguing that it allows you to access wisdom of your own making, does not engage in open dialogue with respected others, and rejects the possibility of shared insights and mutual construction of new knowledge. I felt very disappointed that my offer to dialogue was not accepted but I publicly respected the decision. I also have observed another student’s best passionate efforts to push discourse to the forefront, often generating more heat than light, but with more success than I expected. It has become much clearer to me how important Hadot’s prescriptions for successful, responsible discourse are. It is a special form of discussion, whose nature must be explicit and intentional for both parties in order to engage fruitfully, since it approaches values and emotions that are at our very heart and soul.

My applications:

I am developing formal materials to improve the critical thinking and discursive skills in our college, motivated by student interest and their assessed skill level in argumentation. I’ve helped develop the argumentative essay rubric I shared with group. I discovered convincing research demonstrating how “argument mapping” improves critical thinking skills. Its educational efficacy is so demonstrably superior to traditional means that I have started a campaign to discuss making major modifications to our core curriculum. Creating a rubric is discursive; using it is the practical application, thus closing Hadot’s loop.

My latest late night father-son discussions include the ingredients of discourse, particularly the respect for the Other and self knowledge through transcendence. In fact, the outline of this paper’s arguments emerged from the hot tub during one such heated discussion on the nature of Creationist “science”. My son was conflating positions on Creationist claims as science, with worth as human beings to society. Hadot helped me describe a reframing that he was able to see and accept without sacrificing his personal beliefs.

I critiqued Strunk & White’s formulaic advice in our first paper, and then disinterestedly applied their formulas to my critique, which measurably improved. This paper is better after re-writing. Writing is thinking, and thinking is hard. Transcending my own initial position has been fruitful and refreshing. I am better able to improve my positions without regret for revising my statements.

I expressed my frustration in the lack of discourse in Moodle with the professor, who guided me to think of ways to meet my needs in other ways. This has led me to continue to provide connections of our material to Chinese philosophical traditions (Confucius and the Legalists), insights from the Mahabharata (the epic story of Yudisthira’s principled rejection of Heaven) and the analogy of Hesse’s Glass Bead game in Magister Ludi as an example of discourse for discourse’s sake. I have been trying to improve the quality of my small group feedback, and taking on some essay critiquing outside of my small group.

Brief summaries of other reflections and applications.

I continue to grow in respect for the courage of my peers to push past their own boundaries. In particular, Mel is working hard on channeling her passion in new and constructive ways, reaching out to other cohorts to engage in discourse even when it’s not popular. That she can do this while double loaded with classes and in China is remarkable. Tamara continues to read deeply and express insights clearly and personally. Reviewing her comments about askesis made me think more deeply about that topic, which led me to this paper’s theme. Andy and Negar each are pressing on through the fog of finding researchable questions while pondering what can seem to be so abstract on the surface: ancient philosophy. I admire that they are asking for more and deeper critiques even when their plate is full.

Hadot’s treatment of the bifocal nature of meditation was a nice way for me to reconnect and synthesize my own experience of sitting meditation which in turn can be inwardly focused on your core being, and outwardly expanding in search of reconnecting with the unity of all things. His review of the various ancient Greek traditions and how this practice fits into a larger set of exercises was elegant.

The deep review of the six disciplines allowed me to reconnect their tenets with times and places in my life where I had been trying on all of their styles for fit. I have been at various times Socratic, Platonic, Aristotelian, Epicurean, Skeptic, Cynic, with an increasing predominance of Stoic throughout my military career. I sense a return of the Epicurean on occasion, as I follow my bliss more often these days with this program and with youth soccer.

I think Hadot, and this review of the principles of “principled discourse” will enable me to engage with both Fromm and Kuhn, about whom I have had well-developed positions, which I am now prepared to transcend to see what I may see.

Hadot reconciles the opposing views of philosophy as a guide to living and philosophy as an analytical inquiry into conceptual systems by showing how the ancient philosophers respected both of these incommensurable positions while integrating them in their thoughts and deeds. What comes through most importantly for me is Socrates’ notion that the unexamined life is not worth living, integrating with the idea that critical thinking without practice are words games.

Griffin, T. (2009). Ancient Philosophers, paper 2, MGM830, Colorado Tech.

Hadot, P. (2002). What is Ancient Philosophy. Cambridge: Harvard Univ Press.

Ken –

Engaging in dialogue is definitely not easy and one’s desire to do so in a meaningful and thoughtful way is not always accepted. I imagine that there were times at the beginning of philosophy before philosophy that sophists perhaps attempted to create dialogue and they were left standing alone.

However, do you think that as we continue to genuinely give of ourself, there is a requisite return of others or is it by luck that we find others who are willing to engage. In other words, does our repeated genuine attempts cause others to participate, or do we just have to get lucky that someone who is of the same dialectic bent ends up in our area of town?


i think of discourse as living in a marketplace, of buyers and sellers. It is voluntary, both are seeking value for their resources. Each needs to have something to offer, each is in need of something new, and there must be an agreement for exchange under certain mutually acceptable conditions, and you know ahead of time specifically what you want.

It’s a varied and diverse market of many interests, and the degree of overlap is probably somewhat less than that of a vegetable market, which has known commodities whose qualities are readily apparent.

We are often in the position in the discourse marketplace of not knowing yet what we have or what we need, other than perhaps a desire to engage. We have trust that the discourse may lead us somewhere profitable and perhaps beautiful, at the risk of fatigue, lost time, diversion, frustration, vulnerability.

Being human, there is a desire perhaps for comfort and affirmation in our dialogues, which may outweigh the risk/reward of true discourse, which opens us up to scrutiny and uncertainty. If we cannot separate our nascent ideas from our Self, we are constantly at risk of ego loss and reputation loss, embarassment/shame.

Part of what may attract us to a particular discursive space is our experience with its inhabitants , our would be partners, its reputation, its tendency to meet all our human and inquiry needs.

Probably cant force it without the kind of outside pressure that is long term harmful to the spirit of genuine inquiry and discourse.

if you think of Hadot’s list of the “rules for good discourse” you will recognize a social contract that accounts for these issues: respects each other, shows a committment to transcend both individual perspectives, in order to synthesize to a new knowledge

to me, Socrates’ questioning doesnt rise to the level of discourse, because he isnt risking anything: he already knows where he is going, and he never has a breakthrough in his own understanding: he always is “reading from the same script”; he is never surprised; he is always sure of himself and where he is going from the moment of the first question.

He is much more god-like than philosopher-like in Hadot’s formulation of god-philosopher-common man, since he always manifests pure wisdom.

the closest we ever see him in a transcendent state is when he is by himself, in deep contemplation: i argue that he never engages in discourse: he simply takes you where he has already been.

Do you ever see Socrates trying on the other’s point of view, or discovering a new insight in any of his dialogues?

Of course i speak of Socrates here as the character actor as conceived by Plato, the playwright, and not the man, who probably began conversations over important topics without knowing where he would end up; at least I hope he was like that. Otherwise he was born perfect, or became self-perfected without discourse.

To get back to your first point then, I’d say that if you want to engage in discourse, you have to “put up your shingle” and market your product and announce what you want in exchange, and trust the network that when someone who is ready to exchange on those terms shall appear and together you will be able to sort it out.

posting your paper was an act of marketting that, to me, shows your willingness to engage.

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  1. November 18, 2009 at 10:50 pm

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