Nowadays we tend to think of philosophy as an academic discipline that you study in university and that to be a philosopher is to be a professor of philosophy. But that is not always how it as been, according to the French philosopher and historian of ancient philosophy Pierre Hadot (Hadot 1995, pp.81–125). Thus, in ancient philosophy it was perfectly possible to be a philosopher without having written anything, for what mattered was not the discourse of philosophy in itself (being knowledgeable about philosophical theories), but living philosophically.
Living philosophy, Hadot tells us, was a spiritual exercise and he is very clear why it has to be called this, even though in our ears it might sound generally religious, or particularly, because of Ignatius Loyola, Christian. Spiritual because it was more than merely moral or intellectual exercise, but consisted of a total transformation of one’s existence. Hadot divides these spiritual exercises into four distinctive disciplines, which we will describe in turn:
- Learning to live
- Learning to dialogue
- Learning to die
- Learning to read
Learning to Live
If the aim of philosophy is to teach one how to live one’s life better, what is it that prevents us from doing so? The answer for ancient philosophy is the passions. It is because we cannot control our passions that we end up being miserable and unhappy. The art of living well, therefore, is measured by the ability to control ones passions and this is what philosophy can teach you. One of the schools of philosophy, the Stoics, argued that there were two origins for human unhappiness: we seek satisfaction in possessions that we cannot have or can lose, and we try to avoid misfortunes that are inevitable. Philosophy teaches us is that the only matter that truly lies in our power are moral goods. The rest we should accept with indifference. I cannot control what happens to me, but what I can determine in my attitude to it. It is through the spiritual exercises of philosophy that we can free ourselves from our passions and view any misfortune that happens to us with equanimity. The most important of these exercises in Stoicism is ‘attention’ (prosoche). It is only through constant self-vigilance that I can learn how to control my passions. The fundamental rule of life is to be able to determine what depends on me and what does not, and I can only do that through permanent attention to myself and to the outside world. One of the most important aspects of the self-vigilance is attention to the present moment. Much human unhappiness is caused either my being weighed down by the past or hoping too much from the future. It is better to live in the present moment and accept reality as it, the simple joy of existing, as the other major school of ancient philosophy, Epicureanism, calls it.
The intellectual exercises of philosophy, reading and writing, listening and talking to other, were never simply for the sake of gaining more knowledge, but applying this knowledge to how one lives ones own life. Thus physics, for example, was never just about learning about the structure of the universe, but also demonstrating the scale of one’s own petty human worries. In an infinite universe, how much do my own fears and desires matter? Nature is indifferent to my unhappiness and only my own freedom should concern me, which is the freedom to be who I am.
Learning how to dialogue
Intellectual and spiritual activity is never a solitary affair. This is why the ancient philosophical schools were always communal in form. I learn to think for myself by thinking with others. It is not so much what is said that is important but that one speaks, because it is only through interacting with others that I can gain any self-knowledge. As Hadot writes: ‘
The intimate connection between dialogue with others and dialogue with oneself is profoundly significant. Only he who is capable of a genuine encounter with the other is capable of an authentic encounter with himself, and the converse is equally true. (Hadot 1995, p.91)
What I learn is that philosophy is a journey and not an end. Wisdom is always something towards which I can only ever aim and never reach. Such a relation of authentic speech with others is always more important than writing and appearing to be knowledgeable. Again the aim of philosophy is self-transformation and not knowledge, if knowledge means here theory or discourse.
Learning to Die
Learning to die is not a morbid obsession with death. Quite the opposite, it is to learn not to fear death. For what is the most important aspect of human life is that it transcends death. Socrates, the most important philosopher for both the Stoics and the Epicureans, was willing to die for his beliefs, because he realised that what was the most important thing about him was not his body, but his ideas, and these would live on despite him. Far more important than ones individual life is truth itself. To learn to die, therefore is not to be obsessed about death in a morbid way, but to aim for a higher existence. To realise that thought is more important than the passions of the body. It is to transcend the individual existence of the sensible body (which will perish as part of the natural cause of things) for the sake of the universality and objectivity of thought. It is in thought that we find our true freedom, whereas our body, through which our passions affect us, is a kind of tyranny and prison. The fact of death highlights the insignificance of our affairs which torment and worry us. Our deaths could arrive at any time, so we shouldn’t become too attached to our possessions nor try and find meaning in what is inauthentic. To think of one’s death in one’s life is to realise what is and is not important. It is the very possibility of an authentic life.
Learning to Read
To read, to gain knowledge, is not an end in itself but for the sake of self-formation, to understand oneself. This means ridding ourselves of the inessential to find what is essential beneath, and what is essential is the life of reason, for this is what expresses the true essence of the human being. Only in the practice of thought can I truly be free, the rest is the slavery of passive emotions. The aim of all spiritual exercises is therefore the same: return to the true self so as to liberate yourself from the passions that control you from the outside. For the Cynics, the third great school of ancient philosophy, this meant breaking from all social conventions and morality, since society’s rules themselves are only the result of people’s fears and desires and not a true reflection of human virtue.
Even the written masterpieces of philosophy that we still read today are not important in themselves. One reads and writes philosophy not so that one could be clever about it, but that the practice of reading and writing itself is directed towards self-mastery and control. Thus what is important is first of all is teaching (learning how to dialogue) and writing only has a function within this practice. Such then is the origin our own confusion. For us, philosophy is about systems, discourses and books. So when we go back to read ancient philosophy, we are troubled by the absence of systematic thought. But this is because we have failed to understand the context and the reasons for this writing. It was never for the sake of philosophical discourse itself, but the practice of self mastery and freedom.
Why then have we ended up with such a different conception of philosophy as an academic discipline? Hadot’s answer is that with the rise of Christianity as the sole religion of the state there was no reason to have competing philosophical schools all contesting their own interpretation of truth and so they were closed (by emperor Justin in 529 AD). More importantly than this mere historical event, however, is the relation between theology and philosophy itself in the Medieval University. If theology is the source of truth and how to live one’s life, then the only function of philosophy would be secondary. It purpose was to rationalise the dogmas of religion, but it was religion itself, and not philosophy, that was the guide to life. In the modern age, however, with the rise of secularism and the end of the domination of theology, philosophy as a way of life can emerge once more, and there is no doubt in modern philosophers such as Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Heidegger (and even Foucault in more recent times), we see that philosophy again has a direct bearing on how one lives one life, rather than being an academic discourse. Of course one might wonder, if this is the authentic voice of philosophy, what academic philosophy in universities is meant to be.
Hadot, P., 1995. Philosophy as a Way of Life : Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault, Oxford: Blackwell.
 Worse than this it might even sound stupid as much of the industry around spirituality is.
 This conception of education is entirely absent from our current society, which tends to believe that the only function of education is to earn more money. See for example Lord Browne’s report on the funding of Higher Education in the England (the basis of the privatisation of universities), which can only conceive of education as a private economic benefit. See, http://goo.gl/CrRYl.