Tag Archives: plato

Hadot: philosophy as a way of life

Pierre Hadot (1922 – April 24, 2010) just died

Hadot taught all of us, or at least reminded us, that for ancients philosophy was a way of life, a way for self-perfection and eternity and not an abstract knowledge. To understand why the monotheists Plato, Aristotle, and Zeno the Stoic were important for Maimonides or for that matter any medieval Jewish thinker, then one should read Hadot. Everyone from Idel to Boyarin is dependent on Hadot’s work

Hadot’s Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault (Blackwell, 1995) Organized more on ideas

Hadot, Pierre, What is Ancient Philosophy?, Harvard University Press, 2002, Organized more on history

Here are some paragraphs from online book review to get a sense. From Here

Hadot identified and analyzed the “spiritual exercises” used in ancient philosophy

By “spiritual exercises” Hadot means “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.

For Hadot, the fundamental distinction lies between “philosophy” and “philosophical discourse.” For example, after surveying the schools of Plato and Aristotle and their successors in the Hellenistic and late antique worlds, he explains, “Throughout this investigation, we have recognized the existence of a philosophical life–more precisely, a way of life–which can be characterized as philosophical and which is radically opposed to the way of life of nonphilosophers.

How then did the philosophical life (as opposed to philosophical discourse) die, or appear to die? Hadot draws attention to the movement under the Roman Empire away from philosophy as dialogue or research and towards philosophy as commentary on the “great books” of the past (see 149-157). As the 2nd century AD Platonist Taurus complained, “There are even some [students] who 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” (150).

And from here.

What is ancient philosophy? Pierre Hadot makes very clear what he thinks it is not: it is not the deposit of philosophical concepts, theories and systems to be found in the surviving texts of Graeco-Roman antiquity, the subject matter of courses of study in the curricula of modern universities.

In the author’s own words, “Philosophical discourse . . . originates in a choice of life and an existential option—not vice-versa . . . . This existential option, in turn, implies a certain vision of the world, and the task of philosophical discourse will therefore be to reveal and rationally to justify this existential option, as well as this representation of the world” (p. 3). Moreover, philosophy both as a way of life and as its justifying discourse is not the attainment and deployment of wisdom, but “merely a preparatory exercise for wisdom” which “tend[s] toward wisdom without ever achieving it” (p. 4). It is the primary purpose of this book to establish these

Plato and the Academy (chapter 5). According to Hadot, Plato’s goal in founding the Academy was the creation of “an intellectual and spiritual community whose job it would be to train new human beings . . . (p. 59). The program of training and research in the Academy from the various branches of mathematics to dialectic had primarily an ethical aim, which was to purify the mind and to “learn to live in a philosophical way . . . to ensure . . . a good life and thereby the ’salvation’ of the soul” (p. 65). To achieve this aim various “spiritual exercises” mentioned in several Platonic dialogues including, notably, the practice of death in the Phaedo (64a) and the (practice of?) transcendence over all that is mundane described in the Theaetetus (173d–175e) would have been instituted in the Academy. All these exercises have as their aim the transformation of the self.

Aristotle and His School (chapter 6). Aristotle, according to Hadot’s account, founded the Lyceum on the model of the Academy—at least with the same ethical goal in mind, if not the same intellectual practices.

The Hellenistic Schools (chapter 7). Hadot’s general thesis is most easily demonstrated in the cases of the various Hellenistic schools which arose in the late fourth century BCE. The idea that Epicurus and Zeno (respectively the founders of Epicureanism and Stoicism) established their schools to create communities which pursued some shared way of life to attain a shared spiritual goal is not new, and Hadot demonstrates very effectively how the physical and epistemological theories of these schools were intended to support their spiritual goals. This is true not only of the “dogmatists” (Epicureans and Stoics as well as Platonists and Aristotelians, all of whom affirmed positive doctrines) but also of their opponents, the “skeptics,” who recommended the suspension of belief as the proper path to their spiritual goal. In addition, Hadot shows convincingly that these various spiritual goals, differently described in the different schools—for example, for the Epicureans it was a life of stable pleasure achieved by the limitations of one’s appetites while for the Stoics it was a life of self-coherence, lived in conformity to Nature or Reason—all involved the goal of self-transformation. Each school had its own set of spiritual exercises designed to lead its adherents to the achievement of its particular version of that goal.

Schools in the Imperial Period (chapter 8). The development of philosophy in the age of the Roman Empire is characterized by two outstanding phenomena. The first is a change in pedagogy. Philosophy classes began to be devoted to the reading and exegesis of the texts by the school’s founders, and instructors began in increasing measure to write commentaries on those texts to assist comprehension among their students. The second is the eventual decline of Epicureanism and Stoicism and the ascendancy and development of Platonism (synthesized with Aristotelianism in the Neoplatonism of Plotinus) as the dominant philosophy of late antiquity.

The final part of the book (“Interruption and Continuity: The Middle Ages and Modern Times”) may be summarized more briefly. Hadot credits the rise of Christianity with the decline of philosophy practiced as a way of life. Christianity positioned itself as a “philosophy” (in Hadot’s sense) with its own regimen of spiritual exercises and spiritual goals, and as this religion came to eclipse the various pagan philosophies, it usurped their spiritual function.

Socrates and the Fat Rabbis – part II

This continues from part I – here.

Back when I was in graduate school, I was studying Neoplatonism as a background for mysticism, but at the time postmodern deconstructionism was the rage. My professor trained in classics just shrugged off the new movement saying it was the return of the Sophists who were rejecting our beloved Plato. In the last 15 years, French philosophers- such as Alain Badiou have rejected post-modernist denial of truth by a return to weak knowledge; they return to Plato but argue that he had sympathy for the sophist projects (and mystery cults). Plato, and rationality in general, now has irrationality, obsessions, puzzles, and idiosyncrasies. Boyarin has read many of these works and presents the ideal of Greek philosophy and Talmudism as mediated in the complexity of the real world by satire (and rhetoric).

The setting for Boyarin’s book is a freshman core curriculum course in rhetoric for 600 students, in which the reading list includes among others Plato, Gorgias, Lucian, Thucydides, and Talmud. The book reads like the literary criticism of mid-twentieth century Columbia University- Van Doran, Barzun, Trilling- great ideas, illuminating fragments of other people’s scholarship, awakening the students to the life of the mind, but not worrying about the philologists.

My interest is what it contributes to Jewish thought- I will leave comments on the rest of the book to classicists and Talmudists. Only 3 out of 8 chapters are on Talmud.

What is a Platonic dialogue? Boyarin follows the Platonic scholarship of John Salllis (1996) who accepts the arguments of Plato’s critics’ and those who see him as more rhetoric than dialectic. Boyarin wants to open a humanistic question that is asked of Plato but rather in Jewish studies– what is Talmud? His starting point is David Kraemer work’s on the Bavli as literature, which he sees as asking some of the right questions and Boyarin will give more complex answers.

He situates the entire rabbinic project in the broad Roman cultural world. Somewhat similar to the way that in the current era of globalization the entire world knows coca cola, the Lexus, McDonalds, American TV, and American Pop music.  Boyarin has little interest in creating a thick description of the cultural world and he has no analysis of the local knowledge or micro-histories. (Ignore his preface to the book- In the 1990’s when he was claiming to be a post-modern in his introductions, he was still using Dilthy and classic German cultural approaches. Now, he once again makes self-identifying claims based on what he is currently reading but having little bearing on what he is doing.)

He built up a presentation through other classical works about the role of serious vs satire, farce, and child’s play and applies them to the Talmud. Chapter six applies all categories as a sustained playing with Rabbi Meir. He cites an Ohr Sameah web posting to show how a “non scholarly to a fault source” uses the Roman material as a form of piety. Boyarin’s own presentations plays with satire, rhetoric, and the serious; many examples are left as metonymy or emblemic without a full presentation.

One of his best insights of the book for Jewish thought is his reading of Why did they not listen to Rabbi Meir since he can make the pure impure and the impure pure? Answer- like a sophist he was not connected to truth and therefore gets an ambiguous presentation..

Maharal and Rav Zadok answer that he was above the single perspective of ordinary materiality, the former emphasized his lack of materiality and the latter his mystical perspective. And they both have expositions on why the rabbis are fat. As noted before, Boyarin will be useful for the Eastern European interest in wild midrashim- midrash peliah.  In my slow production of Maharal articles, Boyarin will come in handy when I deal with emblem and grotesque in Maharal.

Boyarin never discusses the mythos-logos relationship. Plato reformulates the myths to teach logos once property understood. This would have made the book more relevant to later Jewish thinkers since philosophers, kabblaists, and modern rationalists all use this device to state the aggadah has a deeper meaning. In the interim, I recommend the recent French scholar  Luc Brisson, Plato the Myth Maker

The book has lots of ideas but would be nicely complimented by someone to write a full volume on Roman satire and the Talmud in order to actually be able to evaluate the thesis properly.  In Border Lines, Boyarin introduces rabbinic logos thinking and the idea of rabbinic bitheism and then we have Moshe Idel giving us 700 pages of Ben: Sonship in Jewish Mysticism. This large tome allows us to begin to see where it works and where it does not.

I would like a similar volume here. For example, in TB Berakhot where the market place is seen a place of courtesans- there is much material in  Jmaes Davidson, Courtesans and Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens (1999)to begin an analysis- but how does this relate to the Hesiod sounding “HKBH’s tears created Orion and the Pleiades and both of them to the Heikhalot material in the tractate.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance turned to Plato to show how rhetoric wins over dialectic, and people should turned to direct experience and the narrative of the daily life. Now that current authors mix all the Platonic category – Boyarin offers a way to look at the mixed bag of the Talmud as part of classics.

I did not think it will make it onto my reading list for this spring on contemporary Jewish thinkers of the last 15 years (I am sitting here with a pile of examination copies of things. Michael Fishbane will be on the list).

As a side point, Boyarin did not seem to know Jacob Bernays, the important Lucian scholar was Hakham Bernay’s son (RSR Hirsch’s teacher) and Freud’s brother-in-law,  because if he did the loose editorial hand of the book would have somehow tied it in.