Pierre Hadot - Part I
By Michael Chase
Pierre Hadot, emeritus Professor at the Collège de France and Director of Studies at the École Pratique des Hautes Etudes, died on the night of April 24-25 at the age of 88.
Born in Paris in 1922, Hadot was raised at Reims, where he received a strict Catholic education, and was ordained to the priesthood in 1944. But he soon became disenchanted with the Church, particularly after the conservative encyclical Humani Generis of August 12, 1950, and he left it in 1952 (Eros also played a role in this decision: Hadot married his first wife in 1953).
As a Researcher at the CNRS (National Center of Scientific Research), Hadot was now free to devote himself to scholarship. He began with Latin Patristics, editing Ambrose of Milan and Marius Victorinus. This was the period, from the late 1950s to the 1960s, when, under the guidance of such experts as the Jesuit Paul Henry, he learned the strict discipline of philology, or the critical study and editing of ancient manuscripts, an approach that was to continue to exert a formative influence on his thought for the rest of his life. Also during this period, Hadot's deep interest in mysticism led him to study Plotinus, and, surprisingly enough, Wittgenstein, whose comments on “das Mystische” (Tractatus 6.522) led Hadot to study the Tractatus and the Philosophical Investigations and publish articles on them, thus becoming one of the first people in France to draw attention to Wittgenstein.1 Hadot wrote Plotinus or the Simplicity of Vision2 in a month-long burst of inspiration in 1963, a lucid, sincere work that is still one of the best introductions to Plotinus. Hadot would continue to translate and comment upon Plotinus throughout the rest of his life, founding in particular the series Les Ecrits de Plotin3, a series, still in progress, that provides translations with extensive introductions and commentaries to all the treatises of Plotinus' Enneads, in chronological order. On a personal level, however, Hadot gradually became detached from Plotinus' thought, feeling that Plotinian mysticism was too otherworldly and contemptuous of the body to be adequate for today's needs. As he tells the story, when he emerged from the month-long seclusion he had imposed upon himself to write Plotinus or The Simplicity of Vision, he went to the corner bakery, and “seeing the ordinary folks all around me in the bakery, I [...] had the impression of having lived a month in another world, completely foreign to our world, and worse than this—totally unreal and even unlivable.”4
Elected Director of Studies at the 5th Section of the École Pratique des Hautes Etudes in 1964, Hadot married his second wife, the historian of philosophy Ilsetraut Marten in 1966. This marked another turning point in his intellectual development, for it was at least in part thanks to his wife's interest in spiritual guidance in Antiquity that the focus of Hadot's interests would gradually shift, over the following decade or so, from the complex and technical metaphysics of Porphyry and Marius Victorinus to a concern for the practical, ethical side of philosophy, and more precisely the development of his key concept of philosophy as a way of life.
At Hadot's request, the title of his Chair at the EPHE Ve was soon changed from “Latin Patristics” to “Theologies and Mysticisms of Hellenistic Greece and the End of Antiquity.” In 1968, he published his thesis for the State Doctorate, the massive Porphyre et Victorinus5, in which he attributed a previously anonymous commentary on Plato's Parmenides to Porphyry, the Neoplatonist student of Plotinus. This monument of erudition arguably remains, even today, the most complete exposition of Neoplatonist metaphysics.
It was around this time that Pierre Hadot began to study and lecture on Marcus Aurelius—studies that would culminate in his edition of the Meditations6, left unfinished at his death, and especially in his book The Inner Citadel.7 Under the influence of his wife Ilsetraut, who had written an important work on spiritual guidance in Seneca, Hadot now began to accord more and more importance to the idea of spiritual exercises, that is, philosophical practices intended to transform the practitioner's way of looking at the world, and consequently his or her way of being. Following Paul Rabbow, Hadot held that the famous Exercitia Spiritualia of Ignatius of Loyola, far from being exclusively Christian, were the direct heirs of pagan Greco-Roman practices. These exercises, involving not just the intellect or reason, but all a human being's faculties, including emotion and imagination, had the same goal as all ancient philosophy: reducing human suffering and increasing happiness, by teaching people to detach themselves from their particular, egocentric, individualistic viewpoint and become aware of their belonging, as integral component parts, to the Whole constituted by the entire cosmos. In its fully developed form, exemplified in such late Stoics as Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, this change from our particularistic perspective to the universal perspective of reason had three main aspects. First, by means of the discipline of thought, we are to strive for objectivity; since, as the Stoics believe, what causes human suffering is not so much things in the world, but our beliefs about those things, we are to try to perceive the world as it is in itself, without the subjective coloring we automatically tend to ascribe to everything we experience ("That's lovely," "that's horrible," "that's ugly," "that's terrifying," etc., etc.). Second, in the discipline of desire, we are to attune our individual desires with the way the universe works, not merely accepting that things happen as they do, but actively willing for things to happen precisely the way they do happen. This attitude is, of course, the ancestor of Nietzsche’s “Yes” granted to the cosmos, a “yes” which immediately justifies the world's existence.8 Finally, in the discipline of action, we are to try to ensure that all our actions are directed not just to our own immediate, short-term advantage, but to the interests of the human community as a whole.
Hadot finally came to believe that these spiritual attitudes—“spiritual” precisely because they are not merely intellectual, but involve the entire human organism, but one might with equal justification call them “existential” attitudes—and the practices or exercises that nourished, fortified and developed them, were the key to understanding all of ancient philosophy. In a sense, the grandiose physical, metaphysical, and epistemological structures that separated the major philosophical schools of Antiquity—Platonism, Aristotelianism, Stoicism, Epicureanism9—were mere superstructures, intended to justify the basic philosophical attitude. Hadot deduced this, among other considerations, from the fact that many of the spiritual exercises of the various schools were highly similar, despite all their ideological differences: thus, both Stoics and Epicureans recommended the exercise of living in the present.
Hadot first published the results of this new research in an article that appeared in the Annuaire de la Ve section in 1977: “Exercices spirituels .” This article formed the kernel of his book Exercices spirituels et philosophie antique10, and was no doubt the work of Hadot's that most impressed Michel Foucault, to the extent that he invited Hadot to propose his candidacy for a Chair at the Collège de France, the most prestigious academic position in France. Hadot did so, and was elected in 1982. Hadot's view on philosophy as a way of life consisting of the practice of spiritual exercises was given a more complete narrative form in his Qu'est-ce que la philosophie antique?.11
Another aspect of his thought was more controversial: if philosophy was, throughout Antiquity, conceived as a way of life, in which it was not only those who published learned tomes that were considered philosophers, but also, and in some cases especially—one thinks of Socrates, who wrote nothing—those who lived in a philosophical way, then how and why did this situation cease? Hadot's answer was twofold: on the one hand, Christianity, which had begun by adopting and integrating pagan spiritual exercises, ended up by relegating philosophy to the status of mere handmaid of theology. On the other, at around the same historical period of the Middle Ages, and not coincidentally, the phenomenon of the European University arose. Destined from the outset to be a kind of factory in which professional philosophers trained students to become professional philosophers in their turn, these new institutions led to a progressive confusion of two aspects that were, according to Hadot, carefully distinguished in Antiquity: doing philosophy and producing discourse about philosophy. Many modern thinkers, Hadot believed, have successfully resisted this confusion, but they were mostly (and this again is no coincidence) such extra-University thinkers as Descartes, Spinoza, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer. For the most part, and with notable exceptions (one thinks of Bergson), University philosophy has concentrated almost exclusively on discourse about philosophy. Indeed, one might add, extending Hadot's analysis, that the contemporary university, whether in its “analytic” manifestation as the analysis of language and the manipulation of quasi-mathematical symbols, or its “continental” guise as rhetorical display, irony, plays on words and learned allusions, seem to share one basic characteristic: they are quite incomprehensible, and therefore unimportant to the man or woman on the street. Hadot's work, written in a plain, clear style that lacks the rhetorical flourishes of a Derrida or a Foucault, represents a call for a radical democratization of philosophy. It talks about subjects that matter to people today from all walks of life, which is why it has appealed, arguably, less to professional philosophers than to ordinary working people, and to professionals working in disciplines other than philosophy.12
Pierre Hadot taught at the Collège until his retirement in 1992. In addition to Plotinus and Marcus, his teaching was increasingly devoted to the philosophy of nature, an interest he had picked up from Bergson, and which he had first set forth in a lecture at the Jungian-inspired Eranos meetings at Ascona, Switzerland, in 1967.13 Combined with his long-term love of Goethe14, this research on the history of mankind's relation to nature would finally culminate in Le Voile d'Isis, a study of the origin and interpretations of Heraclitus' saying “Nature loves to hide,” published a mere 6 years before his death.15 Here and in the preliminary studies leading up this work, Hadot distinguishes two main currents in the history of man's attitude to nature: the “Promethean” approach, in which man tries to force nature to reveal her secrets in order better to exploit her, and the “Orphic” attitude, a philosophical or aesthetic approach in which one listens attentively to nature, recognizing the potential dangers of revealing all her Secrets.
Part II - HERE