Let’s Get Married!

This marriage of Philosophy as a Way of Life and Philosophical Counseling was already part of Pierre Hadot’s vision some 20 years ago. Hadot believed he had discovered amongst ancient Greek thinkers an attitude invested in inquiry as practitioners of philosophy. No inquiry was ever detached or divorced from the human predicament; it was always within an understanding of themselves as the subjects of engagement that the world held any interest to them at all. The truth about how things are in abstraction may have value but its cash return always implied human import.

Returning to Heraclitus – any good script has it’s regulars, and Heraclitus will figure amongst this blog’s – the cosmological question, common to the Milesians with whom he is identified, did not ask (or seem to ask – everything after all is conjecture) “how is the world constructed? but rather “how does the humankind meaningfully engage in an inquiry about the nature of the world?” Heraclitus may have postulated Logos, denotative of the rational structure of the universe, but the term delegated already implicates human engagement given both its linguistic and cognitive connotation. One might think this overkill or quite incidental were it not for his indirect form of communication – as a result he came to be known as The Riddler – epitomized in the saying “The Lord whose oracle is at Delphi neither reveals nor conceals, but gives a sign” (frag. 93). But more than this, Heraclitus seemed obsessively preoccupied with the absence of wonder amongst his fellowman, often attributing their superficiality and heteronymous involvement to this. Philosophy, as an engaged, invested inquiry into the nature of the universe should have a transformative impact on its practitioner!

Hadot did not specifically speak of Heraclitus in this light, but in his Philosophy as a Way of Life he defended the view that ancient thought was about βιος or a way of life. He identified what he called spiritual exercises that could be fashioned in such a way that an attentive reader would thereby come to live an enriched and happy human life. Specifically, in What is Greek Philosophy? and in response to this daunting question, Hadot contends that it is not that pedantic exegesis of philosophical concepts, arguments, and systems extracted from surviving texts – the humanly vacuous point serves to connect his attitude toward professional philosophical discourse amongst academics and the university culture found in the aforementioned text. Understanding the Greeks required adopting an understanding of philosophy ‘different from the idea people usually have about it’. It involves something akin to a religious conversion, or what he called an existential choice or commitment to a particular life style specific to the theoretical teachings of a given school of thought. This is not specific to the intellectual assent of the neophyte – something academics seem content, proud even, to exact from their students – indifferent to the more personal and variant context of her life.

This marriage, like most, has had a turbulent history. Dating as far back as the ancient practitioners of philosophy, Hadot was not just making a causal, logical or pedagogical point; the point was more “spiritual” or “psychological” in that engaged philosophical discourse has therapeutic value. In transforming one’s worldview, how one positions oneself in the world and labels and projects one’s own value alters such that what might have previously been a tumultuous, frivolous, and surface life style evolves into a more balanced, and meaningful way of living.

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