Lecture Zero: Theme 0.3

0.3 Philosophy as self-transformation


Pierre Hadot has forcefully advocated for a change in the way in which we look at philosophy. Discussing Hellenistic philosophy in particular, he contended that philosophy was constructed primarily as a way of life, built through daily practice of ‘spiritual exercises.’ This philosophical life was crucially concerned with operating a reshaping (a conversion) of the self. He writes:

Our claim has been, then, that philosophy in antiquity was a spiritual exercise. As for philosophical theories: they were either placed explicitly in the service of spiritual practice, as was the case in Stoicism and Epicureanism, or else they were taken as the objects of intellectual exercises, that is, of a practice of the contemplative life which, in the last analysis, was itself nothing other than a spiritual exercise. It is impossible to understand the philosophical theories of antiquity without taking into account this concrete perspective, since this is what gives them their true meaning. When we read the works of ancient philosophers, the perspective we have described should cause us to give increased attention to the existential attitudes underlying the dogmatic edifices we encounter. […] A philosopher’s works cannot be interpreted without taking into consideration the concrete situation which gave birth to them. They are the products of a philosophical school, in the most concrete sense of the term, in which a master forms his disciples, trying to guide them to self-transformation and realization. (Hadot 1995, 104)

This passage captures the core business of ancient philosophy in Hadot’s reconstruction.[1] According to him, we can distinguish between philosophical discourse and philosophical life (i.e., philosophy proper). Philosophical discourse is akin to musical theory, is a form of theoretical knowledge aimed at informing a certain practice, which is the actual core business one should aim at.[2] In the ancient Hellenistic period, we encounter six main schools:[3] the Platonic (including Neoplatonism), the Aristotelian, the Epicurean, the Stoic, the Sceptic, and the Cynic. Each of them offers its distinctive method and path to achieve a certain intellectual, existential, and practical transformation. This approach presupposes that ordinary, non-philosophical existence is problematic. As Hadot explains:

In the view of all philosophical schools, mankind’s principal cause of suffering, disorder, and unconsciousness were the passions: that is, unregulated desires and exaggerated fears. People are prevented from truly living, it was taught, because they are dominated by worries. Philosophy thus appears, in the first place, as a therapeutic of the passions […]. Each school had its own therapeutic method, but all of them linked their therapeutics to a profound transformation of the individual’s mode of seeing and being. The object of spiritual exercises is precisely to bring about this transformation.
(Hadot 1995, 83)

Notice that passions are not neutral phenomena. All passions arise with a clear main character, the self; in fact, myself. One cannot be passionate by proxy. One cannot love or hate, fear or hope via someone or something else. When there is love, hatred, fear, hope, anxiety, craving, and all the rest, there I am, actor and hero in this whole drama. Ordinary life is profoundly shaped by personal concerns that centers around myself and my passions, my desires, and my drives. Ancient Hellenistic philosophy aims at transforming this ordinary way of life. Passionate life is stressful, even dreadful. Philosophy provides a therapy, a way of escaping this turmoil. Here, we encounter some of the main ingredients of the general claim introduced at the beginning: the problem of uncertainty (expressed by conflicting needs and passions), the self as a character faced with this problem, and the overall relational hermeneutic context of this drama, in which I have to understand and interpret where these various drives lead, and decide accordingly what to do with them, whether be carried by them, or oppose some resistance.

Despite the differences among the various schools, Hadot clarifies that the ultimate goal of Hellenistic philosophical practice is that of reaching some sort of universal viewpoint on existence. In commenting on the exercise of contemplating death, he remarks:

We can perhaps get a better idea of this spiritual exercise if we understand it as an attempt to  liberate ourselves from a partial, passionate point of view—linked to the senses and the body—so as to rise to the universal, normative viewpoint of thought, submitting ourselves to the demands of the Logos and the norm of the Good. Training for death is training to die to one’s individuality and passions, in order to look at things from the perspective of universality and objectivity. (Hadot 1995, 94-95)

A philosophical life is a life that strives (at least) to free the individual from their own passionate subjectivity, transforming ‘myself’ into a universal spectator of the whole universe, detached from the smallness and trifling nature of daily human affairs. Spiritual exercises are aimed at overcoming individuality, transcending the passionate self (myself), and reaching some kind of more universal, dispassionate, viewpoint. Here we have another ingredient of the theme introduced above: one way of achieving self-mastery (or of imposing an order on the passions and needs that agitate ordinary life) is by developing a superior point of view on the whole of reality.

To achieve this goal, Hadot emphasizes a number of practical exercises that need to be continuously repeated in order to train the individual’s understanding to progressively acquire this new philosophical perspective on existence and life. These exercises include the memorization of short and snappy dogmatic rules, maxims that can be used and applied in any circumstance in order to subsume the event at hand under the worldview that one is supposed to endorse. These rules are hermeneutic schemes for applying the right meaning to what happens, in order to disempower or prevent passionate ordinary reactions. Another core aspect of philosophical practice is the continuous attention to oneself and one’s action; what in today’s jargon (inspired by Buddhist meditation) would be called ‘mindfulness.’[4] The idea is to live each and every moment while remaining as present as possible to what is currently happening, without being dragged away by rumination about the past or concerns for the future. Through this sort of constant mindfulness, one is then also invited to develop an ability for self-analysis, a watchfulness about one’s own behaviors and drives, and the skillfulness in subjecting them to scrutiny on the basis on the principles one has learned and memorized. Instead of letting instinct guide one’s life, the philosopher is supremely in control of oneself and one’s action; a truly autonomous individual who is able to decide how to think and act based on what they believe to be true and conducive to what is truly good.

Philosophical exercises also include sustained contemplation on specific themes. Two of the most common are death and nature. Death contemplation is recommended as a way of detaching oneself from one’s current condition, seeing through the uncertainty and fragility of human life, for the sake of becoming more dispassionate towards it (especially for the Stoics), or appreciating the immense and simple pleasure of having the opportunity to be alive, to exist here and now, even if only for a short time (especially for the Epicureans). The contemplation of nature is also crucial, since it can have direct implications for how one understands events and circumstances of life. Contemplating the universe as the result of chance (like the Epicureans) can be a means of weakening fear of the gods and the afterlife. Alternatively, contemplation of the inevitable necessity of all events (propounded by the Stoics) can lead one to embrace all that happens as inevitable, as a result of a whole nexus of causes and conditions, ultimately ruled by its own logic and rational providence. Amor fati, the ability to positively will one’s own fate, even if one cannot ultimately decide it, is seen as cutting through the struggle that ordinarily absorbs much of people’s energies in the idle effort of managing their external conditions. Energy can be more wisely invested in the domain of events on which one has direct control, namely, making wise judgments and acting accordingly.

Although this short summary is far from exhaustive, it gives a taste of the sort of practice that Hellenistic philosophy was supposed to entail. Hadot’s investigation is particularly interesting for how it derives these introspective practices (exercises one does on oneself by looking into one’s own thoughts and passions) from the dialogic practice cultivated by Socrates. Socratic dialogue is a social practice, something one does with others for the sake of thoroughly investigating one’s own attitudes, beliefs, and views. However, this dialogic practice can be internalized, and one can then carry it out autonomously. Plato almost takes for granted that thought is the inner dialogue of the soul with itself (Sophist 263e). Philosophical exercises and Hellenistic meditations can be seen as an interiorized form of Socratic dialogue. This remark ties in with another aspect touched above, namely, the fact that the construction of the self is always embedded in a relational net. Practices that originate in the interaction among distinct selves can then become interiorized and carried over in relative solitude.

Hadot’s discussion illustrates how Hellenistic schools construct selfhood in relation to a soteriological problem connected with the uncertainty of human condition and the bondage imposed by the passions. These schools differ with respect to how they would further specify their solution and how that would relate to the spectrum we introduced above. Platonists and Stoics are more comfortable moving towards the transcendent pole, while Epicurean and Cynics move rather towards the immanent pole. However, looking more closely at the specific challenges posed by passionate life, can reveal further important features of Greek conceptualizations of selfhood.

  1. A similar account was developed at more or less at the same time by Martha Nussbaum, in her The Therapy of Desire. Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics (1994 [second ed. 2009]). Nussbaum stresses how Hellenistic philosophy is therapeutic in the sense that it aims at achieving an existential transformation in the way in which individuals perceive and interpret their own lives. In her interpretation, this therapeutic model is properly philosophical (and thus different from other forms of self-transformation) because of a distinctive use of rational argumentation fostered by philosophical schools. Nussbaum also reflects a potential shortcoming of the therapeutic model, in which a more or less marked asymmetry between the master and pupil (physician and patient) can undermine the latter’s autonomy. For an overview of these themes, cf. in particular The Therapy of Desire, chapter 13.
  2. Why, how, and when did philosophy become a purely theoretical activity? Hadot (1995, 127-144) suggests that, in the beginning of the common era, Christian philosophy incorporated and adapted Greek spiritual exercises. But when, with the institution of universities in the Middle Ages, philosophy began a discipline propaedeutic for theology, it was somehow reduced to a purely theoretical field, divorced from those spiritual exercises that had, in the meantime, been assimilated by Christian contemplative practices. If today one (at least) powerful view of philosophy seeks to present it as a theoretical body of knowledge, relatively disconnected from actual practice, this fact can find some of its roots in the way that Hellenistic philosophy was first Christianized, and then torn apart.
  3. In Hadot’s chronology, this period spans roughly a thousand years: ‘Our history begins with the highly symbolic event represented by Alexander’s fantastic expedition and with the emergence of the world called Hellenistic, that is, with the emergence of this new form of Greek civilization beginning from the moment when Alexander's conquests and, in their wake, the rise of kingdoms extended this civilization into the barbarian world from Egypt to the borders of India, and then brought it into contact with the most diverse nations and civilizations. The result is a kind of distance, a historical distance, between Hellenistic thought and the Greek tradition preceding it. Our history then covers the rise of Rome, which will lead to the destruction of the Hellenistic kingdoms, brought to completion in 30 BC with Cleopatra's death. After that will come the expansion of the Roman empire, the rise and triumph of Christianity, the barbarian invasions, and the end of the Western empire.’ (Hadot 1995, 53). 
  4. For further discussion of this point, see Massimo Pigliucci, ‘Prosochê as Stoic Mindfulness’ (2022).


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

The Tragedy of the Self Copyright © 2023 by Andrea Sangiacomo is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.