Learning to Die
If I were Hadot writing this essay, I would've perhaps put this spiritual exercise as last of the four he outlines. All the other exercises enable and help fulfill this ultimate spiritual exercise - that of learning to die well.
"For the Logos represents a demand for universal rationality, and presupposes a world of immutable norms, which are opposed to the perpetual state of becoming and changing appetites characteristic of individual, corporeal life. In this opposition, he who remains faithful to the Logos, risks losing his life. This was the case for Socrates, who died for his faithfulness to the Logos" (p. 93).That phrase - "perpetual state of becoming and changing appetites, characteristic of individual, corporeal life" - sums up so well what so many pursue today. Having been born and raised and now living in one of the most capitalistic nations in the world, the individual is taught and fed a constant diet of desires, wants and marketing. We all are taught to be discontent and to chase that thing which will make us fulfilled and happy: food, prestige, wealth, new technology, religion, fame, clothes, toys, vacation homes and trips.
Philosophy, on the other hand, teaches us these things should be considered with indifference and that virtue and excellence of character are the Good we should pursue in order to be content. We ought to look to Socrates as the perfect example of the pursuit of the Logos and the Good. He "exposed himself to death for the sake of virtue. He preferred to die rather than renounce the demands of his conscience, thus preferring the Good above being, and thought and conscience above the life of the body." Sallustius, "a fourth-century Neoplatonist" said, "souls of value despise being for the sake of the Good, whenever they voluntarily place themselves in danger, for their country, their loved ones, or for virtue." (p. 94).
The decision Socrates faced - renouncing the Good to live, or not renouncing the Good and being executed, is "the fundamental philosophical choice. If it is true that philosophy subjugates the body's will to live to the higher demands of thought, it can rightly be said that philosophy is the training and apprenticeship for death." And as Socrates has said, "those who go about philosophizing correctly are in training for death, and that to them of all men death is least alarming" (p. 94).
Death, as explained thus far, is really a spiritual death - a "separation of the soul and the body." Plato elaborates:
separating the soul as much as possible from the body, and accustoming it to gather itself together from every part of the body and concentrate itself until is is completely independent, and to have its dwelling, so far as it can, both now and in the future, alone and by itself, freed from the shackles of the body (p. 94)And to be even clearer, this separation is a "philosophical separation ... for the soul to liberate itself, shedding the passions linked to the corporeal senses, so as to attain to the autonomy of thought" (p. 94).
This death that Plato describes is not unlike what Seneca believed in discussing what it must be like when the wise man loses all his friends. "It will be like that of Jove while nature takes her rest, of brief duration, when the universe is dissolved and the gods are all merged in one, finding repose in himself, absorbed in his own thoughts. Such is more or less the way of the wise man: he retires to his inner self, is his own company." (Letter 9).
"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" (p. 95).
Therefore, all the previously discussed spiritual exercises (attention, meditation, investigation, habituation, inner dialogue and discourse), are to enable us to see everything from the perspective of the Whole - to view everything from a universal point of view. And when we grasp that perspective, our individuality dies and we become one with the Whole.
At this point, I can't help but feel a sense of importance and urgency to this matter of lived philosophy. Marcus certainly felt the urgency and calling of philosophy.
"No, you do not have thousands of years to live. Urgency is on you. While you live, while you can, become good." (Meditations 4.17)
"we must have a sense of urgency, not only for the ever closer approach of death, but also because our comprehension of the world and our ability to pay proper attention will fade before we do." (Meditations 3.1)
And so, every day, we must face the prospect of our physical death and do the "homework" of separating our soul from the body or in other words, the "homework" of throwing off our shackles of passions and desires in preparation for becoming one with the Whole.
Three key concepts to keep in mind as you learn to die, are:
- always keep in mind the insignificance of human affairs, also known as the view from above
- have contempt for your physical death
- remember you are part of a Whole, therefore always take a "universal vision characteristic of pure thought"
The rational law declares that it is best to keep quiet as far as possible in misfortune, and not to complain, because we cannot know what is really good and evil in such things, and it does us no good for the future to take them hard, and nothing in human life is worthy of great concern, and our grieving is an obstacle to the very thing we need to come to our aid as quickly as possible in such cases.
What do you mean?
To deliberate, I said, about what has happened to us, and, as in dice-games, to re-establish our position according to whatever numbers turn up, however reason indicates would be best, and ... always accustom the soul to come as quickly as possible to cure the ailing part and raise up what has fallen, making lamentations disappear by means of its therapy. (p. 96)
Marcus often said, "Remove the judgement, and you have removed the thought 'I am hurt': remove the thought 'I am hurt', and the hurt itself is removed." (Meditations 4.7)
Contempt for death does not come easy for many, but we must not fear death, nor think that it is such a significant thing. "Montaigne, in one of his best-known essays, That Philosophizing is Learning how to Die plagiarizes Seneca: 'He who has learned how to die, has un-learned how to serve.' The thought of death transforms the tone and level of inner life: 'Keep death before your eyes every day ... and then you will never have any abject thought nor any excessive desire.' This philosophical theme, in turn, is connected with that of the infinite value of the present moment, which we must live as if it were, simultaneously, bot the first moment and the last." (p. 96) As Hadot paraphrases Heidegger, "it is up to each of us to choose between lucidity and diversion" (p. 96).
With the proper perspective on events and our death, we must also dedicate much of our time to contemplation of the Whole. In one of my favorite passages from Marcus, he recognizes the special ability of the rational soul:
Further, the rational soul traverses the whole universe and its surrounding void, explores the shape of it, stretches into the infinity of time, encompasses and comprehends the periodic regeneration of the Whole. (Meditations 11.1)This contemplation not only encompasses the view from above, but also the Whole of time. "Thus, the whole of the philosopher's speculative and contemplative effort becomes a spiritual exercise, insofar as he raises his thought up to the perspective of the Whole, and liberates it from the illusions of individuality (in the words of Friedmann: 'Step out of duration ... become eternal by transcending yourself') (p. 97).
For Epictetus, this contemplation becomes a revelation and our purpose for living. We are contemplate God's creations and we must do so before death snatches us. See my commentary of Discourses 1.6 for more.
Diogenes the Cynic took a similar view:
For the wold is the most sacred and divine of temples, and the one most fitting for the gods. Man is introduced into it by birth to be a spectator: not of artificial, immobile statues, but of the perceptible images of intelligible essences ... such as the sun, the moon, the stars, the rivers whose water always flows afresh, and the earth, which sends forth food for plants and animals alike. A life which is a perfect revelation, and an initiation into these mysteries, should be filled with tranquility and joy (p. 98)The three exercises just discussed, will help us along our way to letting go of all our passions, one by one. As we let go of passions, we see more clearly the Whole.
Hadot cites Porphyry, who "systematically arranged ... stages of ... spiritual progress. First, the soul was purified by its gradual detachment from the body; then came the knowledge of, and subsequent passing beyond, the sensible world; finally, the soul achieved conversion toward the Intellect and the One" (p. 99-100).
Various examples are given that help the student drop passions and engender discipline. In this process, we begin to see the human - ourselves - in the purest form; stripped of its "irrational desires and violent sentiments and passions" (p. 100).
If one wants to know the nature of a thing, one must examine it in its pure state, since every addition to a thing is an obstacle to the knowledge of that thing. When you examine it, then, remove from it everything that is not itself; better still remove all your stains from yourself and examine yourself, and you will have faith in your immortality.
If you do not yet see your own beauty, do as the sculptor does with a statue which must become beautiful: he removes one part, scrapes another, makes one area smooth, and cleans out the other, until he causes the beautiful face in the statue to appear. In the same way, you too must remove everything that is superfluous, straighten that which is crooked, and purify all that is dark until you make it brilliant. Never stop sculpting your own statue, until the divine splendor of virtue shines in you ... if you have become this ... and have nothing alien inside you mixed with yourself ... when you see that you have become this ... concentrate your gaze and see. For it is only an eye such as this that can look on the great Beauty (p. 100).
"Only he who liberates himself and purifies himself from the passions, which conceal the true reality of the soul, can understand that the soul is immaterial and immortal" (p. 100)
Hadot later continues, "Plotinus' writings are full of passages describing such spiritual exercises, the goal of which was not merely to know the Good, but to become identical with it, in a complete annihilation of individuality. ... It is then, in a fleeting blaze of light, there takes place the metamorphosis of the self:
Then the seer no longer sees his object, for in that instant he no longer distinguishes himself from it; he no longer has the impression of two separate thigns, but he has, in a sense become another. He is no longer himself, nor does he belong to himself, but he is one with the One, as the center of one circle conincides with the center of another (p. 101)