Sunday, November 24, 2019

Notes and What I Learned From: Philosophy as a Way of Life - the essay "Spiritual Exercises" part 4: Learning to Read

This is part 4 of 4 of my review of the essay "Spiritual Exercises" from the book "Philosophy as a Way of Life" by Pierre Hadot.

Learning to Read

All of the spiritual exercises previously described are based on one premise: that humans are "consumed by worries, torn by passions" and do not "live a genuine life" and they do not truly know who they are.  To rectify these ailments, humans ought to reign in their inner dialogue, work to increase their mental concentration, seek a genuine life and work to transform themselves in order to "attain a state of perfection" (p. 102).

Not unlike today's fitness centers we athletes train in order to improve in the real game, if we are to strengthen our mental fortitude and resilience, we must establish habits practices of spiritual and mental exercises in order to perform well in every-day life.  If that analogy doesn't strike a chord with you, perhaps a sculpting analogy will:
The quest for self-realization, final goal of spiritual exercises, is well symbolized by the Plotinian image of sculpting one's own statue.  Its is often misunderstood, since people imagine that this expression corresponds to a kind of moral aestheticism.  On this interpretation, its meaning would be to adopt a pose, to select an attitude, or to fabricate a personality for oneself.  In fact, it is nothing of the sort.  For the ancients, sculpture was an art which "took away," as opposed to painting, an art which "added on."  The statue pre-existed in the marble block, and it was enough to take away what was superfluous in order to cause it to appear (p. 102).
Hadot also notes how the god Glaucos was a similar metaphor of the soul that was revealed through the process of subtraction.  And like the exercise of spiritual death, when we separate ourselves from the passions and desires of the body, our soul and thoughts become more pure (p. 103).

We can obtain "complete liberation from the passions" along with "utter lucidity, knowledge of ourselves and of the world" as we practice these exercises.  We become more wise and yearn for and love wisdom.  However, many of the ancients believed that this state of complete liberation was impossible.  People who obtained this state were considered sages.  While those who sought to enter the path, but perhaps never attain this lofty goal were considered philo-sophers - lovers of wisdom.  Therefore, to make progress, one must "take up" these exercises again and again, "in an ever-renewed effort" (p. 103).

Philosophical schools were established, to help people fully focus on their total transformation.  These practices "implied a complete reversal of received ideas: one was to renounce the false values of wealth, honors, and pleasures, and turn towards the true values of virtue, contemplation, a simple life-style, and the simple happiness of existing.  This radical opposition explains the reaction of non-philosophers, which ranged from the mockery we find expressed in comic poets, to the outright hostility which went so far as to cause the death of Socrates" (p. 104).

Therefore, "when we read the words 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" (p. 104).

Learning to read (correctly) also implies understanding the context of the text.  "One did not read the same texts to beginners, to those in progress, and to those already having achieved perfection, and the concepts appearing in commentaries are also functions of the spiritual capacities of their addressees.  Consequently, doctrinal content can vary considerably from one commentary to another, even when written by the same author.  This does not mean that the commentator changed his doctrines, but that the needs of his disciples were different" (p. 106).

The sum total of all this, therefore, is to state that Philosophy, as seen through the ancient texts, was designed as a method for actively "training people to live and to look at the world in a new way.  It is an attempt to transform mankind" (p. 107).  Much of what people think of Philosophy today, is rather stuffy and academic.  But this was not the original intent.  Hadot explains how this came to be.
The reason for this is that, in conformity with tradition inherited from the Middle Ages and from the modern era, they consider philosophy to be a purely abstract-theoretical activity.  Let us briefly recall how this conception came into existence.
It seems to be the result of the absorption of philosophia by Christianity.  Since its inception, Christianity has presented itself as a philosophia, insofar as it assimilated into itself the traditional practices of spiritual exercises.  We see this occurring in Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Augustine, and monasticism.  With the advent of medieval Scholasticism, however, we find a clear distinction being drawn between theologia and philosophia.  Theology became conscious of its autonomy qua supreme science, while philosophy was emptied of it spiritual exercises which, from now on, were relegated to Christian mysticism and ethics.  Reduced to the rank of "handmaid of theology," philosophy's role was henceforth to furnish theology with conceptual - and hence purely theoretical - material.  When, in the modern age, philosophy regained it autonomy, it still retained many features inherited from this medieval conception.  In particular, it maintained its purely theoretical character, which even evolved in the direction of a more and more thorough systematization.  Not until Nietzsche, Bergson, and existentialism does philosophy consciously return to being a concrete attitude, a way of life and of seeing the world (p. 107-108).
And now to Hadot's point and key question: "how is it possible to practice spiritual exercises in the twentieth century?" (p. 108)

He quotes Vauvnargues, who said, "A truly new and truly original book would be one with made people love old truths" (p. 108).

"Old truths ... there are some truths whose meaning will never be exhausted by the generation of man" - they are "simple" and "banal" and most importantly "for their meaning to be understood, these truths must be lived, and constantly re-experienced.  Each generation must take up, from scratch, the task of learning to read and re-read these 'old truths'" (p. 108).

This is why Hadot and all his work rings true for me.  All my life, I have been searching for ancient rock, upon which I could build my "inner citadel."  It would seem that Hadot and all his excellent work, has uncovered this foundation.

Perhaps this is why Mormonism struck near the mark, but still didn't quite "hit it" for me.  The idea of some unchanging ancient, albeit restored, truths, upon which I could live my life, brought out a desire within me to live better.  It seems to me, now, that I had to dig a bit deeper than Mormonism and even deeper than Christianity, to find some real "old truths."  And as Hadot notes, this work has to be taken up individually and across every generation.

I echo his lament, about how many today have lost some wise practices.  He said, "we have forgotten how to read: how to pause, liberate ourselves from our worries, return to ourselves, and leave aside our search for subtlety and originality, in order to meditate calmly, ruminate, and let the texts speak to use.  This, too, is a spiritual exercise, and one of the most difficult.  As Goethe said: 'Ordinary people don't know how much time and effort it takes to learn how to read.  I've spent eighty years at it, and I still can't say that I've reached my goal'" (p. 109)

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