Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Highlights from the essay "Ancient Spiritual Exercises and 'Christian Philosophy' from the book Philosophy as a Way of Life

The point of the essay is to demonstrate how many of the early Christian leaders / monks looked for similarities and commonalities between ancient Greek philosophy and Christian philosophy.  The main topic is that of mindfulness or prosoche.  I recommend the reader to read the entire essay, but for my purposes, I will copy the highlights from the essay, without much commentary.

page 126
Paul Rabbow made the connection between "the methods of meditation" and "the spiritual exercises of ancient philosophy"

"Rabbow seems to me to have linked the phenomenon of spiritual exercises too closely to what he terms the 'inward orientation' which, he claims, took place in the Greek mentality in the third century BC, and which manifested itself in the development of the Stoic and Epicurean schools."

"It is philosophy itself that the ancients thought of as a spiritual exercise"

page 127
"Rabbow goes so far as to define spiritual exercises as moral exercises."
By "moral exercise," we mean a procedure or determinant act, intended to influence oneself, carried out with the express goal of achieving a determinant moral effect. It always looks beyond itself, in as much as it repeats itself, or at least is linked together with other extra for my methodical ensemble.
"These exercises have as their goal the transformation of our vision of the world, and the metamorphosis of our of our being.  They therefore have not merely a moral, but also an existential value.  We are not just dealing here with a code of good moral conduct, but with a way of being in the strongest sense of the term ... we are dealing with exercises which engage the totality of the spirit."

"Christian spirituality has been the heir of ancient philosophy and its spiritual practices."

"ancient spiritual exercises were preserved and transmitted by an entire current of ancient Christian thought: that current, namely, which defined Christianity itself as a philosophy."

page 128
"Exercise" corresponds to the Greek terms askesis or melete"

"askesis designated exclusively the spiritual exercises we have discussed above: inner activities of the thought and the will."

"there was a widespread Christian tradition which portrayed Christianity as a philosophy.  This assimilation began with those Christian writers of the second century who are usually referred to as the Apologists, and in particular with Justin.  The Apologists considered Christianity a philosophy, and to mark its opposition to Greek philosophy, they spoke of Christianity as 'our philosophy' or as "Barbarian philosophy."  They did not, however, consider Christianity to be just one philosophy among others; they thought of it as the philosophy.  They believed that that which had been scattered and dispersed throughout Greek philosophy had been synthesized and systematized in Christian philosophy.  Each Greek philosopher, they wrote, had possessed only a portion of the Logos, whereas the Christians were on possession of the Logos itself, incarnated in Jesus Christ."

"Already within Greek philosophy, the Logos, or divine pedagogue, had been at work educating humanity, but Christianity itself, as the complete revelation of the Logos, was the true philosophy which teaches us to conduct ourselves so that we may resemble God, and to accept the divine plan as the guiding principle of all our education."

page 130
"In the monastic Middle Ages, just as much as in Antiquity, philosophia did not designate a theory or a means of knowledge, but a lived, experienced wisdom, and a way of living according to reason."

"We remarked above that the fundamental attitude of the Stoic philosopher was prosoche: attention to oneself and vigilance at every instant.  For the Stoics, the person who is "awake" is always perfectly conscious of not only of what he does, but of what he is.  In other words, he is aware of his place in the universe and of his relationship to God.  His self-consciousness is, first and foremost, a moral consciousness."

"He is constantly on the lookout for signs within himself of any motive for action other than the will to do good.  Such self-consciousness is not, however, merely a moral conscience; it is also cosmic consciousness.  The 'attentive' person lives constantly in the presence of God and is constantly remembering God, joyfully consenting to the will of universal reason, and he sees all things with the eyes of God himself."

Prosoche "inspires fear ... in the sense of a certain circumspection in thought and action.  Such attention to oneself bring about amerimnia or peace of mind, one of the most sought-after goals of monasticism."

"For Basil, attention to oneself consists in awakening the rational principles of thought and action which God has placed in our souls.  We are to watch over ourselves - that is, over our spirit and our soul - and not over that which is ours (our body) or that which is round about us (our possessions)."

page 131
"Thus, prosoche consists in paying attention to the beauty of our souls, by constantly renewing the examination of our conscience and our knowledge of ourselves.  By so doing, we can correct the judgments we bring upon ourselves."

"As we have seen, attention and vigilance presuppose continuous concentration on the present moment, which must be lived as if it were, simultaneously, the first and the last moment of life."

page 132
"Attention to the present is simultaneously control of one's thoughts, acceptance of the divine will, and the purification of one's intentions with regard to others."

Marcus said as much in Meditations 7.54.  In other words, at every moment, we are to practice all three Stoic disciplines (assent, desire and action).

"We encounter the same continuous vigilance over both thought and intentions in monastic spirituality, where it is transformed into the 'watch of the heart', also know as nepsis or vigilance."

"prosoche: presence both to God and to oneself"  Marcus said as much in Meditations 6.7 too.

page 133
"Clearly, remembrance of God is, in some sense, the very essence of prosoche.  ... Vague intentions are not sufficient for true attention to one's self."

"prosoche required meditating on and memorizing rules of life, those principles which were to be applied in each particular circumstance, at each moment of life.  It was essential to have the principles of life, the fundamental "dogmas", constantly "at hand."

"philosophical dogmas are replaced by the Commandments"

"Both the evangelical commandments and the words of the ancients were presented in the form of short sentences, which - just as in the philosophical tradition - could be easily memorized and meditated upon."

"Like philosophical meditation, Christian meditation flourished by using all available means of rhetoric and oratorical amplification, and by mobilizing all possible resources of the imagination."

page 134
"Meditation must, in any case, be constant."

"In the spiritual life, there is a kind of conspiracy between, on the one had, normative sayings, which are memorized and meditated upon, and, on the other, the events which provide the occasion for putting them into practice.  Dorotheus of Gaza promised his monks that, if they constantly meditated on the "works of the holy Elders," they would "be able to profit from everything that happens to you, and to make progress by the help of God."  Dorotheus no doubt meant that after such meditation, his monks would be able to recognize the will of God in all events, thanks to the words of the Fathers, which were likewise inspired by the will of God."

"Origen explains that the soul must examine its feelings and actions.  Does it have the good as a goal? Does it seek after the various virtues?  Is it making progress?  For instance, has it completely suppressed the passions of anger, sadness, fear, and love of glory?  What is its manner of giving and receiving, or of judging the truth?"

"This series of questions, devoid as it is of any exclusively Christian feature, takes it places in the philosophical tradition of the examination of conscience, as it had been recommended by the Pythagoreans, the Epicureans, the Stoics - especially Seneca and Epictetus - and many other philosophers, such as Plutarch and Galen."

Hadot quotes other early Christian leaders who judged themselves on how they are doing conquering passions over the months and years and even through the course of the day.  This made me think - do I have a "roadmap" for my soul?  Do I know what vices I need to extract and what virtues I need to add and how do I compare myself year on year?

page 135
"in Athanasius' Life of Antony ... Antony used to recommend to his disciples that they take written notes of the actions and movements of their souls ... in order to ensure that the investigation was as precise as possible.  For Antony, however, the important aspect was the therapeutic value of writing: 'Let each one of us note and record our actions and the stirrings of our souls as though we were going to give an account of them to each other.'  Surely, he continues, we would not dare to commit sins in public ... the act of writing gives us the impression of being in public, in front of an audience."

"prosoche implies self-mastery ... the triumph of reason over the passions, since it is the passions that cause the distraction, dispersion, and dissipation of the soul."

"Epictetus, advising his disciples to begin training themselves in little things, so as to create a habit, before moving to greater things."

page 136
"We said above that Christianity's acceptance of spiritual exercises had introduced into it a certain spiritual attitude and style of life which it had previously lacked.  As an example, let us consider the concept of exercises as a whole.  In the very process of performing repetitious actions and undergoing a training in order to modify and transform ourselves, there is a certain reflectivity and distance which is very different from evangelical spontaneity.  Attention to oneself - the essence of prosoche - gives rise to a whole series of techniques of introspection.  It engenders an extraordinary finesse in the examination of conscience and spiritual discernment.  Most significantly, the ideal sought after in these exercises, and the goals proposed for the spiritual life, became tinged with a strong Stoico-Platonic coloration; that is to say, since by the end of antiquity, Neoplatonism had integrated Stoic ethics within itself, that they were deeply infused with Neoplatonism.  This is the case, for instance, in Dorotheus of Gaza, who describes spiritual perfection in completely Stoic terms: it is the transformation of the will so that it becomes identified with the Divine Will:
He who has no will of his own always does what he wishes.  For since he has no will of his own, everything that happens satisfied him.  He finds himself doing as he wills all the time, for he does not want things to be as he wills them, but he wills that they be just as they are.
This compared to Epictetus, who said, "Do not seek to have everything that happens happen as you wish, but wish for everything to happen as it actually does happen, and your life will be serene."

"Spiritual perfection is also depicted as apatheia - the complete absence of passions."

Examples of practice: "to cure curiosity, Plutarch advised people not to read funeral epitaphs, not to snoop on their neighbors, and to turn their backs on street scenes.  Similarly, Dorotheus advises us not to look in the direction where we want to look; not to ask the cooks what he's preparing for dinner; and not to join in a conversation we find already underway"

page 138
For Porphyry, as we have seen, apatheia was a result of the soul's detachment from the body.  Here we touch once again upon the philosophical exercise par excellence.  As we saw above, Plato had declared: 'those who go about philosophizing correctly are in training for death.'"

For Clement, perfect knowledge, or gnosis, is a kind of death.  It separates the soul from the body, and promotes the soul to a life entirely devoted to the good, allowing it to devote itself to the contemplation of genuine realities with a purified mind."

page 139
"To be sure, our authors strove to Christianize their borrowings as much as possible; but this is perhaps the least important aspect of the matter.  They believed they recognized spiritual exercises, which they had learned through philosophy."

"The reason why Christian authors paid attention to these particular biblical passages was that they were already familiar, from other sources, with the spiritual exercises of prosoche, meditation on death, and examination of conscience.  By themselves, the texts from scripture could never have supplied a method for practicing these exercises.  Often, in fact, a given scriptural passage has only a distant connection with a particular spiritual exercise."

page 140
It was, therefore, natural that they should seek their techniques of perfection in the Old and New Testament.  Under Alexandrian influence, however - the distant influence of Philo, and the more immediate influence of Origen and Clement of Alexandria, magnificently orchestrated by the Cappadocians - certain philosophical spiritual techniques were introduced into Christian spirituality.  The result of this was that the Christian ideal was described, and, in part, practiced, by borrowing models and vocabulary from the Greed philosophical tradition."

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