Thursday, December 5, 2019

Notes and What I Learned From: Philosophy as a Way of Life - the essay "Reflections on the Idea of the 'Cultivation of the Self'"

Although a short essay, this one gave me a lot to think about, especially in this age when Stoicism has seen a resurgence and it would appear that many have embraced it for the wrong reasons.

The two ideas at odds with each other, in terms of self-cultivation are a type of "Dandyism" and a type of Stoic "transcendentalism."

The basis for Hadot's essay is the analysis of the work "The Care of the Self" by Foucault.  Foucault "meticulously describes what he terms the 'practices of the self', recommended in antiquity by Stoic philosophers.  These include the care of one's self, which can only be carried out under the direction of a spiritual guide; the attention paid to the body and the soul which the 'care of the self' implies; exercises of abstinence; examination of the conscience; the filtering of representations; and, finally, the conversion toward and possession of the self." (p. 206)  Hadot contends that these techniques are "focused far too much on the 'self', or at least on a specific conception of the self" (p. 207).

Foucault contends that these practices of the self will replace the "violent, uncertain, and temporary pleasures with a form of pleasure one takes in oneself, serenely and forever" and he cites Letter 23 from Seneca about "the best portion of oneself."

Hadot counters that the translation of "pleasure" is crucial in understanding Seneca.  "Seneca explicitly opposes voluptas [vs] gaudium - pleasure and joy."  He goes on,
This is not just a quibble over words, although the Stoics did attach a great deal of importance to words, and carefully distinguished between hedone - "pleasure" - and eupatheia - "joy".  No, this is no mere question of vocabulary.  If the Stoics insist on the word gaudium/"joy", it is precisely because they refuse to introduce the principle of pleasure into moral life.  For them, happiness does not consist in pleasure, but in virtue itself, which is its own reward.  Long before Kant, the Stoics strove jealously to preserve the purity of intention of the moral consciousness (p. 207).
Furthermore, the Stoic doesn't find joy in himself, but rather, as Seneca said, "the best portion of the self" or in "the true good" - meaning virtue.  "Joy is to be found 'in the conscience turned towards the good; in intentions which have no other object than virtue; in just actions. ... The 'best portion of oneself,' then, is, in the last analysis, a transcendent self.  Seneca does not find his joy in "Seneca", but by transcending "Seneca"; by discovering that there is within him - within all human beings, that is, and within the cosmos itself - a reason which is a part of universal reason" (p. 207).

Hadot contends "the goal of Stoic exercises is to go beyond the self, and think and act in unison with universal reason."  He goes on,
In my view, the feeling of belonging to a whole is an essential element: belonging, that is, both to the whole constituted by the human community, and to that constituted by the cosmic whole.  Seneca sums it up in four words: Toti se inserens mundo, "Plunging oneself into the totality of the world."
Another contention Foucault makes, with regard to writing, is that one performs this meditative exercise as a "refusal of a mental attitude directed toward the future, and the tendency to accord a positive value to the possession of a past which one can enjoy autonomously and without worries" (p. 209).  Therefore, in Foucault's view, the writing / meditative exercise (think Marcus' Meditations) was to give one pleasure of the past and pain-avoidance of the future.

However, Hadot contends this exercise was designed to help one live in the ever-present now.  So while one might write and record dogmas that have "already been said", they do so in the context that what was best in the past (think hindsight is "20/20") therefore is best for now - the present.  "It is because one recognizes, in the dogmas of Epicurus or Chrysippus, an ever-present value, precisely because they are the very expression of reason ... one is utilizing formulae considered as apt to actualize what is already present within the reason of the person writing, and bring it to life" (p. 210)

Furthermore, "the point is not to forge oneself a spiritual identity by writing, but rather to liberate oneself from one's individuality, in order to raise oneself up to universality ... Writing ... changes the level of the self, and universalizes it.  The miracle of this exercise, carried out in solitude, is that it allows its practitioner to accede to the universality of reason within the confines of space and time" (p. 210-11).

Hadot cautions, that if people look at the spiritual exercises outlined in the essay, and in the entire book for that matter, from the perspective of "making-me-feel-better-about-myself", then they've missed the point.
What I am afraid of is that, by focusing [Foucault's] interpretation too exclusively on the culture of the self, the care of the self, and conversion toward the self - more generally, by defining his ethical model as an aesthetics of existence - M. Foucault is propounding a culture of the self which is too aesthetic.  In other words, this may be a new form of Dandyism, late twentieth-century style (p. 211).
He consequently believes "that it is possible for modern man to live, not as a sage (sophos) - most of the ancients did not hold this to be possible - but as a practitioner of the ever-fragile exercise of wisdom" (p. 211).  I love this particular quote from the book.  Recently, I've had this question rattling around the back of my head, as I make decisions and act in my every-day life: what is the wise thing to do/think/say?  So much of today's outrage / triggered culture, entirely overlooks the over-arching purpose of living, in order to score a few piddly "political" or Twitter points.  They sacrifice wisdom in order to be an online-Dandy.

The essay ends with a couple of quotes from Nietzsche and Marcus.  I will cite the Nietzsche one, since it popped up in this book as well as "The Inner Citadel" - and I quoted it recently in another blog post; therefore, it seems to be a very important quote - especially for me.  In this essay, Hadot says, "In the enjoyment of the pure present, he discovers the mystery and splendor of existence.  At such moments, as Nietzsche said, we say yes 'not only to ourselves, but to all existence'" (p. 212).

No comments:

Post a Comment