Friday, August 20, 2021

Notes and What I learned from "The Present Alone is Our Happiness" - Tied to the Apron Strings of the Church by Pierre Hadot

This is part 1 of a 12 post series reviewing the book "The Present Alone is Our Happiness"

Early in the chapter, Hadot is asked if he was a pious child.  He gives an extraordinary account of an experience he had in his adolescence.  And then explains he felt the same feelings multiple times again later in life.

Indeed, I have long had the impression of having been in the world only from the time I became an adolescent.  I will always regret having thrown away - out of Christian humility - my first handwritten notes that were an echo of the birth of my personality, for it is very difficult for me now to rediscover the psychological content of the overwhelming discoveries I made then.  I do remember their context.  One happened on rue Ruinart, on the route I took home to my parents' house every day from the Petit Seminaire.  Night had fallen.  The starts were shining in an immense sky; one could still see them at the time.  Another took place in a room of our house.  In both cases I was filled with an anxiety that was both terrifying and delicious, provoked by the sentiment of the presence of the world, or of the Whole, and of me in that world.  In fact, I was incapable of formulating my experience, but after the fact I felt that it might correspond to questions such as What am I?  Why am I here?  What is this world I am in?  I experienced a sentiment of strangeness, of astonishment, and of wonder at being there.  At the same time I had the sentiment of being immersed in the world, of being a part of it, the world extending from the smallest blade of grass to the stars.  This world was present to me, intensely present.  Much later I would discover that this awareness of my immersion in the world, this impression of belonging to the Whole, was what Romain Rolland called the "oceanic feeling."  I think I have been a philosopher since that time, if by philosophy one understands this awareness of existence, of being-in-the-world.  At the time I did not know how to formulate what I felt, but I felt the need to write, and I remember very clearly that the first text I wrote was a sort of monologue in which Adam discovers his body and the world around him.  From that moment on, I had the feeling of being apart from others, for I could not imagine that my friends, or even my parents or my brothers, could imagine those kinds of things.  It was only much later I realized that many people have analogous experiences, but do not talk about them.

I began to perceive the world in a new way.  The sky, the clouds, the starts, the "evenings of the world," as I would say to myself, fascinated me.  With my back to the window ledge, I looked toward the sky at night with impression of plunging into the starry immensity.  This experience has dominated my entire life.  I experienced it many times again - several times, for example, in front of Lago Maggiore at Ascona; or at the sight of the chain of the Alps from the shore of Lake Geneva at Lausanne, or from Salvan, in the Valais.  In the first place, this experience was for me the discovery of something overwhelming and fascinating that had absolutely no connection to the Christian faith.  It therefore played an important role in my inner development.  Moreover, it considerably influenced my conceptions of philosophy.  I have always conceived of philosophy as a transformation of one's perception of the world.

Hadot then goes on to note, based on Bergson and Heidegger, that there are two levels of the self.  The one that remains at the level of the "they" and "the one that rises to the level of what [Heidegger] calls the 'authentic.'"  He then notes that what is most essential cannot be expressed (pgs. 5-7).

Returning to the "oceanic feeling," he clarifies that to experience it is like "being a wave on a limitless ocean, of being part of a mysterious and infinite reality."  A bit later, he write, "What is crucial is the impression of immersion, of dilation of the self into Another to which the self is not foreign, because it is a part thereof" (p. 8).  I've seen him quote Seneca in this context many times and he does so again in this book  Seneca writes, "toti se inserens mundo" which Hadot translates as "plunging into the totality of the world."  The translation from which I read Seneca's Letters translates it like this: "the soul that penetrates the whole world" (Letters 66.6).  I think I prefer Hadot's translation.

Thus, we can see from very early on, Hadot was influenced by these profound, spiritual experiences, which he later identifies as he studies ancient philosophy.

His accounts of the "oceanic feeling" left me pondering the times I have felt something vaguely similar.  For me, it has been sunshine.  The times I recall from my early childhood have involved spending time in our vegetable garden at our home, picking peas from pea-pods while gazing at the rays of of the 10am sunlight streaming through the white birch trees.  Or when I sat next to my mother in church, and looking to the glass windows of the church building and seeing the rays of light touch the hairs of peoples' heads and the church carpet or the wooden floor of the basketball gym.  In those moments, time seemed to stop and I felt a shiver of connectedness of everything around me and extending, as if through those sun beams, up to the sun itself and beyond to the wider universe.  I felt small and at the same time, unified with the Whole.

On another occasion, while vacationing in the mountains of Colorado in the summer of 2019, our family went outside on a cold night and gazed up.  This time, the feeling was more similar to standing on a tall building and looking down; as if I was going to fall endlessly.  The feeling was so real and breathtaking, that I could not tolerate looking into the vast sky for more than a few minutes.  It was quite similar to what Hadot write about when he references Lucretius who "speaks of the shiver and the divine pleasure that seized him when thinking about infinite spaces" (p. 9).

In all his experiences, the common thread was approaching the idea of "direct contact with God" (p. 11).  But he has since pivoted from the idea when he asked himself the question, "If one considers God to be the Absolute, how can there be contact, and especially identification, between what is relative and what is absolute?" (p. 11).

Another "theological formation" for Hadot, which has lead him to his excellent work has been the fact that "one must take into account the collective mentalities that had influenced the authors of the sacred books.  For me, this was a first stage in my training for the labor of interpretation of texts, to which I have devoted a large part of my life" (p. 12).  Indeed, as I've read a few of his books, he stays true to hi theme of understanding the full historical context of the authors.  For example, Marcus Aurelius was simply not a dour, pessimistic Roman Emperor, but rather, his hypomnemata were a practice, based on a structured thought process stemming from the teachings of Epictetus.

The rest of the chapter did not evoke any strong thoughts in me.  Much of it, from page 12 to 29 was simply him talking about various aspects of his schooling and some of the authors and lecturers he rubbed shoulders with through those early years of his studies.

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